Skip to content

It’s Time to Refocus California’s Climate Strategy

You know this already, but let’s review:

  • Climate change is a global emissions problem.
  • California produces about 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Over the next few decades, the majority of emissions will come from developing countries.
  • If we don’t solve the problem in the developing world, we don’t solve the problem.

And lastly,

  • The world is making negative progress on climate change.  Evidence of the potential for drastic climate change is growing, but worldwide GHG emissions and concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere are still rising. Exxon’s just-released Energy Outlook, predicts world oil consumption will rise 19% over the next 25 years, while natural gas will rise 66%, and coal will be flat, no decline.

Nearly all of this was known back in 2006, when California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, though the massive growth in China’s coal consumption was just getting momentum.  Back then, the argument for California emissions targets was “leadership” and that is still the word one hears most often from defenders of the state’s current package of GHG markets and mandates.


I’ve heard many different meanings of leadership in the context of California emissions targets:

  1. Showing that the regulations and cap & trade market are logistically feasible, and developing implementation models that could be adopted at national and international levels
  2. Showing that people are willing to sacrifice or change their way of life to fight climate change
  3. Showing that people won’t have to sacrifice because reducing GHGs will improve the economy
  4. Recognizing that someone has to move first to start a worldwide movement to reduce GHGs

There is something to each of these arguments (well, maybe not #3. Most economists think addressing climate change will be a small drag on the economy—if you don’t count the worldwide economic value of averting climate change).

But it’s 2014 now.  The U.S. is further from adopting a price on GHG emissions than it was in 2006.  Fewer members of Congress than 8 years ago even believe climate change is a problem.  The three largest market mechanisms for reducing GHGs (California’s cap-and-trade, the EU-ETS, and the eastern U.S. RGGI program for utility emissions) all have very low prices that are doing little to change the course of emissions.

For these reasons, I think it’s time to have a frank review of California’s climate policy.  We need to refocus on how California can realistically contribute to solving the problem of global climate change.  Reaching emissions targets for California may be part of that strategy, but that should not be the singular or even the primary goal.

The primary goal of California climate policy should be to invent and develop the technologies that can replace fossil fuels, allowing the poorer nations of the world – where most of the world’s population lives – to achieve low-carbon economic growth.  If we can do that, we can avert the fundamental risk of climate change.  If we don’t do that, reducing California’s carbon footprint won’t matter.

Focusing on solving global climate change would mean that a major test of any policy proposal would be whether it is exportable to the developing world.  It’s always hard to predict what will work, but “working” in California isn’t particularly valuable if the approach doesn’t work where most of the planet’s emissions will be coming from in the 21st century.  GHG-reduction strategies that are very expensive – but bearable for a rich country – only make sense if they have a plausible path for getting to near cost competitiveness in poor countries.

That means less emphasis on numerical measures of California emissions and more emphasis on learning.    What more are we likely to know at the end of a program and will that knowledge be applicable in other parts of the world?

Implications of a learning-driven strategy to tackle global climate change include:

  • In procuring renewables, California’s current “least cost, best fit” approach should be augmented with “most learning.”  That means a new technology about which we (and the rest of the world) will learn a lot may get funded even if it is likely to be more expensive than replicating a mature technology.
  • We need greater emphasis on technology creation, both in the lab and downstream, where a lot of the learning goes on.  California should consider creating a Climate Change Solutions Institute akin to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  The goal would be to research and develop approaches that could be applied by a large share of the world’s population.
  • Every California energy efficiency program needs rigorous evaluation of what worked and why, and what didn’t work and why not.  And we need to study where else in the world the same sort of efficiency policies would (or wouldn’t) be effective.  The greatest value from the state’s energy efficiency leadership is likely to be knowledge creation, not GHG reduction.

This does not mean California should abandon pricing GHG emissions.  Putting a price on emissions helps boost green technologies across the board.  In addition, substituting cap-and-trade revenues (or GHG taxes) for income or sales taxes is a clear move towards improving economic efficiency and welfare.

California’s current strategy may eventually allow us to say “we’ve done our share; now the rest of you need to step up.”   But that isn’t leadership when more than 80% of the “rest of you” are living at less than one-quarter of our standard of living.  It’s time to make our Global Warming Solutions Act about global solutions.



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

35 thoughts on “It’s Time to Refocus California’s Climate Strategy Leave a comment

  1. I guess most policy-makers would think the California’s experiences on either renewables or EE technologies won’t have a big impact on their technical costs, or none.

  2. When conventional economic theories do not achieve the predicted outcomes, then there is the need to explore new ways to get the answers. I think this is what Severin is asking for

    If Apple, a USA company who should understand the need to combat global warming, sends its manufacturing to a country that is polluting more to either take advantage non existing or lower GHG taxes, labor costs or other, then the developing countries that accommodated Apple are not likely to yield to the economic pressure that easily, especially if global enforcement is not very committed and is weak.

    As an experiment, let us ban the use of gas stoves in California homes in attempt to reduce CO2 emissions from individual homes, provide electric stoves with power prices beyond what the minimum wage earners can afford, have coal and kerosene available and see if the minimum wage group will buy the electric stoves. They may resort to kerosene stoves or coal pots because they have to heat and yet they cannot afford power costs for the electric stoves available.

    In many of these developing countries, potentials exist for the development of cleaner energy at community levels in the form of smaller hydro, lands large enough for solar farms at community levels etc. Private capital would not move to develop these potentials because the energy prices are to low to guarantee return on their investment. Conventional economics in a free market economy is unlikely to succeed in reducing GHG gases.

    There are development aids to the developing countries. Many of these countries have energy supply problems their governments cannot afford to solve. If the aids are provided to solve these energy insufficiency problems not in the form of cash but a build and handover form and yet the loans for providing the mini hydro or solar farms are made soft so that these countries are not under pressure to pay back quickly, may be these countries will appreciate the solution because it does not price them out of consumption.

