Everyone witnessed how traffic on California roadways dropped in 2020, amid shelter-in-place and work-from-home policies in the early days of the pandemic. But a report released Wednesday quantifies just how much that year’s dip in driving cut down greenhouse gas emissions statewide, while offering a sample of what our air quality might look like in a future with fewer gas-powered cars on the road.
“COVID made 2020 such a strange year it is hard to draw long term conclusions, except that when we change our habits — particularly driving — it can make a big difference in reducing the gases that drive climate change,” said Dave Clegern, spokesman for California’s Air Quality Board.
His agency’s latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory also shows some non-pandemic-reasons for a decline in emissions, including a spike in electric vehicles, wider use of cleaner diesel fuel and more diverse sources of clean power generation. That suggests at least some of the 2020 gains will last beyond that outlier year, and might help California get closer to its climate goals.
But even with a global pandemic driving an unprecedented drop, 2020 emissions were still just 14% below 1990 levels, well behind a long-term goal, set six years ago, of being 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
New federal and international data out this week also signaled that, when California’s 2021 data is released next fall, emissions will have jumped back up from the pandemic drops, which will likely put us farther off course.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday released data showing greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial sources nationwide rose 4.1% in 2021 over 2020 levels. Then, on Wednesday, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said global emissions for the three main greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — all reached record highs in 2021, which the group said offers “yet another ominous warning” for the planet.
California did see emissions begin to tick back up toward the end of 2020, as industry and businesses began trying to get back to normal, Clegern said. And he added, “We expect we will see that continue in 2021 data.”
The latest report from the California Air Resources Board also doesn’t account for emissions from wildfires, which prompted several questions during a public webinar the agency held Wednesday afternoon.
A UCLA-led study released earlier this month, for example, suggested catastrophic wildfires in 2020 alone put twice as much greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere as what California saved through climate reduction measures from 2003 to 2019.
The Air Resources Board also tracks wildfire emissions and is concerned about the intensity of carbon released during those massive blazes, noted Rajinder Sahota, who heads up the agency’s climate change division. But she said those are reported separately from fossil fuel-related emissions that directly result from human activity, which she called the “root cause” of climate change and the subject of the state-mandated reductions that drove Wednesday’s report.
California set a goal in 2006 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The state previously announced it had met that goal in 2016. But under revised methodology, which air board staff said fixed duplicate counting errors in prior reports, they said Wednesday that California had actually met that goal in 2014, or some six years ahead of schedule.
Next up is a goal, established by Senate Bill 32 in 2016, to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. (Gov. Gavin Newsom tried to push the legislature this summer to bump that goal up to 55%, but that effort failed, with some members saying it wasn’t realistic considering questions about whether the state will even hit the original target.)
Overall, the latest report shows that from 2019 to 2020, California experienced its largest year-over-year drop in greenhouse gas emissions since the state started keeping record more than two decades ago.
Emissions fell by 35.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a 9% drop from 2019 totals. That’s the largest annual drop on record, overtaking a 6% decline that came in 2009 during the height of the Great Recession. And it puts emissions at 369 million metric tons, or 14.3% below 1990 levels.
Tailpipe emissions continue to be the largest single source of greenhouse gas in California, accounting for 37% of all 2020 emissions. And transportation overall, including oil extraction and refining to produce fuel, is responsible for nearly half.
But the transportation sector also had the steepest decline in emissions in 2020, dropping by 16%. State officials expect much of that dip was related to the pandemic. However, 2020 also saw an 18% spike in electric car purchases. Also, fuel efficiency of non-electric cars continued to improve. And there was a substantial jump in use of bio- and renewable diesel fuel for heavy-duty trucks.
A decade ago, the report shows no diesel fuel was clean. As of 2020, bio- and renewable diesel accounted for 21% of the 4.4 billion gallons of diesel fuel sold in the state.
Emissions from industry, commercial and residential sources also dropped in 2020, though the air board attributes most of those declines to the pandemic. But residents also likely used a bit less fossil fuel for heating, the report says, since that winter was unusually warm.
It was also a dry winter, which meant the state saw a 44% drop in electricity production from in-state hydropower. Fortunately, California didn’t see a corresponding jump in emissions from electricity production, since it didn’t have to turn to fossil fuel sources to make up that difference. Instead, the report says the gap was covered by a 10% jump in solar generation and cleaner sources of imported electricity including wind power.
The state is hoping new mandates and incentive programs will speed up the pivot to more electric vehicles, wind power, biodiesel and other changes that move us away from fossil fuels, which would make emissions fall more quickly over the next few years.
We’ll find out in a decade if California meets its 2030 goal, with that report due out in fall 2032.