It’s New York vs. California in a New Climate Race. Who Will Win?


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California and New York have recently set some of the world’s most ambitious climate targets, aiming to slash their net emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases down to nearly zero in just three short decades.

Now the race is on to see if either state can pull off this feat — something that no major economy in the world has yet achieved. For now, neither state has a clear advantage, and both must overcome unique obstacles to clean up their power plants, cars and buildings. New York has the lowest per-person emissions of any state in the nation, but California is close behind.

Transportation is the single biggest source of climate pollution in both states: Cars, trucks, buses and planes are responsible for 41 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions and 33 percent of New York’s.

Both states have enacted laws requiring utilities to get the vast majority of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That means building lots of wind turbines and solar panels, and fast.

Here, the state could study the successes and failures of California, where the state’s Air Resources Board has, for more than a decade, been pursuing detailed plans and policies for cleaning up different sectors of the economy.

While many of those policies are already having an impact, California has also had some early stumbles:

  • Its cap-and-trade program, which requires large companies to pay for the carbon dioxide they emit, was initially too weak to have a big effect.

  • A law aimed at nudging cities to reduce their reliance on driving has proved insufficient.

  • Many of the state’s early climate policies, like incentives for rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles, mostly benefited wealthier residents. Policymakers are now trying to help these technologies spread more equitably.

“California’s climate change law got into a lot of trouble with the environmental justice community,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. But, he noted, there were signs that New York is trying to learn from that experience, as its latest climate bill tried to explicitly address concerns about equity.

California has also not always been as rigorous as it could be about scrutinizing the cost-effectiveness of its climate policies after they’ve been adopted, said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. That’s something he hopes both states will pay closer attention to going forward.

After all, the two states account for only a tiny portion of global emissions. That means the biggest value of their work is “knowledge-creation — learning what works and what doesn’t in two states with very different climates and economic patterns,” Mr. Borenstein said. “In some ways, that’s even more important than whether they hit their goals exactly.”

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