In California, a bipartisan win for cap and trade

The state Legislature extends groundbreaking climate legislation.


On Monday, the California Legislature narrowly voted to extend the state’s landmark cap-and-trade legislation by a decade. The bill, which required a two-thirds supermajority in order to pass, received unusual bipartisan support, with eight Republicans voting with Democrats to approve it. 

California’s cap-and-trade program, which has been in effect since 2013, requires businesses to buy credits to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to lower emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — a reduction of about 30 percent — followed by an 80 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050. The original legislation only lasted until 2020, but the newly passed bill will extend the program by a decade. The legislature also passed a companion bill to strengthen air quality rules. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon urge members of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee to approve a pair of climate change bills on July 13, 2017. On July 17, the California legislature voted to extend the state's cap and trade program.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

The bill’s passage was a victory for California Gov. Jerry Brown. Following President Donald Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris climate agreements, Brown has emerged as a de facto climate leader, asserting that his state’s commitment to combating climate change is not contingent on the country’s. Brown recently announced that California would host its own climate summit next year.

Last week, the governor sent a clear message regarding the importance of cap and trade: “You’re going to be alive in a horrible situation,” he warned a state Senate committee, citing future mass migrations and forest fires. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead,” he told the committee. “This is for you, and it’s damn real.”

Many Republicans voiced opposition to the bill. In a letter to the governor, the Republican caucus noted that “many of the mechanisms the state’s regulatory agencies have used to reduce carbon emissions have increased costs for consumers and for employees,” and expressed concern that the cap-and-trade measure would do the same. During the debate that preceded Monday’s vote, those opposed pointed to potential increases in gas and electricity rates for the sake of what state Sen. Ted Gaines described as “some tiny difference in sea level in 2200.” Gaines also called the vote “the start of the next great California recession.”

The bill also revealed a split within the environmental community between groups working nationally, which largely supported the extension, and groups more concerned with local pollution, which opposed it on the grounds that the concessions to industry went too far. The Sierra Club’s California chapter opposed it, citing provisions that prevent the board tasked with implementing the program from directly regulating the carbon emissions of participating businesses. In a letter to the governor and the state Senate and Assembly leaders, the Coalition for Clean Air asserted, “We do not support cap-and-trade designs that cater to industry demands over the need to reduce pollution, reach our climate targets, and improve air quality in our most environmentally burdened communities.”

Meanwhile, Alex Jackson, the legal director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California climate project, conceded in a statement the concessions to the fossil fuel industry to which groups like the Coalition for Clean Air object are “bitter pills,” but “on balance the package ensures our emissions limits are enforceable against polluters and secures critical gains to improve air quality for millions of Californians.”

This kind of split has stopped climate legislation before. For example, such divisions contributed to the defeat of the proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state last November. Several social justice and environmental groups came out against the tax, which was also opposed by the fossil fuel industry, because they felt it didn’t do enough to help the communities most affected by climate change.

California’s cap-and-trade program, the only one in the United States, has been touted as a potential model for other states and beyond. This bipartisan effort to renew it makes it clear that the Republican Party does not represent a united front against climate regulations — and Washington does not speak for state or local representatives. Brown commended the two parties for coming together to support the cap-and-trade extension. “That’s what good government looks like,” he said in a statement following the vote.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.  

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