A single, devastating California fire season wiped out years of efforts to cut emissions of climate-changing gases, and researchers said the pace of those cuts could be reversed if the state follows suit with policies that could curb power generation more slowly.
California’s annual greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2017 for the first time in 15 years as rising temperatures spurred plant growth and a rush of new homes and businesses. Despite a $10 billion investment to reduce pollutants that contribute to climate change, the state released twice as much greenhouse gas emissions this year as in the comparable 2016 and 2017 years, exceeding the level in 2012, the most recent year before the Great Recession, when the state had to start a new business cycle.
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“It’s hard to measure the climate benefits from these policies but the benefits are there,” said Daniel Kammen, director of the UCLA Center for Transportation and Environment. “There are very real benefits even if all this money wasn’t being used to do anything.”
The California Air Resources Board, which controls the state’s greenhouse gas goals, says that by reducing emissions to 1990 levels, which is the year before the Great Recession, the state could avoid 6,000 to 18,000 premature deaths by 2100, and potentially save $8 billion in property damage from fires.
But California could slow its reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by just 1 percentage point, as opposed to the 4 percentage points recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the 3.7 percentage point reduction that researchers at Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley calculated as a minimum.
If California followed that path, the state emissions would drop to about 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, the amount emitted in 1990. This would account for 80 percent of the state’s planned emissions reductions. (It would also