California took some of its most aggressive steps yet to fight global warming as lawmakers passed a flurry of new climate bills late Wednesday, including a record $54 billion in climate spending, a measure to prevent the state’s last nuclear power plant from closing, sharp new restrictions on oil and gas drilling and a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045.
The bills, passed around midnight at the end of a frenzied two-year legislative session in Sacramento, marked a victory for Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has sought to portray himself as a climate leader as he has raised his national profile and begun drawing speculation about a possible White House run.
Newsom upended the legislative session in mid-August when he urged lawmakers to pass several major new climate bills. In the end, all of his proposals passed but one: a bill to strengthen the state’s 2030 target for slashing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, which fell short by four votes in the state Assembly.
“Together with the Legislature’s leadership, the progress we make on the climate crisis this year will be felt for generations and the impact will spread far beyond our borders,” Newsom said in a statement.
The new actions by California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, add momentum to growing efforts nationwide to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of oil, gas, and coal that are overheating the planet.
In August, President Biden signed an expansive climate law that would invest $370 billion over the next decade in low-emissions energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear power. But that law alone won’t be enough to eliminate US greenhouse gases by 2050, a target that climate scientists say the world as a whole must reach to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. To help close the gap, White House officials have said that states also need to take more forceful action.
California already has some of the nation’s most stringent policies to promote renewable energy and shift away from fossil fuels. Last month, state regulators finalized a plan to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, a policy that could be adopted by other states and is widely expected to accelerate the global transition toward cleaner electric vehicles.
But as record-breaking heat waves, droughts, and wildfires have battered the state, Newsom has faced increasing pressure from environmentalists to do more. As lawmakers voted in Sacramento, the National Weather Service warned that a “very dangerous” heat wave would grip the state through Labor Day weekend.
The new bills aim to bolster California’s plans to cut emissions, though experts said that state regulators would now need to do the difficult work of achieving those targets.
State lawmakers had previously set a legally binding goal for California to slash its greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Under new legislation passed Wednesday, the state will now have to cut emissions at least 85 percent by 2045 while offsetting any remaining emissions by planting more trees or using still-unproven technologies like direct air capture, which collects gasses after they’ve already been discharged into the atmosphere.
Still, setting an ambitious goal is only the first step. For now, the state is not even on track to meet its 2030 goals, said Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit group that evaluates climate programs. He argued that California regulators were still putting too much faith in a cap-and-trade program that imposes a ceiling on emissions from large polluters but that has come under criticism for being too lenient.
“If these new targets force state regulators to go back to the drawing board and come up with a credible new plan to cut emissions, that’s great,” Cullenward said. “But in my view, they still don’t have a realistic plan for implementation, and that’s the most important part.”
Other bills passed by the Legislature would take more concrete steps.
Lawmakers approved a budget laid out by Newsom that would spend a record $54 billion over five years on climate programs. That includes $6.1 billion for electric vehicles, including money to buy new battery-powered school buses, $14.8 billion for transit and rail projects, more than $8 billion to clean up the electric grid, $2.7 billion to fight wildfires and $2.8 billion in water programs to help the state deal with drought.
As part of that spending package, legislators endorsed a plan to keep open the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a pair of nuclear reactors that provide 9 percent of California’s electricity without producing any emissions.
Those reactors were originally scheduled to close in 2024 and 2025, but the new plan extends those deadlines to 2029 and 2030 while providing a $1.4 billion loan to Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that operates the plant. PG&E is also expected to apply for money from a new $6 billion federal program designed to keep open existing nuclear plants.
Newsom had once been a firm believer that Diablo Canyon should shut down. But as California has faced increasingly severe heat waves that drive up demand for electricity and strain the grid, the state has struggled to keep the lights on. So this summer, Newsom reversed course and urged lawmakers to keep the plant open.
Some environmentalists criticized the move, arguing that the money would be better spent on other clean energy resources like solar and wind power and batteries. But proponents of keeping the plant open warned that California badly needed the electricity, and if the plant closed, it would be replaced with more polluting sources like natural gas.