California air board urges big hike in greenhouse-gas cuts

California must double its pace of cutting greenhouse gases after 2020 – slashing emissions from factories and power plants, freight trains and farms – in order to meet its long-term global warming goals, according to a state plan released Friday.


The steps proposed by the California Air Resources Board go well beyond the already aggressive moves California has made to fight climate change, which include ramping up the use of renewable power and creating a “cap and trade” system to limit industrial emissions.


The board’s new plan would touch sectors of the economy such as agriculture, water management and forestry not directly covered under the state’s current climate regulations.


“This is a bigger vision of what it takes,” said Mary Nichols, the board’s chairwoman. “I think it’s quite feasible with some of the more advanced technologies we’re seeing.”


California’s landmark global warming law, known as AB32, calls for cutting California’s greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The board considers that goal well within reach. But executive orders from Gov. Jerry Brown and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, set a more ambitious target of slashing emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. And that will require a much broader approach.


The plan, which the board is expected to approve at its meeting next week, calls for strategies to limit methane emissions from farms, natural gas operations and landfills. It proposes limiting “black carbon” – better known as soot – and devising forest management plans to maximize the amount of carbon stored in California’s vast forests.


In each of these cases, the plan outlines areas that the state should address, rather than proposing specific regulations. Those will come later. For example, the plan calls for adopting interim emission targets between 2020 and 2050 but doesn’t specify what those targets should be or how they should be set.


The plan has one notable omission. It does not call for increasing the amount of renewable power California’s utility companies must use after 2020.


State law now requires the utilities to get one-third of their electricity from the sun, the wind and other renewable sources by the end of 2020. That requirement, known as the “renewable portfolio standard,” has triggered a construction boom for solar power plants and wind farms in California.


Renewable sources now account for 23 percent of the utilities’ power, and with more solar and wind projects still under development, analysts expect the state to reach that 33 percent goal. Now the companies that develop large solar and wind projects are waiting to see if the state will raise its requirement. If it doesn’t, those companies may see their business in California dry up.


“We believe the Renewable Portfolio Standard has proven to be an effective, efficient and low-cost mechanism for stimulating billions of dollars of investment in renewable electric generation and would like to see the state of California increase the RPS beyond 33 percent,” said Tom Werner, CEO of San Jose’s SunPower Corp., in an e-mailed statement.


Nichols said the utilities want the state to consider other strategies for cutting emissions and increasing the use of renewable power.


“They’re saying, ‘Look, we got the message, we’re going to meet the RPS and we’ll go beyond it, but we don’t like having to be judged by a state agency,’ ” she said.


The air resources board proposal calls for drafting a comprehensive emissions reduction plan for the utilities by 2016.


“We need an opportunity to think through what the next step should be,” Nichols said. “The 33 percent is a floor, not a ceiling, but there are different tools we could use to get there.”


The renewable standard could be raised anyway. A separate state agency, the California Public Utilities Commission, has authority over its enforcement. And a state law passed last year gave the commission the ability to raise the standard without first getting approval from the Legislature.


Erica Morehouse, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, called the board’s new plan a good beginning, to be refined over time.


“Staying ambitious in the reductions we’re trying to achieve is important, and this does that,” she said. “It’s the start of a conversation, rather than the end of a conversation.”