California approves ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gases

California approves ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gases
© Getty Images

California legislators passed perhaps the most ambitious effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the nation on Wednesday, handing a significant victory to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) ahead of a looming fight over the state’s cap-and-trade program next year.

In a pair of party-line votes, the state Senate and state Assembly passed two significant bills: One would require California to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to a level 40 percent below its 1990 levels by 2030. The other handed legislators more control over a state board that oversees emissions.


“The effort to decarbonize our economy in California and throughout the world is extremely difficult. It’s a tall hill that we’re climbing, and there is a struggle, and there is opposition,” Brown said at a press conference Wednesday. “This is a big day.”

Brown said the new legislation would strengthen his position in negotiations with lawmakers next year, when the legislature is expected to tackle new cap-and-trade measures, which control the amount of greenhouse gases a company can emit. The state’s current cap-and-trade program is being challenged in court, and a recent auction for emissions credits appears to have raised far less than expected.

The current program requires the state to hit less ambitious carbon-reduction goals by 2020. New technology and cleaner industrial sites make achieving those goals likely, which has led to a glut of carbon credits within the market. Some estimates suggest the most recent auction raised as little as $8 million, a fraction of what the state expected to raise.

That makes tightening the market through stronger emission-cut targets essential to the program’s success. If the legislature does not make changes to the current cap-and-trade system, Brown — who maintains a mammoth campaign war chest even though he is barred by term limits from running for reelection in 2018 — has suggested he will use his remaining political capital to put a measure on the 2018 ballot.

The two measures passed Wednesday faced heated opposition from California’s oil and gas industries, which say they stand to lose thousands of jobs from efforts to cut carbon emissions. Republican opponents of the bills said they would cause higher energy prices, which hit low-income and minority communities harder than cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“California Democrats are the only variety of politician today who still believe their state can change the climate of the planet,” said Ron Nehring, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. “Liberals in San Francisco riding [the Bay Area Rapid Transit system] don’t feel the effects of leftist energy policies nearly as much as the Central Valley farmer in his F-150 or the guy commuting from San Bernardino to L.A.”

Even some supporters of the bills acknowledged that the costs of climate change legislation can fall disproportionately on low-income communities in the Central Valley. During the floor debate, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) said the Air Resources Board, which oversees emissions, had a “credibility problem.” Others pointed out that the board’s members are entirely white.

The bill to give the legislature more control over the board is a way to increase its racial and geographic diversity. That measure was sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Coachella Democrat whose inland district is one of those that stand to lose jobs if the oil and gas market suffers further. The bill requires the board to assess the costs of climate change regulations on energy prices and the agriculture industry.

But Brown said job losses because of climate change legislation are overstated. He compared those job cuts to the buggy whip industry losing positions with the invention of the automobile, and to shopping malls losing out as online shopping becomes more popular.

“It isn’t only [Republican presidential nominee] Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE who’s trying to stop the effort to clean up the air and to combat climate change,” Brown told reporters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of Trump-inspired acolytes that even walk the halls of this state capitol. But they have been vanquished.”

It is the second time the two measures have come up for a vote: A combination of business-friendly Democrats and Republicans scuttled a similar push in 2015. Brown said supporters spent the past year tweaking the legislation and negotiating with members to secure enough votes.

“Legislation is not like Twitter. You don’t do it in 140 characters and a few seconds,” he said.

Fighting climate change has been a cornerstone of Brown’s agenda as he begins wrapping up a four-decade career in politics. In 2013, Brown hosted the governors of Oregon and Washington and the premier of British Columbia to establish the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, a regional agreement meant to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and bolster clean energy.