An excerpt from Brad Plumer on Vox.com, 3 April 2017
Current electricity trends aren’t nearly sufficient for deep decarbonization. If the US wants to do its part to halt global warming, it’s not enough for electricity emissions to dip moderately. They have to go to zero — within a couple of decades. That’s a mind-bogglingly difficult task, and we’re currently not on track to do it.
Late last year, the Obama White House put out a big report on what it called “deep decarbonization” sketching out four different scenarios for a near-zero-CO2 power sector in 2050. The chart below shows what sorts of electric capacity we’d need to be adding between now and then to meet one such decarbonization scenario:
As the graph on the left shows, the US has mainly been adding natural gas (in brown), wind (in blue), and solar (in yellow) capacity in recent years. That’s the lauded clean energy transition we’re now seeing. But it won’t suffice for deep decarbonization. As the graphs on the right show, annual natural gas additions would need to decline, not continue apace.
Wind and solar would need to ramp up dramatically — not just maintain their course. On top of that, we’d likely need to add significant nuclear capacity as well as carbon capture for coal, gas, and biomass every single year through 2050. Right now we’re barely building any.
Only a handful of states are even beginning to grapple with this reality. Yes, California and New York both aim to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030, (though neither has plans to expand nuclear or carbon capture, and California wants to shut down its last nuclear plant by 2025). But those two blue states, while important, account for less than 10 percent of the nation’s emissions.
Meanwhile, other large states, like Texas or Florida or Ohio, aren’t making any plans at all for similarly drastic reductions in electricity emissions. A large chunk of states in the South don’t even have clean-energy standards. That’s why federal action was such a big deal. Obama’s Clean Power Plan set weak targets initially, but it was conceivably something to build on through 2050, nudging states such as Georgia and Louisiana toward the sort of decarbonization pathways that, say, New York is contemplating. Now Trump plans to scale back that policy, leaving states to fumble (or not) on their own.
Electricity is only part of the decarbonization challenge anyway. What’s more, even if trends in the power sector look promising, electricity is only responsible for about 30 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. The rest comes from a vast array of different sectors, including cars and trucks, industries like steel and cement, refineries, natural gas use for heating in buildings, methane from agriculture and landfills, and so on:
In most of these other sectors, the United States has made remarkably little headway. Emissions from transportation have been rising since 2012, with electric vehicles still just 0.7 percent of the total fleet. Agriculture emissions haven’t budged for decades. Emissions from buildings and industry have been ticking upward of late.
To meet US climate goals, overall greenhouse gas emissions need to fall 80 percent or more by 2050. But apart from California, which is developing a comprehensive plan to tackle non-electric sectors, few states are really thinking about transportation or industry or agriculture. For the most part, that’s been the purview of the federal government, which under Obama has set stricter emissions standards for cars, trucks, household appliances, landfills, methane leaks from oil and gas, and so on. Now Trump plans to undo many of those rules.
So that’s the climate landscape in the United States: decent progress on electricity emissions coupled with scant progress in most other sectors. Even if states and cities keep doing what they’ve already been doing under Trump, that won’t be nearly enough to slow global warming. Not even close.
Why federal policy was vital for decarbonization
President Obama’s climate policy, for all its shortcomings, was an attempt to speed up the sluggish progress on emissions described above, using any and all executive branch tools he could find. The Clean Power Plan would prod a greater number of states to focus on decarbonizing. And other EPA regulations would tackle the neglected non-electric sectors. Trump plans to scuttle that, and those features won’t be easy to replace.
Another key aspect of Obama’s climate strategy was ramping up R&D for new energy tech that could help us achieve deeper emissions cuts down the road. That included research for advanced solar, wind, and battery technology; loan guarantees for a carbon capture project in Texas and companies such as Tesla; research into long-shot tech like advanced biofuels under ARPA-E; support for grid modernization; and more. These early-stage projects take time to show results, if they ever do. Federal investments in hydraulic fracturing technology began in the 1970s and didn’t pay off until the mid-2000s. But the hope was that today’s R&D would eventually provide vital new tools for the wrenching energy shifts we need in the 2030s and beyond. Under Trump’s budget proposal, many of those R&D programs are now endangered.
