California’s clean energy is no accident

An electrical engineer at a solar power plant in California. (Photo: BikerideLondon, via Shutterstock)

As negotiators work to nail down a global climate agreement in Paris, they can take inspiration from their hosts—and not just because of the French people’s resilience in the face of terrorist attacks. When it comes to climate change, France leads by example. It is the least carbon-intensive major economy in the world. No developed nation emits less carbon per dollar of goods and services produced.

But what might surprise many, around the world and here at home, is that the world’s second-least-carbon-intensive economy is here in the United States. Worldwide, when it comes to carbon intensity—to producing more while polluting less—California is second only to France.

California attracted fully half of the world’s venture capital investment in clean technology last year, to the tune of $5.7 billion.

That’s what we at Next 10 discovered when we surveyed the world’s top 50 greenhouse gas-emitting nations plus California in this year’s international edition of our annual Green Innovation Index. From 1990 to 2012, our state cut greenhouse gas emissions per capita by 25 percent while increasing per capita GDP by 37 percent. And as nations are charting paths to a cleaner, more robust economic future, they can learn a lot from one another—and from California.

California’s clean energy economy didn’t happen by accident. A suite of policies set the stage for our success, including forward-looking energy efficiency and gas mileage and emissions standards, and the pioneering Global Warming Solutions law. But by themselves, leadership and policy would not have been enough.

California’s innovators — from start-ups to corporate giants to research universities and national laboratories — stepped up to meet the challenge, creating game-changing clean-energy technologies big and small. That’s one reason California attracted fully half of the world’s venture capital investment in clean technology, to the tune of $5.7 billion, last year. But even adding world-class investment and innovation to policy and leadership can only get you so far.

Last year was the first since measurements began that saw the global economy expand while greenhouse gas emissions stayed the same.

What put us over the top is the fact that the people of California understand that tackling climate change is a necessity, and an opportunity to build a better state. They want a cleaner, more sustainable, and more prosperous future. They see the whole world moving toward cleaner energy, and they want California to benefit from taking a leadership role. So efforts to push back our state’s innovative climate and energy policies have failed at the ballot box. And Californians lead the world in embracing clean-energy technologies such as electric vehicles and renewable energy.

And we are not resting on our laurels. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order setting a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. That’s in line with what the European Union is talking about at Paris. It’s a very ambitious goal, but a doable one if you are committed—especially in California.

New paradigms are California’s thing. Innovative approaches and disruptive technologies are part of our history, from entertainment to computers to telephones—and now, to energy. And so, for example, it’s no surprise that Golden State innovators—from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to the University of California—are part of Bill Gates’ newly announced Breakthrough Energy Fund coalition, whose goal is to drive clean energy research and development.

The rest of the world is catching up. Last year was the first since measurements began that saw the global economy expand while greenhouse gas emissions stayed the same. That is a sign of hope for the world.

As delegates from around the Earth negotiate in Paris, we hope they remember California’s record of combining economic growth with environmental stewardship, and recognize that what has happened here can happen globally. Leadership, innovation, investment, and people power can move forward a strong agreement that will help lessen the impacts of climate change today and for future generations, and create an enormous opportunity in its place.

Ed’s Note: F. Noel Perry is founder of Next 10, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates, engages and empowers Californians to improve the state’s future.

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