The California Green Rush: How UCS Helped Point the Way
In a pathbreaking new development, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law directing the state to run its electricity grid on 100 percent clean energy sources by 2045. It’s the most far-reaching clean energy goal of any state so far, but it’s also just the latest example of the state’s leadership in implementing commonsense, science-based protections. It was the first state to seriously address smog—years before Congress passed the Clean Air Act—and, since then, it has implemented model pollution control, climate, and conservation measures while expanding its economy at the same time.
While California’s leadership is widely recognized, less well-known is the indispensable role the Union of Concerned Scientists has played in providing the technical foundation for California’s enlightened energy and environmental policies.
“For more than two decades, UCS has helped shape transportation, energy, and climate standards in California that are templates for state, national, and even international environmental law,” says Adrienne Alvord, director of the West Coast office. “Most recently, we helped establish new fields of research on electricity grid modernization, sustainable water systems, and climate-resilient infrastructure, and we are continuing to produce cutting-edge analysis on how to best decarbonize our energy and transportation systems.”
California has proven the validity of UCS analyses with real-world results. Consider, for instance, its passage of a landmark bill in 2006 calling for a reduction in carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This July, the state announced it had accomplished that goal in 2016, four years ahead of schedule. Emissions were down 13 percent from their 2004 peak—equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road. Equally impressive, over that same 12-year span the state’s economy grew 26 percent.
The Road to Climate-Smart Policies
The first—albeit short-lived—UCS victory in California set the stage for decades of victories to come. In 1990, the state legislature passed a “feebates” bill based on a proposal developed by then-UCS Transportation Program Director Deborah Gordon, who opened our West Coast office two years later.
The basic idea was simple, Gordon explains. “If you bought a fuel-efficient, low-carbon vehicle, you would get a rebate, but if you bought a gas guzzler, you would pay a fee. The policy subscribed to the ‘polluter-pays’ principle and was revenue-neutral—two essential ingredients for bipartisan sponsorship.” Feebates would promote sales of more-efficient vehicles, save their drivers money at the pump, and reduce tailpipe emissions.
Unfortunately, Governor George Deukmejian vetoed the bill on September 30, 1990, his last day in office. Despite the 11th-hour loss, Gordon says, “Feebates put UCS on the map and helped establish the organization as a prominent player on climate policy.”
With UCS offices established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, it made sense for the organization to plant a flag in California given the state’s unique authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to implement its own air pollution standards, stricter than the federal government’s, and for other states to follow its example. That waiver put Sacramento in the driver’s seat for US clean air policy, since a dozen Northeast states—representing a third of the US auto market—have chosen to adopt its rules so far.
Thanks to the feebate proposal—which was subsequently adopted by Maryland; Ontario, Canada; and several European countries—California lawmakers and agency officials began looking to UCS for other innovative ideas. Over the next few years, Gordon and her team proposed a variety of ways to reduce tailpipe emissions, including insurance requiring drivers to pay higher premiums the more miles they drove, a rapid transit system with dedicated bus lanes, and “congestion pricing” for toll roads that required drivers to pay higher tolls during peak travel hours.
Perhaps the biggest impact UCS had on California’s vehicle emissions policies in the 1990s, however, was the role we played in prodding lawmakers to strengthen the state’s 1990 zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) program. Although automakers ultimately failed to meet the original bill’s requirement that 10 percent of the vehicles sold in California by 2003 had to be ZEVs, the program has had a ripple effect nationwide, says current UCS Clean Vehicles Program Director, Michelle Robinson.
“The ZEV program is the reason there are hybrid and electric vehicles on the road today,” she says. “Without the California program, we almost surely wouldn’t have seen that progress.”
A Seminal Report
In October 1999, just weeks before the election that eventually put George W. Bush in the White House, UCS released its first climate change impact report focused on the state, Confronting Climate Change in California. The timing was fortuitous: the Bush administration’s hostility toward climate science created a national policy vacuum that California was only too happy to fill.
According to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, the report prompted state lawmakers to take action. As secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency in 2002, she wrote to UCS to explain “how influential the Union of Concerned Scientists report Confronting Climate Change in California has been in galvanizing attention in our state around the need to act on climate impacts and solutions.
