Baby Steps on Greenhouse Gases

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does California. In the absence of a commitment by Washington to address global warming, the California Air Resources Board last week proposed regulations that would reduce new vehicles' emissions of greenhouse gases in that state by 30 percent over the next decade.

This follows several moves by the state to force higher environmental standards on the auto industry. When California decided in 1990 that 10 percent of new cars sold in the state should have zero polluting emissions, the auto industry went along. Even though the state had to adjust its goal, California - and the world - benefited from the development of cleaner cars, including gas-electric hybrids.

This time the industry is threatening to sue. Even though California has the right to regulate pollutants, Detroit argues (and the Environmental Protection Agency last year agreed) that the main greenhouse gas - CO2 - is not a pollutant and the Motor City challenges California's standing because the state's efforts amount to regulation of fuel efficiency, which is the purview of the federal government.

The industry also points to the cost-benefit issue. The measures will add $2,000 to $7,000 per vehicle, depending on make and model, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington. California produces only a small fraction of the world's greenhouse gases, the alliance says. So how can this one effort slow down global warming?

These rebuttals look to be mostly specious, especially in light of the industry's historic resistance to seat belts, air bags, and catalytic converters, which consumers now expect.

Bureaucrats and lawyers can debate the definition of a pollutant, but scientists now generally agree that humans contribute to greenhouse gases, and that the resulting global warming is bad for the planet. At the same time, California seems to have sound reasoning when it makes the case that a warmer atmosphere increases smog, and thus increases pollution.

As for the turf war with the federal government, if California could mandate filtering carbon dioxide and other global warming gases from emissions, it undoubtedly would. But the gases are a natural byproduct of the combustion engine. The only way to reduce them is to lower overall emissions through greater efficiency.

The cost argument is perhaps the most valid, and the US Senate rejected the Kyoto global warming treaty in 1997 because of its economic cost.

But Detroit exaggerates the estimated price-hike per vehicle, environmentalists claim, and they may be right. At the behest of the state legislature, the Air Resources Board was required to draft regulations that are "cost effective" for consumers. The board's estimates differ considerably from Detroit's - about $300 per car in the first phase of implementation and $1,000 in the second. In most cases, consumers will experience net savings because of lower operating costs over the life of the vehicle, the board says.

Its track record on cost projections is encouraging, but regardless of how this matter is settled, California is right to push the envelope. States followed California's other clean-car standards, and will probably do so if the measure succeeds this time. With New York trying to organize a regional effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, perhaps the best way forward without Kyoto is state action that tests consumer support for reducing global warming.

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