California's "Grand Experiment" in Climate Policy Is Working

06/22/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

(Senate leader Kevin De Leon kicks off free low-income solar installations in Sacramento CA. Photo credit: GRID Alternatives)

Sometimes we need to look back in order to see the road forward.

Whenever I reflect on the success of California's climate policies, I like to hop in my time machine and dial it all the way back to ancient history - circa 2010 - when I was a young staffer in Washington D.C. fresh out of grad school with big policy dreams and an even bigger student debt.

For climate advocates, they were the best of times, which quickly became the worst of times. In 2010 the Senate was considering a federal climate bill to finally reign in the carbon pollution driving climate change, while jump-starting a clean energy economy to help pull us out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Visions of hope and change ran high.

But as history goes, the bill failed. Despite different accounts of how the story went down, all agree those were some dark days for the climate movement.

I was there to see it firsthand, and as dreams of big climate policy started to crumble, many advocates held on to one thought to keep us going: "At least we have California..."

You see, at the time, California was the last-great hope to lead on climate policy. The state had beaten back the fossil fuel industry's attempt to overturn its landmark legislation known as "AB 32," which sets an ambitious goal for carbon reduction by 2020 and has as its centerpiece a carbon market to price carbon and lower emissions in the state. California set out to prove it is possible to lower carbon emissions and grow the economy at the same time. The New York Times called it "A Grand Experiment" and a prominent Harvard economist proclaimed, "The worst possible thing to happen is if it [the carbon market] fails."

The stakes were high: the state's economy was still trying to emerge from the malaise of the great recession, unemployment was in the double digits, opponents had boatloads of money, and nay-sayers were predicting certain economic doom. In 2012, full of determination, I headed back home to California to work on this climate policy and hopefully be part of something truly historic.

Now 'back to the future' in 2015, signs are showing California's climate policy, including the carbon market, is working. A report from my colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) gives a terrific analysis of a program which has been operating steadily for two years, and now covers 85 percent of California's carbon emissions - including the transportation sector.

Since the launch of the carbon market, California's economy (GDP) has been growing - while "capped" emissions have been shrinking. Overall job growth is up (outpacing all other states), and California's clean energy economy is thriving. The program is proving that carbon pollution and economic growth can be separated and move in opposite directions (see graph).


Looking forward at the road ahead, we know this policy cannot truly be considered successful unless it works for communities in the state most overburdened by pollution, climate impacts, and economic vulnerability. In some cases, California's comeback has not been fully distributed and shared by all: income inequality is still among the highest in the nation, and unemployment, pollution, and poor public health is mostly concentrated in low-income communities of color. Worse still, impacts of climate change in the form of record heatwaves and worsened drought, are already devastating some of the state's poorest communities.

California's climate policy, ambitious as it may be, is not a proxy for all the reform needed to help address these issues - but it has been a starting place for meaningful dialogue, much needed investment, and resiliency-building for communities on the front lines of climate and pollution impacts.

So far the California carbon market has generated $2.2 billion in auction proceeds from polluters. These funds are going to be reinvested back into the state in the form of low-carbon infrastructure like clean energy projects, mass transit, and urban greening. What's more, a minimum 25 percent of the funds are dedicated to "disadvantaged communities" - or communities in the state most impacted by pollution, poverty, and poor health.

These investments are starting to come to life: solar panels on low-income homes, swapping-out gas guzzlers for clean vehicles, urban parks and gardens in park-poor neighborhoods, weatherized homes, and affordable housing near transit hubs are some of the projects already approved or, in some cases, underway. These investments will reduce pollution, create jobs, and enhance infrastructure in communities most impacted by pollution and climate change.

And finally, this is not just about California -it is also paving the way for ambitious climate policies on the state, federal, and even international scale. President Obama proposed new rules on carbon emissions from power plants that will encourage other states to design home-grown climate policies; Governor Jerry Brown has committed the state to increase renewable energy to 50 percent and cut its oil use in half by 2030; the state legislature is working to expand and extend current climate policies; and countries and states around the world are looking at taking the best elements of California's carbon market home with them.

Signs of hope and momentum in the climate movement are blossoming again. It has not always been smooth, and the work is far from over, but California is crafting and refining solutions that work for people, the economy, and the planet. These are the signs I am thrilled to see of California's steps forward on climate policy, signaling its "grand experiment" is working.