Hillel Aron

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California is not on track to meet its ambitious climate goals and lacks a coherent strategy to do so, state officials warned lawmakers Wednesday during a joint legislative committee hearing on climate change policy.

"It’s great to have goals," said Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat from Healdsburg. "But on the ground, there’s a disconnect. Right now, some of this really feels unachievable."

In 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order committing the state to become carbon neutral by 2045. According to that timetable, the state's current goal is cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% of 1990 levels by the year 2030, and at least 85% of 1990 levels by the year 2045.

The job of developing a plan to achieve those goals was handed to the California Air Resource Board, which must update its plan every five years. In its most recent plan, the board adopted an even more ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 48% of 1990 levels by 2030 — now just seven years away.

report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office released in January was sharply critical of air resource board's latest plan, saying it lacked a "clear strategy" for meeting its 2030 goal. While emissions have dropped considerably over the last five years, "emissions would need to decline much faster in order to meet the 2030 and 2045 targets," according to the analyst's report.

"From 2010 to 2019, emissions declined by about 1% annually," the report reads. "In contrast, meeting statutory statewide emission reduction goals would require average annual reductions of 4% from 2019 to 2030, and 9% between 2030 and 2045."

The board's plan lays out series of goals ranging from the aspirational to the wildly unrealistic. Under one scenario, the state would phase out all gas-powered vehicles and all oil refineries, reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita by 25%, and retrofit all buildings with electric appliances — all by 2035. Three other alternatives pare back those goals slightly, but add tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide removal and sequestration as part of the plan.

Among other things, the legislative analyst criticized the plan for not specifying the role of California's cap-and-trade program. Launched in 2013 — the first of its kind in the U.S. — the program caps carbon emissions by energy companies (the cap automatically lowers every year), but also allows those companies to buy and sell credits on a market.

For years, emissions have come in well below the cap. That sounds like good news, but it's allowed energy companies to bank credits. Now, officials fear that those banked credits will insulate the companies from having to reduce emissions by 2030.

Ross Brown with the Legislative Analyst's Office told the committee that the state's cap-and-trade program was "not up to that task" of helping the state meet its 2030 target, at least as it's structured now.

"It’s essentially not stringent enough," Brown told the committee.

The committee was also critical of the goal of reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled per person. According to Caltrans, the number of miles driven by Californians has risen steadily since 2013. That's consistent with national trends.

"For all Californians to reduce vehicle miles traveled — that seems like an incredibly ambitious assumption without any details of how to get there," said state Senator Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat representing the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, during the hearing.

Liane Randolph, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, defended the plan. With regard to vehicle miles traveled, she said, "I don't view them as assumptions. I view them as a call to action. We need to get vehicles to zero emissions, but also we need to reduce our reliance on those vehicles."

The famously car-centric Los Angeles is in the midst of a rail-building binge, spending billions of dollars every year to build out its network of light rail and subway lines, as well as bus lanes and other public transit infrastructure. Nonetheless, transit ridership was declining steadily for years before the pandemic, when, of course, ridership plummeted. Its usage has risen in recent years, but hasn't rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

"I am concerned about the 25% reduction, but I’m proud we have that target," said Democratic Assemblymember Laura Friedman, who represents parts of LA as well as Burbank and Glendale. "But how do we achieve it?"

It was a question that went unanswered.