Then there’s the international stage. Stopping global warming obviously requires every nation to take action, not just the US. And here, the Obama administration has played a more proactive role than is often acknowledged. As David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, told me, US bilateral talks with China were vital for framing the Paris climate deal and helping to get China comfortable with the accord. A breakthrough in talks between the US and India also helped pave the way for a landmark deal under the Montreal Protocol to phase out hydrofluorocarbons. To be clear, US climate policy was much too weak under Obama and likely would have been much too weak under Clinton (particularly so long as Congress refused to pass climate legislation). But both politicians at least envisioned a path toward lower emissions, pushing in the general direction of decarbonization. It’s no small thing that the US now has a president who wants to abandon or disable many of those tools.
How to move forward on climate policy under Trump is obviously a huge topic, larger than any one piece can tackle. But based on the above, here are a few ideas:
1) States need to think harder about decarbonization outside of electricity. The greening of the utility sector via renewables and natural gas is promising, but there’s a lot more to do. California passed a law last year, SB32, that will begin aggressively tackling emissions from sectors like industry, agriculture, and buildings. Other states concerned about climate change could follow suit. (New York’s recent efforts on electric vehicles are another possible model.) The same goes for cities, which can have a large impact on emissions through urban planning and infrastructure.
2) Preserving EPA authority over greenhouse gases for future presidents. The Trump administration is likely to start dismantling Obama’s federal climate policies, from the Clean Power Plan to methane rules, and that will be difficult to stop. Yet the EPA will still have legal authority over greenhouse gases — unless Congress amends the Clean Air Act to take this away. So long as that authority remains intact, future presidents could conceivably redouble efforts to cut emissions through federal initiatives. Just 41 senators could filibuster any attempts to amend this policy.
3) Protecting energy R&D programs. As the White House deep decarbonization report notes, driving sharp reductions in emissions past 2030 will almost certainly require new tools and technologies that are still unproven, from batteries to carbon capture. Various R&D programs, particularly out of the Department of Energy, are likely to play a key role in bringing some of this tech forward. Trump has signaled that he would like to slash these R&D programs, whereas various Democrats and Republicans in Congress would like to protect them. How this battle shakes out could be hugely significant to future climate policy. (Private sector funding for energy R&D, à la Bill Gates’s new initiative, could also prove worthwhile.)
4) Democrats and Republicans could find common ground on energy programs that could pay off later. The current Republican Party is overwhelmingly hostile toward efforts to fight global warming. Most don’t even think it’s real. But there are nuances. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has been working with key Republican senators like Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and even Jim Inhofe (R-OK) on policies to facilitate the development of a new generation of (hopefully) safer, cheaper, low-carbon nuclear reactors. Similarly, at least some Republicans seem interested in carbon capture technology. This stuff seems small-bore, but it could reap benefits down the road.
This list barely scratches the surface of how climate policy can survive or evolve under Trump. Environmental activists will likely continue fighting for coal plant closures or blocking fossil fuel infrastructure. Plus, there’s always the prospect of unforeseen policy surprises over the next four years: Some of the most important climate tools of the Obama era, such as EPA authority over greenhouse gases and CAFE standards, were put in place during the Bush era. Perhaps the Trump era has similar plot twists in store.
Finally, there’s the big picture to consider. A Trump administration may be able to delay US and global climate action long enough to put the world on pace to blow past the much-feared 2°C global warming threshold. Our margin for error for avoiding 2°C was already razor-thin. But even if that happens, there’s still ample reason to try to decarbonize to avoid 2.2°C or 2.5°C or 3°C or whatever level is attainable. That’s still one of the biggest long-term policy challenges of the 21st century — and will be long after Trump is gone.
- Here’s a handy database of different state energy policies, which are going to become increasingly important in the Trump era.
- Here’s our previous coverage of California’s aggressive plan for deep decarbonization. Note, however, that the state plans to close Diablo Canyon, its last large nuclear power plant, which could end up being a major setback for reducing emissions. New York and Illinois, by contrast, are striking more of a balance by promoting renewables but also saving their endangered zero-carbon nuclear plants.
