In summary

California’s current climate policies won’t cut greenhouse gas pollution enough to meet the state’s goals — but a new report says cleaning up cars and the cement industry could help.

California won’t meet its ambitious climate goals in 2030 unless more drivers trade gas guzzlers for clean cars, and heavy industry like cement producers reduce their pollution, according to new research.

In a report released today, climate policy think tank Energy Innovation concludes the best-case scenario for California is that it cuts climate warming pollution about 36% below 1990 levels by 2030. The worst case is about 30% — and neither meets the 40% cut baked into California law.

Yet on the heels of the hottest decade on record, it’s a sunnier take on California’s progress in cutting emissions than an earlier analysis that pegged the state as decades behind schedule. 

Still, when even an optimistic assessment shows California will fall short of its climate goals, it’s time to start closing that gap, said Energy Innovation analyst and report author Chris Busch. His analysis offers a half-dozen proposals to bolster California’s climate policy, from ramping up clean car targets to cutting carbon emissions from the cement industry. 

“We’re all watching Australia burning, right? Delay is not our friend in getting to a safe climate,” Busch said, referring to the devastating fires that have captured the world’s attention.

California’s leaders have claimed the state as a climate trailblazer, and have celebrated California’s early achievement of a 2020 goal to cut greenhouse gas pollution to 1990 levels.

But the state’s climate enforcers readily acknowledge that even with this early success, cutting climate-warming emissions another 40% will be difficult. “We all know that the next decade, our rate of reductions have to double,” said Rajinder Sahota, chief of the industrial strategies division at the California Air Resources Board. “Just because we have a plan doesn’t mean we’re done.” 

Busch’s analysis started with those plans — and assumed that California’s collection of rules, laws and executive orders will, mostly, play out as intended. The state expects 60% of California’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030, for instance, and that 5 million clean cars will be on the road by then.

Then, Busch considered a few wildcards: California’s carbon trading program, for one, which aims to curb emissions from the state’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters by issuing a declining number of pollution permits that companies can buy and trade. Another is federal revocation of California’s authority to restrict greenhouse gases in tailpipe pollution and require clean car sales in the state. 

By dialing up and down the price of the pollution permits, and depending on whether California wins or loses its tailpipe pollution fight with the feds, the team came up with a few possible futures. 

Under the scenario that almost meets California’s goals, the price of carbon pollution permits nearly quadruples from around $17 per ton today to $63 per ton in 2030, and California wins its fight with the feds to restrict tailpipe pollution. That scenario cuts about 35% of California’s current emissions, putting California just 15 million metric tons short of its  2030 goal— equivalent to leaving about 3.3 million cars on the road.

But the worst-case scenario, which assumes the Trump administration wins, leaves California 45 million metric tons short of the 2030 goal. That’s roughly equivalent to keeping 9.8 million cars on the road. 

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, said he doubted California’s climate policies will be quite as successful as Energy Innovation anticipates. “The model that they’re using takes for granted the performance of certain policy measures, which I think is probably a bit optimistic.” 

Still, he said, the report identifies a gap between California’s current trajectory and climate goals — and identifies ways to close it. “That is really important,” Wara said. “That is the work that everyone focused on climate policy in California needs to be doing.”

Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens and chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change Policies, pointed out that even with a gap, the report is rosier than previous research, and importantly, “even in all the best case scenarios, it doesn’t get us to our goals. And I even ask the question, are our goals adequate at the rate at which the  temperature is increasing?”

Credit: Energy Innovation

Energy Innovation developed an open-source simulator to assess which policies are likely to get California closest to its climate goals. The report recommends that California leaders ramp up the state’s use of renewable electricity, set sales targets for electric water heaters and furnaces, and increase the number of electric vehicles on the road. The electric vehicles proposal is risky, the report notes, because of the ongoing fight over federal tailpipe emissions rollbacks. 

The air board’s Sahota, who hadn’t seen the report prior to publication, commended its focus on transportation. “The key to achieving our climate goals is getting at transportation,” she said. 

Another proposal takes aim at California’s cap-and-trade program, which raises the minimum price for pollution permits by 5% annually, plus inflation. Busch’s team suggests that instead, that minimum price should rise and fall in response to California’s progress toward its greenhouse gas goals. 

California lawmaker Garcia was open to the idea, saying she thought the Legislature should consider a variable minimum price for pollution permits. Garcia said it might even be able to get off the ground, politically.

“Nothing is permanent here, things aren’t static,” Garcia said. “As we start to live realities, as we start to have new records, new crises, larger wildfires, I think that the dynamics and the feasibility changes.”

Energy Innovation also proposes the state curb greenhouse gases from a sector that’s been tough to decarbonize: industry. 

About 20% of the natural gas used in California in 2017 helped generate steam for oil extraction, according to the report. Busch’s team recommends requiring the industry to ramp up its use of methods that are free of emissions, such as solar mirrors

Such a restriction could increase investment in solar thermal projects, they contend, and drive emissions reductions. But it also comes with complications. It might require expanding the air board’s authority over the oil and gas industry, for instance. And it’s an idea with few existing examples. The report points to GlassPoint’s solar mirror project under development in Aera Energy’s Kern County oil fields; however, the Bakersfield Californian reports the project has been plagued by delays. GlassPoint declined to comment, and Aera Energy officials were unavailable. 

Energy Innovation’s most ambitious proposal takes aim at the cement industry and calls for setting an increasingly strict limit on its greenhouse gas emissions. The report notes that this would require plant retrofits, major changes to infrastructure, and would likely lean heavily on technologies that haven’t yet been deployed at scale in California, like carbon capture and storage. 

California’s legislature already is taking steps to curb emissions from cement, with a bill under consideration that would require the state’s cement plants to report their climate impacts.

Wara and Danny Cullenward, policy director at climate change think tank Near Zero, praised the scope of the proposals. “This is a first pass at a comprehensive strategy, and I applaud that,” Wara said. “We need to be asking questions like — is our transportation policy ambitious enough? What about cement? What about industry?”

This report, Wara said, tries to answer those questions. Cullenward called the proposals “illustrative of the kinds of new and complicated things that climate policy makers need to do to begin tackling the industrial sector.”

Policies that drive technologies capable of generating heat high enough for oil extraction, or producing steel and cement, could be useful globally, Cullenward said: “If we could successfully tackle that, it would show the way on a new chunk of emissions — where we could be a leader for others to follow.”

Update January 16th, 2020 7PM PT: Updated to include comments from Assemblymember Cristina Garcia.

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...