    To fully understand the problems of developing countries, researchers may have to go and leave like one of their low income workers and try to solve their problems in the same situation they are in. This may make the researchers more informed and exposed to the real problems. It would be easier to predict economic behavior in these countries better than assume they will behave like those in the developed countries free market economy.

  3. Severin has said what needed to be said years ago. Unless we can rein in the growing emissions of China and India it doesn’t matter what California, or for that matter the US and Europe do to reduce their emissions. Unfortunately, I don’t think innovation will be enough. We need to apply economic pressure to these out to control underdeveloped countries to make the investments needed in clean technology and energy efficiency even if it reduces their rates of GDP growth.

    For example, the US (and California companies, like Apple) has off-shored much of its manufacturing to China and India. We could start by imposing a environmental tariff on any goods produced in these countries and brought back to the US. Generally I’m against tariff protection but the GHG irresponsibility of these countries have made me think twice.

    California’s GHG policy is just more quixotic jousting with windmills.

    • Robert,

      I agree with much of your comment, but the last line (about “quixotic jousting with windmills”) isn’t true. It ignores the importance of increasing returns to scale, network externalities, spillovers, and learning effects, both for technologies and institutional changes. Society has to learn how to substantially reduce emissions over many decades, and the more large economies trying it the better. Learning by doing only happens if we DO, so there’s nothing wrong about California reducing emissions, and the world will benefit from our experience (and we’ll be first out of the gate to sell those innovations to other countries and regions).

  4. Great post. It is frustrating and sad when sincere people get so focused on local and transitory issues that they lose sight of the goal of long-term global sustainability.

  5. Severin,

    It has been abundantly clear for several years (and for some more than a decade) that carbon emissions from industrialization of the developing world are more than offsetting efforts to reduce carbon emissions by the developing world. It is time to shift from efforts to prevent climate change to efforts to modify our infrastructure to compensate for it.


    • Michael,

      There’s no way we’ll be able to “modify our infrastructure to compensate” for the business as usual path, where we’re likely to see 5 C warming compared to preindustrial times ( We’ll need to do some adaptation even if we’re clever enough to keep warming below 2 C beyond preindustrial times, but 5 C is a disaster that will without a doubt interfere with the orderly development of human civilization.

      Your first point (that we need to help the developing world reduce emission) is valid, but remember that technology benefits from learning by doing, and so if one country pushes technology and institutions down the learning curve, other countries will benefit from it. These spillover effects (as Sam Borgeson points out below) are very powerful and must be considered when considering what we do on climate. And of course, the US is still the #2 emitter, and the #1 contributor to historical emissions, so our responsibility for making changes extends beyond just our near term emission reductions.

  6. I think there is too much room for solutions that don’t actually work in practice if CA backs away from it’s own goals in the name of innovating on behalf of others. At the same time, significant reductions in emissions are likely to require innovations in technology, policy, and culture, so it is hard to imagine CA (or any entity) achieving its goals without producing spill over impacts with enormous benefits throughout the world. My reading of past efficiency program results is that least cost procurement of EE has set incentives that run counter to innovation, undermining potential both here and abroad. Program rules that pay utilities based primarily on short term deemed savings penalize risk taking and leave no room for failure (aka learning). So even in CA, we are unlikely to achieve our goals unless we re-align program incentives to reward creative and innovative solutions, which require risk taking. If we succeed at re-aligning incentives, the progress we make scaling up the impacts of our EE programs and integrating renewable energy onto the grid supported by storage and more flexible demand will be unambiguous contributions to global mitigation.

    • As one who has been in “boots on the ground” in energy efficiency for 35 years, I have to say Sam is correct that the current methodology penalizes risk taking and leaves no room for failure (aka learning). Innovation is a process of failing forward.

  7. I totally agree about accelerating learning rates. We also need to jettison technologies that don’t exhibit much learning, doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t. “All of the above” makes no sense in this context, but the Obama Administration still uses that abhorrent framing.

    My understanding is that California’s efficiency programs are already subject to rigorous evaluations (e.g. and What am I missing?

    • Jon, because our EE programs are pay for performance, the evaluation process has become much more about the fight over who gets paid what fraction of our annual $1B expenditure of public money than any sort of good faith effort to learn about what aspects of programs lead to better outcomes or which innovations are promising. The vast majority of official savings come from “deemed savings” for equipment replacements, which means the results come from a rule book rather than the real world.

  8. Reblogged this on Colder Air and commented:
    First time I heard the goal has to be energy that is cheap, clean and abundant it sounded bizarre.
    Now it seems bizarre so few smart people have arrived at the conclusion.

    One of the clues indicating the stupidity and false goals of Ontario’s Green Energy Act was that the price offer for wind and solar were escalated from the previous procurement program. Expensive and getting more so isn’t part of a solution lowering the planet’s emissions.
    It’s refreshing Severin Borenstein has written this, but … what should be done with those that say people pay too little for energy, and higher pricing is requisite to teach people the folly of consumption?

  9. Well put. Unfortunately the current utility program system does not put any real emphasis on technical innovation, particularly innovation that can be applied to less affluent parts of the world. Actually it doesn’t even address the grand middle of our population that does not have the disposable income to participate in any significant way. The cost effectiveness calculations as currently configured ensure that residential customers are not able to enjoy or contribute to reduced energy consumption.
    With respect to “rigorous evaluation” the evaluators, CPUC, and utilities do not recognize the difference between a “program evaluation” and a “energy efficiency measure” evaluation.
    They use program evaluations to condemn viable energy efficiency measures. Producing a downward spiral of program implementation. Innovation is not embraced. It is sidelined.

%d bloggers like this: