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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September 2007

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California's Climate Change Policy: Raising the Bar

Last year, California’s legislature passed one of the most sweeping laws on  greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, requiring California to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Due to the size of its economy and the amount of GHG emissions it produces, the Golden State’s climate change policies have the potential to play an important role in the overall direction of U.S. policies.

The state of California has more than 37 million people. Out of the total U.S. population, more than one in eight live in California. In 2006, California’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $1.7 billion, more than one-eighth of the U.S. GDP, making it the eighth largest economy in the world by this indicator and the largest of any state. In terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, for 2003, California ranked second only to Texas within the United States and eleventh in the world. (Carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels was about 80 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2003.) Although 1990  GHG emissions in California totalled more than any other state, per capita California GHG emissions that year were below the national average.

Including GHG emissions from imported electricity, California total gross GHG emissions in 1990 were about 410 million metric tons CO2 equivalent. On a per capita basis, this is almost 14 metric tons per person. For comparison, 1990 GHG emissions for the United States were about 6.1 billion metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent, excluding land use, land use changes, and forestry; this is about 24 metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent per person.

To put this in a global perspective, California has about the same population as Poland but more than triple its GDP, and it follows Italy ($1.8 billion) in rank order of 2006 GDP but has about 60 percent of its population. Poland’s 1990 GHG emissions were almost 590 million metric tons CO2 equivalent (about 15 metric tons CO2 equivalent per person), and Italy’s 1990 emissions were almost 520 million metric tons (about 9 metric tons CO2 equivalent per person).

To provide an overview of California’s climate change policies, it is helpful to look closely at three key sectors: buildings, transportation, and electricity. In 2004, the building sector contributed 45 percent of California’s GHG emissions; the transportation sector contributed 40 percent. Electricity generation, including imports, accounted for more than half of the GHG emissions from buildings, or 23.5 percent of state emissions. At least four important questions arise from this. What is California’s progress in each sector so far? What problems could stymie the state’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions? Do the climate change plans for each sector support or undermine achieving sustainability outcomes? Why or why not?

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