- The White House report on deep decarbonization is really worth reading, not least to give a sense of the scale of the challenge. Or, for a more global perspective, check out this “roadmap” of what’s required to meet the Paris climate goals. It’s far more radical than is commonly appreciated. (Think: no new combustion engine vehicles sold after 2030.)
California has long prided itself on being a world leader on climate change — and with good reason.
Within the United States, California is No. 1 (by far) in solar power and No. 3 in wind power. It boasts the third-lowest carbon dioxide emissions per capita behind New York and Vermont. Since 2000, the state has managed to shrink its overall carbon footprint slightly even as its population grew and economy boomed:
But now California is taking on a far, far more audacious task: trying to prove to the world that it’s possible — desirable, even — to pursue the really drastic emission cuts needed to stave off severe global warming.
The state is already on track to nudge its greenhouse-gas emissions back down to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Then, in late August, after much fierce debate, the California Assembly and Senate passed a new bill, known as SB 32, that would go much further, mandating an additional 40 percent cut in emissions by 2030:
This Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.
It’s hard to overstate how ambitious this is. Few countries have ever achieved cuts this sharp while enjoying robust economic growth. (Two exceptions were France and Sweden in the 1980s and ’90s, when they scaled up nuclear power.) The EU is also aiming for a similar 40 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2030, though they’ve got a head start.
And California is facing some serious hurdles. The state’s largest source of low-carbon electricity, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, may shut down in 2025. The climate plan faces opposition not just from influential industries like oil and manufacturing, but also from a fair number of Democrats. Making things harder still, California’s signature climate policy, an economy-wide cap-and-trade program for CO2 emissions, is in legal peril — and last month’s vote didn’t help.
The stakes are enormous: Policymakers everywhere will be watching to see if California can pull this off. Getting a 40 percent cut will require more than bucking up wind and solar and putting more electric cars on the road. It will mean reshaping virtually every facet of the state’s economy, from buildings to transportation to farming and beyond.
How California’s new climate law actually works
California has a confusing welter of climate policies, but the place to start is with AB 32, the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” passed by the legislature in 2006 and signed into law by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
AB 32, weighing in at a svelte 15 pages, required California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020. But it didn’t specify how, really. Instead, lawmakers told the state’s pollution regulator, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), to figure it out, using a mix regulations and market mechanisms.
CARB was happy to oblige. Starting in 2012, the agency implemented a statewide cap-and-trade system that imposed a ceiling on greenhouse-gas emissions across key sectors and then distributed a fixed number of tradable pollution permits to businesses. The total number of permits dwindles each year.
Under this program, companies either need to cut their CO2 emissions or obtain these increasingly scarce permits — whichever is cheaper. The idea is that by setting a price on carbon, cap-and-trade forces businesses to figure out how best to cut pollution:
On top of that, California’s legislators have passed a flurry of laws to boost specific technologies. There’s a renewable portfolio standard telling utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables like solar or wind by 2030. There’s a rule to double efficiency from buildings, appliances, and industrial equipment by 2030. There’s a low-carbon fuel standard to limit the carbon content of imported fuel. There are incentives for electric vehicles.
So far, these programs have worked reasonably well. California is on pace to push its emissions back down to 1990 levels by 2020 — and the economy has thrived.
The looming question, though, was what would happen after 2020. Gov. Jerry Brown had long insisted that CARB had the authority to continue making cuts, but he wouldn’t be around forever. Meanwhile, the California Chamber of Commerce is trying to knock down cap andtrade in court, arguing that it’s tantamount to a tax and therefore requires two-thirds approval in the Assembly. (AB 32 didn’t pass by a two-thirds vote.) A recent auction for cap-and-trade permits sputtered amid the cloud of uncertainty.
That’s where last month’s vote came in. With the newest bill, SB 32, the legislature is explicitly telling CARB to pursue a 40 percent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2030. The agency can either expand existing policies or develop new ones to get there — again, there’s a lot of flexibility.
