Whenever reducing greenhouse gas emissions comes up, naysayers cry that it will cripple the economy. It turns out that they’re blowing hot air, even more hot air than the state of California these days. California has reduced its greenhouse gases ahead of schedule, and the economy is doing just fine, thank you very much.
The California Air Resources Board announced the good emissions news last week. Total statewide carbon emissions in 2016 declined to 429 million metric tons, 12 million tons less than the previous year. That was the lowest level since 1990. That’s an important milestone insofar as the Assembly in 2006 set a goal of reaching 1990 levels by 2020. California did it four years ahead of schedule.
When one digs into the numbers, there are red flags. Californians are still too wedded to SUVs, trucks and other gas guzzlers. Vehicle emissions continue to increase even as total emissions decline. If the Trump administration succeeds in its misguided push to roll back miles-per-gallon targets, that could get worse in coming years.
Reforms in the energy industry were the real drivers of emissions reductions statewide. Fossil fuels are out as a source of electricity, and renewables are in. Indeed, the solar industry today employs tens of thousands of workers to keep up with huge demand for green energy.
Those jobs were a small part of the economic growth that skeptics thought impossible. While California reduced its emissions, the state’s economy flourished. Economic activity grew faster than the nation’s, and unemployment has declined. If the state were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of the United Kingdom.
That’s not to say there haven’t been costs. Californians pay among the highest prices at the gas pump, and businesses have had to absorb the costs of implementing new, cleaner technology. That’s to be expected, though, as consumers and corporations pay something closer to the real environmental costs of their market decisions.
The naysayers also note that even if climate change is real — yes, there are still climate skeptics out there despite the mountains of scientific evidence — California’s reductions alone won’t make a difference. Greenhouse gas emissions are a global challenge, and California is too small to make a difference.
That’s true from a narrow focus, but it misses the real import of what the state has accomplished. By demonstrating that we can reduce emissions and have a robust economy, we settled what had been a theoretical economic debate. There’s no longer a case to make that going green is economically debilitating.
Gov. Jerry Brown will co-host a global climate summit in San Francisco in September. At it, he will have concrete success to hold up as inspiration for global action.
And in the meantime, Californians cannot sit on their laurels. The 2020 reductions were just the first benchmark. In 2016, the state set a second goal of reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. We’re ahead of schedule, but we’ll have to keep working to reach it.
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