California Missing Opportunity to Better Advance State’s Climate Goals

January 27, 2022

California is known for pursuing aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets and the effort to stem climate change that can achieve those goals. But state leaders were taken aback by research now showing the state is unlikely to meet its 2030 targets, despite a continued drop in those emissions.

The findings of the 2021 California Green Innovation Index show a missed opportunity to reduce emissions at an even larger rate through renewable energy, including biofuels.

The index is the product of an independent, non-partisan, clean-energy policy group founded in 2003 to monitor economic, environmental, and quality-of-life issues. In its edition issued earlier this month covering 2021, the index shows that while the state has delivered on many of its climate fronts, it is far from where it needs to be to meet 2030 climate goal of 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels.

According to the 2021 inventory data, California experienced its second largest year-over-year drop in emissions since 2010, but the rate of reduction is not what state officials say was expected and needed. The lag is attributable in large part to a slowdown in recent years in growth of renewable energy. Meanwhile, more natural gas capacity was added to the grid in 2020 than any other resource.

The transportation sector is coming up short in the state’s efforts to reach its 2030 goals. The state’s largest source of GHGs – vehicular emissions – dropped by only 2.1 percent from 2018 to 2019, keeping them at just more than 40 percent of the state’s emissions, the index shows.

In pursuit of its ambitious GHG reduction goals, the state has put a heavy emphasis on building out its fleet of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). While the number of ZEVs registered in California is growing, the state’s gradual adoption rate is not keeping pace with what is needed to meet California’s target of 1.5 million ZEVs on the road by 2025. The number of ZEVs increased in 2020 by 11.6 percent over 2019, but to meet the 2025 target, the number of ZEVs registered will need to increase by 18 percent annually – a figure revised upwards from the previous 16.9 percent, given falling, pandemic-related ZEV sales.

California is suffering from the same, somewhat myopic view of its regulatory responsibilities as that demonstrated by EPA last year when it proposed – and finalized Dec. 30 – the latest revision of its GHG emissions standards for light-duty vehicles for 2023 and later model years. In its effort to make the standards more stringent, the EPA rule includes incentives for the production of vehicles with zero or near-zero emissions technology.

Incremental use of ethanol could start immediately to reduce GHG and toxic air emissions. This complementary program can surely begin to reduce GHGs while the hope for electrification grows. But EPA did not include any provisions or incentives that could improve fuel quality and result in significant reductions in GHG emissions from gasoline powered vehicles.

The failure by both EPA and California regulators to fully account for the use of high-octane, low-carbon fuels, including gasoline with high ethanol blends, are missed opportunities. Research by Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, shows that GHG cuts that could be achieved by using higher-octane midlevel blends with ethanol equal those that EPA thinks are available from electrification. Regulators in both cases are ignoring a cost-effective way of achieving the improvements desired to the detriment of environmental quality, consumers, farmers, and industry.

Even auto manufacturers recognize the big benefits offered by high-octane, low-carbon fuels. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI) has offered a litany of needs that must be met by policy makers – consumer incentives, substantial infrastructure growth, fleet requirements and support for U.S. manufacturing and supply chain development – in order to meet the reinforced GHG standards. But the AAI makes clear that fuels that boost octane while reducing carbon can increase the efficiency of current and future vehicles – an endorsement that further validates the role of ethanol in enhancing vehicle performance now and in the future.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is under orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom to find ways in its evolving 2022 GHG regulatory “scoping plan” to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, instead of a previous target of 2045. However, state regulators are missing opportunities to achieve their goals more quickly by expanding the role of ethanol and other biofuels.

SfL calls on stakeholders to reach out to policy makers – both in Sacramento and in Washington – and stress the availability of ready solutions to the challenges of reducing transportation-related emissions. Optimizing the use of renewable fuels is a win-win-win option. It can enhance emission reduction efforts, improve public health while also boosting the economies of those rural areas that produce the bulk of those cleaner fuels.

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