Reality Check: California’s Ultra-Low-Greenhouse Gas Future

What will it really take to meet the state’s aggressive carbon reduction goals?

As the centerpiece of California’s climate strategy, the law known as AB 32 gets all the attention. But a little-known component of the state’s plan to mitigate climate change, Executive Order S-3-05, is even more ambitious. A new report from the independent California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) takes aim at its aggressive greenhouse-gas-reduction goal for 2050, and shows just how difficult it will be to reach it.

Signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in June 2005, EO S-3-05 calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (a target also written into AB 32 and passed the following year), and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 — effectively a 90% per-capita decrease when population growth is factored in. The 2020 goal sounds easy enough — especially if a third of our electricity generation is renewable by then — but existing efforts, including cap-and-trade, still won’t be enough. In other words, the state has got to come up with even more reductions in the next eight years.

What happens when we project all the way out to 2050? A business-as-usual scenario would put our emissions at double the 1990 level. But the new report — coauthored by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Jeffery Greenblatt — found that with existing technologies (that means currently commercially available or in demonstration) and for “reasonable” rates and costs, we could reduce our emissions to 60% below 1990 levels. This equates to about 170 million metric tons in total emissions: a considerable achievement, but still double the 85 million-metric-ton limit established by the 80% goal.

Reducing emissions to 60% below 1990 levels hinges on continued advances in energy efficiency and widespread electrification of all energy sectors, including light-duty vehicles, trucks, buses, trains, buildings, and industrial-process heating, the researchers found. To meet our future electricity needs and still keep emissions down, a variety of energy mixes could work.

A technology-neutral “median case,” for example, posits that we could get there with roughly:

  • One-third natural gas
  • One-third nuclear
  • One-third renewables

Greenblatt says some zero-emissions strategies would also be needed to to keep the state’s power grid in “balance,” like batteries or voluntary reductions in electricity use, known in the industry as “demand response” programs.

That, plus aggressive deployment of biofuels to meet about half of our projected demand for fuel, is the researchers’ best guess for how California could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 170 million metric tons by 2050. And Greenblatt is fairly confident it’ll work: “It’s feasible if the state aggressively pursues the policies to make that happen,” he said.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]…you’re talking about technologies that don’t yet exist.[/module]

Once you start looking at dropping that last 85 million to hit the 80% mark, however, you’re talking about technologies that don’t yet exist — or that exist only in the most theoretical sense. To reach its goal, Greenblatt said the state must, in essence, address two major challenges: 1) switching to entirely emissions-free load-balancing technologies, eliminating the use of backup natural-gas “peaker” plants; and 2) reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from fuels through advanced technologies like hydrogen fuel, carbon sequestration in biofuel development, or the use of artificial photosynthesis to produce hydrocarbons from sunlight, a cutting-edge technique being tested now at CalTech.

A self-labeled optimist, Greenblatt says this study — and the four other reports in the CCST’s “California’s Energy Future” project, plus two more to come — is a crucial first step in supporting the development of policies and technologies that California will rely on through 2050 and beyond. The CCST already has the ear of the governor’s office, the Air Resources Board, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Energy Commission.

“Because of the long lead times, we felt it was really important to highlight these longer-term challenges so that the state can start planning now,” Greenblatt said. “If we can show that something is possible, it’s largely up to will to make it happen.”

Reality Check: California’s Ultra-Low-Greenhouse Gas Future 1 February,2018Nate Seltenrich

4 thoughts on “Reality Check: California’s Ultra-Low-Greenhouse Gas Future”

  1. Does California use 1500 gallons of water to grow corn to produce 1 gallon of GMO corn fuel ethanol? Does California water providers check for GMO ethanol in the supply water for public consumption? Should California request a waiver of the ethanol mandate so GMO fuel ethanol is voluntary?

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