Get on Board for the Climate: Is California Losing Faith?

Martha Walden, 350 Humboldt

Illustration of a carbon capture facility. Source:

First there was AB 32: fifteen percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. Flushed with early success in 2016, California’s legislature then passed SB 32: forty percent GHG reduction by 2030. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) went to work on a Scoping Plan that radiated confidence in California’s industries. With a little nudge from the state, they would continue evolving towards the rational, low-emissions future of clean, renewable energy.

SB 32 also mandates an 80 percent reduction by 2050, but in 2018 Governor Brown signed a non-binding executive order declaring that California would achieve “carbon neutrality” no later than 2045. That doesn’t mean not emitting any carbon by 2045. It means that more carbon would be removed from the atmosphere than ongoing emissions. “Net zero” is another way of saying the same thing.

Here we are, seven and a half years shy of 2030, and our confidence is faltering along with the pace of emissions reduction. CARB’s Scoping Plan has come under serious fire. Earlier this year a report from the Independent Emissions Market Advisory Committee revealed that CARB has already issued industrial allowances for more emissions than what its cap and trade program was supposed to eliminate by 2030. (My column covered this last April.) In response to questions from panicked senators, CARB said, “Don’t worry. Just wait until you check out the Scoping Plan update.”

Well, the Scoping Plan update is now underway, and the worrying has not ceased. According to a critique from Danny Cullenward, a PhD energy economist and one of California’s top advisers, major accounting errors mar all four of the suggested net-zero scenarios.

It also concerns Cullenward a great deal that CARB has focused on Brown’s net-zero order by 2045 instead of the legally mandated 2030 target of AB 32. At this point California would have to triple the pace of its reductions in order to make it. Except for a promise to improve cap and trade rules, the Scoping Plan doesn’t detail how to make up the gap.

By focusing on the more distant goal of net zero by 2045, CARB is hoping for futuristic carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to come to the rescue. Industry emissions will be captured and stored underground instead of prevented. CDR is a young, unproven, expensive technology. Cullenward agrees that it could play an important role in the long run, but nipping emissions in the bud is essential to SB 32.

It turns out that fossil fuel industries and other businesses aren’t rushing towards the new rational future of low emissions and clean, renewable energy. Many climate activists say that fossil fuels industries just want to lock in their own business as usual at any cost. Others counter that renewable energy won’t be ready soon enough to take over the heavy lifting that industry needs.

Considering their record, big oil and gas certainly fail to inspire trust in their own motives. Will they actually invest in the expense of carbon capture? Right now it costs about $600 to $800 per ton of carbon, but costs should decline the more it’s deployed. On the other hand, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a colossal challenge. Maybe it will take longer than we think to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. California’s Air Resources Board seems to agree with this dismal assessment.