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CLIMATE CHANGE: Copenhagen Fizzled, California Forges Ahead

Matthew Berger

BERKELEY, California, Dec 21 2009 (IPS) - As countries failed to reach a substantive climate change pact at Copenhagen last week, action at the subnational level has emerged as one of the likeliest paths toward significant climate action.

The U.S. state of California – always a trend-setter and the largest regional economy of the largest national economy – may have some templates for action that circumvents both Copenhagen and Washington.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up in Denmark on Tuesday, then, it was not merely as another regional representative but as one of the figures who may be shaping a low- or post-greenhouse gas economy.

“While national governments have been fighting over emission targets, subnational governments like California have been adopting their own targets, laws and policies,” he told the conference.

California’s efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of its 1.8-trillion-dollar economy have placed it in the vanguard of emissions reduction and renewable energy development in recent years. In 2006, after the Kyoto Protocol had been ignored for a decade by Washington, Sacramento decided to take unilateral action by enacting the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which capped the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

California emits 1.4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, roughly the same as France. But the state’s emissions cap aims to bring those emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Other states have since followed suit, and a report by Environment America earlier this month projects existing state-level actions will reduce emissions by around 536 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020 – more than is currently emitted each year by all but the eight top-emitting countries.

“According to the U.N. itself, 80 percent of the necessary greenhouse gas reductions will happen at the subnational level. So why should we focus all our faith and hope in international action?” Schwarzenegger said in his weekly radio address Friday.

Toward a renewable future

Perhaps the most impressive path California has blazed, though, is its renewable portfolio standard, by which a portion of the state’s electricity must be from renewable sources. It aims for 20 percent renewables by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020. The EU, by comparison, has an RPS target of 20 percent by 2020.

“California has been a leader for many years now in renewable energy,” says Peter Miller, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is based in San Francisco. The state has a role to play, he says, “in setting a role model for the rest of the country and the world”.

In order to ensure a continued supply of power for the state’s nearly 38 million residents, projects for increasing renewable energy capacity are being proposed or approved on almost a weekly basis here.

On Thursday, a transmission line connecting a mountainous region said to be the state’s largest wind resource to Los Angeles and other Southern California cities was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“This project will help bring renewable energy to the grid that would otherwise remain unavailable,” said CPUC president Michael R. Peevey.

The day before, the CPUC approved four renewable energy contracts in which utility companies would obtain access to renewable sources. In one contract, Southern California Edison will source wind power from a project being developed in southern Oregon. In another, PG&E will acquire energy from a new solar project in the state’s desert southeast.

In perhaps California’s most innovative renewable plan, a start-up company, Solaren, will beam solar power collected by satellites to a receiver station in the state’s Central Valley using radio frequencies. A space-based solar panel would be able to generate energy around the clock. PG&E’s plan to purchase this power, once the satellites are successfully deployed, was approved early this month and operations are expected to begin in 2016.

The state will not meet the 20 percent by 2010 goal, but the policy provides a three-year window for meeting this target, and staying within this window will still place California far ahead of most regions.

“It’s worth noting that the initial target was [20 percent by] 2017 and we’ve moved it up,” explains Miller. He says 20 percent will probably be reached by 2012 and that “utilities have made Herculean efforts to meet these targets”.

He also points out that the targets are even more ambitious since California has “a fairly stringent definition” of what renewable means. Large hydropower and nuclear, for instance, do not count; otherwise, Miller says, the state would already be past 20 percent. Still, he thinks the targets can be met – and at minimal cost.

A large part of the progress that California has made in renewables so far can be attributed to subsidies from Sacramento. Rebate programmes have encouraged installing renewable systems in existing and new homes since 2006.

And, in 2008, California established a feed-in tariff programme that allows small-scale generators of renewable power, such as those with solar panels on the roof of their home, to sell any excess power to the utilities at a predetermined rate. This power would then count toward the quota of renewable power that the RPS goals require the utilities to meet.

Ruben Veek, a veteran of residential solar projects in Northern California and founder of the solar installation nonprofit SunWork, credits these financial incentives for spreading solar adaptation in the state.

“Without the subsidies, solar would never have gotten off the ground in its current form…Without the legislation solar would have been only for people who are off the utilities’ grid,” he says.

The largest photovoltaic solar facility in the state began commercial operation Monday. The plant’s operators say the solar power it produces will avoid about 12,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which, they say, is the equivalent of taking more than 2,200 cars off the road.

Subnational actions across borders

Plans for how to reach California’s emission reduction targets are expected to be laid out next year, but, as Washington dithers, other subnational emissions caps have been established and proposed.

In the northeastern U.S., for instance, the 10 states involved in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative sell emission allowances to targeted greenhouse gas emitters, who must participate if they want to continue to operate in the region.

The initiative aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the region’s power sector 10 percent by 2018. Two similar programmes are being considered elsewhere in the country, such as the Western Climate Initiative, which includes California.

Veek says the U.S. “may look at those [regional cap-and-trade projects] as models for national legislation”, which, he says, “is probably an eventuality”.

California has also formed partnerships with regional governments in other countries, including Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, Israel, Britain and China.

Of course, California has not been immune from the political polarisation and reaction to the economic recession that has swept the country. Leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said she would immediately suspend compliance with the law capping the state’s emissions if elected, for instance.

But Miller still thinks “there’s broad support for efforts that simultaneously address climate change and build the economy”.

Next 10, a nonprofit focused on improving California’s future, released a report last week saying that, despite the economic downturn, green jobs have grown by five percent since 2007.

The number of green businesses has increased by 45 percent and the number of people employed in those sectors has grown by 36 percent since 1995, the group said, compared to a 13-percent overall growth rate during that time.

Schwarzenegger is well aware of these benefits. “Of course, going green is about more than protecting the environment. It’s also about seizing an incredible economic opportunity,” he said Friday.

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