There were a few hiccups: First, SB 32 was totally silent on the legal status of cap and trade. That’s still up in the air. Second, many Democrats in the legislature were squeamish about handing CARB so much power. So they also passed a companion bill, AB 197, which will require CARB to put two legislative members on its board and report to the Assembly/Senate regularly. There’s also a third confusing new requirement that CARB prioritize “direct emissions reductions” — we’ll get to that in a bit.
Bottom line, though: SB 32 was a huge, huge deal. Climate hawks won a major victory over industry groups who fought the bill tooth and nail. California will extend its landmark climate efforts into 2030. Drastic emissions cuts are now written into law.
California has the tools to cut emissions 40 percent — but it ain’t easy
Anyone can put lofty climate goals on paper. The real question is whether California can undertake the specific actions needed to actually cut emissions.
One of the most detailed studies on this question is a 2015 paper by Jeffery Greenblatt of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who created a detailed model to see what effect various state actions might have in reducing California’s greenhouse gases.
Greenblatt’s conclusion was that a 40 percent cut below 1990 levels looked doable, but it would take major changes across a wide variety of different sectors, from boosting clean electricity to ratcheting up building efficiency to managing pastures better to reducing car travel to cutting the HFCs in air conditioners.
“Everyone focuses on solar and wind and electric cars,” Greenblatt told me, “but there a hundred different levers to pull.”
In his study, Greenblatt modeled three different scenarios. The first, S1, incorporates all the policies that California has already committed to. The second, S2, adds in actions that California is considering. Neither was enough to get the 40 percent cut by 2030.
For that, you need scenario S3, which involves really getting serious about clean energy, efficiency, transportation, agriculture, and more:
So what does the S3 scenario entail? Well, it would mean taking all the steps below on vehicle efficiency, biofuels, building standards, clean electricity, methane capture from landfills, forestry, and so on …
But that’s not all! It also means taking all of these steps on high-speed rail, building efficiency, energy storage, combined heat and power …
And also all these steps, including “double local actions”:
Add it up and scenario S3 is serious business. We’re talking about a world where California gets more than 50 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2030 (up from 25 percent today), where zero-emissions vehicles are 25 percent of the fleet by 2035 (up from about 1 percent today), where high-speed rail is displacing car travel, where biofuels have replaced a significant chunk of diesel in heavy-duty trucks, where pastures are getting converted to forests, where electricity replaces natural gas in heating, and on and on.
Possible? Sure. Easy? Hardly. The level of effort is just orders of magnitude different from anything California has done so far.
And no one’s sure what it would cost, since it depends on how clean tech progresses and how much innovation kicks in. If costs go too high, the plan risks a massive backlash. (Note that state Democrats are already starting to fracture over the issue.)
To be clear, scenario S3 isn’t the only way to get a 40 percent cut. It’s just one scenario. Indeed, it may not even be the most likely scenario going forward.
Notice, for instance, that Greenblatt assumes California would extend the lifespan of Diablo Canyon through 2045 and build new nuclear plants to replace the now-shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant. But Diablo Canyon’s operator, PG&E, has proposed closing the reactors down in 2025. Scenario S3 also assumes that California deploys staggering amounts of CCS technology for gas and builds lots of high-speed rail — both uncertain.
If those actions aren’t taken, then California will have to get its cuts elsewhere. If you close a massive nuclear plant supplying 9 percent of the state’s electricity, you need to make it up. Possibly the state can do this: As Greenblatt told me, his scenarios aren’t meant to be comprehensive. He barely looked, for instance, at the possibilities for renewable natural gas or reductions in jet fuel. Instead, this is meant to be illustrative. It shows the types of changes California needs to consider. And they’re daunting.
One final, crucial, note: Greenblatt explicitly didn’t include cap and trade in his modeling. That’s because a cap-and-trade program assumes the cuts will be made at lowest possible cost and is agnostic on how they’re done. This study, by contrast, was interested in the concrete “how.”
If California does have a working cap-and-trade system in place, however, then presumably the covered industries and businesses would pursue the lowest cost actions en route to that 40 percent cut. That might include many of the items on the list above, or it might include other steps. It’s hard to predict.
