California’s next climate step: pushing for equitable choices

Downtown Los Angeles in the distance. (Photo: EvijaF, via Shutterstock)

When it comes to climate action, it will be hard for California to top 2018. Last year legislators passed a law committing our state to 100% emission-free electricity by 2045, and our governor issued an executive order setting the goal of a carbon-neutral economy by the same year.

Now the architects of those initiatives have moved on, and a new crop of leaders faces the enormous task of meeting these goals. What can they do to hit these ambitious targets while also making life better for the people who put them in office?

It’s a moment that calls for big-picture thinking. As experts in environmental economics and urban planning, we see a promising path forward in bundling climate change solutions with initiatives to ease the housing crisis, transportation problems, and income inequality. At the center of this approach is a simple but powerful concept:  choice.

We’re not talking about expanding the kind of choice that the well-off among us are accustomed to enjoying while the people most in need of real options lose out.  Rather, we believe all Californians — including members of low-income and vulnerable communities — deserve choice in terms of where they live, where they work, how they move around, and how they power their lives.

As a first step, we should dramatically increase choice when it comes to housing and transportation. California could launch its own version of a Green New Deal to build millions of units of affordable housing near mass transit and work centers. We could also radically expand options for Californians to conveniently ride transit, walk, bike, share rides, and otherwise avoid the high cost of driving fossil-fuel-powered cars. Improved housing and transportation choice would save countless hours and dollars for Californians who currently have no other option but dependency on gasoline guzzlers.

Tested tools include incentives for local governments and residents to make housing and transportation choices that reduce gasoline dependence, such as retiring polluting vehicles and replacing them with clean cars or transit passes. At UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, our research has found that existing clean transportation incentives could be expanded to cost-effectively reduce pollution while increasing the wellbeing of Californians.

Expanding transportation and housing choices requires government resources. Funding can come from the many revenue-generating policies California already has in place, such as the cap-and-trade program for carbon pollution and the gasoline tax (Senate Bill 1).

In the electricity sector, innovative programs to increase choice are already making a big difference in California’s energy mix. Over the past 8 years, 19 community choice energy programs have emerged across the state. Community choice aggregators respond to local energy priorities, instead of answering to far-flung shareholders like a traditional investor-owned utility would. And as Luskin Center research documents, California communities that are given the choice choose renewable energy: community choice aggregators offered an average of 52 percent renewable energy in 2017.

Transforming California’s power, transportation and housing sectors with climate-friendly choices will create tremendous business and employment opportunities. And that’s where expanding job choice comes in: we already know that the clean energy economy is a job-creation machine. That’s why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the two fastest-growing occupations for the next several years will be solar photovoltaic installer and wind turbine service technician.

In our state, California Climate Investments offer a prime example of green job growth. This money, raised via the state’s carbon cap-and-trade auctions, is invested in projects that reduce emissions, including mass-transit expansion, transit-oriented affordable housing, energy efficiency for homes, and tree planting and maintenance. Initial state investment induces consumers, businesses and governments to invest in these projects, as well, and all that investment creates jobs.

Our research shows that the first $2.2 billion in California Climate Investments supported over 75,000 jobs. That comes out to 8.8 jobs for every $1 million the state invests, which compares favorably to the relatively paltry 1.6 jobs created for every $1 million invested in the oil and gas industries. Jobs supported by California Climate Investments range from construction workers and transit operators to engineers and architects, and can be found all over the state, from the cities to the suburbs to the countryside — a lot of options for Californians looking for work.

Time and again, our research suggests that we can ease housing and transportation burdens while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and expand choice for all Californians.  We can ease the often-crushing burden of finding affordable housing near work, reduce transportation hassles, cut dangerous air pollution, and improve Californians’ health and well-being. We can build a state where life is less bounded by constraints, and instead is filled with possibility.

Ed’s Note: Colleen Callahan is deputy director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, which unites scholars and civic leaders to address environmental challenges. J.R. DeShazo is the center’s director and an environmental economist. 

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