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California beats its 2020 goals for cutting greenhouse gases

California has beaten its self-imposed goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, achieving a milestone in the state’s fight against climate change.

The California Air Resources Board announced Wednesday that total statewide carbon emissions fell to 429 million metric tons in 2016, a drop of 12 million tons from the year before. The decline means California met the Legislature’s goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels, and did so a full four years before the target year of 2020.

Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials said the results proved the state’s portfolio of anti-carbon laws and regulations is succeeding — and showed California can fight climate change while still enjoying a significant economic boom. They pledged to continue to fight efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back strict emission rules imposed by the Obama administration.

“This is great news for the health of Californians, the state’s environment and its economy, even as we face the failure of our national leadership to address climate change,” said Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols in a prepared statement.

She said the 2016 carbon emissions were 13 percent below the peak level recorded in 2004; at the same time, the state’s economy grew by 26 percent.

The Air Resources Board said the reduction in emissions is the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road.

Critics, however, said the California economy has paid a significant price — in the form of higher prices for gasoline, electricity and other goods — while achieving relatively little in terms of global environmental impact. Because California accounts for only 1 percent of global carbon emissions, “the notion that California is going to do anything unilateral that’s going to have an effect is statistically ludicrous,” said Jeremy Carl, an energy specialist at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Yet Colleen Kredell of Next 10, a Bay Area advocacy group that studies climate change and economics, said state leaders can use the results to inspire other countries to do more to fight global warming. Noting that Brown is co-hosting a global climate summit in September in San Francisco, she said, “California has an opportunity to say our policies are working.”

Just how much California’s policies are succeeding is a matter of some debate. Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at UC Berkeley, said a key reason why carbon pollution has fallen is the Great Recession, which took a huge toll on economic activity in its early years.

“That’s probably the biggest piece of why we hit the target,” Borenstein said.

California’s war on climate change is built largely around AB 32, the 2006 law that set the goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Its arsenal includes a cap-and-trade program that’s required big industrial firms to spend billions of dollars on credits that provide the right to emit carbon, as well as rules forcing electric utilities to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and rely more on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Oil refiners and other fuel producers also pay through rules that penalize them for spewing carbon during the production process.

Ordinary Californians feel the impact most directly at the pump. Experts say retail gas prices in California, which already were among the highest in the nation, have risen by as much as 15 cents a gallon.

Despite those costs, unemployment has fallen, and California’s economy is one of the nation’s strongest. Kredell said the expansion of solar energy in particular represents “a tremendous amount of economic opportunity.” About 100,000 Californians have jobs installing solar panels or working in other facets of the industry, according to the California Solar Energy Industry Association.

Borenstein said the next steps will be the hardest. SB 32, a follow-up climate change law signed by Brown in 2016, requires California to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990’s levels. The deadline for hitting the target is 2030.

“We should celebrate ... but we should recognize this is the first baby step,” Borenstein said. Hitting the 2030 goals “is a much bigger challenge.”

He said California faces several hurdles on the way to 2030. Although the electric utilities have made great progress in reducing their carbon footprint, the transportation sector is still lagging. Transportation, the single largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 2 percent increase in emissions as fuel consumption rose in 2016. Industry experts say Californians’ continuing affinity for SUVs and pickup trucks is undermining the quest to reduce carbon emissions.

California, along with several other states, also continues to fight the Trump administration over greenhouse gas limits on cars. The administration has signaled it will roll back Obama-era limits on automotive emissions and could even try to scrap California’s cherished clean-air “waiver,” which gives the state the right to impose stricter limits than the federal government. Without the waiver, state officials say it will be extremely difficult to meet its future greenhouse emission goals.

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