California is at the forefront of US environmental action – but its progressive ideas need protection

Sunrise over Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Currently on a secondment at Stanford University, SSCP DTP student Clea Kolster reports back on California’s commitment to sustainability – and how the new head of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could put a spanner in the works.

Clea in California

I landed at San Francisco International airport on a sunny afternoon at the end of June of last year, ready to embrace the wonders of the Golden State.  Leaving the UK after an eventful first half of 2016, I was curious to watch how recent political events would unfold on the other side of the pond. I was also eager to learn more about California’s unique stance on sustainability as the third consecutive warmest year on record drew to a close.

Both the UK and the US have faced a recent wave of anti-establishment feeling, ushering in the Brexit vote and the election of a climate-sceptic US President. Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, questions have arisen about the country’s continuing role in the international Paris Agreement on climate change, ratified just 4 days before the US election (see this article in the Scientific American for some discussion).

Meanwhile, in the UK, there is uncertainty over what leaving the European Union means for climate and environmental policy. While the UK has set strong ambitions of its own to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and will carry over the bulk of existing EU environmental legislation, strong government action will be required to secure a green future for the UK (see the Greener UK manifesto).

State-led progress in danger

US climate policy may face an uncertain future, but many US states and cities have already made clear that they will pursue their climate efforts regardless of federal policy. However, Scott Pruitt, the controversial new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be putting state-led climate measures at risk.

At the moment, a waiver granted by the EPA allows California and other states like Massachusetts to adopt climate policies that are more progressive than the federally imposed ones. Such a waiver was denied once before under the Bush Jr. administration and thereafter accepted under the Obama administration in 2009.

As a climate science sceptic, and critic of the EPA’s past regulations, it’s unclear whether  Scott Pruitt will endorse such state-led progress in the future. This is of particularly growing concern for motor vehicle emissions standards as allowed by the EPA’s Clean Air Act.

Setting the standard for clean cars

A solar powered charging station
A solar powered charging station

California was granted a waiver in 2013 for the 2017 to 2025 period in order to enforce standards on vehicle emissions that are stricter than those imposed by the EPA (Advanced Clean Car), and other states are thereby allowed to have as high standards as those in California. Fourteen other states have followed including Arizona, District of Columbia, Washington, New York and Massachusetts. The Obama administration then adopted standards that are to meet those of California by 2025 (i.e. for 2025 model cars) that require manufacturers to meet average fuel economy of 88 kilometers per gallon, which is directly correlated with emissions that result from consumption of fuel.

Now the Trump administration may put this progress at risk and decide to roll back on the EPA standards set at a federal level, but in principle cannot affect the standards already set for California by 2025. However, California will soon be requiring a waiver from the EPA to set standards for motor vehicles beyond 2026 in order to continue reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and this administration does not look to be as compliant as the previous one with regards to climate change issues.

On the climate action frontline

California – the state with the second highest emissions after Texas – is at the forefront of state-led climate action, with its own ambitious emissions reductions target. The State Governor, Jerry Brown, even recently vowed to challenge Trump on climate change. The administration cannot revoke California’s objectives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nor can it eliminate California’s carbon cap and trade system.

Mountain landscape
Increased oil and gas production could threaten national parks such as Yosemite

However, some of Trump’s pledges on a federal level can make such objectives more difficult to meet. For example, Trump’s pledge to increase the US production of oil and gas for example may affect Californian oil fields that are on federal land, which accounts for almost half of  California’s surface area (Federal land is land that is owned by the Federal government and not the state it’s on, and therefore subject to national regulations).  California plays host to nine incredible national parks including Yosemite National Park – home to the giant sequoia trees that can live up to 3,000 years – and unfortunately a new congressional resolution will make it easier for companies to conduct oil and gas drilling and mining in national parks.

War on waste

Photo of three bins for sorting waste
Recycling bins

Governor Brown has also set a highly ambitious target on waste management practices and aims to substantially reduce California’s reliance on landfills by increasing the share of recycling and compost waste to 75% of total waste. This can easily be seen in the clear and omnipresent division of bins that take compost, recyclable and landfill waste.

State law requires that businesses in California recycle organic waste, with regulations applied depending on the amount of waste they produce per week. Such regulations and incentives to ‘compost’ (make into organic material) and to ‘mulch’  (to treat with a protective materials used to maintain and improve soil and plant cultivation) make it possible to collect organic materials that can be reused for renewable energy and fuel production through anaerobic digestion. During my time in California, I have been impressed by the widespread use and availability of compostable cups, containers, bags and cutlery in cafes and supermarkets.

Why state-led action matters

_img_5979Acting as a testing ground for sustainability initiatives, California has become a model for other US states. As the 8th largest economy in the world, California has also set an example for countries around the world.

Protecting the freedom of US states to build their own environmental regulations is vital for three main reasons: firstly, on a US level, it is a lot easier to push new initiatives and climate change regulations through on a state level rather than on the federal level. Secondly, such regulations are better tailored to fit a state’s unique circumstances such as population and activity, industry focus and natural resources. Finally, on a global scale, state-led initiatives serve as laboratories for innovative polices to implement on a country-wide or continent-wide scale for the EU for example.

To rein back California’s ambition by restricting state-led environmental action would be a huge loss for the US and the world at large.

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