Putting your money where your values are—buying local, cruelty-free, organic food; installing a gray water system; investing in "green" companies—is a good idea on a personal level.
On a statewide level, it's a great idea.
And when that state is the world's fifth largest economy, it's potentially spectacular.
California (not including local and regional governments) spends about $10 billion per year on infrastructure—roads, bridges, buildings, etc. That kind of purchasing power could wield a huge amount of influence if, say, that public spending were consciously aligned with the state's goals on climate change and cutting carbon emissions.
Or as the Buy Clean California Act, signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, puts it: "Great quantities of emissions are released during the manufacture and transport of products used in public infrastructure projects," and "California, through its extensive purchasing power, can improve environmental outcomes and accelerate necessary greenhouse gas reductions to protect public health, the environment, and conserve a livable climate by incorporating emissions information from throughout the supply chain and product life cycle into procurement decisions, and using that information to help direct expenditure."
Specifically, the act targets embedded carbon emissions of structural steel (hot-rolled sections, hollow structural sections, and plate), carbon steel rebar, flat glass, and mineral wool board insulation.
Policy is destiny. It can make markets, change habits, and redirect the despair and acquiescence of "that's just the way things are" into the realization that we can make things be the way they should be.
In this regard, California has hit upon a way to take on global warming's dirtiest little secret, a problem that The Washington Post has dubbed the glaring loophole in our climate policies and which has been getting worse over the last three decades: At the same time that one set of negotiators has been hammering out policies for the reduction of carbon emissions in summit meetings on climate change, another set of negotiators has been hammering out trade agreements that guarantee a surge in carbon emissions. It would be funny if it weren't an existential threat to a livable planet.
The New York Times provides a concise illustration of the problem: "Britain, for instance, slashed domestic emissions within its own borders by one-third between 1990 and 2015. But it has done so as energy-intensive industries have migrated abroad. If you included all the global emissions produced in the course of making things like the imported steel used in London's skyscrapers and cars, then Britain's total carbon footprint has actually increased slightly over that time."
Or as Kevin Danaher put it even more concisely back in 2003: Corporations "have shut down facilities in the United States and moved them to China because they can pay workers a fraction of U.S. wages, and they can save piles of money by polluting China's environment in ways that would be illegal here."
The Buy Clean California Act disrupts that scenario. It means manufacturers who operate the most polluting plants will need to rethink their business plan as orders decline. Manufacturers who have invested in pollution reduction see their investment pay off.
Over the next three years, the act will be phased in via requirements for the submission of environmental product declarations for materials to be used in projects. By Jan. 1, 2021, the Department of General Services will establish the Global Warming Potential (GWP) limit for each of the eligible materials. In July 2021, all materials for state projects will have to meet that requirement.
Local resolutions show the state that local governments support this policy and keep the responsible agencies motivated to ensure the timely and robust implementation of the law.
Last July, Richmond became the first city in California to pass a resolution supporting state implementation of the Buy Clean California Act to help reduce climate pollution and resolving to pursue adoption of a Buy Clean policy at the local level.
The Sierra Club played a big part in getting the Buy Clean California Act passed, and is continuing to do so at the local level in cities and counties around the state. There are many ways you can get involved in the Buy Clean campaign and help persuade your local city council members or county supervisors to do as the state has done to reduce climate pollution. You can organize a forum to educate your community about Buy Clean and invite Sierra Club California staff to present information. You can volunteer to work closely with Sierra Club California staff to develop a local Buy Clean strategy.
To discuss the best ways you can get involved in the Buy Clean campaign and get your city or SLO County to reduce their carbon pollution, visit sierraclub.org/california/why-buy-clean or contact Conservation Organizer Molly Culton at email@example.com or (916) 557-1100, Ext. 1100. Δ
Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or get your thoughts published by emailing a letter to email@example.com.