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California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Friday a new set of plans to achieve his state’s goal of reducing climate change by achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, including asking the California Energy Commission to plan to create at least 20 gigawatts of annual energy from offshore wind by then.
If the Golden State achieved that, it would leapfrog ahead of East Coast counterparts such as Massachusetts and New York that have so far taken the lead in planned offshore wind development.
In a letter sent Friday to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Newsom asked the state regulatory agency to develop plans for a variety of measures to reduce the severity of climate change.
“California is in the midst of a climate crisis,” the governor wrote. “Drought, wildfire, and extreme heat have become everyday realities. We are compelled to do more.”
Extreme heat waves have already broiled the state and its neighbors this year. On Saturday, Palm Springs, Calif., reached 114 degrees Fahrenheit and Death Valley reached 122 degrees. Like the rest of the West, California is suffering from a 20-year megadrought that has caused water levels in the Colorado River to drop to historic lows, forcing many local water districts in California to institute new restrictions on water usage. Over the weekend, a wildfire near Yosemite National Park and its iconic giant sequoia trees consumed more than 16,700 acres, forced the evacuation of 3,000 residents and damaged or destroyed at least 15 properties.
The state has already passed into law a mandate to cut its carbon emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. California also sets the nation’s most stringent auto emissions standards, and it has the second-most home solar energy arrays per capita after Hawaii. (Some of those standards come at a cost: California also has among the highest gas prices in the nation.)
Still, Newsom wants CARB, which creates the comprehensive plans to reach the state emissions targets, to include a number of specific approaches to ensure that California actually gets to where it wants to be, including technology that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in homes. The governor set a goal of 3 million “climate-ready and climate-friendly homes” by 2030 and 7 million by 2035. “Climate-ready” refers to homes that are prepared to withstand the extreme weather events that are becoming more prevalent due to climate change, such as heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods. "Climate-friendly" homes are those that have low carbon footprints, thanks to energy-efficient construction and related attributes such as rooftop solar panels. Newsom also wants 6 million heat pumps in California homes by 2030. Electric heat pumps cool and heat homes more efficiently than burning natural gas or using conventional air conditioning.
Perhaps the most cutting-edge technology Newsom wants to use is carbon removal, which has only just begun to operate on anything resembling a large scale. The world’s first commercial carbon removal plant opened in Iceland last fall. The factory sucks carbon out of the air and stores it underground, a process that scientists say will be necessary for achieving carbon neutrality when emissions from certain sectors such as aviation and agriculture cannot be totally eliminated.
Newsom wants CARB to set the state on a pathway to remove 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year by 2030 — roughly equivalent to the current carbon footprint of some European countries such as Estonia or Croatia — and 100 million metric tons by 2045. The means can include natural methods such as tree planting, but other methods are also expected to require engineering solutions such as carbon removal.
The Iceland plant, however, removes only 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. At a cost of $600 to $800 per ton, it is more than 10 times as expensive as buying carbon offsets. Some scientists argue that until costs come down further, the money it takes to remove carbon would be better spent on reducing emission on the front end, such as by switching energy sources from fossil fuels to clean energy.
However, a major investment in carbon removal by California could help to transform the carbon removal industry and allow economies of scale. If California — which last year had a $3.4 trillion gross state product — were a country, it would be the world's fifth-largest economy.
Newsom also asked CARB to directly reduce emissions from fossil fuels, including by planning no new natural-gas-fired power plants, by forming a task force to identify and fix methane leaks from oil infrastructure near communities and by setting a standard of 20% low-carbon fuels for the aviation industry.
California environmentalists had nothing but praise for Newsom’s agenda.
“At a time when climate action from the nation’s capital seems out of reach, this news from California is a powerful tonic,” Environment California state director Laura Deehan said in a statement Friday evening. “Governor Newsom just set the fifth-largest economy in the world on a fast track to tap into offshore wind at a scale that actually meets our needs. And he’s making a significant down payment on other climate action as well.”
The governor’s move comes at a crucial moment in the global fight against climate change. President Biden’s proposal to spend upwards of $500 billion over 10 years adapting to and mitigating climate change — which was passed by the House of Representatives — has died in the Senate, at least for the time being. That virtually guarantees the United States will not meet its pledge to reduce emissions by half from 2005 levels by 2030.
Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot require electric utilities to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
In response, experts have called for states to do more to address climate change. “We’ve got to double down, quadruple down, here in California and in blue states all across America,” Newsom said on June 30 when the court issued its ruling in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Most energy-policy decision making in the United States is done at the state level, not at the federal level,” Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy-policy research firm, told Yahoo News at that time.
Among the suggestions Harvey made was for West Coast states to ramp up offshore wind capacity.
“As the East Coast has done, the West Coast should build a substantial amount of offshore wind, and that should get going as soon as possible,” he said.