By Science and Policy Manager, Ian Bruce and Communications and Research Specialist, Steve Kux

The "California Effect" describes the leadership role of a region that enacts progressive legislation that is adopted beyond its borders. It got its name from regulations passed in the Golden State requiring better gas mileage and fewer emissions from automobile makers that led to massive fuel efficiency improvements in cars, including hybrid and zero-emission electric vehicles now in use around the world. California continues to live up to its reputation as a leader with recent leaps in promoting renewable energy, energy efficient homes and appliances, and an innovative economy focused on advanced technology. Today, Californians use about half the electricity per capita as the rest of the U.S. while over a quarter of new homes in South California are powered by the sun.

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How has California achieved this?

In March, the David Suzuki Foundation hosted a Vancouver event with UBC's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and invited Wade Crowfoot, California's deputy cabinet secretary and senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, to learn how the state is leading the charge on climate change while building a stronger, cleaner economy.

As Crowfoot explains, the answer is the state's belief in the ingenuity of its people, setting environmental and economic goals that reinforce each other, and backing up goals with laws and economic signals that drive innovation and investment around the use of cleaner and more energy-efficient technologies.

California's climate objectives continue to make waves. In January, Gov. Brown set a goal to halve the state's petroleum consumption and provide 50 per cent of electricity with renewable energy by 2030. In April, the governor followed up by setting the most ambitious carbon pollution cutting target ever in North America, aiming for a 40 per cent reduction below 1990 emissions levels by 2030.
This is welcome news as world leaders prepare to forge an effective plan to counter climate change at the UN climate summit in Paris in December.

The Global Warming Solutions Act

California is the most populous state in the U.S., with slightly more people than all of Canada. If it were an independent country it would have the world's seventh-largest economy, just ahead of Brazil. That makes the work California is doing to fight climate change all the more impressive, as large jurisdictions have a notoriously difficult time passing progressive legislation. It's a challenge California faced in 2006 with its Global Warming Solutions Act (referred to as Assembly Bill 32 or AB-32).

AB-32 was groundbreaking legislation in a region the size of California. Its ambitious goals include an 80 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050. California has prioritized clean energy by putting a price on carbon pollution through the use of a cap-and-trade market, which Quebec has joined, with Ontario soon to follow. It has passed laws requiring a greater share of renewable energy to power the state each year while homes, appliances and electronics must meet stringent energy-efficiency standards. California is also pushing to have every sixth car sold to be electric by 2025. There are even plans to build a high-speed train corridor between its most travelled routes, linking cities in the north and south.

Defending California's clean energy economy

But California's climate action legislation was not met with universal enthusiasm. A small but well-funded group, bankrolled by two Texas oil companies, worked for four years to get it repealed. In 2010 they succeeded in getting a statewide referendum on the issue. With the future of California's rapidly growing clean energy economy in the hands of citizens, a broad coalition of supporters came together to educate people about the environmental, economic and quality-of-life benefits that went along with AB-32. In the end, 61.6 per cent of Californians voted in favour of keeping California's clean energy laws, demonstrating their deep commitment to acting on climate change and a desire to support progress.

Since this landmark victory, the clean energy industry has exploded in California. The state is home to some of the world's largest renewable energy projects, including the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which powers more than 140,000 homes, and the Alta Wind Energy Centre, which produces enough energy for 450,000 homes. The state wants to be the headquarters for innovative companies like electric car maker Tesla, which currently employs more than 11,000 Californians. It's paying off. More people in California are now employed installing solar panels than by all electricity utilities combined.

California's green economy was not a fluke. It is the result of hardworking people who understand the future needs of our planet coming together to support what they know is right. California's leadership on climate change represents the power that an informed electorate can have.

The California Effect is going strong.

May 5, 2015

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