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California Governor Signs Climate Bill as U.S. Pushes for Greenhouse Gas Reductions

Senate Bill 350, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in Los Angeles on Wednesday, calls for half the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2050.

Standing in front of a backdrop showcasing a blanket of smoggy haze covering downtown Los Angeles, California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed a bill into law that calls for the state to reduce its energy dependence and increase its renewable energy use in the next several decades.

Brown signed Senate Bill 350, which will require a doubling in the energy efficiency standards of all buildings, as well as call for half the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2050. The bill met with controversy toward the end of session due to a provision that would have cut petroleum use in cars and trucks in half, but legislative Democrats dropped that piece before passing the legislation.

“California, by passing this bill, is taking a major step,” Brown told the audience in front of the Griffith Park Observatory. “But other people are going to follow.”

And follow they have. Working with the German state of Baden-Württemburg, Brown has helped set up the Under 2 MOU, in which sub-national units like states and cities each pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 2 metric tons per person by 2050 — a goal meant to reflect the broader effort to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Since California and Baden-Württemburg created the agreement, the number of signatories has grown to 42, including several national governments that have either expressed support for the document or pledged to meet its goals.

The signing of SB 350 also comes amid a worldwide push to ramp up greenhouse gas reduction efforts ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) summit in Paris this December. Drawing from emission reduction plans submitted to the United Nations, worldwide leaders will gather in Paris with hopes of striking up the first legally-binding climate change accord involving every country in the world. The goal, according to the COP21 website, is to keep global warming between 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

That goal might not quite be reflected in the emission reduction plans, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, that countries have submitted to the U.N. In recent weeks two research groups have analyzed the INDCs and separately concluded that while they would reduce projected warming rates, they wouldn’t be enough to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The location of the press conference highlighted not only the state’s largest city and one of the most car-dependent populations in the U.S., but a skyline that’s often been shrouded behind a mud-brown veil. Sen. Kevin de León, president pro tempore of the state Senate and a co-author of SB 350, pointed out during the event that the smog levels in Los Angeles have actually dropped in recent years.

“Today … we can see Los Angeles much clearer and we can see the stars in the sky,” he said.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District was reporting “moderate” air quality levels in downtown Los Angeles during the signing. Brown was quick to agree with de León, but put an asterisk on the sentiment: California still has work to do in reducing air pollution.

“If you live within 100 feet of a freeway with young children, their lungs can be permanently affected,” he said.

The example fits into a narrative the U.N. has woven through its adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, a framework for international policy that links climate change to social justice issues like poverty and hunger. Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, made the same connection during the press conference.

“We want an economy that values and works for poor people, and does not place a heavy price tag on breathing,” she said.

SB 350 passed the state Legislature alongside several companion pieces, including Assembly Bill 802, which will make California the first state in the nation to require utilities to provide whole-building energy usage data to the public. AB 802 proponents such as the U.S. Green Building Council praised the move, saying that it will allow the state much better insight into whether buildings are actually meeting the efficiency standards set through SB 350.

Brown has yet to sign AB 802.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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