Environment & Science

How feasible is Gov. Brown's new carbon cutting goal?

Jerry Brown speaks at the inaugural for his fourth and final term on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.
Jerry Brown speaks at the inaugural for his fourth and final term on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.
File photo by Andrew Nixon/ Capital Public Radio

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Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order today asking that by 2030, California emit 40 percent less heat-trapping pollution, like carbon and methane, than it did in 1990.

That's ambitious for sure, but not impossible given current technology, said Cara Horowitz with UCLA's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

"Although we do need to ramp up significantly our use of existing technology," she said.

Specifically, she says the state needs to focus on making older buildings more energy efficient and increasing the use of renewable energy like wind and solar power.

A recent study by the research group Energy and Environmental Economics reached a similar conclusion, determining that such a goal would be possible without requiring major changes to lifestyle or economic growth.

This executive order is the latest in a long standing plan to dramatically curb California's production of greenhouse gases.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by the year 2050.

The following year, state lawmakers passed AB32 which set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

While Horowitz said the new benchmark of a 40 percent reduction by 2030 is feasible, she thinks the longer-term goal of an 80 percent reduction will require serious innovation.

"It may require technological transitions," she said. 

Specifically, she think advances need to be made in the realm of renewable energy storage. The wind and sun can't produce energy around the clock, so there needs to be ways to bank the power they create for later use.

The 2050 goal will also likely also require advances in new fuels.

That's what Harry Atwater of Caltech's Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis hopes to help with.

Atwater is part of a team developing a way to derive energy from sun, similar to how plants photosynthesize sunlight. The project recently received $75 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

However, Atwater thinks it will be many years before the technology will be advanced enough to be used on a large scale.

"There is today no existing manufacturing industry that makes solar fuel generators," he said.

The governor's order may help that process though, UCLA's Horowitz said.

She said that investors are often shy about pumping money into new technologies unless they get clear signals from the market that the costs will pay off in the long run.

"The executive order plays a really important role in sending that market signal," she said.

As long as California stays committed to its carbon reduction goals, Horowitz thinks investors and the private sector will feel safe in funding carbon cutting projects.