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California’s New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Puts Obama's To Shame

AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a plan to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030; according to his office, it is "the most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America to reduce dangerous carbon emissions.” Brown’s executive order puts the state on track to meet Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original target of an 80 percent cut by 2050.

The order is light on details of how California will reach this goal. But Brown offered a hint in an address at the beginning of this year, when he pledged to grow renewable energy from a third to 50 percent and doubling the energy efficiency of buildings in the next 15 years. The governor’s executive order puts California's climate ambitions on par with the European Union, which has similarly pledged 40 percent cuts by 2030 to the United Nations. When contrasted with President Barack Obama’s climate goals, though, California’s targets make the federal government’s plans look unambitious.

The baseline year California uses for its goal—1990—is itself significant, because emissions were lower then than they were in 2005. Federal targets set by President Barack Obama use the year 2005, when emissions were at a peak, as their baseline. 

It’s also likely that, in pursuit of its emission reduction goals, the state will blow past the Environmental Protection Agency’s own standards as part of the Clean Power Plan, which uses the higher baseline year. The EPA is in the process of finalizing a regulation on carbon pollution from new and old power plants, which promises an average 30 percent cut to power plant pollution by 2030, and sets individual benchmarks for states to get there. Utilities are already halfway to reaching this goal, and at least four states already outdo federal government estimates for growth in clean energy. Before Brown’s announcement, experts were confident that California—far ahead in its adoption of renewables and cap and trade—would meet this goal. “Anything the state does to reduce emissions further is going to put us that much further ahead of Clean Power Plan goals,” Environmental Defense Fund senior attorney Timothy O'Connor said in an interview.

Brown, of course, does not face the same obstacles Obama and the EPA does, which must balance political opposition and coal-state outcry. By matching Europe’s ambitions, California is leading in ways Obama can’t.