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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Newsom’s New Climate Plan: Protect Land and Oceans, Sequester Carbon

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In an ambitious plan to protect biodiversity and avoid furthering catastrophic climate change, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that the state will use a major resource it already has to curb greenhouse gas emissions: millions of acres of land.

Gov. Newsom signed an executive order that directs state policymakers to design a pathway to conserve 30% of the state’s land and coastal water by 2030, in order to curb the loss of species and ecosystems. The Governor envisions carbon sequestration projects on farms and other landscapes as a major part of preventing the climate crisis from worsening.

“California’s beautiful natural and working lands are an important tool to help slow and avert catastrophic climate change, and today’s executive order provides important new tools to take on this existential threat,” said Newsom.

The executive order will be spearheaded by the California Natural Resources Agency, and devised by February 2022. Newsom says it will strive to safeguard the state’s economy and farming industry, while preserving biodiversity and restoring natural landscapes at the same time.

The effort, coined the “30 x 30” goal, is part of an international vision with countries like Britain, Canada and the European Union among the many taking part.

“California, as the fifth largest economy in the world, needs to flex its muscles, it needs to assert itself,” Newsom told reporters Wednesday on a farm in Solano County. “Hopefully [it will] jumpstart efforts, similar efforts in other states across this country.”

A major theme of Newsom’s plan is to maximize the amount of carbon that is stored in plants, forests, water and soil. Too much carbon in the atmosphere is what fuels climate change, but it’s good for the soil, Newsom says. His goal is to unify farmers, landowners and conservationists around the climate effort — even though they “haven't always seen eye-eye” — so the state can be more resilient to climate changes.

“We're committed to working [together and] incentivizing the kind of behavior that I think resides in each and every farmer and rancher,” he said.

Building the health of soils as a climate adaptation strategy is an idea farmers and soil scientists have touted for years to help slow warming trends. One technique is to plant cover crops on unused land and between orchards to pull carbon out of the air and into soil.

California’s new mandate could also help restore declining bee populations and wetlands, Newsom says, and it also will protect coastal areas. Wildfire risks would be mitigated through better forest management, according to the Governor, and trees and other vegetation would be planted in urban areas.

As a result of Newsom's order, the California Natural Resources Agency will form a statewide biodiversity collaborative that includes researchers, political leaders and community members with the goal of creating what the governor called a collaborative approach.

The administration says utilizing California’s existing lands to store carbon is an important way to limit “the impacts of climate change while protecting our communities from climate change-driven events.”

Federal studies suggest that around 46% of the state’s terrain is owned by the federal government. With so much of that land undeveloped it raises questions about whether the goal has already been met. But the organization Defenders of Wildlife published a report in May saying that only 22% of the state’s land and 16% of its ocean is protected. The group's calculations are based on the assumption that an area isn’t protected if activities like mining or logging are at play.

Groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon California and the Natural Resources Defense Council applaud the plan, saying California is the first state to set priorities that address diversity loss from climate change and incorporate equity, Indigenous people, and access to nature.

“Ensuring that historically disadvantaged communities, including communities of color and tribal communities, have a voice and equitable access to the benefits of thriving ecosystems will be crucial,” said Drevet Hunt, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, says Newsom’s order builds on failed legislation introduced this year, Assembly Bill 3030 by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-27), that proposed to protect 30% of the state’s land and ocean by 2030. She says the executive order is “the first step to ensure that all Californians” have access to a healthy environment for generations to come.

“The Governor is making up for California’s lack of bold action in the last couple of years, and he is stepping up where the Legislature has failed,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. “He has drawn a line in the sand around climate action and resilience — and that’s exactly what’s needed right now.”

But others say the order, although well-intentioned, is only part of the conversation around curbing climate change. Many environmental groups want fossil fuels phased out or banned entirely, because burning them is one of the main contributors of climate change.

“Gov. Newsom can’t effectively combat climate change and protect biodiversity without also addressing oil and gas production,” said Shaye Wolf, Climate Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We know that burning fossil fuels in the ground will heat the planet well beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius and push many animals and plants towards extinction.”

Wolf says failing to limit warming to that 1.5 degrees mark means the possible loss of the Joshua tree in places like the Mojave Desert. She says coastal shorebirds will be pushed out by sea level rise, and high sierra species like the pika “can’t survive on warming mountain tops.”

Newsom’s policy signing today comes after a September mandate to require all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035.