San Francisco Chronicle
Carbon neutral not good enough
Amid record heat waves, fires, and a federal energy and climate policy landscape that is in some ways even more aggressive than California’s, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently asked state agencies to accelerate their clean energy, environmental justice and climate protection goals.
This is desperately needed good news, as our future sits on the edge of a knife.
California is hotter and drier than it was 30 years ago. Average summer temperatures have already risen about 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, and a recent study found that our driest days are about 33% drier than they were 40 years ago. Prolonged drought and tinderbox conditions have made megafires routine. Last year, an area equal to 12 cities of Los Angeles burned across California, costing billions. Our economy is going to suffer the bitter taste of the new normal unless the state takes aggressive action.
Meanwhile, the inequalities revealed and exacerbated by COVID19 threaten another aspect of sustainability: our social compact.
Preserving safe conditions for workers exposed to the elements, including those building our homes or harvesting our food, is becoming increasingly challenging amid the extreme heat and wildfire smoke. Meanwhile, workers employed in climatepolluting industries need new jobs to transition into.
Without more aggressive action, this mismatch between California’s needs and our failure to act boldly will undo decades of state leadership toward a healthy environment and a more equal society.
This is the key finding of a new report we authored with a team of experts urging California to become net carbon negative — that is, to remove more carbon pollution from the atmosphere than we emit — by 2030. That’s 15 years earlier than planned. We also suggest that the state needs to cut emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2030, doubling its current target. In doing so, the state must place equity at the center of addressing climate risk and spreading climate benefits.
California has the solutions to our climate crisis at hand. Policies to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy — including phasing out gaspowered vehicles and offering credits to home and business owners who purchase energyefficient technologies — will vastly reduce the amount of pollution we release each year. At the same time, scaling up naturebased carbon sequestration techniques and protecting vital ecosystems like forests and wetlands will begin to draw down some of the carbon already in the atmosphere.
This is how we get to carbon negative by 2030.
What’s more, research shows that investing in clean energy greatly contributes to social equity. Clean energy investments create nearly twice as many jobs as the fossil fuel industry (even more in some cases) while improving air quality, especially for lowincome communities of color. Mass transit together with policies to make electric vehicles more affordable both boost employment and reduce climate pollution. Justicebased environmental metrics (such as CalEnviroScreen) allow us to properly understand the social and economic impacts of accelerating the clean energy transition — and can ensure that equity is baked into the clean energy economy, not just sprinkled on top.
We’ve got the tools and the knowledge. We just need our elected officials to get the job done.
Other governments have stepped up with bold action. Rhode Island committed to 100% clean energy use by 2030. The United Kingdom will cut greenhouse gasses 68% below 1990 levels and ban new gaspowered vehicle sales by 2030.
Closer to home, Los Angeles has a plan to run on clean energy by 2035, 10 years ahead of the state. President Joe Biden has the same goal for the nation. And Biden has essentially copied California’s framework to invest in structurally disadvantaged communities while confronting climate change. Tellingly, he plans to devote an even larger percentage of investment than the state has previously targeted for communities too often left behind and kept behind.
It’s clear that leaders elsewhere see and are capitalizing on these bold opportunities for climate action and equity. And this reveals an inconvenient truth: Now that climate change is happening faster and more intensely than scientists understood when California originally adopted its most significant policies, the Golden State risks becoming a follower, not a leader, on climate policy.
For a state that has historically forged the path others follow, this is unacceptable. Consider that clean solar and wind power are now the least expensive forms of electricity globally. This was the result of policies initiated in California, nurtured through our research institutions, and commercialized by our clean technology sector, which attracts more investment than anywhere in the world.
The ingredients are in place for California to prosper while propelling the world into the next phase of climate action and climate equity. We have the knowhow, technology and tools to stop California’s destructive climate trajectory, eliminate most of our air pollution in 10 years, and deliver on the promise of climate inclusion. The question Californians face is whether we rise up and demand action from our leaders.
Daniel Kammen is chair of the Energy Resources Group and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Manuel Pastor is director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California. Follow them on Twitter: @dan_kammen and @Prof_MPastor