California’s historic climate legislation becomes law

“What we’re doing here is farsighted, as well as far-reaching.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown, seated, signs legislation on September 8, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
California Gov. Jerry Brown, seated, signs legislation on September 8, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

On Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the state’s sweeping climate legislation — passed by the state legislature at the end of August — into law.

The law dramatically deepens the state’s commitment to fighting climate change by cutting state emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Previously, the state had committed to reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

“What we’re doing here is farsighted, as well as far-reaching,” Brown said at the signing on Thursday. “The bills today, they keep California on the move to clean up the environment, to encourage vast innovation, and to make sure that we have the environmental resilience that the Californians really want and expect.”

California has long been on the cutting edge of statewide climate action — in 2006, the state legislature passed a landmark law that mandated the state cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the first law of its kind in the United States. And while the state has made significant progress towards that goal, the new legislation would require even deeper emissions cuts, as well as extend the timeline of emissions reductions by ten years. Brown had previously issued the new emissions targets as an executive order, but signing the legislation now codifies those targets into law.

The targets put California well-ahead of almost any other state in the country. On the West Coast, both Oregon and Washington have emissions reduction targets, but both pale in comparison to California — Oregon is seeking a 10 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, while Washington is aiming for a 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2035. Nationwide, California’s new targets put them on the same path as New York, which has set a goal of a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, and has mandated that the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major sources to zero by 2050. Maryland has also set a goal of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. All three states’ targets still lag behind Vermont’s goals, however, which mandate a 50 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2028.


California’s new emissions targets will likely impact all parts of the state’s economy, stretching beyond power generation to transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture. Right now, short-lived pollutants like methane get a near free pass when it comes to climate regulations in the state, despite the fact that methane accounts for about nine percent of California’s emissions. Five percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from just the dairy sector, which has been loathe to accept any new regulations on emissions — limits on methane emissions have been largely voluntary. That might change, however, under the more stringent reduction goals.

The state has recently doubled down on its commitment to renewable energy, passing a bill in September of last year that mandates utilities in the state to provide 50 percent of their electricity generation from renewable sources by 2030. It also requires a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency in buildings by 2030.

Thursday’s legislation does not specify what will become of the state’s cap-and-trade program, which has sputtered due to an excess of credits driven by a slow recovery from the recession and successful cutting of emissions from policies elsewhere in the state. In the state’s last auction, about two-thirds of the available pollution allowances went unsold.

Brown did not specifically address what would become of the cap-and-trade program on Thursday, though he has voiced support for the program in the recent past. In late August, he told reporters that the cap-and-trade system could be brought up in the legislature, or be put to voters directly through a ballot initiative.


This year, Washington state is the only state in the nation where voters will have the opportunity to vote on a price on carbon. Initiative 732, a highly-controversial initiative, eschews the California model of a cap-and-trade for a British Columbia-style carbon tax. But California legislatures, despite their reluctance to take up the state’s cap-and-trade program, did pass a resolution at the end of August calling on the federal government to pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would place a price on carbon and siphon the revenue back to middle- and low-income households.