Climate policy comes slowly even as California presses forward with AB 32

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

California Air Resources Board chief Mary Nichols - whose agency oversees state climate policy efforts under AB 32 - spoke about the state's progress outside Navigating a Carbon World, a conference held in Hollywood last week.

The federal government's work on climate policy has taken a back seat to economic and national security issues. But in California, state regulators are pushing hard to enact the state's landmark law that curbs greenhouse gases - known as AB 32.

AB 32 aims for about a 25 percent reduction in California's carbon pollution. That would happen largely through a climate market in which polluters in Western states and Canadian provinces will trade emissions as a commodity.

During a conference sponsored by the Climate Action Reserve, Cal EPA chief Linda Adams remembered early skepticism about those plans in Sacramento. "I was commanded to appear before one of the Senate budget subcommittees to explain myself – why I was doing international work," she told a ballroom of people at Hollywood & Highland. "I quickly read AB 32 and I wondered if they had read it because the word ‘international’ is in there 17 times."

Adams said the climate market and California's work with regional governments in Indonesia and Brazil have helped raise the heat on federal officials. Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols, whose agency is monitoring AB 32, says she's concerned that Washington's political climate could freeze out national policies. "If it's no longer in to talk about climate, it’s gonna come as a rude shock when people start having to cope with the disasters that are facing us every year in terms of more extreme weather events and disasters," she said wryly.

A cap-and-trade market may grab headlines – as California's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes did when they went before the U.S. Supreme Court. But AB 32's intent is broad and deep. It’ll also cut greenhouse gases in farming, an activity credited with just 6 percent of the state's carbon footprint.

Karen Ross, California's secretary for food and agriculture, says farms also need help and incentives to adapt to a warmer climate. "We have 15 crops here not grown anywhere else and they depend on chill days," she said, referring to cooler temperatures that help those crops thrive. "So a temperature change of 1, 2, 3 degrees makes a huge difference."

Decreasing dependence on fossil fuel-generated electricity means promoting renewable energy. A new companion law to AB 32 requires California utilities to get a third of their energy from solar, wind or geothermal sources within nine years.

But Nancy Ryan with the state's utilities commission says renewables still get caught in politics. "We do see this local resistance come up repeatedly in the context of virtually every transmission line or every renewable power plant or even sometimes people say the tree in my neighbor’s yard – which is capturing carbon – is shading my solar panels so that's got to go," Ryan said. "We need leadership calling people out, making it clear we're going to have to choose in some instances."

Not everyone likes the state's decisions. Nichols says California’s carbon market is on hold after a recent court decision.

Opponents claim the cap-and-trade scheme lets polluting refineries and plants offset too much of their pollution out of state – and that leaves black, Asian and Latino neighborhoods vulnerable to environmental hazards. "Some segments of the community defined or define themselves as being environmental justice organizations just hate the cap-and-trade program. They simply do not believe that you can have a program that won't either slow down or worsen conditions in their communities," Nichols said.

A judge's order means the state likely must review carbon emissions pricing again for environmental impacts – unless both sides compromise. Nichols sounded an impatient tone about more changes ahead. "We have to be open to the possibility that there could be other ways to get reductions," she said. "Certainly the current governor deserves a chance to put his mark on the program and decide if he wants it to change in some ways."

Governor Jerry Brown, on the record during his campaign backing California's anti-global warming law, hasn't revealed much detail about his climate and energy policies. Since his return to Sacramento, he's mostly concentrated on keeping the lights on at the Capitol.

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