The California Experiment

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's green state and the mathematics of carbon.

If you wiped California off the face of the planet — left behind no person, cow, or SUV — you’d eliminate only about 1.6 percent of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Keep California and lose Texas, and you’d more or less double the benefit to the planet, but you’d still be a long way short of solving the problem of global warming.

So it is hard at first to see how California’s highly touted experiment in planet saving, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, is going to make much of a difference. But on a human scale, on the scale of what government can do, the act is an enormous undertaking. “We’ve got only five years to develop regulations for every sector of society,” explained Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board.

Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the plan into law in 2006, and its goal is to reduce California’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. In that way, the act is meant to mirror the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2007, California is expected to put about 496 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most of it is carbon dioxide, but this also includes nitrogen oxide, methane, and a whole cocktail of less common but more harmful gases. Right now, the best estimate we have for greenhouse-gas emissions for California in 1990 is somewhere around 436 million metric tons. Getting from 496 to 436 doesn’t sound very impressive. But if we do nothing to slow the steady growth of industrial and transportation pollutants, we’ll reach something close to 680 million metric tons of the stuff by the year 2020. Suddenly, just getting back to the pollution levels of 1990 looks pretty good.

The Air Resources Board has until December 2008 to figure out how to get California there. All of the regulations to meet the 2020 goal have to be in place, and in force, by 2012.

One of the most promising tools California has in its climate-change toolbox is Assembly Bill 1493, also called the Pavley bill, after its author, former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. That law requires that, by 2020, all cars and trucks sold in California emit 30 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions from their tailpipes. That is a whopping 17 percent of the overall goal of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The problem is that the US Environmental Protection Agency won’t let California enforce the act. Two years ago, the state asked for a waiver from the federal government to enforce the rule, because automakers argued that only the federal government, not California, could make regulations that would affect fuel efficiency. Two years later, the Bush administration still isn’t saying whether it will grant the waiver or not. In fact, California had to sue the federal government last month just to try to get an answer. If the answer turns out to be “no,” then California likely will sue again.

The next big category of greenhouse-gas reductions come in the form of the Air Resources Board’s “early action items,” some of which are supposed to go into effect by 2010, many more by 2012. Altogether, the Air Resources Board is proposing 44 different regulations designed to move California another 24 percent closer to its overall goal. But each regulation affects a particular industry or a particular part of the California lifestyle, and any one could be a potential political fight.

For example, requiring ships at California ports to get electricity from shore, rather than from their own diesel engines, could shave off about 500,000 metric tons from California’s greenhouse-gas inventory. Similar benefits are predicted for rules requiring people to keep their tires properly inflated, and for tougher semiconductor-manufacturing regulations. Requiring trucking companies to make their rigs more aerodynamic will net a little more than one million metric ton. And capturing more methane from landfills could knock out two to four million metric tons.

But 17 percent plus 24 percent leaves 59 percent of the carbon dioxide pie still to be accounted for. The Air Resources Board only has until the end of 2008 to figure out where those remaining reductions will come from.

Some of the rules already are on the drawing board. The state’s “Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” called for in an executive order from Schwarzenegger earlier this year, could reduce California’s total emissions by ten to twenty million metric tons a year. California’s laws requiring the state to use more renewable energy should also contribute to the reductions.

After all that, you still end up putting just as much carbon dioxide into the air in 2020 as you did a generation earlier. But you would also be the first generation to force the line on the graph measuring global-warming pollution to go down, instead of up. And that’s a good thing.

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