California's Tailpipe Leadership

Car-happy California is leaping in where Congress fears to tread. But there's nothing foolish about its latest audacious move to curb the effects of its car culture.

A bill passed by the state legislature would limit vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases. It awaits the governor's expected signature. The law would be a radical step toward reducing one cause of global climate change. It also shows other nations that the US, as the world's biggest polluter, can tackle this issue seriously.

The measure gives the state's Air Resources Board until 2005 to come up with regulations to reach "maximum feasible reduction" of heat-trapping emissions, notably carbon dioxide. Carmakers have until 2009 to comply with the rules.

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That leaves plenty of time for creative efforts and appropriate investments by carmakers to reduce such effluents. Or, as may be the case, the time could be filled with interminable litigation by the automobile industry.

The industry's legal argument is that California will hurt interstate commerce by usurping a federal role in setting fuel-economy standards. The state's comeback is that it's not setting efficiency standards, but regulating pollution. California, in fact, is the only state that can enact stricter antipollution rules than the feds, because it had tough rules before the federal Clean Air Act of the 1970s.

The nation's most populous state already made a groundbreaking step in the past decade by requiring carmakers to offer the public a progressively higher percentage of low- and zero-emissions vehicles. This was its most far-reaching effort to eliminate the noxious emissions that contribute to the state's infamous smog. That plan prompted litigation, but it also prompted manufacturers to accelerate development of low-pollution models such as gas-electric hybrids.

The greenhouse emissions measure could also have the effect of forcing carmakers to increase the efficiency of their vehicles. There are many ways to do this, including improved transmissions and engines. Such changes could raise the price of vehicles somewhat, but they're not likely to bring the grave safety hazards or disappearance of consumer choice that industry lobbyists predict.

California's move, coming soon after Congress again demonstrated its inertia on fuel efficiency, gives the country – indeed the world – some needed momentum on the issue of CO2 reduction.

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