Catalyst Fall 2016
Then and Now

The Record in California Is Clear: Climate Legislation Works

CA legislators 2006 and 2016

Left: California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32, was signed into law in 2006 by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—the first law in the nation to mandate a statewide cut in heat-trapping pollution. Right: After a decade of success with AB 32, California Governor Jerry Brown signs the state’s new carbon emissions reduction act into law this summer—setting even more ambitious targets for clean energy in the state.
Photo: David Paul Morris/Stringer/Getty Images (left); California State Senate (right)

This summer, the California legislature continued its leadership in combating climate change with the passage of ambitious new targets that require the state to reduce its heat-trapping carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. This impressive victory for clean energy is notable on its own but also because it marks 10 years of pioneering efforts by the Golden State to lead the way on climate and clean energy.

Back in 2006, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, often referred to as AB 32, was the first law in the nation to mandate a statewide cut in heat-trapping pollution: a nearly 25 percent reduction compared with projected “business as usual” emissions. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that earlier milestone and its aftermath.

AB 32 set what was an ambitious and controversial target at the time—especially in the nation’s most populous state, with its complex, car-dependent economy. Many wondered how such a big state, one that was already “cleaner” than most of the rest of the country, could possibly achieve such ambitious targets without starving its economy.

A group of fossil fuel and big business interests launched an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign to oppose the bill. One of its advertisements predicted “painful consequences” if the bill were adopted, including job losses, reduced investment, and energy rationing. The Los Angeles Times quoted a fossil fuel–funded economist claiming the bill “would practically shut the state down.”

Doom Predicted, Boom Ensues

So what happened? The state’s gross domestic product has increased by 12.4 percent since 2006; population and employment have each grown by more than 7 percent. At the same time, petroleum consumption has dropped by more than 14 percent and global warming emissions have been cut by 7.3 percent.

In other words, California is not only on track to meet its emissions reduction goals, but its economy is also growing—faster even than the rest of the country (tied with Oregon for the fastest growth rate in 2015).

For those of us who were in the trenches 10 years ago trying to get AB 32 passed, the results are gratifying. Today, as in 2006, a group of fossil fuel–funded special interests tried to oppose the new bill extending and strengthening AB 32’s low-carbon targets. This time, though, a decade of facts and experience helped expose the naysayers’ message for the empty rhetoric it is. California has demonstrated for other states and the nation as a whole that it is possible to achieve an aggressive—and urgently needed—economy-wide reduction in global warming pollution while maintaining impressive economic growth.

Adrienne Alvord is the UCS western states director.