California climate policies offer roadmap for EPA carbon rule

Derek Walker

You’ve heard it before: As California goes, so goes the nation.

So as states try to get their arms around the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, we can look to California for some helpful pointers.

Granted, there are many roads to follow and for this journey, states are very much in the driver’s seat. They choose how to best reduce carbon pollution from their power plant by 30 percent over the next 15 years – as long as they can show EPA they’ll get there.

As usual, however, California got off to a head start. The Golden State blazed new trails years ago and left a number of clues on how states can transition to a lower carbon future.

California’s successes are one proven, potential model for other states to follow. The state’s legacy of clean energy and energy efficiency progress is also a big reason the White House and EPA could roll out the most significant national climate change action in our nation’s history.

A 40-year head start

Back in the mid-1970s, when Gov. Jerry Brown did his first tour of duty, California pioneered what remains one of the most effective tools for cutting pollution and saving money: energy efficiency.

The state’s efficiency standards, largely aimed at buildings and appliances, have saved Californians $74 billion and avoided the construction of more than 30 power plants.

Those energy savings have, in turn, translated into residential electricity bills that are now 25 percent lower than the national average. What’s more, California produces twice as much economic output per kilowatt hour of electricity usage as the national average.

Climate policies brought results

While energy efficiency has done yeoman’s work pulling costs down, reducing the need for dirty energy, and supercharging the state’s clean energy economy, California has also pioneered bold approaches for cleaning up its power supply.

  • The California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires 33 percent of all electricity sold in the state to come from renewable sources by 2020, the most aggressive plan that any of the 29 states with RPS measures on the books has adopted.
  • In 2006, California enacted Senate Bill 1368, a groundbreaking law that set the nation’s first greenhouse gas emissions standard for power plants. It was a forerunner of EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
  • Also in 2006, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) instituted a statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions, requiring California to return to 1990 levels by 2020.
  • Power plants are capped under AB 32’s successful cap-and-trade program, another precedent for the EPA plan. 

California’s robust suite of policies resulted in a 16-percent drop in carbon pollution from in-state and imported electricity between 2005 and 2012.

Californians are on board

Given this track record, it’s no surprise that Californians strongly support pollution limits on power plants. According to a  2013 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 76 percent of Californians support “stricter emissions limits on power plants.”

Sixty-five percent of respondents said that California should act immediately to cut emissions and not wait for the economy to improve, a record-high level of support.

The survey also shows that Californians believe the economy will improve because of strong environmental regulations, and that you don’t have to have one or the other.

Data corroborating this view continues to pile up: The state now has its lowest unemployment rate since 2008 even with increasingly stringent environmental policies.

California is proof positive that states can fashion creative policies that improve their environmental and economic bottom line. And this is, of course, exactly what will be needed to make EPA’s Clean Power Plan a durable and resounding success.

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