California is leading way on climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont attend a panel Tuesday at the U.N. climate change conference near Paris.
Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont attend a panel Tuesday at the U.N. climate change conference near Paris. The Associated Press

The selection of Paris as the site for negotiating a landmark deal on climate change is rich in symbolism. Not only did the French capital win its fame as the “City of Light” by embracing natural gas street lamps back in the early 1800s, France today can claim the distinction of having the lightest carbon footprint of all the developed economies on Earth.

And breathing right down its neck in the No. 2 spot? La République de la California. Of course, California is not a country. Yet if we were, we’d be the eighth largest economy in the world, and our strides in controlling greenhouse gas emissions outstrip not just the United States as a whole but nearly every nation.

Most importantly, we’ve achieved that success while improving our quality of life and expanding our economy. While France has relied primarily on nuclear power to phase out fossil fuel plants, California made its gains through a more diverse and more practical mix, adding ever larger amounts of electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources to nuclear and hydropower – a template others can emulate.

So while some may greet the Paris talks with skepticism, California’s political and business leaders arrived with the clear conviction that climate change is not only real, but demands action. Our experience offers a wealth of practical lessons for how to make rapid, sustainable progress toward the clean energy future we all want and our children deserve.

One is the value of setting ambitious goals and finding ways to meet them. California has done that repeatedly, most recently by enacting Senate Bill 350, which directs utilities to increase the amount of renewable power from 33 percent to 50 percent over the next 15 years. They must also redouble their efforts to reduce energy consumption through efficiency and conservation, building on programs that have kept per-capita energy use virtually flat since 1980.

Another approach is to emphasize the importance of greening the transportation system. Moving people and cargo now accounts for 38 percent of California’s greenhouse gases, eclipsing all other sources. That’s why Gov. Jerry Brown is aiming for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

Smart nations will also give serious thought to putting a price on carbon. California instituted a cap-and-trade system in 2013. During its first year, participating companies cut their carbon output nearly 4 percent. Predictions of economic damage and a spike in unemployment thankfully proved wrong. The U.S. Clean Power Plan has provided an incentive for other states to follow suit.

That’s not to say that California has found all the answers. Clean energy technologies and markets are developing and changing so fast that the state’s grid operators anticipate that daily surges in renewable power flows may push the traditional hours of peak electricity supply and demand out of phase, requiring new strategies to balance the system and ensure that no green power gets wasted.

Perhaps the greatest concern – particularly among utility companies – is the need to fund the huge investments in our shared infrastructure that are necessary to make clean energy work for everybody, and distribute both its benefits and costs equitably. That will require a regulatory structure attuned to the 21st century speed of change.

The fact is that the decisions we make in the next few years – in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., and Paris – will shape our energy policy for decades. California’s continued success in making the transition to a clean energy future will be essential to America’s ability to deliver on its climate commitments.

Our true race for change is not with France, but time. Leaders at all levels need to catch up with what has to be done, and soon. Because unlike those Parisian planners who gambled on newfangled streetlamps, we only have one chance to get this right.

Tony Earley is chairman, CEO and president of PG&E Corp. He can be contacted at