What Can California’s Experience Tackling Climate Change Teach the Federal Government? With Richard Corey

Audio Editing by: Wangyuxuan Xu Blurb by: Ken Alex

In recognition of COP-27, Climate Break is partnering with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to talk about what what policymakers can learn from California’s experience with designing environmental regulations and incentives. First, listen to former CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey reflect on his experience and what’s to come for the future of environmental policy, in conversation with Ken Alex. Stay tuned for our upcoming coverage of current work CARB and its international partners are doing to advocate for transportation decarbonization and zero emission mobility on the global stage.

What Can California’s Experience Tackling Climate Change Teach the Federal Government? With Richard Corey

Earlier this year, Congress, through the Inflation Reduction Act, finally passed large-scale, meaningful legislation to respond to climate change.  The Act includes billions of dollars for electric vehicles, clean energy, and other action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and build resilient systems.  While the federal government has been taking some action on climate change for many years, the IRA represents the first time it has made such a substantial financial and regulatory commitment.

California passed economy-wide climate legislation – AB 32 – in 2006, and has been pursuing a multi-pronged, large-scale effort to mitigate climate change and build adaptation and resilience ever since.  The lead state agency for that effort is the California Air Resources Board or CARB, which is charged with developing and updating a Scoping Plan – basically a blueprint for a California-wide response to climate change across all aspects of the State and its economy.    So, what has California learned from its efforts over the past 16 years, and what might the federal government learn from California’s experience? 

We sat down with Richard Corey to discuss that and more.

Who is Richard Corey?

Richard Corey was the second longest tenured CARB Executive Officer, serving in that capacity from 2013 to 2022, responsible for directing a team of approximately 1,750 professional managers, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and analysts on a broad range of programs including those concerning fuels, mobile sources, climate, incentives, and air toxics. Richard oversaw the advanced clean cars program including the effort to bring over 1.5 million electric vehicles to California over the several years, advanced clean truck regulation (first program of its kind in the world requiring the production of zero emission trucks for use in California), low carbon fuel standard, cap-and-trade regulation, measures and incentives to reduce emissions from a variety of goods movement sources, including port trucking, transport refrigeration units, cargo handling operations, maritime operations, rail-related goods movement, and measures to reduce emissions from mobile, stationary, and portable diesel engines as well as several strategies to reduce toxic air contaminants from a wide variety of sources


Mr. Corey: The key opportunities have lied in terms of technologies effectively that were invented here by virtue of standards: three way catalysts to get at NOx emissions, PM emissions, carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles, to get at that 99% reduction in emissions from a car today, diesel PM filters, particulate traps that are standard original equipment on vehicles today. And now, it’s the transition to electrification. The market’s responding to those signals and we’re actually seeing manufacturing, for many of these technologies, coming to the state. And we’re seeing many states in international jurisdictions visit California to see how can they replicate what’s happening here.

Ken: I’m Ken Alex, and you’re listening to Climate Break. This is a special joint podcast with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program with support from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. 

California’s Air Resources Board, sometimes called CARB, made news around the world this August when it announced a new regulation requiring all new vehicles sold in California to be zero emission by 2035. But this is far from the first time that the board has played a major role in setting ambitious environmental policy for California. I recently sat down, on the sidelines of a conference, with Richard Corey, who was until recently CARB’s executive officer–to talk about the agency’s history, what he has learned about how to implement effective policy, and what lessons he sees for the federal government as it moves more aggressively on climate action.

Ken: Welcome to the podcast, Richard. 

Mr. Corey: Thank you. Great to be here. 

Ken: Maybe we can start just having you talk a little bit about your background and how you came to be at the Air Resources Board. 

Mr. Corey: Oh, thank you. Thanks for the question. So, I came to Air Resources Board shortly after graduating from college. I did my undergraduate degree in toxicology, environmental toxicology. I was particularly interested in toxic pollutants and how to reduce emissions and exposure. So I started as a staff person with the agency and it followed shortly after key legislation was passed in Sacramento, or rather in Sacramento by the legislature and signed by the governor directing the California Air Resources Board to establish a toxics program, develop regulations to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants. So I hit the ground running as a staff person to develop regulations to address vinyl chloride, benzene in fuels, ethylene oxide sterilizers, phase out perchloroethylene in dry cleaning, as a range of other toxic pollutants. And over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve at every level of the organization at the staff level and through levels of management. In the past nine years, I’ve served as the executive officer of the agency. 

