Capitol Alert

Is California a climate model?

From left, U.N. Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, Gov. Jerry Brown, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard attend a panel at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, France on Tuesday.
From left, U.N. Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, Gov. Jerry Brown, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard attend a panel at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, France on Tuesday. The Associated Press

Tom Steyer was on stage at the United Nations climate summit one recent afternoon, grinning at a small crowd.

Many people in the audience had already heard the billionaire environmentalist “promoting California as an example” of leadership on climate change, the event’s moderator said.

Still, Steyer came to dish some more.

“It’s always a pleasure,” he said, “for people to hear Californians patting themselves on the back about how great we are.”

With the climate talks outside of Paris now in their second week – and with Gov. Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and dozens of lower profile Californians here – there has been no shortage of opportunity to take in the message. As world leaders meet to negotiate a new climate pact, the Golden State works the periphery, promoting California-style policies in hotel ballrooms, museum halls and conference centers around town.

The state is leading on climate change, these Californians say, with a growing economy and shrinking emissions. They urge the rest of the world to take note. Or, as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff put it last week, to “grow a pair.”

Yet there are limitations to California’s model status.

Though the state’s greenhouse gas emission policies are among the most aggressive on the planet, tying those policies to the state’s economic health is tenuous. Greenhouse gas emissions in California declined from a peak in 2001 to 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. But progress on emissions slowed as the economy improved and people returned to work.

“To look at the fact that the (California) economy has grown while the regulations have been in place is silly,” said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University. “Just as it would be silly to say, while California was in recession, that that was because of environmental regulations.”

Stavins, an expert in international climate agreements, said other jurisdictions look to California not for broad pronouncements about the state’s economic or political climate, but for its experience implementing aggressive climate change programs. While politicians deliver speeches in Paris, state bureaucrats are shuttling between technical meetings with their counterparts from other countries.

“Policymakers in California, and perhaps others, may exaggerate the importance in the world of the state,” Stavins said. “When I’m out in Sacramento … I do get the sense that there may be an inflated sense of world importance.”

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said this year that California is on track to meet its 2020 goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. However, it will require more aggressive policies to meet the state’s longer-term goals.

California is heading in that direction. In the transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, the Brown administration last week adopted a goal of making all new passenger vehicles sold in California zero-emission by 2050 – an initiative that, if successful, could dramatically reduce overall emissions.

But the initiative does not have the force of law. And for consumers, concerns linger about the cost and range of zero-emission vehicles. The California Air Resources Board estimates there are only about 155,000 of those vehicles now on the road.

Moreover, the petroleum-powered cars that Californians drive continue to rack up miles and foul the air. The transportation sector accounts for more than one-third of emissions in the state and those emissions, while below peak levels, ticked up 1 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to the ARB.

“I think that, in some way, it’s been overhyped that California’s made huge reductions in our greenhouse gases, which we haven’t, said Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at UC Berkeley.

He attributed much of California’s environmental gains to the recession, which drove down economic activity, and to the state’s shift away from coal-fired power.

If California is a model, Borenstein said, it will be for developing technologies needed to meet the state’s ambitious goals, including a mandate, enacted this year, to increase to one-half from one-third the proportion of electricity the state derives from renewable sources.

California supports a growing green technology sector that depends on the proliferation of renewable energy, and the state represents such a small fraction of the world’s total emissions that its own efforts will have little impact on global warming if other parts of the world do not act, too.

“If California just reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and nobody follows along, we haven’t accomplished much at all,” Borenstein said. “The real goal here is to establish technological pathways that other countries and particularly the developing world can follow.”

Damandeep Singh, director of the nonprofit CDP India, said that for other jurisdictions looking at California, “There’s lots to be learned.”

“They’re trying to share examples,” Singh said. “How relevant they will be? And cost-effective? That is the real question.”

One area in which the state is hoping to lead is on cap-and-trade, the system in which polluters pay to offset carbon emissions.

In 2008, officials from California, six other Western states and four Canadian announced plans to set up a massive market for cap-and-trade. The members included Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and provinces of Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba.

Amid the recession, most of those jurisdictions dropped out.

California currently runs joint cap-and-trade auctions with Quebec, allowing emissions credit purchased in California to be used by a company in Quebec, and vice versa.

Brown acknowledged Monday that the process has been “quite challenging.”

“We’re moving slowly in that regard,” he said, “but we certainly have the aspiration” of adding more jurisdictions to cap-and-trade.

Two other Canadian provinces, Manitoba and Ontario, have plans to come on board, and California and Chinese officials have discussed possibly linking cap-and-trade systems.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Derek Walker said “it’s not going to be easy” but that more states and provinces are interested in cap-and-trade and appear to be “on deck.”

At a signing ceremony Wednesday for another initiative of California’s – a nonbinding agreement among more than 100 jurisdictions to reduce emissions – German environment official Rita Schwarzeluhr-Sutter said California is “an important trendsetter for climate protection.”

But California is not the only government working on climate change – or promoting its efforts abroad.

A headline in The Scotsman on Tuesday blared, “Scotland takes a lead on climate change.” Across the Atlantic, the Toronto Star said Toronto “can lead on climate – and it already has.” Readers of Sputnik news learned that Morocco “hopes to lead African states down ecofriendly path.”

During the climate summit, Quebec – not California – became the first subnational government to pledge to contribute to a fund to help poor countries address global warming.

Philippe Couillard, the province’s premier, said, “I hope that we have set an example that others will follow.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders