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The State of California

The State of California
38 million
$2 trillion
United States
The State of California


GHG emissions (year): 450 million tons CO2e. For more info on economic and political context, see below.

California is the third largest and most populated state in the USA. Its diverse geography ranges from forested mountains in the Pacific Northwest to the arid Mojave Desert in the southeast, and thanks to the San Andreas Fault line around 37,000 earthquakes are recorded annually. The major coastal cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco are centers for the entertainment and technology industries, and are regarded as cultural trend-setters.

California has historically been a leader in climate change action. In 2006 the state passed “AB 32”, a legal commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 17% to 1990 levels - 431 million metric tons of CO2e - by 2020. The Governor has established a further goal to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 emission levels by 2050, which its 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction target will be consistent with. While the state’s main contributors to absolute GHGs are the transportation, power and industrial sectors, sharing 40%, 27% and 23% respectively, over the past five years, the state's gross domestic product has grown by 5% as the amount of carbon pollution has fallen. 

California is the only US state with an economy-wide, legally binding emission trading system. The state has taken an economy-wide approach to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, through particular regulations or incentive programs pertain to particular sectors, such as the electricity or transportation sectors, but the cap-and-trade program will cover 85% of the state’s emissions. The trading system will begin with big industrial emitters and electric utilities in 2013, and expand to include transportation fuels and natural gas in 2015.

As of May 2014, 23% of California's electricity produced is from renewable sources, and by 2020, California will generate at least 33% of its electricity from renewable sources. California’s large clean technology sector is seeing rapid growth thanks to investment and expansion to meet new demand, especially for solar and wind power generation, and Californian solar companies now employ more than 44,000 people. Private companies including Google and BT have set up renewable energy projects in the state to power their operations, and commercial energy generators are rapidly expanding their renewable portfolios.

California is the world’s leading market for electric vehicles and for stationary storage, including a requirement of 1300 MW of storage by 2020. These programs have become part of the dynamic economic engine that is California. Over four decades, the state's appliance and building efficiency policies have saved consumers over $65 billion and created 1.5 million jobs. 

Boasting the lowest per capita carbon emissions and electricity consumption in the US, the state has nevertheless identified a number of development areas for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and has formed strategies for meeting its targets and measuring its progress.

Current Activities

Energy efficiency

California’s actions between now and 2030 include the requirement that all new residential construction to be Zero Net Energy by 2020, and all non-residential be so by 2030. California is developing additional cost-effective minimum efficiency standards for a variety of lighting, electronics and other common products. It is also instituting requirements for energy benchmarking of all non-residential buildings above 30,000 square feet, and using standardized reporting and analysis tools for statewide assessment and trending of existing building energy performance patterns, which will be used for evaluation of current and future actions.

California's annual energy ratepayer investment of US$1.2 billion in end-use energy efficiency is likely to increase, and it is also promoting a number of financing tools for home energy retrofits and increasing efforts to ensure a higher percentage of energy retrofits for existing homes and buildings.

Low carbon electricity 

California will build on its 2020 target of 33%-plus renewable portfolio with an increasing percentage of renewables to 2030 and beyond. Its focus will be more specifically on GHG emission reductions from the power sector, through an increased renewable portfolio, demand reduction and response, increased storage paired with renewables, increased penetration of distributed renewables and storage, and actions at the grid level.

Decarbonization of transport

The transportation sector in California accounts for nearly 40% of its greenhouse gas emissions. Strategies for reducing carbon pollution will include transformation of the transportation fleet from older higher pollution vehicles and fuels to newer, near zero and zero emission vehicles and cleaner, less carbon intense fuels. California has set a goal of 1.5 million zero emission vehicles by 2025, adopted a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, provided incentives for purchasers of ZEVs, established grants to accelerate charging infrastructure for battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fueling infrastructure for fuel cell electric vehicles, and developed programs to support near zero and zero emission vehicles and fuels in a wide variety of fleets, from transit buses to port equipment.

California’s low carbon fuel standard requires a 10% reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2020. The state is providing more zero emission transit options, changing land use and zoning to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and building a high speed rail network that will be the backbone of an integrated transit system. California has also adopted aggressive carbon pollution reduction requirements for all vehicles through 2026 and beyond. By 2030, the state’s transportation emissions will be significantly reduced, in line with the 2050 reduction goals.

Sustainable land use

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) works to improve forest management practices to reduce the threat of wildfires, drought and disease. The CDF manages a program to plant urban forests, to provide shade and cooling in cities while capturing carbon.

The Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is developing strategies to reduce methane from livestock, and sequester carbon stored in crops through more responsible tilling of the land. It is also working with farmers to create a viable market for agricultural waste by generating energy and low carbon fuels.

Emissions trading

California emissions trading program – also called cap and trade – sets statewide limits on sources of 85% of greenhouse gas emissions, and helps establish a price for emissions and drive investments toward cleaner energy, infrastructure, and fuels. The emission cap declines 2-3% through to 2020. Sending the market a signal that the cap-and-trade program will continue in the long-term is critical to fully realizing the benefits of the program. Extending the cap-and-trade program beyond 2020 will also reduce the costs of the program as California industry and households make long-term capital and investment decisions. The level of the cap decline beyond 2020 will be commensurate with the emission reductions needed to meet the 2030 goal. 

Waste management

Thanks to the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) over 58% of waste was diverted from landfill to recycling and reuse in 2009, up from 10% in 1990. CIWMB has been superseded by CalRecycle, which has ambitious waste reduction targets and has now reached a recycling rate of 82% for ten materials.

International collaboration

California participates in The Western Climate Initiative and The Climate Registry.

Smart cities

California passed the country’s first Smart Growth legislation in 2008 intended to curb sprawl and reduce vehicle miles travelled. Local initiatives are underway, for example in Long Beach and San Diego. 

A sustainable communities strategy is also currently under development. 

More info

Devolved powers and competencies relevant to climate and energy

The Air Resources Board is responsible for implementation of the California Global Warming Sollutions Act. This includes cap-and-trade, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Advanced Clean Cars and the Sustainable Communities program, among others.

The California Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission have various responsibilities and authority related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, among other climate-related areas.

Many local air quality and planning jurisdictions are taking leadership roles in climate-related policies, as are the state’s municipally-owned utilities (which account for about a quarter of the electricity market in the state).

GHG breakdown by sector (%) in 2010:

Power 27%
Transport 40%
Buildings 10%
Industry 23%
Agriculture/forestry n/a
Waste n/a

Current power sector mix (%)

Coal 7.7%
Natural gas 41.9%
Nuclear 13.9%
Renewables 13.7%

Large hydro


Imported coal, natural gas and Pacific NW hydropower all of which have been re-sold multiple times without specific source documentation


California has multiple funding mechanisms and is evaluating others. Cap and trade auction revenue, bonds, ratepayer funds, Property Assessed Clean Energy funding and on-bill financing are among the mechanisms used.  

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