UC Davis Climate Modeling: We Can Cut Carbon by 2030, in Sync with State Goals

Yesterday’s action by the U.S. EPA to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal-fired power plants brings the nation one step closer to reducing emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. So what other actions will be needed to meet long-term climate goals? And what will they cost? Nobody has a crystal ball, but UC Davis experts, along with other academics and policymakers, developed a series of scenarios that may help to answer these questions. While our research is focused on California, many insights are applicable to other regions and the nation. The timing of this research is particularly relevant as the California Air Resources Board looks to set a mid-term target (i.e. 2030), as outlined in the first update to the AB 32 climate change scoping plan, a document released last month.

California already has a near-term GHG target to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and a comprehensive program underway for meeting the requirement pursuant to AB 32. It also has an ambitious long-term goal to reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Examining 10 different models about California’s energy and GHG future, our work is the California Climate Policy Modeling (CCPM) project. It brings together UC Davis researchers from the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy and the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (NextSTEPS) program of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) – with colleagues from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and private consulting firm E3.

What do the models show us about the 2030 timeframe? The scenarios show the potential to reduce GHG emissions 8-52 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 through a combination of strategies. These strategies include energy efficiency, clean and renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, and low-carbon transportation solutions. The annual emissions in 2030 range from 208-396 million metric tonnes (MMT) of CO2 equivalents per year in these scenarios. Demonstrating the potential significance of early reductions, cumulative emissions range widely from 6,492-9,205 MMT (through 2030) and 10,357-14,394 MMT (through 2050). The annual emissions reductions and cumulative emissions growth modeled in these scenarios is shown in the graph below.

Annual and Cummulative Emission Scenarios
that Achieve Deep GHG Emissions Reduction by 2050

We presented these scenarios to representatives from the Governor’s office, California state agencies and other interested stakeholders and gained several important insights: 1) Focusing on reducing total cumulative emissions between now and 2050 – rather than focusing on meeting the specific 2050 reduction target – can provide greater climate benefits; 2) We need to dramatically increase the use of decarbonized energy carriers like electricity and hydrogen for transportation, and to provide heat for buildings and industrial processes to meet our emissions reduction goals; and 3) Even if the energy sector is cleaned up so its emissions are zero, without new policy, emissions from other non-energy sectors including agriculture and from high-global-warming-potential gases will exceed California’s 2050 GHG goal.

Further information on the models and scenarios presented at the CCPM forum can be found here. Also available are a technical brief, “Energy and Climate Experts Find Wide Range of 2030 Emissions Targets on Path to 2050” and a full report, “Summary of California Climate Policy Modeling Forum” along with a webinar summarizing the findings of the forum and the presentation from the forum.

Another key insight from the recent forum: We all would like more dialogue. Policymakers would like to see more modeling of explicit policies so they can better understand their effects. Climate modelers need more up-to-date information about forthcoming policies — and access to the state’s latest data — so we can provide relevant analysis and insight to inform policymakers and the policy process.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan policy is a step toward the right direction. California’s policies target all sectors at the same time, while the federal’s Clean Power Plan only targets the electric sector in a moderate fashion. More coordination and commitments will be needed to expand the federal Clean Power Plan policy to steer other sectors toward a more comprehensive long-term climate goal. California has much to offer in terms of what we’ve achieved today, as well as our efforts in learning how to achieve the 2030 and 2050 targets. But, most importantly, all of us – policymakers, researchers, educators, NGOs, investors, and business partners – must work together if we want to pursue a cleaner, affordable, low-carbon, and climate-safe future.

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