Congrats, California. You Slashed Carbon Emissions By A Lot. Now The Hard Work Begins

Emissions-producing diesel trucks and cars pass non-polluting windmills along the 10 Freeway near Banning. (File photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Here's some good news about climate change, for a change: The California Air Resources Board says carbon emissions have fallen by 12 million metric tons. That means, as a state, we have met our goal for cutting emissions four years early.

Governor Jerry Brown was pretty excited:

So give us a few more specifics - what did we do here exactly?

California's carbon dioxide emissions fell to 429 million metric tons in 2016. There's a 2-year lag in data reporting, which is why we're just hearing about this now. That means we are emitting less than we were, as a state, in 1990.

And that matters because the state's goal was to be at the level of 1990 emissions by 2020. Since we hit that goal in 2016 (remember the lag in reporting) this means we got there four years ahead of schedule.

And how did the state manage to pull that off?

Mostly by using cleaner electricity. So, switching away from fossil fuels, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, and instead using wind, hydro and solar, which don't emit any.

That got a lot easier in 2016. Why? Because we had A TON of hydro power. Remember that was the winter with the record-breaking rainfall and huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada?

All that hydropower meant we didn't have to run natural gas fired power plants as much.

Why is it important that emissions fell so much?

Well, it shows that California's climate policies are working and they aren't destroying the economy.

Former Governor Schwarzenegger — who signed California's first-ever climate bill in 2006 — reminded everyone of that on Twitter. He said the fact that California's economy is growing and unemployment is very low "should send a message to politicians all over the country: you don't have to reinvent the wheel, just copy us."

It's also a sign that the state's cap and trade program is working well to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That's the program that forced big polluters like power plants and refineries to buy permits to offset their carbon emissions. Basically, before that they could pollute for free.

So, what's the downside?

The downside is that emissions from cars and trucks are increasing. They're up two percent over last year. Part of that is that we are driving more miles. And buying bigger cars.

California's carbon dioxide emissions in 2016. (Courtesy CARB)

So today, a much larger percentage of our total carbon emissions are from cars — 41 percent — than from electricity, which is just 16 percent.

And why is that a problem?

That's a problem because it's way, way harder to clean up cars and trucks than it is power plants.

Think about it: you can generate electricity in a lot of different ways, including solar, wind, natural gas and coal. So cleaning up electricity is just a matter of switching from polluting to non-polluting fuels.

But with cars and trucks, oil is still the dominant fuel by far. Of the 35 million cars in California, only 180,000 of them are electric. That number is growing, but electric cars are still just not as practical or as affordable for most people as a gas-powered car.

Bottom line: it's a lot harder to change the behavior of 35 million car-owners than it is to require the operators of the 1000 or so power plants in California to make adjustments.

Ok, so what are we gonna do about emissions from transportation?

Well, Governor Brown has this goal of getting 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030.

There are already things in place to help make electric cars cheaper, like tax credits and rebates. So now the push is going to be towards building more places for people to charge them.

There are currently only 14,000 public chargers in California, and Brown wants to increase that to 250,000. He thinks that'll also help make electric cars more visible so people see them around and think, "Hey, look at that electric car! Maybe I'll buy one."

Now that we've met our 2020 goals, what's next?

Well, it actually just gets harder from here. Our new goal, as of September 2016, is to slash our carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is way more ambitious than the target we just met.

The new goal means we're going to have to get serious about cutting emissions from transportation and other areas that haven't made much progress yet and/or are more politically difficult. Like agriculture — cow burps, farts and poop are actually a huge contributor to climate change.

Then there's phasing out natural gas use for heating and cooking. And making houses way more energy efficient. And on and on.

In a recent tweet, Colin Murphy, the transportation policy manager at NextGen Policy Center, said Thursday's big news "is legitimately cause for (brief) celebration."

"I'll pause a moment to let you bask in the warm glow. O.k. that's enough of that. Hope you enjoyed the basking, we've got work to do."

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.


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