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A Checkup On California's Efforts To Combat Climate Change


A checkup now on attempts to address climate change. California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. And it has some of the most aggressive climate policies in the country. It passed a landmark law 14 years ago to slash greenhouse gas emissions. It's also one of the first states to set a goal of going completely carbon neutral. For many, California has been held up as a model. But is it? NPR's Hannah Hagemann joins us now to take a closer look. Hi, Hannah.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's tick through a couple of things. Let's look at energy. How is California doing?

HAGEMANN: So the big emission cuts we've seen there so far - those have mostly come from getting off coal. From 2004 to 2006, coal was about 20% of the total electricity mix. And in 2018, it was only a little more than 3%.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's good.

HAGEMANN: Yeah. And that happened for a couple of reasons. California committed to this huge goal of getting greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. There was support from the Obama administration. And wind and solar prices came way down. So because of all that, Danny Cullenward, a researcher at Stanford Law School, told me that there is a clearer path to decarbonise electricity versus other industries.

DANNY CULLENWARD: The technologies that cut the emissions are things we have and we know how to work with. That's installing solar plants. That's installing wind plants. That's putting in battery energy storage systems. And we have the right policies and tools to get it done. And that's less true in some of the other sectors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So energy good - but he's mentioning these other sectors. And I'm assuming one of those is transportation. I'm thinking of electric cars. I know California's done a lot. What's going on there?

HAGEMANN: Actually, over the last years, vehicle emissions have inched up.


HAGEMANN: Yeah. And that's because the number of people super-commuting up to 90 minutes each way - that's increased. That's one part of the equation. And another thing, too - a record number of Californians have cars - about 80 out of every hundred.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. You mentioned commuting. This week, it's all about telecommuting as people try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

HAGEMANN: Yeah. That's true. And we don't know how long this will last. But there's other issues at hand. I talked with Daniel Sperling - he's a member of the California Air Resources Board - about this thing he called the Amazon Prime effect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is that?

HAGEMANN: Wanting more things delivered fast - that means lots of trips from warehouses to neighborhoods. And at the end of the day, that's meant an uptick in truck emissions, which are the worst for the environment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what about just putting people closer to work so that they don't have to super-commute?

HAGEMANN: Yeah. That's easier said than done. And lawmakers have tried to address that by putting through various policies to build denser housing closer to city centers. They haven't been successful so far, though. There's also the question of, do people even really want to live in high rises and cities, even if it does mean shorter commutes? So kind of back to where we started, Lulu - the state is really pushing for people to buy more electric vehicles. Here's Sperling.

DANIEL SPERLING: We're kind of on the path. We just need to add a lot more urgency and move faster.

HAGEMANN: So California has this goal of getting 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road in 10 years. And in October of last year, there are about 655,000 of these cars on the road. Sperling says there are some state-level incentives. But there need to be more to get more people to buy EVs. Last thing is there needs to be a lot more charging infrastructure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But if you put all these incentives in, is that really enough to widely motivate Californians to buy EVs?

HAGEMANN: Yeah. That gets at the heart of the challenge. I talked to Javier Castellanos (ph). He's a native Californian. And he commutes from Whittier, Calif., to Santa Ana - about an hour and a half each way. He drives a used Honda Civic that runs on natural gas. He bought it a couple of years ago to try and reduce his impact. But now the car doesn't meet the state's clean car standards. He wants to buy a newer EV. But it's still too much for him at this point. And he feels like people like him are being left behind.

JAVIER CASTELLANOS: Latinos and people of color - we're the guys that drive all the way from East LA to West LA. And we're not getting any love in terms of getting support to getting these cars. So if this is really about the environment, which it's supposed to be about, then why are you ostracizing your big majority of people that are on the road more than anyone else?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's your big takeaway here when you look at how a state like California, which really has made this front and center, is struggling so much?

HAGEMANN: I mean, with a state like California, they put up a lot of money to try and make these things happen. At the same time, there's been a real slowdown of federal effort. So now California is making progress to meet its goals. But it might be going too slow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Hannah Hagemann. Thank you so much.

HAGEMANN: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Hagemann is a 2019 Kroc Fellow. During her fellowship, she will work at NPR's National Desk and Weekend Edition.