Capitol Alert

This is what the climate bill Jerry Brown signed means

Jerry Brown signs climate bill: 'This is big'

Gov. Jerry Brown, on Thursday Sept. 8, 2016 signed major legislation battling climate change.
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Gov. Jerry Brown, on Thursday Sept. 8, 2016 signed major legislation battling climate change.

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 32 into law on Thursday, he said of the sweeping climate change bill, “This is big, and I hope it sends a message across the country.”

Q: So what, exactly, does it do?

A: SB 32 comes a decade after California’s landmark Assembly Bill 32, which required the California Air Resources Board to reduce statewide emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. The legislation Brown signed Wednesday expands on that mandate, requiring California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

In adopting a more aggressive standard, the state is empowering the air board to enact further regulations to reduce emissions, while not prescribing what those regulations must entail.

Here is the relevant language in the bill:

In adopting rules and regulations to achieve the maximum technologically feasible and cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions authorized by this division, the state board shall ensure that statewide greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to at least 40 percent below the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limit no later than Dec. 31, 2030.

Q: That’s not very specific. How will it affect Californians?

A: Existing regulations, as well as goals expressed by the Brown administration, offer an outline of how the state might ratchet down emissions.

First, since the transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – accounting for more than one-third of total emissions – California has a lot riding on what your commute looks like in 15 years.

Brown wants to reduce petroleum use in cars and trucks by as much as 50 percent, and regulators could further tighten the state’s low carbon fuel standard, which requires producers of gasoline and other transportation fuels to reduce the carbon intensity of their products.

Brown also wants to put 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roadways by 2025, and he adopted a goal last year of making all new passenger vehicles sold in California zero-emission by 2050.

That’s a tall order that will almost certainly rely on technological advances to overcome consumer fears about the cost and range of zero-emission vehicles. The California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative estimates only 231,482 plug-in cars have been sold in the state since 2011, and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector ticked up slightly – not down – in 2014.

One way to reduce emissions is to reduce vehicle miles traveled, which could be accomplished by shifting drivers onto high-speed rail and by encouraging people to live in city cores.

The state last year enacted a goal of increasing to one-half from one-third the proportion of electricity the state derives from renewable sources. The Brown administration wants to double the energy efficiency of buildings and make heating fuels cleaner, while also better managing forests and farmland.

The state is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a range of emission-reduction programs, from clean vehicle rebates and high-speed rail to efforts to reduce methane from dairies.

Q: Will it make a difference?

A: For Californians living near major sources of pollution, it might. One of the state’s more recent areas of focus is on so-called “short-lived climate pollutants,” a hazardous class of pollutants, including black carbon, that sickens millions of people worldwide each year.

Reducing those pollutants, scientists say, can both improve public health and slow the pace of global warming.

But California represents such a small fraction of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions that even if it does continue to dramatically reduce emissions, the broader impact on global warming will be minimal.

Q: So what’s the point?

A: As an example to other governments, California could be significant. Brown and other proponents of the state’s climate change policies argue that the state has demonstrated that a large economy can reduce emissions while enjoying economic growth. Emissions have declined since 2001, though progress has slowed amid the economic recovery.

While reducing emissions, California has supported a growing clean technology sector, technology that could be exported to other states and countries. Meanwhile, Brown has signed more than 125 sub-national jurisdictions around the world on to a nonbinding pact to reduce their emissions.

“If California stopped all of our emissions tomorrow, it really wouldn’t change the global warming picture in a physical sense,” said Jeffery Greenblatt, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “But we set a huge political example.”

The enactment of SB 32 required Brown and Democratic legislative leaders to overcome intense lobbying from the oil industry, as well as reservations from moderate Democrats in the Assembly. If the bill had failed, it would have served as an embarrassment for a fourth-term governor who has made climate change the centerpiece of his administration.

Q: Didn’t Brown lose on cap and trade?

A: In an effort to preserve California’s cap-and-trade program beyond 2020, Brown last month proposed amending Senate Bill 32 to authorize the extension.

Lawmakers resisted, and the proposal fell flat. The program, in which polluters pay to offset carbon emissions, is a major piece of California’s climate effort, and amid an ongoing legal challenge, its future is uncertain.

Yet SB 32 should give Brown leverage for negotiating an extension, with the legislation allowing his administration to order more onerous regulations, instead.

“They’re going to get commands to do things,” Brown said last month, “and they’re going to plead for a market system called cap and trade so they can respond in a way that’s more beneficial to their bottom line.”

Q: Didn’t Brown sign two bills?

A: Yes. Brown also signed Assembly Bill 197, giving lawmakers more authority over the California Air Resources Board.

One long-standing criticism of California’s climate policies has focused on the power wielded by the board, and AB 197 helped Brown and legislative leaders gain support from business-friendly Democrats in the Assembly.

The bill creates six-year term limits for ARB members, adds two nonvoting lawmakers to the board and creates a new legislative oversight committee.

AB 197 also targets climate change programs to “disadvantaged communities” and requires the ARB to consider the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles, said Thursday that he is committed to “bringing the benefits of greenhouse gas reductions to every community in California.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders