Mapping the Future: California Weighs Pathways to Carbon Neutrality

Alice Kaswan

June 22, 2022

On June 23, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) — the state's air pollution control agency — is holding a public hearing on its comprehensive roadmap for achieving the state's daunting climate goal: carbon neutrality by 2045 at the latest, a goal established by Gov. Gavin Newsom in a 2018 executive order.

Although states are increasingly adopting 100 percent clean electricity targets, California's goal goes considerably farther, covering emissions from the entire economy, including transportation, industry, buildings, waste disposal, and agriculture. With its Draft 2022 Scoping Plan Update (Draft Scoping Plan), the state has now set pen to paper in sketching potential pathways for zeroing out the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

The Draft Scoping Plan provides a general overview of four scenarios by which the state might reach "net zero" emissions. The Draft Scoping Plan includes few details; the specific scenario strategies are laid out in CARB's December 15, 2021, PATHWAYS Scenario Modeling report.

Two key variables distinguish the scenarios. One is the speed of California's transition: whether to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 or by the ultimate 2045 deadline. The second is the degree to which the state relies on emissions reductions alone versus allowing some emissions to continue and subsequently removing and sequestering them.

The choices have profound environmental, public health, and economic implications. California has numerous areas with the worst air quality in the nation due to fossil fuel combustion, much of it experienced by frontline communities in the Central Valley and next to refineries, ports, and highways. At the same time, people depend on fossil fuels as workers and consumers, with much at stake in when and how we transition.

CARB's preferred scenario: Carbon neutrality by 2045

CARB staff have proposed that the agency adopt its third scenario, which would achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 but does not rely heavily on carbon removal. Under the third scenario, vehicles and appliances currently using fossil fuels could continue to operate until the end of their useful lives. Most industries are not expected to reduce emissions by 2030 and are expected to only partially reduce emissions by 2045. Oil and gas activities would continue to provide fuels as long as fossil-fuel using technologies remain in place. The 2045 date provides more time for building out renewable energy infrastructure and developing other clean energy initiatives, like energy efficiency investments and consumer and commercial electrification.

Because current vehicles and industries could continue to use fossil fuels until the end of their useful lives, CARB predicts that this scenario would have much lower economic and employment impacts than the other scenarios. In terms of public health, this scenario would reduce petroleum use by 91 percent by 2045, generating fewer health benefits than the options achieving carbon neutrality by 2035 but more benefits than the fourth scenario, which relies more heavily on carbon removal.

The 2035 options

In contrast, the first scenario would achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 with limited use of mechanical carbon dioxide removal techniques. This alternative would drastically reduce fossil fuel combustion and its associated co-pollutants, including particulates, nitrogen oxides, and toxic air pollutants. To achieve this more ambitious goal, the state would ban cars and appliances that run on fossil fuels by 2035 and electrify existing and new buildings and industries at a rapid pace. For this approach to be equitable, the state would have to invest in and support low-income residents and businesses.

CARB predicts that industries that are hard to electrify, like cement and glass, could shut down. Renewable energy and storage infrastructure would have to ramp up quickly and dramatically. This approach would have the greatest health benefits, but CARB's model suggests that it would likely slow economic growth eight times more than CARB's preferred scenario. CARB has expressed doubts about this scenario's feasibility.

The second scenario would also achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. In contrast to the first scenario, it would allow some combustion to continue, at least until the vehicles' or products' end of life, and would address these emissions by a "rapid scale-up" of carbon dioxide removal. Although this option relies on carbon removal, it achieves a high level of fossil fuel reduction, providing the second greatest health benefits among the scenarios The economic impacts would be several times greater than CARB's preferred scenario. CARB is concerned about the feasibility of this option given the relative infancy of carbon removal technologies.

The fourth scenario would, like the third, achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. But it would allow a higher level of continued combustion of fossil fuels, as well as biomass and hydrogen combustion. To achieve carbon neutrality, this scenario relies more on carbon removal than the proposed scenario. The fourth scenario would reduce fossil fuel use by 81 percent (the least of the scenarios). It would be more expensive than the proposed scenario but would likely have smaller economic impacts than the scenarios attempting to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

The draft Scoping Plan is at once radical and middle of the road. All scenarios envision radical change to achieve the state's ambitious, economy-transforming goal by 2045.

At the same time, by recommending a scenario that would not achieve carbon neutrality until 2045 and that allows existing fossil-fuel dependent uses to continue through their useful lives, the draft Scoping Plan lessens the climate goal's impact on the status quo.

Additional blog posts in our California Scoping Plan series will focus on some of the critical environmental justice issues raised by the plan, including the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee's role in the plan's development and other substantive features of the proposed scenario.

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