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How to get to a carbon-neutral California

July 28, 2021
Jocelyn Chen
Class of 2023

Climate change is often portrayed as a nightmare scenario that sometimes seems too big to confront. I’m always inspired by the people who overcome the overwhelming certainty of climate change and dedicate their days towards solving the problem itself. That is why I was so excited to work with Dr. Sally Benson, Dr. Sarah Saltzer and a wonderful host of students and community partners this summer on the Pathways to Carbon Neutrality project. This is a group of people that will discover what needs to be done to decarbonize California and have net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. Yes, they’re talking the entirety of California.

As a native Californian myself, I have a personal stake in the research and modeling that happens every day. Though my tasks are relatively small, I am still in awe of the responsibility I have in the lab’s massive endeavor. For example, during my first week of work I collected greenhouse gas emission data from a database of emissions released by the California Air Resources Board and made a pie chart (what Sarah calls the “north star” of the project). Within a day, my pie had already appeared in one of Sally’s presentations during her keynote presentation to stakeholders from all over California. My other tasks involve searching the literature and interviewing experts to find numbers that can be put into the lab’s Long Range Energy Alternatives Planning System model.

A pie chart depicting breakdown of total 2018 emissions

Even as a part-time SUPER researcher, my tasks are intriguing and challenging. I know the numbers I find and recommend that the team use will have a domino-effect through the entire modeling process and final report. Although the whole field of decarbonization is still relatively new to me, SUPER gave me the opportunity to jump in with both feet into the workings of scientists in the energy field. Once I became more familiar with the jargon and acronyms of the research, I felt more confident about learning more.

One aspect of the research that surprised me was the Benson lab’s approach to decarbonization: the responsibility of decarbonization should never rest on one sector but will require the commitment of all sectors. The lab’s mantra was echoed by the career-diverse set of stakeholders who attended our workshop, which included builders, cattle farmers, fossil fuel executives, foresters, and more. I’d never thought about decarbonization as a responsibility of all sectors, potentially requiring national or international cooperation, because some sectors just emit more greenhouse gases than others. But the discussions from the workshop convinced otherwise. There is no better way to incentivize decarbonization than having everyone on board.