California’s Emissions Plunged Amidst Pandemic Restrictions, but Climate Gains May Not Hold

California’s Emissions Plunged Amidst Pandemic Restrictions, but Climate Gains May Not Hold

California’s greenhouse gas emissions fell a remarkable 8.7% in 2020 amidst pandemic-induced economic disruptions and travel restrictions.

But while the significant drop in emissions has helped the state make progress toward its 2030 climate targets, it masks a rise in pollution from in-state power generation, as stubbornly-slow renewable energy growth threatens California’s transition to carbon neutrality.

At the same time, a drop in emissions from the transportation sector for the third-consecutive year could signal a breakthrough in the state’s largest source of climate pollution, if pandemic-era shifts towards hybrid work remain and electric vehicle adoption continues to rise.

That’s the finding of the 14th annual California Green Innovation Index, released Dec. 14 by the nonpartisan nonprofit Next 10 and prepared by Beacon Economics. The report’s analysis of the latest available emissions data found that while transportation-sector, commercial-sector and industrial-sector emissions dropped in 2020, emissions from in-state electricity and agriculture increased.

“Despite the significant 2020 emissions drop, a closer look at the data from this year’s Index suggests California still faces challenges,” said F. Noel Perry, businessman and founder of Next 10. “The increase in in-state power generation pollution is worrisome. Not only is this pollution hurting the health of those living close to these facilities, this is the sector that overarching decarbonization depends on. We’ll need to see a significant increase in clean energy generation---at least 8% per year---in the coming years, to power homes, vehicles and industry.”

The report also analyzed the economic and jobs returns on investment from four of California’s signature climate and clean energy programs, and found a cumulative $2.76 billion investment in these programs generated $5.35 billion in economic output and created 8,521 jobs---while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The findings should inform California’s budget priorities, as the state pursues strategies to fend off a potential looming recession.

“California’s return on climate investments has been striking,” said Patrick Adler, research manager at Beacon Economics. “The state has shown that it can create jobs and strong economic growth---while also helping to cut the pollution that is driving climate change and adversely impacting communities across California.”

Transportation Emissions Dropped for Third Consecutive Year

The Index found transportation sector emissions---California’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions---plunged by a staggering 16.1% in 2020, amidst pandemic-induced travel restrictions and a shift to working from home.

The remarkable decrease was driven by a 19.8% reduction in emissions from light-duty passenger cars, a 18.5% decrease from SUVs and light-duty trucks, a 12.2% emissions decrease from off-road vehicles, and a 7.4% emissions decrease from heavy-duty trucks.

“Due to the pandemic, the emissions drop from California’s transportation sector in 2020 was remarkable. This is the third straight year that we’ve seen a decline in pollution from the state’s largest and most stubborn source of emissions. The encouraging trends in this year’s Index on EV adoption and charging build-out show that EVs are reaching new, lower-income consumers and folks in rural areas,” noted Perry. “But to make continual progress in the transportation sector, we need structural changes to how we move around our cities and towns, and we urgently need to address the looming public transit crisis.”

While electric vehicle sales of all classes fell 16.5% from 2019 to 2020 due to pandemic-related uncertainty and supply chain challenges, sales data from 2021 paint a more encouraging picture. Electric vehicle sales shot up 79% in 2021 compared to 2020, and battery electric vehicles reached 9.5% of new vehicle registration in 2021, up from the previous peak of 6.2% in 2020.

The increase in electric vehicle ownership in rural areas showed the most encouraging signs of growth, increasing by an impressive 57.1% in 2021 compared to 2019. Roughly half of the growth in electric vehicles across the state of California in 2021 took place in rural areas compared to 2019. Promising electric vehicle growth is likely to continue in coming years, as California tracks towards achieving a landmark regulation adopted this year that will phase out the sale of gasoline cars by 2035.

The Index’s encouraging data on electric vehicle sales contrasts sharply with its findings on public transit ridership, which plunged a stunning 52% in 2020. More concerningly, ridership fell an additional 3% in 2021---even after pandemic restrictions began to lift and some people started returning to the office.

The findings suggest the pandemic could push California deeper into its historical trend of individual car ownership, despite the climate impacts. After a steady decline since the peak in 2018, the vehicle ownership rate rose to 78.4 per 100 persons in 2021, up from 74.7 in 2020.

Key findings include:

  • Transportation-sector emissions accounted for 37.9% of California’s total emissions in 2020, down from 41.2% in 2019.
  • Consumer preferences continued to shift towards pickup trucks, minivans and SUVS in 2021, as the light truck sales (+16.6%) more than doubled the sale of cars (+7.1%).
  • Natural gas-powered vehicle registrations fell 23.2% in 2021, while registrations of electric vehicles increased by 34%, compared to 2020.
  • While sales of battery electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen vehicles increased significantly in 2021, they still only accounted for 2.8% of all registered on-road vehicles in California in 2021, up from 2.2% in 2020.

Source: Next 10

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