California's Car Culture Is Crashing Its Carbon-Free Future

The Golden State is going green in a big way, but needs to kick its auto addiction.

An annual report on California’s progress decarbonizing its economy is out today and, as usual, the news is largely good. The United States’s most populous state and the world’s eighth-largest economy has made huge investments in energy efficiency, green building and alternative sources of electricity and transportation. It’s paying off. And while the Flat Earth Society continues to dominate the climate-change debate in Washington, the West Coast political and business establishment is largely unified in facing an increasingly grim reality head-on.

One of the best indicators of success in decarbonizing an economy is the volume of greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of gross domestic product. In California, the carbon intensity of the state economy fell 30 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to the report from Next 10, a non-partisan research institute based in San Francisco.

Emissions per capita dropped 14 percent during that time even as the population continued to grow. And decarbonizing the California economy apparently has not cost its citizens, as per capita GDP has grown 16 percent since 1990 and 2.2 percent since 2011. (There was a slight increase in carbon emissions in 2012, which the report attributes to the closing of one of California’s two in-state nuclear power plants as well as drop in electricity production from hydropower due to the devastating drought.)

The rest of the U.S. has not been nearly as successful.

But there’s a time bomb ticking in Ecotopia, and it's parked in the garage. Nearly 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. 

Passenger cars account for more than two-thirds of that carbon spew.

And no matter how many wind turbines and solar panels Californians install, there’s no getting around the fact that petroleum represents half of the state’s energy consumption. (Not to mention the source of smog and various carcinogens.)

Regulators, of course, have invested heavily in promoting carbon-free cars, most recently spending nearly $50 million to build a statewide network of hydrogen fueling stations to spur sales of fuel cell cars. And there are so many Tesla Motors Model S electric cars on Bay Area streets that my teenage son has deemed them to be no longer “so cool.” Still, only 2.3 percent of the California’s vehicles run on electricity or other alternative fuels, according to the report.

Even Governor Jerry Brown’s much promoted $68 billion bullet train is no silver bullet. Californians are simply not going to give up their love affair with the automobile. But it may be easier to get them to give up their attachment to the internal combustion engine if the price is right. 

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Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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