GHG Emissions, 2019
The recent release of the state’s GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions inventory for 2019 provides an opportunity to put the state’s soaring energy costs into perspective. The rapidly rising energy prices and costs detailed in the rest of this report are not necessarily the cost of pursuing a climate change program. Instead, they are the costs of the way the state has chosen to implement its program, with its emphasis on expanding and detailed regulations and the selection of favored technologies often through a political rather than a market process.
California is often touted and just as often self-touted as a leader in climate change. Yet a comparison with the national emissions inventory shows little difference in the results of the approach used by California compared to those in the rest of the country. The key distinction is in the high and increasing costs that come from California’s strategies.
Both California and the US saw the sharpest drops in emissions during the Great Recession period, an outcome that is likely to be repeated in the subsequent results for at least 2020 and 2021. Through these and subsequent reductions, compared to 2000, California emissions dropped 10.6%; total US emissions dropped 10.3%. On a goal basis, California emissions in 2019 were 3.0% below the 1990 level; the US total was 1.8% above, but the ratchet nature of the national downward trend likely puts the US numbers only a few years behind the California progress.
In comparing the two, however, a number of factors should be kept in mind. As a state, at least some level of emissions has been moved rather reduced as manufacturing and other production has shifted, high-energy components such as server farms have gone to lower energy-cost states, and as the state has relied more on imports for its energy supplies. For example, California went from producing about half its oil use in the 1980s and 1990s, to currently importing most of its needs including from locations with far less environmental and labor regulation and/or involving increased transportation emissions. Similarly, the state has historically relied on other states for its natural gas supplies; a recent Air Board report indicates that emissions (100-year) associated with out-of-state gas production, processing, and transportation would put the state inventory 9.6 tons higher from this one factor alone. The state’s heavy reliance on solar fulfills its emissions goals for generation, but fails to address emissions at the other life-cycle stages. The California inventory benefits from having the rest of country in which to shift emissions. The national inventory by its nature takes all of these into account.
Although to a lesser extent than in prior years, California’s reductions also continue to rely on legacy investments in the state. In 2019, zero emission hydroelectric generation was up 46% from the prior year. In 2020, it was down 56%, and in 2021 the state has shut down capacity for the first time, having failed to make necessary investments to water reliability in spite of the warnings provided by three major droughts since the early 1990s.
Source: NOAA, National Integrated Drought Information System
Similarly, neither inventory takes into account emissions related to wildfires. In 2018, the Air Board estimates 39.1 MMT CO2 emissions from wildfires in the state, or 31% of the national total. These numbers, though, are highly variable. Air Board pegs emissions at only 4.8 MMT in 2019, and preliminarily about 110 MMT in 2020, fully swamping whatever other progress the state has achieved through its other programs. The state budget has increased resources for forest and lands management, and the federal agencies have recently signaled an intent to improve their activities as well. But these steps are in contrast to previous years of disinvestments in these functions combined with years of repeated litigation that stalled federal actions on proper management.
These additional considerations, however, only intensify the conclusions from the official data. Both California and the rest of the nation have achieved comparable emission reductions in the last two decades, but as the result of fundamentally different approaches. The benefits have been essentially the same. The costs, as detailed below, are another story.