California just reached a major environmental milestone two years ahead of schedule — all while seeing its economy continuously grow.

An argument often promulgated by Republicans and libertarians is that environmental regulations will harm the economy. This argument is repeated ad nauseam in multiple studies from the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation — one of the leading conservative think tanks in Washington.

“Energy is a key building block for economic opportunity. Carbon-dioxide-emitting fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, provided 87 percent of America’s energy needs in the past decade, and have been the overwhelming supplier for over a century,” a 2016 Heritage report attacking the Paris climate accords states. “Companies will pass higher costs on to consumers or absorb the costs, which prevents hiring and new investment. As prices rise, consumers buy less, and companies will drop employees, close entirely, or move to other countries where the cost of doing business is lower.”

This argument was very much present in 2006, when former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed a bill into law promising to reduce the state’s carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. However, Gov. Schwarzenegger predicted that his new environmental regulations would actually have a positive impact on the economy.

“When you set goals, it makes other industries be innovative. They end up being innovative and creating new ways of solving problems, and that’s what this is all about,” Schwarzenegger said in 2006. “We feel very strongly we can do that and add jobs and make industries boom.”

As it turns out, The Governator was right: The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that California successfully reduced carbon emissions to 1990 levels two years ahead of schedule. In 1990, the state emitted 431 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. However, in 2016 — the latest year of data available — California emitted just 429.4 million metric tons. California achieved this goal while simultaneously enjoying steady GDP growth from 2006 to today (not counting the massive hit the state’s economy took during the Great Recession of 2008-2010).

Annual percent change of real GDP in California, 2000-2017 (Chart by Statista)

In an email to the Chronicle, Schwarzenegger lauded the state’s accomplishment in achieving 1990 emissions levels by 2018 while simultaneously boasting a strong economy.

“Surpassing our 2020 emissions goal ahead of schedule while our economy grows by a nation-leading 4.9 percent and our unemployment rate is at a historic low should send a message to politicians all over the country: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel — just copy us,” Schwarzenegger told the Chronicle. “Business will boom and lives will be saved.”

However impressive, achieving the 2020 goal in 2018 is just one of many steps California is taking to reduce its carbon emissions. State law mandates that carbon emissions drop by another 40 percent by 2030, meaning 12.3 million fewer metric tons emitted each year over the next decade. An executive order issued by Governor Jerry Brown (D) demands the Golden State reduce CO2 emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.


Logan Espinoza is a freelance contributor specializing in economic issues. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and daughter. Contact him at logan DOT espinoza AT yahoo DOT com.

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