Increased use of geothermal, wind, and solar — like the Topaz facility pictured here in San Luis Obispo County — boosted California's achievement of greenhouse-gas reductions four years ahead of schedule.

The same year that carbon dioxide rose above the atmospheric level of 400 parts per million (ppm) at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, greenhouse gas pollution in California achieved a different milestone: It dropped below 1990 levels four years earlier than its target date. Assembly Bill 32 pushed the state to reduce emissions by 2020; California did it in 2016, dropping from 1990’s 431 million metric tons to 429 million metric tons.

Breaching the 400 ppm signpost at a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean signaled that the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide was inevitably going to send temperatures worldwide rising over the 2°C maximum agreed to in the Paris Accord. But in California, where the cap-and-trade program has put a price on carbon generation since late 2012, fossil fuel use has decreased without putting a dent in the state’s rising economy. Emissions, which hit a peak in 2004, went down 13 percent overall while the economy grew by 26 percent.

The drop off in 2016 emissions, announced on July 11 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), was led by an 18 percent decrease from electricity generation. Natural gas generation declined, CARB reported, and renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal grew. Importantly, record-setting rainfall in Oregon and Washington that year was a key reason hydroelectricity imports grew 39 percent.

Although the emissions fall-off marked in 2016 was equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road, actual fuel consumption by the transportation sector went up that year, giving rise to a 2 percent increase in emissions from cars, trucks, and other modes of transport. However, CARB declared that record use of low-carbon alternative fuels, or biofuels, kept 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air. Likewise, emissions from refineries increased somewhat, but the industrial sector overall showed a 2 percent fall in greenhouse gases from 2015 to 2016.

The delay in producing these state figures was because of the year spent verifying the numbers, according to the CARB press release.

California industry has powered the state to the fifth largest economy in the world. At $2.7 trillion in May 2018, California’s economy is only smaller than that of the United States, China, Japan, and Germany. CARB stated that compared to the rest of the nation, California produces twice as many goods and services for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The next state target has been set by Senate Bill 32, which goes for a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.


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