Why even California can’t stop catastrophic climate change

If even the Golden State can’t pull off needed carbon cutting, expect more scenes like this.
If even the Golden State can’t pull off needed carbon cutting, expect more scenes like this.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For climate change optimists, California is indeed the golden state when it comes to aggressive policies designed to avoid catastrophic climate change. But as a new report makes depressingly clear, even Ecotopia will fall far short of hitting a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 without the invention of new technologies and imposition of more draconian green mandates.

That’s the number scientists believe must be met to keep climate change in check. And if California can’t meet such a mandate, what nation can, given the inability of governments to even to agree to take the most tentative steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

“This is quite a stringent requirement, and even if we aggressively expand our policies and implement fledgling technologies that are not even on the marketplace now, our analysis shows that California will still not be able to get emissions to 85 metric tons of CO2-equivalent [MtCO2] per year by 2050,” Jeff Greenblatt, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who wrote the report, said in a statement.

Greenblatt’s analysis considered three alternative futures to meet the 2050 target: scenario 1 is business as usual under current California policies designed to cut emissions; scenario 2 is policies under consideration but not implemented; scenario 3 is potential new technologies and markets.

The good news is that under all the scenarios California easily meets its 2020 goal of cutting carbon emissions to 1990 levels. But even under the most optimistic scenario, the state will still be emitting 208 MtCO2 in 2050, or 145% above the emissions cap necessary to avoid climate Armageddon.

And that’s even if some fairly radical policies and technologies are implemented in California. For example, Greenblatt assumes that Californians will drive 30% fewer miles in 2050, and if they’re still driving gasoline-powered cars, their vehicles will get about 78 miles per gallon. About 17 million cars would need to be zero-emission vehicles—powered by batteries or fuel cells. (California and seven other states last month pledged to put only 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025.)

And the state had better hope that fracking thing works out; 45% of all heavy-duty trucks would be powered by natural gas under the most optimistic scenario. More than half the state’s electricity would come from renewable sources—which seems doable as California is on track to obtain a third of its power from wind and solar by 2020.

The study doesn’t get into what needs to be done to reach the 2050 carbon target. But it does identify policies that were not considered under the third scenario because of a lack of data on their impact. Those included making all buses electric or powered by fuel cells, converting trains to run on natural gas, self-driving cars—hello, Google!—and the mass deployment of solar panels and energy storage in every home to radically cut power plant emissions.