Study: California Has Work to Do to Meet Its Emissions Goals

A new report by Next 10, a California-based organization charged with researching the state's greenhouse gas emissions, anticipates the Golden State is not on course to meet state-mandated goals.

California Capitol Building
California Capitol Building
Shutterstock/Wallentine
The nation’s most populous state appears to be backsliding on its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

A new report by the nonprofit and nonpartisan group Next 10 found that California emissions increased slightly in 2018, compared to 2017, the first increase since 2012, making it all the more difficult for the state to reach its 2030 emissions reduction goals.

A minor bright spot in the report showed the transportation sector, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, declined 1.3 percent between 2017 and 2018. This decline comes after transportation's contributions to GHG emissions had posted steady increases since 2013. Although more sobering, perhaps, is that the report also noted an increase in vehicle miles traveled and an increase in car ownership — especially in the SUV category.

“Light-duty vehicles remain the largest source of emissions within the transportation sector, with car ownership rates continuing to outpace population growth,” said Hoyu Chong, practice lead for sustainable growth and development at Beacon Economics and one of the researchers for the 2020 California Green Innovation Index
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“While the state population increased only 0.3 percent from 2017 to 2018 — the smallest it has been since 1970 — [vehicle miles traveled] per capita increased by 1.2 percent during the same period to 8,839 miles per person,” Chong added. 

And if the highways have felt more congested, it’s probably because they have been. The total number of vehicles registered in the state increased 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2018, reaching 32 million vehicles. This is triple the 1.2 percent increase between 2016 and 2017.

Notably, the California Green Innovation Index examined data from 2018, the latest available, well before this year’s COVID-19 pandemic upended so much of life in the Golden State. It’s not yet clear how significantly the crisis has pumped the brakes on the California economy or greenhouse gas emissions. However, data suggests commuter activity has declined due to work-from-home shifts. 

“It is likely too soon to speculate what lasting emissions reductions opportunities might result from the events of the last year,” said Chong. “What we can say is that the pandemic has shown us what might be possible, though, in terms of improving air quality by reducing transportation emissions.”

Reducing the number of miles Californians clock onto their odometers is a multifaceted issue and can be addressed in a number of approaches, say advocates of transportation innovation. For a start, development patterns which encourage more infill and higher-density housing could help to put residents closer to workplaces, said Jonah Bliss, vice president of new media and marketing for CoMotion LA, a transportation and transit think tank in Southern California. 

“A two-mile commute is going to be more sustainable than a 20-mile commute no matter how you power your conveyance,” said Bliss. 

“With recent renewed interests in urban revival, we see that the Bay Area — San Francisco County and Santa Clara County — had significant increases in commuters who walk, but this has not been true for Los Angeles County,” remarked Chong. “Transportation choices and housing choices are so intertwined together, that where we live decides how we get to work.”

Aside from reducing the miles traveled, transitioning to cleaner transportation seems to be where the state is placing its strongest focus in the transition away from fossil fuels. California has passed new rules related to phasing out diesel-burning trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles in the coming decades. Gov. Gavin Newsom has put forward the ambitious aspiration of ending sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035. 

And indeed, Californians have been steady buyers of EVs, even if they are still a small fraction of the cars on the roadways. In 2019, battery electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen vehicles accounted for 1.9 percent of all registered on-road vehicles in California, up from 1.5 percent in 2018 and 1.1 percent in 2017.

“California is on track to meet its 2025 [zero emission vehicle] target, but at the current pace of adoption, will not meet the 5 million zero-emission vehicle goal by 2030,” said Chong. 

One area advocates say transportation officials should focus efforts is transitioning high-mileage users like drivers of ride-hailing vehicles or on-demand delivery to EVs. In 2018, just under 1 percent of the miles clocked by ride-hailing were driven by an electric car. And to reach the state-mandated 60 percent share by 2040, transportation network companies would have to achieve a 2.7 percent increase in EV VMT each year from 2019 to 2040, said Chong. 

Some of the ride-hailing companies like Uber have launched and expanded initiatives to encourage the rollout of EVs, said Bliss. 

“But action is required at a governmental level,” he added. Some of that government help could come in the form of incentives and other efforts to transition short trips — particularly delivery-related trips — toward other mobility devices.

“The hardworking folks dropping off DoorDash and Grubhub to keep us sustained during the pandemic are often forced by economic conditions to use old, inefficient cars,” said Bliss. “We should be encouraging this kind of travel to be done on electric bikes and e-mopeds, and building the infrastructure that makes it safe for these workers to do so.”

To be clear, California’s greenhouse gas picture is not entirely dim and includes bright spots. Innovation is why emissions have continued to stay below 1990 levels, despite the state’s strong economy. However, California will need to quadruple its average GHG reduction rate from 2015 to 2018 in order to meet the state’s 2030 emissions goals.

“Next 10 does not make policy recommendations but clearly we need strong policy, to cut emissions as far and fast as we must to adequately address the climate crisis,” said Chong. “Ensuring we can continue to maintain strong fuel efficiency standards is foundational to this success, but so too is expanding EV infrastructure throughout the state.”

California Greenhouse Gas Data, By the Numbers

  • Number of vehicles registered in California in 2018 — 32 million (up 3.3 percent) 

  • Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in California in 2018 — 348.8 billion (up 1.4 percent) 

  • SUV registrations increased in California in 2018 — 12.2 percent

  • California GDP grew in 2018 — 3.2 percent

  • Change in per capita greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — -0.1 percent

  • Transportation’s share of greenhouse gas emissions in California in 2018 — 40.9 percent

  • Passenger vehicle contributions to California greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — 27.8 percent

  • Heavy-duty truck contributions to California greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — 8.2 percent

  • Aviation contributions to California greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — 1.1 percent

  • Rail contributions to California greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — 0.5 percent

  • Livestock contributions to California greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — 5.4 percent

  • Increase in greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires from 2018 to Sept. 13, 2020 — 82.4 percent 

Source: Next 10

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.