Ken: Well, it’s been a pretty important nine years that you’ve been the executive director, uh, or the executive officer. Under your watch, California and your resources has really been a world leader on the issue of climate change and climate, climate action. What, from, from your observation, what have been some of the most effective actions and policies on climate? 

Mr. Corey: No, and I think about, very briefly, then I’ll get to the core of your question–I think about the establishment of CARB, the agency was established in 1967, by a law that at the time Governor Ronald Reagan signed off. So we’re over 50 years in existence. And that was in response to public pressure for action to take action to deal with air pollution. Some of our Southern California, South Coast, L.A. regions, the Central Valley had air quality that 200 times a year we exceeded health based air, multiples of health based air quality standards. And at that time we had 16 million people, 8 million vehicles, an economy of about 150 billion dollars. And if you fast forward to today, we’ve got 40 million people, fifth largest economy on the planet. We have unfortunately 30 million vehicles driving about 370 billion miles. They haven’t had a stage one or stage two ozone alert for 20 years.

The vehicle today is 99% cleaner in terms of NOx emissions, oxides of nitrogen, PM emissions. No doubt we have more work to do, there’s still millions of people exposed to unhealthy air quality, particularly in our most impacted communities, but those results are undeniable. CARB, along with many partners, have had a huge role in cleaning up fuels and transitioning out of combustion everywhere we can, and that’s really when the key opportunities have lied in terms of technologies effectively that were invented here by virtue of standards: three way catalysts to get at NOx emissions, PM emissions, carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles, to get at that 99% reduction in emissions from a car today, diesel PM filters, particulate traps that are standard original equipment on vehicles today. And now, it’s the transition to electrification. 

There’s multiple opportunities. To, as you can see, there’s 50 plus models of electric vehicles a day. The projections are within the next two years we’ll be at 200 models. We’re also seeing the same on trucks, we’re seeing the same on buses, we’re electrifying marine vessels, cargo handling in ships, cruise ships at ports, and many, many other opportunities.

Market’s responding to those signals and we’re actually seeing manufacturing for many of these technologies coming to the state and we’re seeing many states and international jurisdictions visit California to see how can they replicate what’s happening here. 

Ken: That’s pretty amazing and the Air Resources Board has jurisdiction on climate change that is economy wide. You mentioned a lot of the electric vehicle transportation set of issues. Uh, are there other areas where you feel like, um, the Air Resources Board has, has made a dent? 

Mr. Corey: We do, and a key area in the climate space has been high GWP, high global warming potential, short lived climate pollutants that are particularly potent at warming the atmosphere, exerting warming. And we see that in HFCs, hydrofluorocarbons. They’re used as refrigerants in our cars, our homes, our commercial businesses. Those pollutants, or those working fluids, when released to the atmosphere, when they leak–when they’re self contained, it’s great–but when they’re not maintained well and they leak, very potent pollutants from a warming standpoint.

Multiples of the warming the effect that CO2 has, carbon dioxide. Some of those HFCs, uh, it’s thousands of times on a hundred year time frame, on a twenty year time frame, it’s even more so. Same with methane, and although it’s not a greenhouse gas, black carbon, uh, and, uh, resulting from the combustion of fuels, diesel, and otherwise. We made tremendous improvements in terms of, uh, reductions of, uh, HFCs, methane and diesel PM, both by virtue of regulation and by how incentives are directed. 

And the point that I made that other jurisdictions and states are looking to either already have because we partner with them, or are modeling the programs that are taking place here and what we’re seeing is massive amounts of capital being directed in response to those signals. That is basically an action that takes place here, carries much more weight, even though California has a large economy, it’s even more impactful when we partner with many other states and jurisdictions around the world.

Ken: Well let me, let me ask you the inverse question, which is, are there things that you’ve observed, where you feel like maybe we could have done a little better or we learned some things that we would do differently if we had them to do over? 

