California Bucks Global Trend with another Year of GHG Reductions

A parabolic trough solar thermal electric power plant located at Kramer Junction in California | Photo: Wikimedia

By Jonathan Camuzeaux and Maureen Lackner

The California Air Resources Board’s November 6 release of 2016 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data from the state’s largest electricity generators and importers, fuel suppliers, and industrial facilities shows that emissions have decreased even more than anticipated. California’s emissions trends are showing what is possible with strong climate policies in place and provide hope even as new analysis projects that global emissions will increase by 2% in 2017 after a three-year plateau.

California’s emissions kept falling in 2016

The 2016 emissions report, an annual requirement under California’s regulation for the Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (MRR), shows that emissions covered by the state’s cap-and-trade program are shrinking, and doing so at a faster pace than in prior years. Covered emissions have dropped each year that cap and trade has been in place, amounting to 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MMt CO2e) over the whole period, or 8.8% reduction relative to 2012. The drop between 2015 and 2016 accounts for over half of these cumulative reductions (16 MMt CO2e; 4.8% reduction relative to 2015). The electricity sector is responsible for the bulk of this drop: electricity importers reduced emissions about 10 MMt CO2e while in-state electricity generation facilities reduced emissions by about 7 MMt CO2e.

Some sectors’ emissions grew in 2016. Just as with global transportation emissions, California’s transportation emissions have steadily crept up in recent years, and the MRR report suggests this trend is continuing. Transportation fuel suppliers, which account for the largest share of total emissions, reported a 1.8 MMt CO2e increase in emissions covered by cap and trade since 2015. Cement plants and hydrogen plants also experienced small increases in covered emissions. One of the benefits of cap and trade, however, is that if the clean transition is occurring more slowly in one sector, other sectors will be required to reduce further to keep emissions below the cap while the whole economy catches up.

Emissions that are not covered by the cap-and-trade program dropped, from 92 MMt CO2e in 2015 to 87 MMt CO2e in 2016. While small, this represents the largest reduction in non-covered emissions since 2012 and is mostly driven by suppliers of natural gas/NGL/LPG and electricity importers. Net non-covered and covered emissions reductions resulted in a 20.5 MMt CO2e drop in total emissions from these sectors. 

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions.

The California climate policies are accomplishing their emissions reductions goals

The 2016 MRR data indicate impactful reductions in GHG emissions and progress toward reaching the state’s target emissions reductions by 2020. The 2016 emissions drop is a consequence of several factors: a CARB analysis of the year’s electricity generation points to increased renewable capacity, decreased imports of electricity from coal-fired power plants, and increased in-state hydroelectric power production. To put it in perspective, the 20.5 MMt CO2e emissions reductions is equivalent to offsetting the energy use of about 2.2 million homes, or 16% of California’s households.

Emissions below the cap are a climate win, not a concern

Total covered emissions in 2016 were about 324 MMt CO2e, well below California’s 2016 cap of roughly 382 MMt. Some observers of the cap-and-trade program worry that an “oversupply” of credits will result in reduced revenue for the state and lesser profits for traders on the secondary market. This concern was especially pronounced when secondary market prices dipped below the price floor in 2016 and 2017.

Importantly, oversupply of allowances is not a bad thing for the climate. As Frank Wolak, an energy economist at Stanford, points out, oversupply may be a sign of an innovative economy in which pollution reductions are easier to achieve than anticipated. Furthermore, having emissions below the cap represents earlier than anticipated reductions which is a win for the atmosphere. Warming is caused by the cumulative emissions that are present in the atmosphere so earlier reductions mean gases are not present in the atmosphere for at least the period over which emissions are delayed.

While market stability is a valid concern, the design of the program has built-in features to prevent market disruptions. Furthermore, the California legislature’s recent two-thirds majority vote to extend the cap-and-trade program through 2030 provides long-term regulatory certainty. Both the May and August auctions were completely sold out suggesting that the extension has succeeded in stabilizing demand.

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions, and that we’re doing it cheaply is an added bonus. Early reductions at a low cost can lead to sustained or even improved ambition as California implements its world-leading climate targets.

As California closes its fifth year of cap and trade, it should be with a sense of accomplishment and optimism for the future of the state’s emissions.

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