The California experiment

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's green state and the mathematics of carbon
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If you wiped California off the face of the planet, just made it disappear — leaving behind no car or SUV, politician, person, or cow — 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's hard at first to see how California's highly touted experiment in planet saving, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, Assembly Bill 32 for short, is going to make much of a difference.

But on a human scale, on the scale of what government can do, AB 32 is an enormous undertaking. "We've got only five years to develop regulations for every sector of society," Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board explained.

The plan was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and its goal is to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In that way, AB 32 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 that is carbon dioxide, but mixed in are nitrogen oxide, methane, and a whole cocktail of less common but more harmful gases produced by transportation and industry.

What do 496 MMT of greenhouse gases look like? CARB figures that just 1 MMT of CO2 would fill 200,000 hot air balloons. So all of California's greenhouse gases for a year would fit into about 99 million hot air balloons.

Right now the best estimate we have of greenhouse gas emissions for California in 1990 is somewhere around 436 MMT. Getting from 496 to 436 doesn't sound all that impressive. Just as 87 million hot air balloons doesn't sound any more manageable than 99 million.

But take the longer view. If we do nothing to slow the steady growth of CO2 and other global-warming pollutants, we'll reach something close to 680 MMT of the stuff by 2020. Suddenly, just getting back to the pollution levels of 1990 looks pretty good.

CARB has until December 2008 to figure out how to get California there. According to the new law, 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 AB 1493, also called the Pavley bill, after its author, former assemblyperson Fran Pavley. The Pavley bill requires that by 2020 all cars and trucks sold in California emit 30 percent less greenhouse gas from their tailpipes. That's about 30 MMT — a whopping 17 percent of the overall goal of AB 32.

The problem is that the US Environmental Protection Agency won't let California enforce the Pavley bill. In 2005 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 affecting fuel efficiency. Two years later the George W. 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, the state will likely sue again.

Setting aside the uncertain future of the Pavley bill, the next big category of greenhouse gas reductions comes in the form of CARB's "early action items," some of which are supposed to go into effect by 2010 and many more by 2012.

Each of these chips away at California's total inventory of greenhouse gases. In combination, the early action rules are supposed to move California another 24 percent closer to AB 32's overall goal.

For example, requiring ships at California ports to get electricity from shore rather than their own diesel engines could shave about 500,000 metric tons from California's greenhouse gas inventory.

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