But that brings us to the final twist: No one really knows yet what will happen with California’s cap-and-trade system.
The fate of California’s cap-and-trade system is … murky
Cap and trade isn’t the only way for California to cut emissions. CARB could simply tally up all the actions outlined by Greenblatt above and pursue them by regulatory fiat. But cap and trade is considered a more flexible, lower-cost policy tool to get those cuts. So it’d be nice to have around. And CARB has a detailed proposal for extending the program beyond 2020.
But as Ann Carlson, a law professor at UCLA who has been scrutinizing California’s climate efforts, explained to me, cap and trade currently faces two key obstacles:
1) It might not even be legal. This is a big one. Back in 2010, California’s voters passed a ballot initiative that redefined all levies and charges imposed by the state government as “taxes.” When combined with another initiative from the ’80s, this meant California’s legislature could only enact these levies and charges with a two-thirds vote in the Assembly and Senate.
That poses a problem for cap and trade, since it’s arguably a type of tax (not least since half of the permits are auctioned off to businesses). And AB 32, the bill that originally authorized the program, didn’t pass with a two-thirds majority in 2006. California’s Chamber of Commerce has sued to overturn the program on this basis. This case is winding through the courts — and some legal experts think this could imperil cap and trade past 2020.
There are a couple different ways this issue could play out. The simplest outcome would be for California’s legislators to pass a fresh bill by two-thirds vote that reaffirmed cap-and-trade’s legal status. But they didn’t do so when they passed SB 32, and it’s unclear if the votes are there now. Possibly California’s lawmakers might be able to revisit this after the November elections, when the legislature is expected to be a bit more liberal and climate-friendly. (Or, alternatively, voters could approve cap and trade via ballot initiative, enshrining it into law.)
A second possibility is that the legislature won’t step in and the courts could strike cap and trade down. If that happens, CARB could still pursue emissions reductions with other mandates and regulations. It just might be clunkier and costlier. It’s possible that businesses wouldn’t be too thrilled with this outcome and might end up asking the legislature for a cap-and-trade program.
Third, perhaps the courts will simply require modifications to cap and trade — so that CARB has to hand out all permits for free rather than auction some of them off (thereby making it less tax-like). This wouldn’t affect the cap, but it would constrain CARB’s ability to raise money for initiatives elsewhere, such as high-speed rail or easing the burden on low-income households facing higher electricity bills. (There’s already lots of political wrangling over how to spend the $1 billion CARB is sitting on; see John Upton for a rundown on this.)
In the meantime, this legal haze is affecting CARB’s ability to raise cash. In the last two quarterly auctions for emissions permits, companies bid for just a fraction of the available permits. Why bother if the program might not even be around much longer?
2) AB 197 might constrain cap and trade. The other possible threat to cap and trade is a little wonkier. As part of AB 197, the companion bill to SB 32, California’s legislature told CARB that it had to prioritize “direct emissions reductions” from large polluters. This provision was added at the behest of environmental-justice advocates who have long fretted that big refineries and other polluters (often situated in low-income areas) could simply evade making cuts under cap and trade by buying up permits instead.
If CARB is forced to pursue direct reductions rather than let emissions-trading do its thing, that may blunt some of the flexibility in the program. But at this point, it’s still very much unclear. I’d recommend reading these two posts by Carlson at Legal Planet for more.
The whole world will be watching California
Up until now, the United States has mostly been tinkering around the edges of climate action. Now the country’s biggest, most populous state is really taking the plunge. Along with the European Union, California has some of the most ambitious climate targets around.
California is essentially offering itself as a guinea pig in the world’s most important policy experiment. Everyone else will be watching and learning from the state’s successes and failures — whether it can develop the needed clean tech, whether it can spur innovation, whether it can control costs and navigate political opposition, whether it can rejigger the grid to accommodate enormous quantities of renewable power. No pressure!
- David Roberts wrote a great post back in June on California cap-and-trade’s growing pains. Also see John Upton for a thorough rundown of the legal issues.
- New York state is also making major strides on clean energy, but (unlike California) it’s trying to do so while keeping its existing nuclear fleet open.