Declaring it a moral imperative, California’s leading figures have embarked on a crusade to “decarbonize” the state, sharply reducing emissions of gases they say threaten to wreak havoc, even extinction, on the globe’s human population.
“We don’t even know how far we’ve gone, or if we’ve gone over the edge,” Gov. Jerry Brown said last week at a Vatican conference on climate change, tied to an encyclical by Pope Francis. “We are talking about extinction. We are talking about climate regimes that have not been seen for tens of millions of years. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.”
A first-stage decarbonization program is underway. But Brown and other political figures, such as Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the state Senate, want California to set a global example over the next 15 years by reducing petroleum consumption in cars and trucks by 50 percent, making buildings more energy-efficient and increasing electrical production from renewable sources – solar, wind and geothermal – from 33 percent, the current goal, to 50 percent. De León is carrying Senate Bill 350 that would implement those goals.
Their crusade, however, raises multiple questions:
▪ How will those ambitious goals be met, and at what cost?
▪ Will decarbonization be the economic boon that Brown and others envision, or will it make California less attractive for job-creating investment?
▪ Will it have a trend-setting effect on global carbon policy, or be ignored by the rest of the world?
▪ Does it even go far enough?
The last question is, in some ways, the most intriguing. Brown told the Vatican conference that to truly control climate change, humankind must limit carbon dioxide emissions annually to 2 metric tons per person, pegging current U.S. emissions at 20 tons and California’s at 12 tons.
Federal agencies put California at about 9 tons per capita, equal to Germany and Japan. With 12 percent of the nation’s population but just 6 percent of its carbon emissions, California already has one of the nation’s smallest carbon footprints, and its 350 million metric tons each year are just 1 percent of global emissions.
Thus, whatever happens here – even slashing California’s emissions by three-fourths to 2 tons per capita – won’t have a major, or perhaps even measurable, physical impact. Its effect, if any, would be metaphysical, as the governor clearly hopes.
That gets us back to the first questions about methodologies and costs.
Californians have more than 30 million cars and light trucks and drive them more than 300 billion miles a year, consuming about 15 billion gallons of fuel costing roughly $50 billion.
The Air Resources Board, California’s chief implementer of carbon reductions, says policies already in place would reduce automotive petroleum use by more than 20 percent by 2030 and that we could achieve the 50 percent goal by improving fuel economy of new cars, increasing the number of zero-emission (electric) vehicles, shifting to low-carbon fuels, building the state’s bullet train and “supporting community planning to reduce vehicle-miles traveled.”
The bullet train, often touted as an alternative to carbon-burning cars and airplanes, would, by the High-Speed Rail Authority’s own data, reduce automotive travel by scarcely 1 percent. Meanwhile, according to the Legislature’s budget analyst, construction will actually increase carbon emissions.
The state’s petroleum industry says reducing use of fuel by 50 percent could have a massive negative impact on tens of thousands of jobs in refineries and other industries, but decarbonization advocates reject its assertions.
“We are demonstrating it’s possible to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and grow our economy at the same time,” de León insists. However, the first stage of decarbonization under Assembly Bill 32, signed in 2006, has only recently begun. Thus, decarbonization has had minimal impact, positive or negative, so far.
The more ambitious second stage would have major impacts, propelling Californians to drive less, use transit more, and live in denser, high-rise housing complexes rather than single-family homes.
Brown’s Department of Transportation has drafted a new state transportation plan that emphasizes non-automotive transit, seeks to cut vehicle-miles of travel and specifically rejects projects to ease congestion, implying it will encourage motorists to reduce driving.
The “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008,” Senate Bill 375, not only orders the ARB to set regional automotive carbon emission targets but directs each regional planning agency to adopt a “sustainable community strategy” to achieve those targets by limiting urban sprawl and encouraging, or mandating, “transit-friendly” residential development.
It codified, in effect, a policy that Brown had adopted as attorney general, threatening to sue counties he deemed to be insufficiently committed to denser development.
For the past half-decade, regional planning agencies have been writing SB 375’s mandated plans, and they are generating local squabbling, with some of the most heated conflict in the liberal, economically booming San Francisco Bay Area. Its housing costs have soared, driving many middle- and working-class families out. Advocates for the poor say encouraging more high-rise development in the name of carbon reduction will displace even more nonaffluent families and force them into long commutes.
The Bay Area’s soaring housing costs hint that the decarbonized state Brown and others advocate also could be a more stratified society, with only the affluent able to live in spacious homes and enjoy other amenities that once were the aspirations of all Californians.
Finally, what would be the effect of shifting California’s electrical power to 50 percent renewable sources?
California’s electric power rates are already among the nation’s highest. But as Brown and other decarbonization advocates quickly point out, Californians’ actual home power bills are among the nation’s lowest.
They credit the state’s tough energy conservation standards for buildings, appliances and other power users and contend that shifting to non-carbon generation will not be an economic burden. But it’s not that simple.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2013, the average residential power customer in California consumed 557 kilowatt-hours (KWHs) of power per month, scarcely half the national average, and paid an average of 16.19 cents per KWH for an average bill of $90.19. Overall, Californians are now paying about $15 billion a year for residential power.
California’s residential consumption is the third lowest of any state, but its 16.19-cent rate is third highest of any state outside of Hawaii or Alaska, and the average bill is seventh lowest.
Conservation no doubt plays a role, although recent research indicates that insulation and other conservation tactics don’t pay for themselves. The ARB claims that energy efficiency decrees have saved consumers $74 billion over the last 40 years, but that’s perhaps 10 percent of what they shelled out for power during that period and doesn’t count costs of conservation measures.
Mostly, analysts say, our low consumption reflects high power rates, a relatively mild climate and scant use of electricity for heating.
A bigger shift to renewable sources will push rates even higher, all authorities agree, but how high is uncertain. Last year, the state’s Little Hoover Commission criticized politicians for enacting carbon emission policies that “lack ... an overall cost estimate.”
It’s a reminder that Brown and others are prodding the state into a somewhat mysterious realm, with policies whose impact on 39 million Californians is uncertain, while leaving nitty-gritty details to an unelected agency, and hoping to influence hundreds of other governments to follow suit.
They see a moral imperative to set an example, but could it be merely hubris and symbolism taken to an nth – and very costly – degree?