Pledge to go 100% greenhouse gas emission-free

Cars stuck in traffic in San Francisco, California
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Biden never wed himself to the “Green New Deal” proposal that Democratic Socialists and climate activists have clamored for all campaign season. During the primary, the youth-led Sunrise Movement graded his climate plan an F minus. But after securing the nomination, Biden put out a more detailed climate plan that the Washington Post hailed as “the most ambitious blueprint released by a major party nominee for president.”

The central goal of the $2 trillion plan: Make the U.S. electricity grid 100% carbon emission-free by 2035 and to zero out net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Though Biden flirted with the idea of putting a price on carbon emissions either by tax or a credit market early on in the campaign, he has since backed away from that idea. His new plan relies instead on regulations, subsidies and clean energy mandates to reach its goal.

What California is doing:

This is the state that regulates the mileage on cars and their tailpipe emissions, mandates electric trucks, cracks down on idling tankers, subsidizes rooftop solar energy and caps statewide emissions while maintaining a marketplace where industry bids for the right to pollute. 

All in service of a couple big picture green goals.

One is the state’s renewable energy standard, which requires California to rid its grid of carbon emissions by 2045. Set up in 2002, the standard has a built-in series of intermediate goals that ratchet tighter every decade.

But electricity generation accounts for only 16% of California’s greenhouse gas bill. What about the rest? 

California has a goal for that too. In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order to “achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible, and no later than 2045.” No one is entirely clear how the state will actually meet that goal, but California’s cap-and-trade program is the most obvious mechanism. The system, launched in 2013, forces industry here to either reduce emissions or pay for permits to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Auctions where companies buy and sell those permits have yielded billions of dollars in the past, which the state government plows into programs designed to slow climate change, such as incentives for solar panel and discounts on clean cars. The cap-and-trade program covers businesses responsible for about 85 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions — including oil refineries, food processors, paper mills, cement manufacturers and electricity providers. That makes it the most wide-reaching carbon-pricing system in the United States.

How’s it going here?

The state’s renewable energy standard is looking pretty good these days. In 2019, the rules required electric utilities here to buy 33% of its electricity from designated renewable sources. According to the California Energy Commission, they hit 34%. That’s significant progress. Over the last decade, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector have fallen by 40%. That transition was made easier by sharp declines in the price of solar generation and the collapse of the national coal industry.

But while the state’s renewable energy standard has been the golden child in its class of climate change fighting policies, cutting emission outside its electric sector has proven to be a bigger challenge.

Though the state’s cap-and-trade program has been its signature method of cutting emissions economy-wide, it’s been hard to pinpoint exactly how much credit the complex system actually deserves. A worldwide economic collapse and the resulting slowdown in production of all kinds of carbon-intensive products has contributed to a glut in pollution permits, cutting off a key source of green initiative funding and leading some state leaders to rethink the primacy of the program.

And while California has a solid track record in cutting emissions, the new normal of chronic, catastrophic wildfires and unprecedented heat waves threaten to undo that progress. Some environmental and economic analysts also warn that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked clean and that additional cuts will come at a much higher economic cost. Absent more concrete policies or technological breakthroughs, they say, the aspiration of net zero emissions by 2045 is just that — an aspiration.