California faces unique challenges when it comes to climate change. It’s an enormous state with several major ports, making it a shipping hub; a state where driving is practically synonymous with travel; and it faces unique geological and meteorological challenges. It’s a challenge the state has met with government innovation, serving as a policy lab for others to build on. Here’s what California is doing to fight climate change
California has little choice but to aggressively confront climate change.
- 85% of its population lives on or near the coast, making it vulnerable to sea level rise.
- Drier and warmer conditions both threaten freshwater supplies and make wildfires more probable and larger. It also threatens the state’s agriculture industry, one of its major economic drivers.
- California has struggled with air quality for years, with some of the worst in the nation, creating an environmental, economic, and public health crisis.
Climate change is a clear and present danger. California has tackled it with some interesting methods, serving as a policy lab for other states to pursue.
California has some of the most aggressive overall emissions targets in America, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below by 2050. New York’s goals are more aggressive, aiming at 85% below 1990 levels by 2050, but that was only enacted in 2019; California has been working on this since 2006.
It’s funded and run through a cap-and-trade program; emissions are capped, and if you need to exceed them, you can buy credits from other groups under the cap. This creates an economic incentive to reduce emissions and sell the credits; the money from the credits, which are auctioned off, in turn, go to projects in disadvantaged communities to help them reduce emissions and the public health impacts.
California has caught attention for its most recent mandate that all new vehicles sold in the state by 2035 be zero-emission vehicles (ZEV). Yet the state has led in vehicle emissions standards for years; part of the reason it secured a waiver to the Clean Air Act to pursue more aggressive vehicle emissions standards was that the state clearly needed them to meet the demands of the law. It was even home to the first production electric vehicle, well before Tesla stole the spotlight, with the EV-1, GM’s first electric car.
Clean energy is omnipresent and growing quickly across America. Texas, for example, has led the country for years in renewable energy installations, thanks to its onshore wind industry. What differentiates California is the government innovation approach.
California has aggressively led solar, most recently passing a law requiring new construction to install solar panels. City government is even more cutting edge: The City of Berkeley recently prohibited natural gas infrastructure by ordinance.
Nor is this limited to the fuel: By the end of the year, the state will have a regulatory framework for “microgrids” run by large utilities, which will help limit brownouts and shut-downs.
Every state has unique needs, so there’s only so far California’s approaches can go. Nor is government innovation on this topic limited to the Golden State: For example, fourteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that voluntarily comply with California’s vehicle standards as a starting point for their own policies. Yet as a policy lab, California’s leadership on climate change has to be examined closely by states facing their own challenges.
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