Politics & Government

California will miss 2050 emissions reductions goals, Berkeley National Lab says

Barring a sweeping policy change or the introduction of new technology, California will fall short of its goals to drastically curtail greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The good news, the report said, is that California remains on pace to cut emissions to their 1990 level by 2020, a goal set out in a 2005 executive order issued by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and in Assembly Bill 32, the 2006 law setting up a cap-and-trade program selling emissions permits. But the executive order’s goal of subsequently thinning greenhouse-gas trapping emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 currently appears to be out of reach.

Making that goal more difficult is expected population growth and the accompanying increase in demand, with the Department of Finance anticipating that the number of California residents will surpass 50 million around mid century, and expanding economic output. The Berkeley models estimate that emissions will steadily decline over the next few decades before reversing and starting to rise.

Even in the lab’s most optimistic scenario – one that incorporates the most aggressive policies and the most widespread use of alternative energy and low- or zero-emission vehicles – California would still be pumping more tons of gases into the atmosphere than the 2005 order envisions.

“Even if we aggressively expand our policies and implement fledgling technologies that are not even on the marketplace now, our analysis shows that California will still not be able to get emissions to 85 metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year by 2050,” Jeff Greenblatt, a Berkeley Lab researcher who created the models, said in a press release.

The researchers developed three different models of how California’s emissions creation might look over the next few decades, drawing upon input from a range of California agencies, most prominently the Air Resources Board. They extrapolated emissions coming from several different sources, from housing to electricity generation to water use to vehicles.

Still, the predicted shortfall doesn’t necessarily signal things are in a dire state.

“We actually think its encouraging,” said Air Resources Board spokesman David Clegern, emphasizing that California remains on pace to hit the 2020 target and “make significant reductions” through 2030. “What it says to us is, we’re on the right track.”

Formulating policy for a decades-long timeline involves plenty of variability and requires periodically assessing where things stand and then adjusting, Clegern said.

“It’s a process we have to take in stages, and we can’t say today what will get us through 2050 because it’s a long way off,” Clegern said. “That’s why these programs are under constant review.”

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, said California can still surpass the Berkeley Lab report’s expectations by doing more to phase out fossil fuels, particularly by fostering public transportation and making the heavy-duty vehicles driving the freight sector more energy efficient.

“It is quite a challenge to get down to that 2050 level, and this report makes assumptions that there will be some strong policies put in place,” Magavern said. “But I think we can achieve greater technological progress than is anticipated.”