“Your report provided our public policymakers with the best available solid science explanations necessary to confirm the fact that climate change is real and that it matters to California. . . . [It] laid the groundwork for California’s historic passage, and signing by Governor Gray Davis, of the  greenhouse gas bill making California the first state in the nation to order automakers to lower global warming emissions from passenger vehicles.”
That same year, the legislature—with technical support and strong advocacy from UCS—also passed the nation’s strongest renewable electricity standard at the time, requiring utilities in the state to get 20 percent of their power from the wind, sun, and other renewable energy sources by 2017. Four years later, after UCS briefed California’s legislature on climate change, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley—who introduced the 2002 vehicle global warming emissions bill—coauthored a bill requiring the state to slash global warming pollution from all sectors of the economy 25 percent by 2020, reducing it to 1990 levels. Signed into law in 2006, it was the nation’s first economy-wide carbon emissions reduction law.
Pavley’s innovative 2006 bill was the most ambitious effort yet passed to reduce global warming pollution, but even its supporters acknowledged that more cuts would be necessary to slow the rate of climate change. So, while state agencies scrambled to draft new regulations to satisfy the Pavley law, UCS went to work to push California even further. To bolster that effort, we hired Pavley’s environmental policy director, Adrienne Alvord, to run the West Coast office in 2011.
“UCS had a brilliant, highly effective team in place that had been instrumental in securing the passage of every significant climate, clean energy, and clean transportation standard on the West Coast,” Alvord recalls. “UCS provided the research, data, and advocacy that explained not only why states need to address climate change, but also how they can transition to a low-carbon economy.”
With Alvord at the helm, the West Coast office continued its winning streak, providing trenchant analyses in support of a low-carbon transportation fuel standard, groundwater protection legislation, regulations to reduce diesel truck and bus emissions, and updated versions of the state’s renewable electricity standard and Pavley’s 2006 law.
For example, a 2015 UCS report demonstrating that California could significantly increase its reliance on renewable energy helped convince the state legislature to pass a bill boosting the state’s renewable electricity standard to 50 percent by 2030. After its passage, the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, praised the organization for providing “compelling, fact-based arguments” and “helping to broker agreement with a large and disparate group of stakeholders.”
A year later, UCS was instrumental in convincing the legislature to pass another Pavley-authored bill expanding on the carbon emissions reduction goal she set 10 years earlier. Signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, it requires California to cut its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Following recommendations made by UCS, Brown said the state could reach that target by reducing vehicle petroleum use as much as 50 percent, tightening its low-carbon fuel standard, and putting 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on California roads by 2025.
California’s leadership is especially critical at a time when the Trump administration is attempting to undo the climate policies of the Obama administration. It serves as a model for other states and, as the fifth largest economy, California climate leadership is also meaningful on the global scale.
Given that the transportation sector accounts for about 40 percent of California’s air pollution, the UCS West Coast office is continuing its efforts to lower barriers to electric car sales, promote widespread use of low-carbon fuels, and reduce emissions from heavy-duty trucks and transit buses. We are also in the middle of the fight to prevent the Trump administration from rolling back federal fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards, and blocking attempts to strip California of its authority to set tougher standards. This threat has implications not only for California emissions, but for those of the states that follow California standards.
California—like the rest of the country—needs to not only take steps to reduce carbon emissions even further, but also adapt to a changing climate. Last summer, more than a thousand wildfires burned more than 250,000 acres in California, making it painfully obvious that the state’s infrastructure is incapable of withstanding climate change–related extreme events.
UCS has been aware of this deficiency for some time. We designed and led the effort to pass legislation in 2016 establishing a working group of scientists and engineers to advise the state government on upgrading infrastructure and safeguarding new facilities, and published a white paper in 2017 making the case for investments in resilient “climate-smart” infrastructure that the working group used as a guide for its recommendations, published in September.
“We are now exploring new areas and are poised to go even further,” Alvord says, including showing California how it can successfully manage the electricity grid with an unprecedented level of renewable energy. “This is an exciting time to be doing this work on the West Coast, where we have been able to show real progress in lowering emissions while continuing to grow a world-class economy and creating markets for clean energy and transportation solutions that misguided federal policies cannot stop.” As other states grapple with similar issues, they are finding much to emulate in the innovative solutions California and UCS have been successfully pioneering for decades.