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Lead & shine, fall in line or get out of town - California's historic climate change action

September 8, 2016 - On a hot Thursday morning at the Vista Hermosa Natural Park in downtown Los Angeles, California Governor Jerry Brown signed two new and quite progressive bills on climate change - SB 32 and AB 197. Both extend and expand the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, or AB 32, with ambitious goals for California’ climate action.

In a nutshell, greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor and nitrous oxide trap heat in our planet’s atmosphere, which exacerbate global warming and the drastic effects that subsequent extreme weather events have on life on Earth. AB 32 of 2006 set the goal of California’s GHG emissions to be at/below 1990 levels by 2020. Advancing the measure, the SB 32 of 2016 requires the Golden State to reach a GHG emission limit of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. AB 197 tasks the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state’s pollution regulator, to continue implementing GHG reduction activities through a variety of regulations and market strategies. To address key oversight concerns in how climate change goals are met, the AB 197 now requires CARB to include 2 legislative members on its Board and to report to the California Senate/Assembly on a regular basis.

Apocalypse now?

When AB 32 was introduced ten years ago, critics predicted an economic doomsday. Not only is our state already close to this goal, in the meantime California has boldly claimed its place as the 6th largest economy in the world. Investment in sustainable development and green innovation are on the rise and over 500,000 Californians are now employed by the clean energy sector alone.

California leads the United States in solar power, is third in wind power and lowest carbon emissions per capita (behind Texas & Iowa and New York & Vermont respectively). Such sharp GHG emission cuts with growing population and economy are unprecedented around the world – only France and Sweden have achieved the same, but unlike California, they have relied heavily on nuclear energy. That is definitely something to be proud of, California!

“What we’re doing here is farsighted, as well as far-reaching,” said Brown. “California is doing something that no other state has done.”

Indeed, California enters an uncharted territory of environmental policies, dubbed in some circles as the “coercive power of the government”. Such an ambitious goal of a 40% cut goes beyond the low hanging fruit – electric cars and ramped up renewable energy production. Every element of California’s economy will have to pitch in – all industrial sectors, all communities.

All hands on deck.


Accounting for almost 40% of California’s GHG emissions, the transportation sector will play a crucial role in reaching the goal. There are currently 28 million cars in California, and 99% are not electric. Subsidies to buy electric vehicles will continue, but not everyone can or will ditch their gas-fueled car by 2030. To this end, more effective collaboration between urban developers and mass transit will be paramount. The ‘low-carbon fuel standard’ that sets a limit on carbon content of imported fuel will have to be enforced more rigorously. Diesel-fueled heavy commercial transportation will have to speed up conversion to biofuels.


Electricity and commercial & residential energy sector account for 30% of statewide GHG emissions. The ‘renewable portfolio standard’ of the new bill requires utilities to get 50% of their power from renewable energy by 2030– solar and wind being the preferred means. These efforts will have to be supported by the construction industry to build more energy-efficient buildings and by manufacturers to double the efficiency of their appliances and industrial equipment. Just as importantly, communities will have to participate and actively advocate for their inclusion in clean energy infrastructure.


Industries, including oil & gas, refineries and food processing, represent 20% of total GHG emission. Their investment into sustainability and Product Life Cycle measures will have to increase. The agricultural and waste management industries will have to do their part too – the methane emissions from livestock, dairy production and landfills are substantial. Methane is about 80x more powerful climate pollutant than carbon. We need to recycle better and plant as many forests as possible.

No pain, no gain.

I used to dislike that saying – usually in the context when a ridiculously fit person tries to motivate me to exercise harder. But I know they are right because I know how muscles are built. Sustainability and climate change action follow the same principle. The pain comes in the form of rigorous financial investment and behavioral changes.

Local governments, businesses, communities and individuals will all feel the financial burden at some point as California pushes to meet its commitments. But let’s be clear, these commitments are for all of us.

Climate change leads to environmental and social degradation affecting everyone. For example, communities everywhere, but especially those in low-income areas, face public health risks. Did you know that six out of 10 children have asthma in Los Angeles county? Not to mention the once seasonal drought and wildfires are now almost a-year-round reality.

“If we don’t stop climate change, it’s not going to be 110 (degrees) in Imperial County,” Brown said. “It’s going to be 130, 135, not for a few days or a few weeks, but for months on end. It can become unlivable.”

Behavioral changes may also seem painful - or inconvenient - how we consume, how we manage our waste, what products we choose, how we use and conserve our precious natural resources. From corporate executives investing possibly millions into sustainability initiatives to government representatives pushing the climate change agenda to more ordinary citizens becoming aware of their own individual environmental impact. We all may eventually ask “Why me? Why us and not other states and countries?” Believe that the pain is only temporary.

Yes, we can!

California may be the first US state to pass such aggressive climate change legislation, but it will not be the last. The sheer size of California’s economy is a powerful incentive for entire industries to embrace environmentally-friendly operations if they want a market share.

Moreover, as a sustainability/CSR consultant, I am experiencing remarkable uptick in partnerships around sustainability. Transnational and multi-national giants desire to include environmentally (and socially) responsible companies in their supply chains. Many even require it. Governments and development organizations give preference to businesses with positive environmental impact as to contribute to their own national climate change commitments. In fact, as more states and nations around the world pass their own legislation to protect the environment, having sustainability solidly integrated into your business operations will give your organization a great competitive advantage.

“We’ve once again raised the bar for the nation and the world to follow,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

You may have to make an initial or additional investment to comply with SB 32 - feel the pain - but you will, absolutely will, reap the gain. There is always the solid market evidence illustrating that sustainability has real business benefits: increased productivity & efficiency, reduced operational costs & waste, improved brand image, attracting top talent and impact investors and…consistently generated above-average growth rates and profit margins.

Above all, we will live and breathe better, especially our children.

So will you lead and shine, reluctantly get in line, or completely fall behind?


Note: I purposely did not discuss the cap-and-trade program in my Perspective as the system's future is currently uncertain - the California Chamber of Commerce brought a lawsuit claiming it constitutes an illegally levied tax and the case is under review by the appeals court.


Left: California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León; Right: California Governor Jerry Brown; Center: Senator Ricardo (D-Bell Gardens), Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Senator Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). [Photo credit: Petra Hand]

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