The California experiment

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

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s mad carbon scientist.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s mad carbon scientist.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

If you wiped California off the face of the planet, just made it disappear—left 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, or just AB 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,” explained Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board.

The plan was signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006, and its goal is to reduce California’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 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 (MMT) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most of it is carbon dioxide, but mixed in there are nitrogen oxide, methane and a whole cocktail of less common but more harmful gases produced by transportation and industry.

So, 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 for 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 the year 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 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 Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. The Pavley bill requires that, by 2020, all cars and trucks sold in California emit 30 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions from their tailpipes. That’s about 30 MMT—a whopping 17 percent of the overall goal of AB 32.

The problem is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency won’t let California enforce the Pavley bill. 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 and get an answer. If the answer turns out to be “no,” then California likely will sue again.

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

Each of these chip 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 the overall goal of AB 32.

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 regulations on the manufacture of semiconductors.

Requiring trucking companies to make their rigs more aerodynamic will net a little over 1 MMT. And capturing more methane from landfills could knock out 2 to 4 MMT of greenhouse gases.

Altogether CARB is proposing 44 different regulations just to cobble together that 24 percent. And any one of these regulations could be a potential political fight. Each regulation affects a particular industry or a particular part of the California lifestyle.

Let’s see: 17 percent plus 24 percent … that leaves 59 percent of the CO2 pie still to be accounted for. CARB only has until the end of 2008 to figure out where those remaining reductions will come from.

Some of the rules are on the drawing board already. 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 10 to 20 MMT 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 CO2 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.