Mr. Corey: It’s a great question and here’s a challenge. And it’s a challenge, one of the biggest challenges are those, from my perspective, that are, uh, require a multi multi partnership.And I’ll characterize one, and it’s VMT, Vehicle Miles Traveled. So I’ve talked about the progress that was made in terms of emissions associated with combustion of petroleum, significant reductions. But we have a lot more vehicles and we’re burning more fuel than we were back in the, when the agency was created. A lot more.

And our VMT is far, far higher–vehicle miles traveled–the average commute. And there’s reasons for this in terms of, why are people driving farther? Well, they want jobs and they want housing. And that has created an environment of sprawl. That sprawl does a few things. 

One, it creates the ongoing need for petroleum, which it has for the last several decades. It leads to those emissions, even though emissions are left on a, reduced on a vehicle per, on a per vehicle basis, the aggregate emissions are still unacceptably high. We need to work more effectively with local jurisdictions and the basic incentive structures that lead to and support sprawl. There’s obviously a ton of work going on in this space. Much, much more needs to be done on affordable housing. Most people don’t want to spend two or three hours a day sitting in traffic. They want to be able to work, play, recreate in the same location, without the need for a vehicle. We’ve structured the entire system, of the system around the need for a vehicle.

Breaking that and breaking the incentive structures are going to be critically important. And that local land use decision making that’s impacted VMT has also led to a number of situations where you have toxic sources, chrome platers and others, right near communities and invariably those are low income communities, communities of color. That’s an area we need to make much, much more progress. It requires working with local folks and local planning decision makers. 

Ken: So I want to take you in a little different direction, which is we’re finally seeing what appears to be real action at the federal government level. And, you know, California–and you in particular–have had lots of experience in the climate area over the last decade. What would you like the federal government to learn from California? 

Mr. Corey: A few observations in terms of what I think has been most impactful and I think about the elements, the elements of effectiveness. Few things. One, a target, whether that’s a national clean air target for ozone or PM 2. 5, a national ambient air standard, or a GHG reduction target.

Two, the ability to measure it. 

Three, the authority to actually take action. 

Four, taking action via regulations and incentives and using those strategies and thinking about them holistically. How can you pull forward more quickly by strategically directing those incentives and establish a regulation that is a signal in terms of the, that’s where we’re ultimately going to go? For instance, out of combustion, we’re going to go to zero emission vehicles. We just–CARB just adopted a regulation just this last week requiring a hundred percent of sales, zero emission vehicles 2035. Incentives are going to play a key role in pulling OEMs, manufacturers faster, sooner than they otherwise would have. 

The other part is partnerships. Partnerships are fundamental. We’re convinced of this. And I’m convinced nationally it’s going to be as important or even more so that we move. We always think about how can we partner with other states? Not after we adopt the regulation. We’re talking with other states and jurisdictions as we’re working on regulations, because we know that although California is a large economy and represents about 10%, over 10% of the motor vehicle purchasing, in the United States, we can actually multiply that by partnering with other states.

In fact, by virtue of the states that will adopt California’s zero emission vehicle program, as well as Canada, we get 40% of the North America motor vehicle purchases. We do that internationally. What we are doing is sending an even stronger signal to the market. That’s where the future lies. And at the end of the day, transform, transformation is going to come from the direction of capital, thinking those elements in, in terms of an overall strategy, incentives are huge. They’re very important, but they’re part of an overall strategic package. 

Thinking about it holistically, I think, is important. 

Ken: So, let me pick up on two points. One, obviously, you underscore the importance of partnerships. And then, in addition to partnerships, you’ve talked about, that incentives is just one piece. So, right now, the federal government, they’ve, they’ve gone, in a very big way on the incentive piece. They have, we have the Inflation Reduction Act, primarily focused on incentives because it’s a budget reconciliation piece. And then we also have the Infrastructure Bill, also a fair amount on, of incentives.

So… The thing that strikes me is, having spent some time myself in state government, how that this creates some opportunities, but also some, some real challenges. And I’m wondering on the challenge side, how does the federal government get the money to local governments, to state governments, to companies that are innovating and moving in this space?

