Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

California Returns Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions to 1990 Levels

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Sep 04, 2018

California flagCalifornia is one of many jurisdictions around the planet attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels. Globally, this goal appears in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – signed in 1992 when the 1990 goal translated roughly into a goal to keep GHG emissions flat. California adopted its own 1990 goal in “AB 32” legislation enacted in 2006, by which time annual statewide emissions had increased significantly, and when business-as-usual emissions growth was projected to continue. As later quantified by the California Air Resources Board (ARB), AB 32 amounted to a commitment to reverse the state’s path, reducing GHG emissions by 15% instead of allowing them to rise by 15%. In July, ARB announced that the state has reached this 2020 goal, two years early.

How is California Pursuing These Reductions?

Under ARB’s leadership, California agencies quantified GHG emissions from stationary and mobile sources, and adopted a wide array of regulations to require emissions reductions. These include:

  1. Dozens of specific policies to reduce emissions from categories of GHG emissions – power plants, vehicles, etc.

  2. A “cap-and-trade” program requiring specified major source categories to achieve additional reductions sufficient to bridge the gap between the categorical regulations and the statewide goal.

These efforts are summarized in AFB’s Scoping Plan, adopted in 2008, and updated in 2014 and 2017 (I wrote about the 2017 version here. 

How Did California Do It?

On July 11 ARB issued a GHG emissions inventory reported estimating that emissions are down 13% since their 2004 peak while the economy grew 26%. The wide variety of efforts has produced these results – including unanticipated rapid growth in solar and wind electricity generation that has backed out substantial quantities of natural gas-fired power. Highlights include:

  • Carbon pollution dropped 13% statewide since a 2004 peak, while the economy grew 26%.

  • Per capita emissions have fallen 23% from a peak of 14 metric tons per person in 2001 to 10.8 metric tons per person in 2016 (this is approximately half the national average).

  • Carbon pollution dropped 3% between 2015 and 2016.

  • The “carbon intensity” of California’s economy – the amount of carbon pollution emitted per $1 million of gross state product – has dropped 38 percent since the 2001 peak and is now half the national average.

  • California now produces twice as many goods and services for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of the nation.

  • Emissions from the electricity sector declined 18% in 2016, primarily from the rapid penetration of solar power, plus additional hydroelectricity from a high rainfall year.

  • Transportation-related emissions actually grew 2% during 2016.

Now What?

AB 32’s original goal was amended (by 2016’s SB 32) to add a goal to reduce GHG emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 (I wrote about this legislation here). If you consider the math, the second goal involves much larger reductions in emissions – 40% in 10 years versus the initial 15% in 14 years. ARB’s 2017 Scoping Plan provides ways to pursue this goal, largely through continued expansion in renewable electricity, plus reductions from mobile sources (including more electric cars and a stronger Low Carbon Fuel Standard applied to a fleet of more efficient internal combustion vehicles). The state is continuing to pursue these goals aggressively – although it’s now in conflict with Trump Administration efforts to ease vehicle standards (I wrote about this change here).

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does my organization conduct activities that emit GHGs (combustion, cement processing, transportation, etc.)

  • Has the organization taken voluntary steps to reduce GHG emissions?

  •  Is the organization subject to regulatory requirements to reduce emissions?

Is the organization subject to California’s cap-and-trade program?

  • Did it sell or purchase allowances?

  • Is it preparing to sell or purchase allowances in future auctions?

Where Can I Go For More Information?

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 13 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:


photo credit: el__vaquero Flags over poppies via photopin (license)

Tags: California Legislation, Environmental risks, Environmental, Greenhouse Gas, ghg