California’s climate contradiction

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Diálogo Chino, San Francisco

Described as the fifth-largest global economy, the state of California is seen by many as the model to follow when it comes to addressing climate change. Since 2005, the state has implemented a set of policies to reduce carbon emissions, with a focus on renewable energies and the development of clean technologies.

Nevertheless, hundreds of protestors gathered in San Francisco to object to actions by Governor Jerry Brown during the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS), an event organized by California to demonstrate its climate leadership along with other cities and regions worldwide.

 Environmental campaigners protest in San Francisco / Credit: Fermin Koop

“We are forty million people with high consumer power and the capacity to create a market for investment and innovation. We develop a lot of technology and policies that make a difference in the world,” said former senator Fran Pavley. “But California should do more, especially now.”

The GCAS consisted of three days of meetings and announcements from international representatives, but more than anything it was seen as a celebration of Brown’s climate legacy. Brown will finish his term this year after a long political career in the US.

The governor followed the path on climate laid out by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarznegger, who argued for tougher laws. California has now committed to reduce its emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and it devised a series of financial incentives so that companies produce less contamination.

Furthermore, owing to a recent law, the state is on the path to 100 percent renewable energy use by 2045, and Gov. Brown has issued an executive order to totally decarbonize the economy by the same date. It is a huge challenge, considering that between 2006 and 2016, the economy grew 16 percent and the population expanded by 9 percent but emissions were only reduced 11 percent, according to a recent report by environmental consultancy Next 10.

“Decarbonizing the economy would be a huge revolution for California. It is ambitious, but we have achieved more significant goals in the past,” said Noel Perry, founder of Next 10. “We are leaders in renewable energies, energy efficiency, clean technology and environmental policies.”

According to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, it is very important to more than half of Californians that the state is a world leader in climate change. Two in three consider that the effects of climate change are already happening, and this is seen as a serious problem by 80 percent of the state's population.

Despite this, California still has to face big challenges, and one of the biggest is in the transportation sector, which accounts for 41 percent of the state’s emissions. According to official statistics, there are 32 million vehicles in operation for a population of 40 million, of which only 400,000 are electric.

Emissions from transportation have increased in the past four years, as residents move further outside major cities in search of more affordable housing and have to commute longer distances. In addition, the number of public transport users has decreased in four out of five of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas.

“In California, we drive 555 billion kilometres every year. We haven’t made much progress in the transportation sector and we need to make advances. In order to do so, we need to make the energy sector greener and push the use of electric cars,” said Ken Alex, an advisor on environmental policy to governor Brown.

“California achieved many things in climate and environment, but we are far from being perfect. We want to transform our economy so the rest of the world can follow in our footsteps,” he added.

China, oil and the Amazon

Fossil fuels were the focus of the protests against Brown during GCAS. California is the sixth-largest state producer of oil and gas in US. According to a recent report by the Fracktracker alliance, the state authorized 53,825 new onshore wells and 238 offshore wells between 2012 and 2016.

At the same time, the state is the third-biggest in the country in terms of its number of oil refineries and imported fuel to be processed. According to Amazon Watch, 50 percent of oil exports from the Western Amazon Basin are bought by refineries in California.

According to Amazon Watch, the extraction of oil in the Amazon is driven by state companies and Chinese development banks. They have given US$15.2 million in loans since 2010, which are to be repaid with oil sales.

“The vast majority of the oil exported from the Amazon comes to the refineries in California, directly linking the state to the destruction of tropical forests,” said Moira Birss, communications and public affairs manager at Amazon Watch. “The communities closest to the exploited sites are the most affected.”

Oil extraction in the Amazon has significant impacts for biodiversity – it being one of the most biodiverse places globally – and for indigenous peoples.

Many of them have strongly opposed development projects on their land. This is why, during GCAS, indigenous representatives repeatedly complained to Brown to stop the use of fossil fuels in California and to commit to an economy that is completely free of them. However, many analysts believe this is not yet possible.

All the same, a group of Nobel prize winners and more than 800 representatives of social and environmental movements sent Brown a formal letter, congratulating him for his leadership on climate, but highlighting California’s “moral responsibility” when it comes to slowing down the exploitation of fossil fuels.

Mirian Cisneros, president of the Kichwa de Sarayaku tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon said: “I am in this great protest with my brothers and sisters from all around the planet because we understand that it is necessary to leave fossil fuels in the ground, both in the Amazon and worldwide.”

Climate impacts

California’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change has been exposed in the last few years.

According to the fourth and most recent analysis of climate change carried out by the Californian government, the temperature of the state has increased between one and two degrees Celsius from the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of more greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

At the same time, the temperature could increase between 5.6 and 8.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, depending on the level of speed of action. This will be accompanied by an increase in sea level rise and the probable doubling of forest fires.

These consequences could be reduced with Brown’s plans to achieve a totally decarbonized economy.

According to Julie Cart, an environmental journalist from Calmatters, a website that covers California, changes to California’s oil and transportation industries and the use of electric cars both for passengers and for cargo will be key.

“The oil industry is very powerful in California. It employs many people and it usually drives the economy, but now we are moving away from it.”