California's Climate Policy - A Model?
California’s energy and climate policies deserve study for three new reasons. First, the impasse on climate legislation at the US federal level leaves climate action largely to individual states, of which California is the biggest. Second, California’s politicians have taken climate policy further than those of any other US state, and won popular backing in the world’s only direct referendum on greenhouse gas reduction in November 2010. Third, in the absence of any new legally-binding agreement in the United Nations climate negotiations, California, which on its own would be the world’s eighth largest economy, is increasingly vaunting itself as a model of how a sub-national entity can take climate action irrespective of its national government’s immobility on climate policy.
California is an interesting test bed for climate policy, because its economy is almost entirely the product of the fossil fuel age. Indeed, in contrast to earlier-settled US states further east, it barely existed before the railway came. The car, the highways and freeways – some of them with 12 lanes, along which Californians travel a collective 320 billion miles a year – then came quickly. However, despite the Achilles heel of its car culture, California’s achievements in energy efficiency and clean energy are impressive by any standard, and particularly by any North American standard.
Over the past 40 years, Californians have reduced their energy use per head by 20 per cent, while national energy consumption per capita in the rest of the USA has stayed largely above 1970 levels (see Figure 1). California is still not Denmark which, partly because it has a stable population, is unique in having prevented any growth in its overall energy consumption since the early 1970s. In contrast, both California’s population and economy are growing. Because of this, the Golden state’s total electricity consumption rose by 22 per cent from 1990 to 2009, yet per capita consumption fell by 6 per cent over the same period.  The rest of the US economy has also become less energy-intensive over time – it is a world-wide tendency – but not as dramatically as that of its largest state. California’s energy productivity (the extra GDP produced with a given unit of energy) is now 68 per cent higher than for the rest of the USA, and the gap is widening; in 1990 the state was 63 per cent more energy productive than the rest of the country. Closely tracking this achievement in decoupling energy and economic growth has been California’s relative de-carbonization. The average Californian’s greenhouse gas emissions are half those of the average inhabitant of the other 49 states. Since 1990 California’s gross state product has grown by 26 per cent, while its greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 14 per cent.
These results show that California ought to be a demonstration lesson on clean energy and climate change policy to the rest of the USA, but it is very clearly not having that effect in most of the country, or at the federal level. In other aspects of life – culture (Hollywood) and technology (Silicon Valley) – California has been a pathfinder and trendsetter for the rest of America; that is certainly how Californians still see their role. But, in matters of energy, the rest of America is clearly not following.
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