California Maps a Plan to Slow Down Global Warming

The state's plan could be a model for other states, or even the federal government.


SAN FRANCISCO—The presidential candidates certainly paid lip service to tackling the problem of climate change during their debate last night. But what would it actually take to slow down—or even reverse—global warming?

California lawmakers tried to answer that question two years ago when they passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, a first-of-its-kind law that spelled out the state's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of any federal regulation, the law ordered the state to lower its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, a 25 percent reduction. "We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the time, thumbing his nose, many thought, at a White House that was dragging its feet on climate change.

This week, the California Air Resources Board, the state agency tasked with implementing the law, released the first details of exactly what the state must do to achieve its global warming goals. In a 142-page report many experts believe could serve as a policy template for other states—and even the federal government—the board provides specific estimates of exactly how and where the state could have an impact on climate change. To return to 1990 carbon emissions levels, the plan says, the state will need to reduce its annual emissions by about 4 tons per person—from 14 tons currently to about 10 tons in 2020. The report calls this goal "ambitious but achievable." According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States as a country produces more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide per capita each year, while countries like Japan and the United Kingdom produce closer to 10 tons per person. The state of Idaho, which, like California, does not rely on coal-powered energy, produces about 11 tons of carbon emissions per capita—the least of any U.S. state.

Massive reductions in carbon emissions will require an expansive array of government programs, the plan says, ranging from raising clean car standards to investing in high-speed rail systems to offering tax incentives to users of solar panels. The plan, the first comprehensive effort by a state to tackle the threat of greenhouse gases, also imposes an emissions cap on the state's major polluters. These investments in clean energy will come with an additional bonus, the plan says: They will provide a $33 billion boost to the state's economy and create 100,000 new jobs. "We are putting together a road map for the rest of the nation to follow," Schwarzenegger said after the plan was released.

While the Air Resources Board prepares for a public review of its findings later this fall, there do seem to be more than a few states that are eager to follow California's lead. In the last month, eight states, including California, signed on to the Western Climate Initiative, a plan to create a regional cap-and-trade system in the western states. The Air Resources Board's new proposal says that as much as 85 percent of the state's emissions could be included in its climate change plan. Six states in the Northeast have also held their first auction to cut heat-trapping pollution from power plants.

Both of the major parties' candidates for president, meanwhile, reiterated their promises last night to support broad climate change policies similar to California's—and for the moment, at least, there is widespread optimism about the impact a federal clean energy effort could have on the economy and the environment. "The plan released today by the California Air Resources Board shows irreversible momentum in the fight against global warming," says Audrey Chang, a spokesperson for the National Resources Defense Council. "This growing wave of state and regional action shows there is no looking back.... The era of dirty fossil fuels is drawing to a close. The clean energy economy is right around the corner."