Study: California will hit climate targets >100 years too late at current pace of reductions; transportation, wildfires & landfills
California will meet its 2030 climate targets more than three decades late, in 2061, and could be more than 100 years late in meeting its 2050 target if the average rate of emissions reductions from the past year hold steady, according to a new study tracking more than a decade of environmental and economic indicators in the state.
The eleventh annual California Green Innovation Index—released by the non-partisan non-profit Next 10 and prepared by Beacon Economics—finds the state needs to reduce emissions by an average of 4.51% each year—marking a three-fold increase from the 1.15% reduction seen in 2017—to meet the requirements of SB 32, which raised the state’s emissions reduction goal to 40 below 1990 levels by 2030.
California has made tremendous gains cutting pollution without detrimental economic impacts. The state’s per capita GDP has grown more than 41 percent while per capita greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by just over 25 percent since 1990. But this year’s Index serves as a wake-up call—we’re going to need major policy breakthroughs and deep structural changes if we’re going to deliver the much steeper emissions reductions required in the years ahead.—F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10
The findings follow on California’s hitting its 2020 emissions reductions goals four years early. Since 2000, electricity has been the only economic sector that has seen continuous and significant improvements in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The industrial, residential, and transportation sectors have only seen small declines, while California’s large commercial sector is moving in the opposite direction, with emissions increasing more than 64%.
Over the last 17 years, the industrial, residential and transportation sectors have cut their emissions by less than 5 percent. Moving forward, the state must hit reduction targets of 4.5 percent annually—the days of a 20-year runway to achieve this level of reduction in these sectors are past.—Adam Fowler, director of research at Beacon Economics
Electricity sector gains mask challenges from transportation, buildings, and industry. This year’s Index finds that 2017 marked the first time that a greater portion of California’s power mix came from renewable sources such as wind and solar than it did from fossil fuels.
But the report authors note that, while California has the second-lowest rate of carbon emissions per capita in the nation, and a carbon intensity relative to GDP that is 54.3% lower than the rest of the US—there are enormous challenges ahead.
Transportation emissions hit a record high in 2017—making up 41.1% of the state’s total GHG emissions—and of which on-road passenger vehicles accounted for 28%. The report finds car ownership rates and vehicle miles travelled also hit new highs in 2017, while consumer preferences have shifted markedly toward less-efficient vehicles.
By the fourth quarter of 2018, light-duty pickup trucks, mini-vans, and SUVs made up 57.3% of new vehicle registrations, up from 39.3% five years ago.
Electric vehicle adoption has increased significantly in recent years, and was up 37 percent in 2017. But we’re also seeing a significant jump in consumer preference for less-efficient internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles—even in just the past year in climate-conscious California. This signals that we may not see electric vehicles truly replacing ICE vehicles until we have more consumer choices and the infrastructure to support them.—Adam Fowler
These trends are complicated by the federal administration’s rollback of national fuel economy and emission reduction standards which were intended to lower transportation pollution significantly in the coming decade, and the recent revocation of California’s waiver to set vehicle greenhouse gas emissions standards—which has kicked off a legal battle that could last for years before resolution.
Top findings in the area of transportation include:
The annual increase in transportation emissions has slowed down slightly compared to the previous three years.
Vehicle miles travelled and GHG emissions from surface transportation per capita increased 0.5 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, from 2016 to 2017.
The fact that VMT has increased faster than GHG emissions from surface transportation indicates that the state’s GHG standards and policies are working to reduce emissions to an extent, but the current upward trajectory of VMT and surface transportation GHG emissions cannot continue if the state is to meet its climate goals.
In 2018, battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen vehicles accounted for 1.5% of all registered on-road vehicles in California, up from 1.1% in 2017. At current pace, the share will reach 2% by the end of 2019.
The vehicle ownership rate is increasing faster than ever, reaching 80.6 vehicles per 100 persons in 2018. ZEVs and hybrids accounted for about 4.0 vehicles per 100 persons.
Vehicle miles travelled (VMT) per capita have been increasing gradually for years in California, but declining in some other populous states. Between 2008 and 2017, total VMT increased 5% in California, but declined in Pennsylvania (-6%) and New York (-8%). Texas saw the greatest increase over the period (+16%).
Wildfire emissions present unique challenge. The Index notes that the 2018 wildfires in California produced an estimated nine times more emissions than were reduced across the entire state’s economy the year prior, with wildfires contributing more than the commercial, residential or agriculture sectors did in 2017.
The 2018 wildfires burned more than 1.8 million acres of California land—a five-fold increase since 1972 and the largest-burned acreage recorded in a California fire season. The study notes that ten of the state—s most destructive fires have occurred since 2010, including 2018's Camp Fire, the most deadly and destructive in state history.
What we’re learning is that climate successes can be fragile; one devastating fire can eclipse hard-won emissions reductions gains, Our lands serve as an important carbon sink and wildfires are an important part of the natural cycle. But learning to better manage wildfire risk—including powerlines which don’t cause most fires, but have caused our most-destructive fires—is critical.—F. Noel Perry
California wildfires in 2018 emitted an estimated 45.5 million metric tons of CO2 (MMTCO2) emissions—a 24% increase from 2017, when California wildfires released an estimated total of 36.7 MMTCO2.
Not only are wildfires becoming more severe, the frequency of historically-destructive fires has also been increasing over the last decade. Ten of the state’s most destructive fires occurred since 2010, and 19 of them have occurred within the last 30 years.
Between 2000 and 2017, the number one cause of wildfires was those categorized as “other”—which includes debris, escaped prescribed burn, miscellaneous causes, and unknown/unidentified—(34.2%), followed by lightning (31.1%), human-caused (23.7%), vehicles/structure (7%), and powerlines (4%).
While powerlines may not cause the most fires, they tend to cause the most destructive fires in terms of the number of structures destroyed, as powerlines are located in more populated areas of the state. California’s most destructive fire to date—the Camp Fire in Butte County in November 2018—was caused by powerlines and destroyed 18,804 structures.
Landfill emissions rise; recycling rates decline. Landfill emissions are also emerging as a policy challenge, having risen every single year since 2004 in California, and shooting up 7.4% from 2016 to 2017.
With a growing economy, Californians are consuming more, and waste is increasing remarkably. At the same time, the recycling rate in 2017 was 42%, even lower than it was in 2016. At our current pace, we are nowhere near hitting the state’s target of a 75% recycling rate by 2020.—Adam Fowler
As the economy continues to grow, people consume more, and solid waste generation generally continues to increase. The state is not on track to meeting its goal of 75 percent recycling rate by 2020 and will only face further challenges in meeting that goal as a result of no longer being able to send recycling to markets abroad, such as China.
In 2017, Californians exported or sent to landfills 37.8 million tons of waste, up 7.4% compared to 2016.
As landfills are burdened with an increasing amount of waste, landfill emissions have gone up every single year since 2004. From 2007 to 2017, emissions from landfills have increased by 1.0% every year on average.
The 2019 Index is a call to action. The state has a great degree of control over its power mix, but there are several sectors that are harder to control—whether that be wildfires or sectors dependent on end-users’ consumption behaviors. Each choice we make about how to use our land, power our homes and buildings, and travel each day makes a difference. Transformative policies are needed, but success requires change from all of us.—F. Noel Perry