Why it matters that California hit its 2020 emissions target four years early

sacramento california cityscape skyline on sunny day, water, wetland

Sacramento, Calif. cityscape. Photo credit: digidreamgrafix

This post was authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux and Maureen Lackner

California hit its 2020 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target four years ahead of schedule, according to 2016 emissions data released yesterday by the state. At this rate, the state is well-positioned to formally meet its 2020 target assuming it keeps up the good work.

While the world’s emissions are once again on the rise and the Trump Administration is pulling the U.S. backward on climate progress at the federal level, states and regions continue pushing ahead, and California is at the front of the pack. California’s monumental achievement is worth celebrating – and it’s worth investigating how the state got here, and the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Latest emissions data

Here are some highlights from the annual California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory published yesterday:

  • California’s 2016 emissions fell to 429 MMt CO2e, beating the 2020 target of 431 MMt CO2e, the statewide greenhouse gas emissions level in 1990.
  • This was the fourth year in a row of emissions reductions in California, where emissions dropped by 3% (12 MMt CO2e) between 2015 and 2016. Emissions fell 13% (64 MMt CO2e in 2016) compared against 2004, when emissions in the state peaked.
  • Business is booming as emissions are falling. In the last year, California’s GDP grew 3% while the carbon intensity of the economy dropped 6%. From January 2013 to December 2016, California added over 1.3 million jobs, an 8% increase, outpacing U.S-wide job growth of 6% in the same period.

The report is an annual update of statewide GHG emissions based on state, regional, and federal data sources, as well as facility-specific information from California’s Mandatory GHG Reporting Program (MRR). The GHG Inventory includes both emissions covered by cap and trade and the remaining 20% of emissions outside the program. Although the GHG Inventory report does not distinguish between emissions within and outside cap and trade, the latest MRR report shows that both categories of emissions fell in 2016, suggesting that California’s multi-pronged approach to emissions reductions is working.

The earlier, the better

Global warming is caused by the cumulative emissions that are present in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for more than a century, so earlier emissions reductions mean there are fewer years for those tons of carbon to have a warming impact on our climate. So beating the 2020 target is important for the atmosphere, but also gets us off to a good start to meet the even more ambitious 2030 target.

Where California’s reductions are coming from

The electric power sector is responsible for about 16% of the state’s 2016 emissions, and accounts for over 85% of gross reductions. Relative to 2015, total sector emissions fell 18%, while emissions from in-state power generation fell 15% and imported electric power emissions dropped 22%. CARB analysis attributes these reductions to growth in utility-scale renewables, as well as rooftop solar generation.

Hydropower also generated larger amounts of electricity than usual due to heavy rainfall in 2016. Small reductions came from industry (a 2% sector-wide drop) and agriculture (1% sector-wide).
Although not enough to fully counteract power sector decreases, some sectors’ emissions increased in 2016. California’s 2016 transportation emissions—the largest source of GHGs in the state—increased by about 2%, continuing the sector’s trend of slowly rising emissions since 2014. Emissions from commercial and residential activities grew by 4%, but account for less than a tenth of total state emissions.

Looking ahead

Given current emissions reductions, the state can start to look forward to its more ambitious 2030 target of getting emissions 40% below 1990 levels. The state’s 2017 “Scoping Plan,” which EDF supported, lays out a comprehensive plan for how to approach this target. All the signs are positive right now and if additional measures are needed to meet state requirements for 2030, there is still plenty of time to pursue those.

California is clearly demonstrating that smart, market-based policy helps us meet targets faster and more cheaply than originally envisioned. California is growing its GDP and adding jobs faster than the national average, and cutting carbon even faster than we expected. This creates a strong foundation for the even more dramatic transition California needs to reach its next goal in 2030.
In the coming decades, the world must get on track for deep emissions reductions and a dramatic transformation to a cleaner economy. California is helping to blaze the trail to that future by demonstrating once again that meeting ambitious climate targets is possible while maintaining a thriving economy.

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