Constructing a new building or bridge doesn’t start on location. It begins where companies manufacture the steel, iron, glass, insulation, aluminum and concrete that go into it. Then these materials have to travel. These phases of construction — the manufacturing and transportation — often produce carbon emissions that heavily contribute to climate change.
California, a leader in climate action, has set out to change this. State legislators recently passed (and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, despite cost concerns) a bipartisan measure that, as of 2019, will require all contractors who bid on state infrastructure projects to disclose the amount of greenhouse gases that result from their manufacturing processes. The goal is to award contracts only to sources who keep their carbon pollution low, and have made curbing it a company policy from start to finish.
“California is the first major economy to say ‘we own what we buy. If we buy polluting, we own the pollution. If we buy clean, we own the clean.’ That’s a huge breakthrough,” said Carl Pope, advisor to Bloomberg Philanthropies and former director of the Sierra Club. “About a fifth of the world’s climate pollution is emitted making stuff — cars, clothes, salads, jet fuel, condos, iPads. To date, we pretend when we count that none of that exists. Our books are, as a result, badly askew. ‘Buy Clean’ puts California at the head of the ‘count it all’ club. And counting it all is the key to competing, so this is a major economic boost for the Golden state.”
California is the only state thus far to mandate a “buy clean” policy through legislation, although a number of individual California companies, such as Apple, Google and Chevron, already address supply chain emissions, as does steel producer Gerdau, which has more than 100 locations in North America.
“We pride ourselves on our environmental performance and commitment to reducing pollution through the use of clean technologies,” said Mark Olson, vice president of Gerdau and a supporter of the legislation. “Buy Clean will result in huge benefits for California, workers and industrial producers that share our environmental values.”
California, the world’s sixth largest economy, spends $10 billion a year on its infrastructure, including bridges, roads and state buildings, so supporters of the legislation believe the incentive will be enormous, and that other states will follow in enacting similar measures.
“We really are a nation of our own, with 40 million people,” said California state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Oakland who sponsored the bill. “We spend billions every year on infrastructure, and there will be more to come. There will be a lot more building and construction in the state. It will have an impact. Other states will take notice. That ripple effect is something we hope for, and believe will happen. As California goes, so goes the nation.”
California industries already comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to reduce its GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — a reduction of approximately 15 percent below emissions expected under a “business as usual” scenario. The new law will close a major climate loophole by applying to all companies — both in the United States and overseas — who seek to do construction business in California. In effect, it levels the playing field for manufacturers here and abroad who already have invested in clean, efficient manufacturing technology.
The legislation “sends a powerful message to businesses around the world that the greener your products are, the wider its doors open for business,” said Dan Hamza-Goodacre, industrial program director at the ClimateWorks Foundation. It also helps in “accelerating the global transition to a low-carbon economy,” he added.
The iron and steel industry is the largest consumer of energy in the manufacturing sector, accounting for 5 percent of total world greenhouse gas emissions. To make steel, manufacturers heat iron, limestone, and a carbon-rich form of coal in a furnace, producing high levels of carbon pollution. Because of California’s stringent emissions rules, state mills typically are cleaner, making it more likely California now will buy from steelmakers in the state, rather than from outside sources, such as China, as it has done in the past.
“Carbon leakage is a serious hurdle,” said Kim Glas, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. “We can’t really tackle climate change unless we focus on making the products we need to repair our failing infrastructure systems as clean as possible. We know from the Bay Bridge debacle that the state made a poor decision to buy the steel from carbon intensive mills in China, despite receiving bids from cleaner mills here in the U.S. We calculated that an estimated 180,000 tons of carbon emissions would have been averted if local steel had been used, an amount equivalent to taking 38,000 cars off the road in the U.S. for a year.”
With the new law, such a decision is unlikely to happen again in the future. “Nations around the world are moving to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement, and “‘Buy Clean’ promises to speed things up,” Pope said. “The carbon loophole is a glaring gap in climate policy. California just began the process of closing it.”
Despite the Trump Administration’s announced withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and its additional efforts to thwart climate mitigation, such as attempting to repeal the Obama’s Administration’s Clean Power Plan, supporters of the legislation don’t expect the federal government to interfere with the new law.
“The key to making sure that the federal government doesn’t get in the way is for dozens of states to copycat California,” Pope said. “The law covers a handful of products — but a handful with leverage — steel, glass, mineral wool. We can change the face of global manufacturing if we only explain ‘Buy Clean’ to the rest of the world.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.