Looking Forward: California’s Climate Leadership

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Henrik Johansson
Wind mills and power lines in Patterson Pass, California.

As comprehensive federal policy on climate change has been largely absent until quite recently, domestic climate leadership has emerged on multiple scales and from various jurisdictions. In particular, the State of California, long known for innovative and cutting-edge environmental policy, has established a climate policy approach that may well end up as a workable model for the rest of the world. Over the past decade, California has managed to decouple the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and the economy, reducing per capita emissions by 17 percent while maintaining one of the most robust economies in the country.1 The state is taking major steps forward on a yearly basis to truly take a leadership role. Projecting current policy initiatives and trends yields a potential future in which today’s policymakers, advocates, and citizens could be proud.

By 2030, based on policy already on the books or likely to be passed this calendar year, California will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels, and is on the way to 80 percent by 2050. At least half of the energy used will be from renewable sources, along with a 50 percent increase in fuel efficiency. Approximately one and a half million electric vehicles (EVs) will be on the road. All new construction, residential and commercial, will be net zero energy and efficiency of existing building stock will double.2,3 California’s climate policy is poised to affect nearly every sector and issue in the state. Three specific focal areas are explored below.

Environmental Justice

As the reality of climate disruption begins to bear down, it is clear that the burden will not be borne equally by all. Those populations and communities already at risk, often called frontline communities, may end up bearing a disproportionate share of the impacts from a changing climate over time. Policy measures in California that focus explicitly on environmental justice and equity concerns point towards a possible path forward. Long a stumbling block for global climate negotiations, environmental justice advocacy efforts in California have begun to bear fruit, yielding a potentially replicable model. This year, although the law requires only 10 percent, over 30 percent of the approximately USD $300 million in proceeds from California’s Cap and Trade program is being directed towards solving environmental justice-related concerns. Funding for equitable and low-carbon transit, affordable housing/sustainable communities, weatherization, urban forestry, and other key issues is projected to dramatically increase by between USD $3 and $11 billion over the next decade.4 As an effective and well-organized network of advocacy groups continues to work towards equitable climate policy in California, it will become clear that connecting the dots between cultural diversity, equity, and environmental quality is the only way to achieve real progress on any of these issues.

Natural Systems


Stuart Isett / Fortune Brainstorm Green
Conference attendees test drive an electric vehicle at the 2013 Fortune Brainstorm GREEN: Sustainable Solutions gathering in Laguna Niguel, California. By 2030, it is projected that approximately one and a half million electric vehicles will be in use in California.

Increasingly, citizens, municipalities, and businesses will view healthy and resilient natural systems as not just an aesthetic and recreational asset for the state (outdoor recreation is already responsible for an estimated USD $40 billion and more than 300,000 jobs in the state as of 2008),5 but as critical infrastructure, as vital to day-to-day life for California residents as the Bay Bridge or the 405 freeway. As a result, municipalities, utilities, and businesses will continue to join forces with state and federal agencies to leverage investments in the restoration of natural systems to ensure high quality and persistent provision of numerous ecosystem services. The burgeoning focus on truly green infrastructure will include: (1) investment in active forest management (e.g. appropriate fuels treatment, mountain meadow restoration, etc.) by water utilities and water-intensive businesses, such as beverage manufacturers, to ensure reliable water supply;6 (2) conservation and restoration of coastal, inland, and mountain wetlands and floodplains for the specific purpose of providing flood protection, in light of the increasing likelihood of both coastal and inland flooding from a combination of rising sea levels and a rise in extreme precipitation events;7 and (3) large-scale investment in forests, rangeland, and farmland, specifically to rebuild and stabilize the carbon sequestration and storage ability of these natural systems in support of the 2050 climate goals.8

Current trends point towards continued land conversion from natural and working landscapes to urban/suburban development. Much like the decoupling of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions that the state has achieved as a result of progressive climate policy, the future will require a similarly bold policy approach to decouple economic and population growth from natural and working lands conversion. Aggressive investment and implementation of smart growth policies including mixed-use and infill development, restructuring communities around transit opportunities, and generally increasing density, all of which should help to change the trajectory of the land conversion curve.9


Future climatic conditions in the Central Valley of the state are sure to lead to continued water scarcity, regardless of the eventual resolution of the current drought, as runoff timing shifts, water quality decreases, and demand grows.10 Any or all of these factors in combination with heat-related impacts will physically and economically shift cropping patterns. As California’s fastest growing region in population, the Central Valley is poised for some major changes. At the same time, these working landscapes will play a significant role as the state moves towards its 2050 climate goals.

California’s agricultural sector will transition to hyper water-efficient, climate friendly, and carbon-sequestering agricultural practices. A large-scale movement towards climate-friendly agricultural practices will both increase carbon sequestration, as well as build resilience on farms. These practices include improving water-use efficiency through drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation, improving soil management via conservation tillage, cover crops, and organic soil amendments, and generally shifting towards organic farming techniques, which often have a lower carbon footprint on the input side, along with a 10 to 20 percent increase in soil carbon sequestration.11


Charlton Clemens
More sustainable agricultural practices are indicative of a general shift towards organic farming techniques, such as those employed on this organic farm outside of San Diego.

Although the national food supply will adapt to changes in California’s agricultural output, local employment, is less elastic, particularly for seasonal farmworkers. Shifts towards value-added crops and products will help, as will ongoing renewable energy development in the region, which is poised to provide steady, long-term, family supporting jobs.12 The inevitable development of stricter oversight and/or banning of fracking in locations like Kern County brings into sharper focus the potential for robust growth of clean energy development in the region.13 Kern County, in fact, hosts one of the largest wind energy farms in the country, with more to come. Neighboring Tulare County has already had 18 utility-grade solar projects approved in the past two years, with hundreds of associated jobs.14 A policy approach prioritizing balance between farmland conservation, on-farm renewable energy projects, and large-scale energy development on unproductive lands will be essential.

The distributed energy revolution is on its way to the farm with reported on-farm renewable energy projects tripling from 2009 to 2012, with further growth basically inevitable. Renewable energy projects will be developed on disturbed land, brownfields, and other less-than-pristine locations, such as the thousands of acres already taken out of production due to salinity in the Westlands Water District, presently slated for one of the world’s largest solar plants.15,16


John Prettyman / US Army Corps of Engineers
Several utility-grade solar projects have been approved in the state in recent years. Here, a solar microgrid project installed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Sacramento district.

California is not, and will not, be a panacea for all environmental concerns. The challenges posed by climate change are vast and varied.17 Groundwater overdraft continues, and it may be decades before new regulations pay off. The fire season is nearly three months longer, on average, than it was 40 years ago, and lack of moisture combined with high temperatures will lead to ongoing massive wildfires. Population will continue to grow, projected to reach 50 million by mid-century, along with associated demands on resources and infrastructure.18 Automobiles still remain the iconic transportation option in the state and, even with one and a half million EVs on the road, there are still another 30 million or more tailpipe-laden vehicles on crowded streets.19 However, in light of current and future challenges, the state is making substantial progress on multiple fronts, while riding a groundswell of popular opinion and providing a glimpse of how a sustainable future might look.