Op-Ed: California can do better than carbon neutral by 2045

A decade ago, many Californians could not have imagined the climate nightmare we are living in today – dark orange skies during wildfire season, heat waves in the middle of winter, water restrictions obligatory in the midst of a crippling drought.

Without urgent action, we may well see this moment as the calm before the storm. Over the next decade, California’s biggest climate challenges — hotter summers, a shorter rainy season and more destructive wildfires — could double in intensity.

It is against this backdrop that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) last week released a draft of our state’s blueprint, a climate change plan that will guide California policy for years to come. Despite the stakes for Californians, and although my research indicates that the state could indeed become carbon negative by 2030, the draft proposal would delay achieving carbon neutrality until 2045. The barriers to a 2030 goal are political, not technical.

The draft plan calls for investing in New electricity resources from fossil fuels, and it relies on unproven and expensive carbon capture technologies that would block fossil fuel pollution. To take this approach would be lazy, absurd and racially unfair. During the current 45-day period for public review of the plan, California has the opportunity to choose a smarter path.

Renewable energies, even coupled with energy storage, are cheaper than fossil fuels. California’s own state laws dictate that renewable energy should be prioritized before building expensive and polluting gas-fired power plants. Instead, California needs to set ambitious goals that immediately reduce pollution through no-regrets strategies.

If we fail to deliver the climate action that science demands, Californians, and especially low-income Californians and communities of color, will pay the price. Moreover, we could see this failed model replicated in other states and nations. It is not hyperbole to say that billions of people could be worse off if California did not lead.

Similarly, if our state sets an ambitious but achievable goal – like carbon neutrality by 2030 or 2035 – the benefits ripple widely. Other states and nations are looking to California. If we set an ambitious goal and focus future policy on that goal, others are more likely to adapt as well. Even when climate goals are not met, they keep policies and investments in the right direction.

Last summer, when asking CARB to consider accelerating California’s climate goals to 2035 or earlier, Governor Gavin Newsom said “science demands that we do more.” After announcing a historic $32 billion investment in climate programs over the next five years, he must now step in and make sure regulators heed his call to increase climate ambition at all levels.

To get this planning process back on track, regulators must begin by correcting the flawed methodology that underpins their current proposal. CARB’s economic and jobs modeling fails to incorporate both the true cost of postponing emissions reductions and the full health and societal benefits of more ambitious emissions reductions. Simply put, California can create more jobs and more prosperity with renewable energy than we can with fossil fuels.

In developing the guidance plan, CARB staff used a measure called the social cost of carbon, which assigns a monetary value to the damage created by additional greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that these estimates have vastly underestimated the costs of postponing climate action.

If we don’t begin to reduce fossil fuel pollution soon, the impacts on California’s health care system, our economy, our food supply, and our communities will be an order of magnitude greater than CARB has considered. Regulators can fix this by aligning themselves with the latest expert analysis, which calculates the true social cost of carbon at $50 per ton of pollution emitted.

As a next step, regulators must recognize that it is far too late to bet our state’s future on unproven carbon capture technologies that may never materialize. CARB’s draft scoping plan projects that California will use 100 million metric tons (MMT) of direct air capture by 2045. Globally, only 0.01 MMT of annual direct air capture happens today. It is unrealistic to assume that we can expand this technology to this extent overnight, and it is foolish to direct investment towards unproven experiments when affordable natural carbon removal solutions like composting and planting trees are already available.

Today we have affordable renewable energy technologies that not only reduce carbon emissions, but also address our state’s air pollution crisis. California’s blueprint is expected to mobilize a vast expansion of renewable energy technologies. Instead, the current proposal calls for 10 gigawatts of new natural gas generating capacity – the equivalent of 33 large new gas-fired power plants.

There is still time for CARB and Newsom to come up with a bold climate plan that centers equity and public health and focuses on a no-regrets approach to investing in renewable energy. It is California’s legacy and lives around the world that are at stake. We cannot afford to fail.

Daniel Kammen is a professor of sustainability at UC Berkeley. He is a former Coordinating Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is Senior Advisor for Energy and Innovation at the United States Agency for International Development. @dan_kammen

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