What, what advice do you have, for the federal government as it tries to get really massive amounts of money and incentives out the door?

Mr. Corey: It’s a great question because there’s, there’s, there’s pressures on both sides of this. There’s the pressure–because we’ve been under this pressure many times–and that is, move the money as quickly as possible, get it out the door, get the projects on the ground and funded.

On the other part, it’s completely open, transparent process, fully competitive, go through all the process. And there’s a tension built in to: how do you move money efficiently that is certainly, is responsive to accountability and the public expectation those dollars are not squandered and they’re used intelligently and fairly?

I, I’m not convinced the traditional models that agencies have used are designed to move this kind of money over this period of time. I think it’s an open conversation from the industry, from a public-private partnership, a standing executive structure that looks through these various things.

It has transparency and has the accountability. But if the basic structure is, hey, we’re just going to move this funding through traditional agencies, let’s say DOE, through traditional models, um, you’re going to get the effect that everyone is concerned about. Very long delays, frustration, and the very things that we want to avoid in terms of being able to effectively implement projects.

I actually think, and I’m not talking about endless meetings, but this is an area that getting the structure right, correctly in an overall implementation standpoint, it’s going to be incredibly important. I think it’s the kind of thing, this is the kind of thing to pull the industry representatives, the community representatives, and academics, and the premise is the traditional model, this is the opener, is not going to be the most effective vehicle to establish these outcomes.

Ken: Have you seen any programs where the federal government has been effective, in getting money out the door and, and getting to the, to the outcome that they want? 

Mr. Corey: I, uh, I’m going to be less able to identify a specific program, so I’ll talk more conceptual because I put ourselves in a similar position because people would make the same claims about state funding.

So I’m, I’m mindful of that point. Where it has worked in our case: for instance, I’m going to give a community related example. There were clearly requirements that we have in the legislature appropriates funding to us, accountability and so on. But there were dollars appropriated for community capacity building and support.

We ended up moving these dollars through a 501c3 to ultimately administer with certain accountability to get those monies locally more effective. They knew the organizations, they went through a process of documenting the process. So that is what we have looked for in terms of, given the, uh, constraints that we operate in–contractually, how could we not go through all the traditional steps and bring an intermediary in, particularly if it was more in tune with a particular recipient of the funds. That model, I think, I think in this case it worked and I think it’s worth exploring those types of models, an independent body.

Ken: Do you know if, will the state itself likely have a role in dispersing federal dollars? 

Mr. Corey: So few, and I’m, I’m going to bend these and I admit to not reading all, you know, 700 pages of IRA [Inflation Reduction Act], or the hundreds of pages of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the CHIPS program. But my understanding of IRA is, substantially many of these, these programs have multiple elements, so I’m speaking of the climate and energy and transportation components. Massive bills–or massive appropriations–are a, in terms of energy that mainly, um, credits–tax credits. 

So the way I see them, I talked about the electric vehicle regulation we have adopted. Well, the incentives actually do the very thing I just talked about. The tax credits. I get a $7,500, one would get a $7,500 tax credit on the purchase of an electric vehicle. Market pull. So that’s not dollars that are sent to the state, for instance. Um, the, Investment Infrastructure and Jobs Act, for instance, the hydrogen funding will not go to the state. Those will go to recipients, and the state will definitely play a role in developing the application with partners, with hydrogen developers, companies involved in distribution, communities and others. My expectation is that both of those programs will not translate in a massive, will not translate, those dollars will be more directly, directed to the, um, multiple recipients. 

Ken: Well, Richard, this has been incredibly valuable. I’ve learned quite a bit and I hope our, our audience does as well. Thank you so much, not just for this short interview, but for your years of service on behalf of the people of the state. 

Mr. Corey: Thanks for the opportunity. 

Ken: Pleasure. To learn more about the California Air Resources Board and Richard Corey, or to hear more interviews with experts on how to best address climate change, visit climatebreak.org. And please check out the Wilson Center’s Environment Change and Security Program. I’m Ken Alex, and this was Climate Break.

What Can California’s Experience Tackling Climate Change Teach the Federal Government? With Richard Corey