The new version of California’s climate plan sets a tougher — some say unrealistic — target for reducing greenhouse gases. It also relies more on controversial carbon capture projects.
The California Air Resources Board today unveiled a new version of its much-anticipated strategy to combat climate change, setting more ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases and expanding controversial carbon sequestration projects.
If approved by the Air Board at its December 15 meeting, the plan would radically transform California’s economy, changing the way Californians’ vehicles, buildings, and appliances are powered, and ultimately serving as a blueprint for others States and countries serve.
“Failure is not an option,” said Airboard Chairwoman Liane Randolph. “The stakes are too high and we must move as quickly and as far as possible to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and leave a livable and healthy California for future generations.”
The five-year climate change strategy, dubbed the Scoping Plan, outlines in its 297 pages how California could end its dependence on oil and also eliminate the country’s worst air pollution.
The staff’s final draft plan adds bolder commitments and cuts fossil fuel use by 94% from 2022 levels by 2045 — versus a 91% target in the September version of the plan.
The plan also sets a more aggressive goal of reducing carbon emissions by 48% below 1990 levels by 2030 — down from the 40% required by state law by 2030 — by reaching net-zero emissions in 2045. ( Net zero, or carbon neutrality, conspicuously means a balance between the carbon dioxide that is added to the air and the carbon that is removed.)
California still has a long way to go to meet the new 48% target in just eight years. By 2020, emissions were only reduced about 14% below 1990 levels, according to Air Board officials.
Danny Cullenward, a climate economist who serves as the state’s adviser, said California is not on track to meet its existing 2030 reduction target, let alone the new, more stringent target.
“I’m not saying that California isn’t doing anything about the climate. We’ve done a lot of things,” he said. “But this is such a shallow exercise and full of mistakes and errors.”
Air Board officials said they are confident the state can meet the new goal largely because of new mandates and policies enacted this year. State officials halted sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035, imposed a stricter low-carbon fuel standard, and streamlined the siting and approval of renewable energy projects.
“This plan is a comprehensive roadmap to achieve a zero-pollution future,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement today. “It is the most ambitious climate target of any jurisdiction in the world, and it will drive an economic transformation akin to the industrial revolution.”
But Cullenward criticized the staff’s modeling, which is used to predict how each sector of the economy will reduce emissions. He said the plan lacks a thorough analysis of the feasibility of its projections and makes key assumptions.
One example, he said, is that the plan draws on other agencies like the California Energy Commission setting new guidelines, but it doesn’t go into the timing and obstacles they might face, or any other details .
“It’s quite a demanding document, but it’s full of bureaucratic duplicity,” he said. “It’s really frustrating because there’s so much to do.”
Some policy experts say setting ambitious targets is a crucial step in eradicating air pollution and tackling climate change.
“The scoping plan can at least help us focus our attention, even if it doesn’t give us as much detail as we want,” said Dave Weiskopf, senior policy advisor at NextGen Policy, a progressive advocacy group. “On the one hand, it’s very frustrating. On the other hand, it tells us that if we bother to say what a good plan should look like, we have at least a chance of getting the state to take meaningful action.”
The revised plan expands the state’s reliance on two advanced technologies to remove carbon dioxide that is warming the planet, compared to previous versions.
Together, 15% of all targeted greenhouse gas savings will come from direct carbon capture and carbon capture and storage.
One method removes it directly from the atmosphere, also known as direct air removal. Another, called carbon capture and storage, collects carbon emitted from industrial and power plant chimneys and injects it into the ground.
California currently has no carbon removal or capture and storage projects, and Air Board officials say they won’t be deployed until 2028. The plan names the state’s 17 oil refineries as an industry that could install them.
Environmental groups oppose both technologies, saying they extend the lifespan of fossil fuels, while oil majors say they are necessary to meet the state’s long-term climate goals.
The move to decarbonize and move away from fossil fuels will also dramatically increase electricity consumption, which is expected to increase by up to 68% by 2045. Such a shift to zero-carbon energy sources like wind and solar will be expensive, costing $18 billion in 2035 and $27 billion in 2045, according to Airboard officials.
Back in September, at Newsom’s direction, the Air Board reinforced its draft plan, originally released last May, to include new targets for offshore wind, cleaner aviation fuels and reducing vehicle mileage.
Other changes include building 3 million climate-friendly homes by 2030 and 7 million by 2035, installing at least 6 million heat pumps by 2030, and removing the option to build new natural gas plants or use fossil fuels in the power sector to maintain grid reliability.
Capture 20 million tons of carbon
The Aviation Authority has been ordered to create a new carbon removal program that will set guard rails for carbon capture, utilization and storage projects while streamlining the permitting process. The program follows the passage of SB 905, which Newsom prioritized in its climate package at the end of this year’s legislative session in August.
According to the plan, these technologies should remove at least 20 million tons of carbon by 2030 and 100 million tons of carbon by 2045. Though controversial, Air Board staffers say the practice is a “necessary tool” to reduce emissions from industrial sectors where other alternatives may not exist.
Once the carbon from smokestacks was captured, it could be shipped to sites in the Central Valley. Airboard employees say the valley is an ideal place to inject carbon dioxide deep into rock formations because it has the capacity to store at least 17 billion tons.
“We’ve squeezed all emissions from inventory for manufacturing, transportation and industry, but we know residual emissions will remain,” said Rajinder Sahota, Executive Vice President for Climate Change and Research. “We’re going to need all the tools in all of those categories.”
However, at an Oct. 28 workshop, members of the state’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee raised several concerns about engineered CO2 removal, saying it’s an unproven strategy that could continue to plague local communities with air pollution. They also say it would delay the closure of oil facilities and serve as a substitute for direct emissions cuts.
“The Air Resources Board’s latest climate plan is once again pinning California’s future on a dangerous carbon capture dream,” said Jason Pfeifle, a senior climate activist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Giving in to polluters who want to keep burning fossil fuels and dirty biomass energy is a one-way street to climate destruction. California needs a plan that rejects industrial fraud, preserves our ecosystems and phase out fossil fuels quickly.”
Air Board officials acknowledged their concerns, but Randolph, the board chair, said many of the greenhouse gas targets would not be met without them. She said the board has prioritized creating a metric to measure how local residents might be affected by these projects, as well as addressing the needs of local residents who are most affected by air pollution.
Randolph said the plan’s heavy emphasis on reducing emissions from transportation will also significantly improve air quality in vulnerable communities. Reducing vehicle-mileage and improving access to public transport, making neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly, and improving access to electric bikes and vehicles all play a role.
The board expects the state’s cap-and-trade program – which allows big polluters to buy allowances to offset their emissions – to play a much smaller role over time. It would help “close the gap” to meet the accelerated 2030 emissions reduction target.
Cap and Trade has been heavily criticized by lawmakers and pundits in recent years. One of the criticisms is that there are currently at least 310 million unused credits in the system, which poses a problem as companies can hoard credits that will allow them to sustain pollution beyond state borders in later years. Air Board officials say they hope to reform the program and address the credit glut by the end of next year.