Why the American West is out front on curbing greenhouse gases

The emissions cap under the Western Climate Initiative is equivalent to taking 75.6 million cars off the road.

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Even without Baghdad-like summer temperatures in Phoenix and other desert environs, heat has always been a major issue across the American West. For one thing, it relates directly to three of the classical earthly elements: water, air, and, of course, fire. That is, air quality and pollution, water-loaded snowpacks and glaciers, and wildfires made worse by hot weather patterns.

So it's not surprising that climate change is seen by many citizens and officials out West as a big deal – so big that Western states and cities have been at the forefront of tackling global warming. Last week, six Western governors and two Canadian provincial leaders "pledged & to enforce a tough regional cap on greenhouse gas emissions," the Los Angeles Times reported.

"Under the Western Climate Initiative, the leaders agreed to slash emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-warming pollutants to 15% below 2005 levels in their states and provinces in the next 13 years…. Overall, the region would cut emissions by 350-million metric tons over that time period."

Those signing on are Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, plus British Columbia and Manitoba. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the goal is roughly the same as taking 75.6 million cars off the road, making it "North America's most comprehensive and overarching regional program because it could affect every business sector, as well as consumers' daily lives, such as what type of fuel motorists pump into their vehicles…."

Recommended: US climate change report: What lies ahead for your region?

Still, said Linda Adams, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency: "We know that California alone cannot defeat global warming. It's a global problem that requires a global solution."

One goal of the Western pact is to pressure Congress and the Bush administration into passing laws that would regulate emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

While environmentalists lauded the effort, they point to its weaknesses. For example, Reuters reports:

"The Western pact does not include Alberta, the Canadian province that is home to oil and natural gas fields, including the tar sands, whose development is extremely carbon-intensive. It also excludes Nevada, California's neighbor which lacks emissions targets and has sought to lure Golden State businesses with tax benefits and other incentives."

The states plan to meet the reductions by using more renewable-energy sources, regulating emissions from motor vehicles, and improving the efficiency of appliances and other electrical equipment. There are other goals as well, Bloomberg reports.

"The plan lays groundwork for a European-style system across the region that will limit emissions and allow businesses to buy or sell pollution credits if they exceed, or fall short, of their goals. The states want to link up to other systems, such as the northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and to Europe's trading plan."

The Western states' effort is bipartisan, with governors of both parties joining up. This is especially true in California, the most populous state, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has taken the lead and Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) has gone after urban sprawl as a chief culprit in global warming.

Last week, Attorney General Brown and San Bernardino County "settled a lawsuit over the negative effects of runaway growth on greenhouse gas emissions, an accord that could have implications for cities and counties throughout the state," the San Jose Mercury News reported.

"The settlement calls for San Bernardino County to account for the effects its land-use decisions will have on the emissions blamed for global warming. The county, which stretches from the Los Angeles County line to California's eastern border, is the largest by geographic size in the lower 48 states and has seen rampant growth.... It is expected to add 1 million residents by 2030, for a total population of 3 million…. The settlement requires the county to ... devise strategies to reduce carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases…."

The Democrat-majority Congress may be more inclined than the White House to take the kinds of steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that the Western governors seek. President Bush has invited world leaders to a conference on energy security and climate change to be held in Washington next month.

But last week a federal judge sided with environmentalists who sued the administration for failing to issue two scientific reports on global warming, USA Today reported.

"U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Armstrong ruled … that the Bush administration had violated a 1990 law when it failed to meet deadlines for an updated U.S. climate change research plan and impact assessment. Armstrong set a March 1 deadline for the administration to issue the research plan, which is meant to guide federal research on climate change. Federal law calls for an updated plan every three years, she said. The last one was issued in 2003."

Meanwhile, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, "Across the country, states and regions are adopting policies to address climate change."

"These actions include increasing renewable energy generation, selling agricultural carbon sequestration credits, and encouraging energy efficiency. Such policies reduce vulnerability to energy price spikes, promote state economic development, and improve local air quality."

Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland have joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast this year, bringing to 10 the states involved. The states have agreed to implement the first mandatory US cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide, the Pew Center reports.

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