Soapbox

California’s power to trump climate denial

The infrastructure for Zero Emissions Vehicles in California is increasing, with 19,000 charging stations in the pipeline, which would more than tripling current charging capacity.
The infrastructure for Zero Emissions Vehicles in California is increasing, with 19,000 charging stations in the pipeline, which would more than tripling current charging capacity.

Days before Donald Trump becomes president, fear is running high that climate denial in the White House will accelerate global warming.

At this pivotal moment, when the world is committed to fighting climate change through the breakthrough U.N.’s Paris Agreement, California can trump climate denial by pushing forward faster than ever.

Nearly every nation promised to limit global warming through this landmark accord, but Trump threatens to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, jeopardizing what many consider our last best hope for a safe climate. If this happens, California has a unique opportunity to fill the gap as the world’s sixth-largest economy and the most populous state in the second-largest emitting nation.

We’re already sending the right messages to bolster international confidence: Gov. Jerry Brown is expanding the “Under 2 MOU” global pact to limit global warming, and in late November state Sen. Kevin de León suggested “joining the (Paris) agreement is an option that I want to keep open.” Retaining former Attorney General Eric Holder to defend our state rights in the federal system is another signal of resolve.

In addition to building political momentum, California supports international climate action through practical policy lessons. This is important – former U.N. climate head Christiana Figueres observed last year, “The world is committed, but they don’t know how (to reduce emissions effectively). California has figured out how.”

Our statewide cap-and-trade system, arguably the world’s strongest, requires large polluters to purchase emissions permits, thereby pricing and disincentivizing pollution. Permit demand rose strongly in November and since operation began in 2013, it has generated $3.4 billion for utility customer rebates and clean technology investments. California’s carbon market linked to Quebec’s in 2014, Ontario will join next year, and other American states and Canadian provinces are considering joining.

California can also help speed Zero Emissions Vehicles adoption – a crucial technology for reducing state greenhouse gas emissions. Nine other states have adopted our ZEV mandate, requiring 15 percent of manufacturers’ vehicle sales, on average, to be Zero Emissions Vehicles by 2025 with flexibility through credit trading, and other states can join this effort under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act. While California-based Tesla is leading the ZEV shift, every big automaker has announced a serious Zero Emissions Vehicle program.

Sales of Zero Emissions Vehicles in California, which have leveled off since 2014, must accelerate to accomplish our statewide emissions reduction target of at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, set in law by Senate Bill 32. Charging stations are often in short supply where ZEV adoption is strongest, such as Silicon Valley. Left unchecked, this will crimp consumer demand, so time is of the essence in building out ZEV infrastructure.

Fortunately, the state’s electric utilities are on the job, with 19,000 chargers in the pipeline, more than tripling current charging capacity. An additional $800 million from Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal legal settlement for ZEV infrastructure will also help.

California first played the role of international climate leader during the Bush administration. This time China is standing with us in making bold emission reduction commitments, in no small part inspired by California’s ability to decouple economic growth from burning fossil fuels over the past decade.

These are positive signs, yet the threat of inaction is greater today; the climate science even more certain; and the need to cut global emissions even more pressing.

That’s why Trump’s election and Cabinet nominees have created such concern. It’s also why California’s commitment to clean energy, our support for international cooperation, and our shameless can-do optimism are needed again, now more than ever.

Chris Busch is director of research at Energy Innovation, a San Francisco based think tank. He can be reached at chrisb@energyinnovation.org.

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