Cities on the World Stage: In California, creating a more climate-friendly future

This week, we’re looking at the ways in which cities and regions collaborate to push global standards. Part one of three shines a light on California’s climate leadership.

By: /
October 17, 2018
A rooftop panel system is shown on the roof of a new IKEA store in Burbank, California, June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Nichola Groom

Halfway down Valencia Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, bicyclists whiz past a street sign labelled “Green Wave.” It’s there to alert road users to the fact that traffic signals have been timed to a bike-friendly 13 miles (21 km) per hour, but it’s also proof of California’s embrace of environmental policies, which have increasingly influenced the rest of the country and beyond.

California has been at the crest of the green wave for decades, since it began setting tougher anti-pollution standards than the United States federal government in the 1960s. Thanks to the state’s size — if it were a nation, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy — the auto industry was forced to deliver more efficient vehicles. Now that the White House has stepped back from the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming, the state and its cities are again stepping up.

Pushing for greener transportation was just the beginning. The latest example of the state’s leadership came last month when thousands of representatives from governments, companies and civil society groups, both from within the United States and well beyond, crowded into San Francisco’s downtown conference centre to meet, negotiate and make major commitments to fight climate change as part of the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) and hundreds of affiliate events.

For a few days, cities, states and other subnational governments took centre stage, emphasizing their ability to deliver on major goals even if nations won’t — something California cities have already shown is possible.

“This bottom-up movement is on a path that will put us within striking distance of the goal the US set in Paris, even with zero support from our federal government for the next few years,” said summit co-chair Michael Bloomberg in his welcoming remarks. “That goal was a 26 percent reduction [in greenhouse gas emissions] by 2025 and I’m happy to say we are already halfway there.”

One major accomplishment of the week highlights the impact subnational governments can have: The Under2 Coalition of state and regional governments from around the world, spearheaded by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, added 16 new members at GCAS who committed to keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, the level above which scientists say climate risks increase dramatically. Together, Under2 members represent more than 1.3 billion people and 43 percent of the world economy.

That such a success took place in California might come as no surprise. The state’s fight against climate change has long been bipartisan. An executive order issued by then Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led to the passage of a 2006 law mandating the state cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, equivalent to a 30 percent reduction. A decade later, under Brown, the state committed to an even more aggressive target of slicing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And just two days before last month’s GCAS, Brown signed a bill committing the state to getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable, carbon-free energy sources by 2045.  

A key framework

Putting a strong legal and economic framework in place has been one of California’s keys to empowering its cities, counties and regions to take climate actions that can have serious impact. And the state has put its money where its mouth is: It allocated more than $3 billion in proceeds from its carbon cap-and-trade program to help achieve its goals, and the data shows it’s working. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions fell 19 percent from 2001 to 2015 even as the state’s gross domestic product rose 37 percent. The state reached its 2020 goal of pushing emissions below 431 million metric tons four years early.

Ahead of the statewide renewables legislation Brown signed, 20 California cities had already pledged to move to 100 percent renewable energy, along with another 63 cities across the country which joined the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign. “This is filling the void of national leadership,” said Ready for 100 Director Jodie Van Horn in an interview not long after the Trump administration announced in August it would weaken auto emissions standards. “California cities are really driving significant progress in changing the way energy is produced and consumed in the state.”

"This is filling the void of national leadership... California cities are really driving significant progress."

These commitments are reaching beyond major urban areas and driving innovative approaches. East of San Diego in La Mesa, for example, the commitment to 100 percent renewables has prompted leaders to initiate talks with nearby Chula Vista aimed at creating a community-led alternative to the local power utility.

Under the statewide Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) law, local jurisdictions can offer residents different, and cleaner, utility options by either buying electric power from other sources or generating their own. The state’s 19 CCAs, which now serve more than 2.6 million customer accounts, generally offer a larger share of renewables than the investor-owned utilities they’ve displaced. Although they make up only five percent of the state’s electricity market, they could help California surpass its 2020 renewable energy goals by four percentage points, according to a UCLA study.

Emissions from the electricity sector have been declining for nearly a decade as the state shifted away from coal and toward renewables, and now make up just 16 percent of the golden state’s total emissions. The state is on track to generate half of its power from renewables by 2020, 10 years ahead of schedule, noted Panama Bartholomy, who focuses on eliminating fossil fuels from the built environment as director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “As of 2016, [California’s] buildings are emitting more greenhouse gases than our entire fleet of power plants…for the first time ever,” he said.

A pioneering green code

To address building-related emissions, California passed the nation’s first green building code, known as CalGreen, a decade ago, setting standards for land and water usage, waste and materials, and carbon dioxide emissions. In 2017, the state expanded its ambitions and followed the lead of cities like Santa Monica and Hayward in passing a statewide net-zero building code. New York City and Washington, D.C. have also announced net-zero building goals.

Under the rules, all new California residences built from 2020 forward will have to produce zero net energy (ZNE), meaning the homes must generate at least as much on-site renewable energy as they consume. By 2030, new commercial construction will have to meet the standard, and half of existing commercial buildings must be retrofit to ZNE. Where will homeowners get that renewable power? From the solar energy the state will start requiring on all new homes starting in 2020.

“This is just the future,” said Maryke van Staden, manager of the low-carbon city agenda at Local Governments for Sustainability, or ICLEI, a Bonn, Germany-based nongovernmental organization. ICLEI works with cities around the world to help facilitate and design climate action plans that encompass everything from addressing bus fleet operations, waste management and municipal transport to working with communities and the private sector to improve air quality, shift to clean fuels and enhance resilience.

While emissions from buildings and the energy sector are falling, the question of how Californians will reach their solar-powered homes and workplaces is critical, as transportation contributes 41 percent of the state’s emissions. In Los Angeles, where clogged freeways are a frustrating fact of life for most residents, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pushed to expand the use of electric vehicles, most recently through the launch of the Climate Mayors Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative. The goal is to speed up electrification of municipal fleets in 409 cities and 47 states.

The ripple effects

At the GCAS, California became one of 26 states, cities, regions and businesses to commit to reaching 100 percent zero emission vehicle targets as early as 2025 in some cases. Governor Brown ordered in January that the state put at least five million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2030. “California is moving toward a world where all new cars sold in the state would eventually be zero emissions vehicles,” said Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club’s Sacramento-based lobbyist.

Next up for the state: rooting out so-called “embodied carbon” in the supply chain, or carbon released when construction materials such as rebar and concrete are produced. Considering that California spends billions of dollars on infrastructure every year, that’s another area where the ripple effects could be huge. And huge impacts are what California’s state and local leaders are looking for — and delivering — in the fight against global warming. “Virtually every sector is being touched in some way by California’s efforts to reduce climate emissions,” said Phillips. “This is an issue Gov. Brown cares very much about, and he wants his legacy to be tied to some extent to his very vocal advocacy on climate change.”

A few weeks before the climate summit, Brown signed legislation making surfing California’s official sport. That feels appropriate, given that all the city and state initiatives on the horizon seem poised to keep California’s green wave going even as Brown rides that wave out of office and the next golden state governor paddles in.