The so-called “Inevitable March of Human Progress,” and its western manifestation of “Manifest Destiny,” that brought colonialism, genocide, and near wholesale environmental modification and destruction to the Pacific Northwest, has come face-to-face with the devise of its own demise orchestrated by its own hand. Global climate change is real, happening much faster, displaying consequences much more severe than previously contemplated, and is unequivocally caused by the daily activities of our industrialized capitalist society. And, the most extreme effects of global and bioregional climate change are still to come, having not-yet manifested, though the die of their certainty has been cast, as human societies across the globe fail to adapt and adjust and to heed the dire call for immediate and decisive action.
Here in California, the state government and the people, have generally come to a place of acknowledging and accepting the realities of global climate change, and have begun to take bold and important steps to reduce ongoing greenhouse gas emission from industrial activities into the earth’s atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses are emitted as a result of nearly every activity in our daily lives, especially industrialized activities. The science suggests that globally, as well as here in California, the overwhelming contribution to greenhouse gasses that cause global warming and climate change are a result of fossil fuel combustion, refining, and manufacturing, in the form of carbon dioxide. Secondary causes include deforestation and forest depletion across the globe, which accounts for as much as 20 percent of the global and state greenhouse gas inventory assessment of the carbon dioxide emissions budget. As of September 2016, scientists estimate that the level of greenhouse gasses in the earth’s atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts-per-million, a dangerous mile-post that raises the stakes and level of urgency on the need to address the causes and effects of climate change.
Recognizing the threat posed by climate change, California enacted the landmark legislation AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, in 2006. AB 32 called for a state-wide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 emission levels by the year 2020. In late 2016, ten years later, the California State Legislature enacted SB 32, a follow-up legislation that raised the bar, calling for a total of 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2030.
Make no mistake, the plans set forth here in California are laudable, if only because we have the courage to admit climate change is happening and we need to do something about it, unlike many other states, sectors, governments and private interests, irrespective of whether or not the targeted reductions will be adequate in the long-haul. However, it is the “how” of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California’s regulated industry sectors that contribute these gasses to the atmosphere that has proved troubling.
The 2008 California Air Resources Board Scoping Plan, the base plan framework designed to ensure attainment of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, established the present-day framework. The basic concept is to establish an emissions limitation for each industry sector that declines annually. The declining emissions limit is referred to as a “cap,” or ceiling on emissions that declines over time to allow industry sectors and individual entities to adjust their business practices through a combination of emissions reductions, technological innovations, and stricter regulations.
The rub here is that the “cap” is not a hard or absolute one; rather, industry sectors and individual polluting entities are allowed to exceed the cap if they buy offsetting credits traded in the California and National carbon trading markets that have been established. Emissions that exceed the established cap purchase offsets predicated upon carbon dioxide stored in California’s forests through the nexus of a forest land owner registering a carbon sequestration project. This, naturally, is known as “trading,” of carbon credits for offsets.
The Cap-and Trade regulations that drive a large portion of the emissions reductions claimed by fossil fuel polluting industry sectors like oil and gas refineries in the state betrays a lot of the same flaws as the systems that have created the global climate change crisis in the first place.
While AB 32 and much of the policy built around it are purportedly predicated upon ending the “business as usual,” and “status quo” mentalities of our government and regulated industries, it fundamentally fails because responding to a changing climate and our contributions to it will entail far more than simply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions levels slowly over time. This approach fails to address or recognize the fact that the over 400 parts-per-billion of greenhouse gasses presently in our atmosphere are largely long-lived carbon dioxide molecules that will be there for millennia, if not longer. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions today don’t solve the problem of over 150 years of greenhouse gas emissions from our industrialized societies, and those emissions will continue to haunt us and confound our efforts to combat climate change for the foreseeable future. This phenomenon is referred to as the concept of permanence, i.e., the damage already done is irreversible.
Further, the California Air Resources Board has made a policy decision based on directives from Governor Brown to rely upon a market-based incentive framework to attain mandated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Cap-and-Trade regulations and framework allow polluting entities to keep polluting at the source, buy credits as offsets, and thus net reductions in the overall greenhouse gas emissions are claimed. Essentially, the reductions claimed are more out-sourced, and moved around, like any commodity in any economic shell-game, where a premium on offsets and the price of offsets drives the bus, not the need for actual, verifiable reductions at the source.
What’s more, the Cap-and-Trade offsets are disproportionately claimed and used by oil and gas refinery industry sector entities in disadvantaged communities in California’s Central and San Joaquin Valleys. In places such as this, greenhouse gas emissions become a social, environmental, and economic justice issue, where the rich oil and gas conglomerates keep emitting, while the poor, disadvantaged communities continue to suffer social, economic, environmental, and health damages. While this is never acceptable, it is even less so when the fact that emissions reductions claimed are not “gross” but “net” based on the Cap-and-Trade carbon accounting and trading framework. In essence, it’s like much of our modern-day capitalist, “free-market,” economy, whereby slight-of-hand voodoo accounting tricks give the illusion of progress that realistically, is not being made.
Worse still is that the entire offset/credit framework is predicated upon carbon credits from carbon dioxide stored or “sequestered,” in forestry projects. Forests are the only real weapon human society has at-present to actively remove excess carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. Back in 2010, the California State Legislature enacted AB 1504, a bill that called upon the Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry to ensure that the rules and regulations governing private forestlands timber harvest were adequate to ensure carbon dioxide sequestration up to an interim target of 500 metric tons of carbon dioxide per-year. Again, this has been established as the basis of carbon sequestration and storage for the purposes of the Cap-and-Trade offset and credit program. Yet, seven years later, the Board of Forestry has completely ignored this legislative directive and done nothing to adopt rules and regulations to ensure enhanced carbon dioxide storage on our privately-managed forestlands.
In 2014, the California Air Resources Board directed the creation of a “California Forest Carbon Plan” in its first update to the 2008 Scoping Plan to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction targets of AB 32. This plan was released to the public in January 2017 by the inter-agency Forest Climate Action Team (FCAT). The Draft Forest Carbon Plan proved to be a jumbled, unenforceable mess that completely failed to meet any of the mandates or criteria for the Plan established by the Air Board.
Astoundingly, the California Air Resources Board’s 2017 Draft Scoping Plan Update makes no mention of the Forest Carbon Plan and is not construed to rely upon it in any way. Meanwhile, the 2017 Draft Scoping Plan Update puts forth a preferred alternative that continues the status-quo when it comes to the Cap-and-Trade regulations, despite the fact that the Air Board has no nexus by which to ensure better forestland management and added sequestration of carbon dioxide in our forests.
Meanwhile, the clock, and the greenhouse gas emissions meter keep ticking. In acquiescence to the reality that the 350 parts-per-billion greenhouse gas threshold has long-since been overshot, the Air Board’s 2017 Draft Scoping Plan Update now establishes the 450 parts-per-billion level as a level of safety from what it calls, “the most dramatic effects of climate change,” while the only measure to accelerate the rate of greenhouse gas emissions reductions proposed is an additional 20 percent reduction in the refinery sector, a sector that relies heavily upon the Cap-and-Trade regulatory and market frameworks.
Although California is unquestionably a leader in recognizing and attempting to respond to the realities of climate change and their effects on human societies and the planet, the road map for implementation likely is a dead end when carefully scrutinized. In the end, all the hyperbole about how great California’s climate strategy is may simply be, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”