Recurrent Energy solar project in Kern County
A large-scale solar energy project in Kern County. Courtesy of Recurrent Energy

California is falling behind on meeting our climate goals, not on pace to meet our 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target until the 2060s or later. Now the state’s pending decision on whether to list the iconic western Joshua tree as a threatened species could imperil progress further by potentially making large-scale solar facilities infeasible to build in our vast, sun-soaked deserts.

According to a recent government analysis, California will need to triple our build rate of renewable energy to meet a mandate for carbon-free electricity by 2045, along with statewide carbon neutrality. That means an urgent “all of the above” approach to renewable energy sources, including both on- and offshore wind turbines and solar panels on rooftops and in large-scale solar facilities, particularly in the Southern California desert close to our major population centers. 

These renewables not only replace fossil fuel plants, they provide emission-free power for electric vehicles and the all-electric clean technology of the future.

But California lags in building these needed clean-energy facilities because of  protracted planning processes and byzantine permitting regimes, largely designed to halt the polluting industries of the past. Now state leaders may be adding to these challenges by considering excessive protections for the Joshua tree.

Some conservationists argue that this listing under the state Endangered Species Act is needed because climate change will imperil the Joshua tree by the end of the century. But what are the facts?

A scientific analysis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended against this action, finding the tree to be “currently abundant and widespread.” In its status review, the department conservatively estimated the species’ range to be millions of acres and home to many millions of Joshua trees. As the climate inevitably warms, experts anticipate that the species can find refuge in cooler northern ranges and higher elevations.

Meanwhile, large-scale solar facilities will barely make a dent in the species’ current range. Even if the state achieved a full build-out of all of the solar and energy storage projects proposed within the range of the Joshua tree (many of which are unlikely to be built for various reasons), they would occupy a tiny fraction of the species’ range, based on the department’s already-conservative estimate.

A bigger threat to the species is urban sprawl. But the state’s Endangered Species Act is a blunt tool to address this challenge. Instead, state leaders should ensure that new-housing growth occurs within our existing cities and towns, rather than building over precious open space. The state also could require sprawl development to pay for its environmental harms, especially increased traffic.

Otherwise, the scientific review conducted by the department means that the Fish and Game Commission can comfortably find that listing the species as threatened is not warranted when it considers the question for a second time in October. A contrary finding not only would undermine California’s ability to meet its climate commitments, it could be vulnerable to legal challenge in light of the depth of the department’s scientific assessment.

But more importantly, the solar energy we depend on to fight the climate crisis could be threatened. The economic challenge of mitigating species loss under this proposed decision would render many clean energy projects infeasible, at precisely the time when we need as much renewable power as possible.

As global temperatures rise and extreme weather events become increasingly severe, Californians now needs not only to reduce our emissions by tripling our renewable energy build-out, but to show the world that it can be done successfully. A decision to list the Joshua tree would take us backward, risking further delays and obstacles for the very solutions we need to fight climate change.

Ethan Elkind is the director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.



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Ellen Bullock