Reducing the danger by half

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Earlier this month I visited California with the goal of learning about the state’s carbon market and seeking opportunities for WHRC to help in its implementation. As useful as that was, what most impressed me was how fearlessly California continues to move forward in addressing climate change.

As you may remember, California’s carbon market was created by the Global Warming Solutions Act, known as AB32, which was signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006. AB32 set the target of limiting statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to the level of 1990 and gave the Air Resources Board (ARB) very wide latitude to determine how to do that. The state is on pace to meet this goal and has set ambitious new targets for 2030, including obtaining 50% of electric power from renewable sources. Other provisions of SB350, signed in 2015, include more charging stations for electric vehicles and an improved electricity transmission grid, which will be helpful when there is more wind and solar power. (A provision to reduce petroleum use by 50% failed after strong opposition by the oil industry.)

solar-panels-and-turbineIf reducing GHG emissions is harmful economically, as many backward-thinking politicians claim, that news hasn’t reached California. Since the passage of AB32 in 2006, GHG emissions in California have fallen by 7%, while GDP has grown by 5%. This relatively modest economic growth results of course from the Great Recession. What may be more telling is that since that recession ended, California’s GDP has grown by about 10% while emissions have fallen slightly. More broadly, I can’t resist pointing out that California’s long-standing history of leadership on a host of environmental issues has certainly not seemed to harm its economic vitality.

Of course, one might legitimately argue that what is possible in California might not work elsewhere, due to a host of characteristics that make that state unusual (exceptional educational institutions, a generally benign climate, high agricultural output, etc.). I was very interested to learn, therefore, that the Canadian province of Ontario, which is slated to join the California ETS, has also made great progress. This is an interesting example, because Ontario’s economy, unlike California’s, depends heavily on manufacturing, and because its climate (global warming notwithstanding) is not a major draw for immigrants or tourists. As Glen Murray, the province’s Minister of Environment and Climate, pointed out, when under conservative leadership Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol because its emissions reductions targets were supposedly unattainable, Ontario had actually already exceeded those targets. Since 2005, Ontario’s GHG emissions have declined by nearly 20%, whereas in Alberta, whose economy depends on the fossil fuel industry, emissions have grown by nearly the same proportion.

These two examples, however intriguing, don’t prove that economic growth would not have been even greater absent aggressive climate policies. The real point is that leaders in California and Ontario view addressing climate change as an opportunity, not a problem. Rather than using fear and unsubstantiated arguments to support clinging to 19th-century technologies, they are working to improve climate, air quality, and human health, and they are benefitting economically while doing so. As Churchill said, “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.”