California dreaming? Environmental lessons for Brexit Britain from the ‘left coast’

Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway #1 at the US West Coast traveling south to Los AngelesJohn Steinbeck described the California I grew up in as ‘a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.’ The golden state has always loomed large in the imagination but, in my early years, much of the stink and quality of light was literal: my dad, a Los Angeles native, used to joke that he didn’t trust air he couldn’t see. That’s how bad the air pollution was.

Since then, things have changed. Californian air pollution has fallen 40 per cent in the past 15 years. Its famous, hummer-driving Republican ‘governator’, Arnold Schwarzenegger, inaugurated the first carbon trading scheme in the US. Per capita energy use has been flat since the 1970s while consumption elsewhere in the US has shot up by 75 per cent.

California’s environmental successes have happened in spite of the federal government, held back by antediluvian members of Congress. It has gone its own way and been greener for it. Brexiteers seeking a distinctively British shade of green might learn something from across the pond.

California sets the air quality standards for the rest of the US because it is big enough to swing the market. And it is not afraid to throw its weight around: during the 1980s, it took nearly 15 years for federal NOx emissions standards to catch up with those set in California but, because it is such a big market, automakers had to develop new technology to reduce emissions. California has about 11 per cent of US population and 13.5 per cent of US GDP. The UK is just over 12 per cent of the EU’s population, and 13.75 per cent of EU GDP. Could the UK do the same? The numbers add up (dude).

Or, take clean energy. California will get 50 per cent of its electricity from renewables, and increase the energy efficiency of existing buildings by 50 per cent by 2030. Previous targets meant the state increased its non-hydro renewables from 14 per cent in 2007 to 25 per cent in 2015. The UK has similarly ambitious carbon budgets and, including hydro, its renewables output last year also hit 25 per cent. But progress in the UK is slowing, while California continues to power ahead.

Four lessons to emulate California’s success
First, ends matter more than means. Californians have a carbon trading scheme and renewables targets. And electric car targets and air pollution standards. And subsidies for solar. Their ‘can do’ pragmatism eschews the sort of ideological purity that British policy wonks espouse. When one policy mechanism fails, Californians come up with new ones that work. As Steinbeck put it, “now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Second, shared standards drive innovation. California set tough rules for car emissions first, but it didn’t go it alone. Instead, it signed up 13 other states to its air pollution standards. This made the market for cleaner cars much bigger, helping to reduce the cost of emissions reduction equipment and reward manufacturers who had invested in pollution reduction. Britain’s settlement with the EU should foster cross-channel collaboration to drive standards up and costs down.

Third, you can’t do it on the cheap. The California Air Resources Board, the state’s regulator, spends £450 million a year just on air pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s air pollution budget is an additional £600 million. By contrast, the UK’s Environment Agency spends just over £400 million on waste and all forms of pollution prevention – not just air quality – in a country twice as populous as California. As the Volkswagen scandal shows, US regulators have the means to test independently and prosecute offenders. Brexit Britain will need better resourced regulators if it wants to enforce environmental rules.

Finally, build the future. Outsiders think Californian leftism is what allows the state to drive change, but beware easy caricatures: this is the state that made Ronald Reagan its governor and elected him to the White House. The real lesson from the state that invented the internet is that those who build the future will sell their inventions and expertise to the laggards. The future is clean. Both left and right agree that California should be the place that future is made. Theresa May’s vision for a bold and more interventionist state should set the same mission for British enterprise.

As autumn’s chill settles in grey Britain, I’ll admit to a bit of California dreaming. But if Britain wants a future of clear skies and sunlit uplands, California is the place from which to draw inspiration.

3 comments

  • Wandering Dutchman

    Problem is, Britain or should we say England has a conservative government that is addicted to donations from fossil fuel companies and their multinational climate change denying investors. As a result, the vast majority of renewables technology and companies pushing the renewables agenda are non-British. The Brits are sticking with old gas (Fracking & LNG) and nuclear technology, whilst playing lip-service to wind & solar. The rest of the EU / Europe are more likely to follow California’s lead.

  • I happen to live in California, and I pass by a local wind farm every day. There is also a few solar farms out in the desert- I pass by one on the way up to Las Vegas from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, they are still trying to figure out how to deal with the impact of birds flying into the wind turbine blades, and the light of the solar collector (the heat cooks them immediately!)

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