Will California’s Voters Reject their Global Warming Act?

A citizen’s initiative that looks likely to make it onto the November ballot this year is the aptly named “California Jobs Act,” which would suspend implementation of AB32, California’s Global Warming Act, until unemployment in the Golden State drops down to 4.8%. Passed in 2006, AB32 calls for California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) to write new regulations designed to lower, by 2020, California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. According to CARB’s report “California 1990 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Level and 2020 Emissions Limit,” in 1990, Californian’s emitted 433 million metric tons of “CO2 equivalents” in 1990, and by 2004 these greenhouse gasses had increased to an estimated 484 million metric tons.

Back in 2006, when AB32 was passed by California’s State legislature, and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, California’s economy was at the crest of the debt-fueled housing-bubble boom. Now that California’s unemployment rate is nearly 13%, the highest in the nation, it is dawning on California’s voters that schemes to go it alone and adopt the bleeding edge of climate mitigation policies may not be the best prescription for economic recovery. Notwithstanding promises of abundant “green jobs,” and visions of a prospering “green economy,” what is most likely to be the economic outcome if California fully implements AB32 by 2012 as planned?

There are several examples surfacing that suggest CARB’s original economic assessment was overly optimistic. An analysis on the net impact of AB32 on jobs in California prepared in March 2010 by California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office refuted CARB’s conclusions, and claimed implementation of AB32 would cause net job losses, not net gains. One of the first of studies of the actual economic impact of publicly subsidized renewables, entitled “Study of the effects on employment of public aid to renewable energy sources” was released by economists at the University of Rey Juan Carlos in March 2009.  It documented how the Spanish “green jobs” policies in fact destroyed jobs, detailing this in terms of jobs destroyed per job created and the net destruction per installed mega-watt.

Proponents of AB32 will continue to argue that implementing AB32 will accelerate transition to a prosperous “green” economy, but ultimately their economic argument has to rest on the premise that green policies and green products are cost-competitive with conventional technologies and existing policies. And in most cases, this position is dramatically false. It is one thing to subsidize strategic research into energy technologies that will eventually yield breakthroughs in price and performance, but quite another to require substantially more expensive current renewable energy technology to be deployed at scale today. Solar energy and wind energy are still 2-3x more expensive than conventional energy solutions, and with recent developments in shale gas extraction as well as ongoing progress in safe nuclear technologies, that cost gap is not shrinking. Proponents of solar and wind energy also frequently fail to account not only for the installation cost of these intermittent energy generators, but also the cost of maintaining back-up conventional generators that have to be activated when the sun sets or the wind dies down. They also often fail to assess the costs of constructing additional high-voltage transmission lines to transport electricity from decentralized wind and solar farms to urban areas, as well as the costs to buffer the power grid to accommodate massive fluctuations in generating output from these intermittent sources of energy. Ironically, proponents also fail to assess the costs of lawsuits and permit processes which add, especially in California, massive additional cost to any new energy project, conventional or alternative.

Evidence that renewable energy costs significantly more than conventional energy is not hard to find. An article in the Los Angeles Times, dated March 15th, 2010, entitled “DWP plans 37% rate hike over four years to cover cost increases,” states the primary reason for this is to pay for renewable energy. Other utilities across the state are planning similar increases – not just power utilities, but all utilities who consume power, such as the water, sewage and sanitation districts. All of these utility rate increases cascade into the cost of doing business as a private sector company. And it doesn’t end there – to implement AB32 and realize the ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reduction, CARB intends to rewrite regulations on land-use and land management, vehicle efficiency, building energy efficiency, transportation policies – in general, they intend to regulate virtually every industrial process that results in greenhouse gas emissions. There is a cost for all of this.

California may have a liberal electorate, but Californian’s also have a very well documented aversion to higher taxes. And “mitigation” in the name of global warming is an indirect tax. By raising prices for energy and other resources required by California’s industries, many will leave California. Those who remain will have to defer investment in job creating activity, such as plant expansion or research and development, in order to absorb higher utility expenses and invest in new equipment for mitigation. The “green” jobs created by construction of subsidized, non-competitive energy and utility infrastructure are vastly outnumbered by the jobs lost because the business community has to allocate more of their financial resources to paying energy and utility bills, and consequently have less financial resources to create new products and new jobs.

On the demand side of the economy the same consequences apply. Consumers will have to pay more for energy and other utilities, as well as for products produced in California – including transportation and housing. This will reduce their discretionary consumption, further shrinking the economy. These mandated increases to the cost of doing business and the cost of living in California thanks to AB32 are not explicitly called taxes, but that is what they are.

California has a well-earned reputation as a political trend-setter. Californians were the first electorate to enact term limits. Their property tax revolt in 1978 stunned the nation. California’s voters have the potential – if they vote to suspend AB32 this November – to begin to reestablish their State as a leader of responsible political action. The impact of Californians suspending AB32 will not only be to save themselves from punitive new hidden taxes, but to reignite a constructive discussion regarding what green technologies are really ready for prime-time, and what a realistic balance should be between environmental stewardship and economic growth.

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1 comment to Will California’s Voters Reject their Global Warming Act?

  • Charles

    If a new idea is worth exploring, the free marketplace will supply the R & D and the necessary capital to bring it on board as a profit making enterprise.

    Heavily subsidized anything is usually a loser. Just look at Amtrack.