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On the Road to a National GHG Auto Standard

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced Thursday that the state has fulfilled its part of the May 2009 agreement set between auto manufacturers and two federal agencies that will establish the nation’s first greenhouse gas emissions standard for cars.

The new regulation adopted Thursday contains what CARB spokesman Stanley Young called “largely technical fixes,” including a change that will allow cars that meet the federal standard in the years 2012 to 2016 to be counted as compliant with the stricter California standard.  (The federal standard goes into effect in 2012.  It differs from the California standard until the two reach the same levels in 2016.)

The California law mandating rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars, AB 1493, was passed in 2002.  Between 2005 and 2009, the state fought for an EPA waiver that would allow it to implement a standard tougher than existing federal rules. Last May, President Obama announced a national standard for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases  modeled on California’s rules.  In June, the U.S. EPA  granted the waiver the state had long sought.  See the CARB website for a history of the struggles over the regulations.

CARB says that national implementation of the standard will cut 941 million tons of CO2 by 2020, compared to 793 million tons had the standard been limited to California and the thirteen states that had adopted California’s rules.

AB 1493 would not be affected by a suspension of AB 32, an issue Californians may be voting on soon.

Two Billion Cars

We already have one billion, worldwide. Transportation researcher Dan Sperling says that stands to double within about a generation, with unthinkable consequences for air quality and climate change.

But it’s his job to think about the unthinkable. Sperling is a founder of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and a member of the California Air Resources Board. He talks about his new book, Two Billion Cars, on today’s podcast of NPR’s Fresh Air.

National Cap-and-Trade Program Unveiled

California’s largest electric utility joined with a coalition of about 30 other companies and environmental groups today, in taking the wraps off a proposed national climate strategy. After two years of talks, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which includes PG&E, is ready to put its muscle behind it’s Blueprint for Legislative Action, just in time for Inauguration Day.

The program uses a trading program for carbon credits, much like the Western Climate Initiative, a collaboration of several western states and Canadian provinces. The goal is to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to:

> 97%‐102% of 2005 levels by 2012
> 80%‐86% of 2005 levels by 2020
> 58% of 2005 levels by 2030
> 20% of 2005 levels by 2050

While stated a little differently here, the targets reflect what has become the broadly accepted goal of cutting GHGs 80% by 2050.

A thorny question surrounding carbon trading programs is always whether pollution credits will be auctioned off or given away free to major emitters. According to the group’s “blueprint:”

“USCAP recommends that a significant portion of allowances should be initially distributed free to
capped entities and economic sectors particularly disadvantaged by the secondary price effects of a
cap and that free distribution of allowances be phased out over time.”

This would appear to conflict with the stated goals of the Western Climate Initiative, whose representatives have committed (at least verbally) to making companies pay for most credits up front. And yet the USCAP plan carries the endorsement of major environmental organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and the NRDC, both of which are members.

As one corporate executive put it at the plan’s unveiling, “We simply think you have to give away a significant portion…and then phase them out over time.”

The USCAP plan also offers emitters the chance to buy approved carbon offsets and gives special allowances to companies that have already achieved verifiable reductions in GHG emissions–or plan to do so.

Bay Area Greenhouse Gases on the Rise

trafficjam_sm.jpgThe Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued a new inventory of greenhouse gas sources, updating a report issued last year, for “base year 2002.” (Yes, the 2006 report was for 2002–let me know if that’s not confusing enough).

If you thought the heavy hitters were those half-dozen or so big, smelly oil refineries strung out between Richmond and Antioch, guess again. If you’re going for your climate geek merit badge, you’ll know that here in California, at least, the transportation sector is the reigning CO2 champ.

According to the updated report, transportation accounts for about 40% of emissions. Non-farm industrial & commercial emissions (from stationary sources) weigh in at 34%. Amaze your friends! If you take that transportation sector and break it down further, it turns out that cars and light-duty trucks account for almost 64% of those mobile emissions.

Okay, so you know all that. But what jumps out of the report are the projections of emissions through 2029, which the Air District arrived at by blending current levels with projected population and economic growth. The trend is not only upward but steeply upward, from 104 million metric tons (CO2 equivalent) to 128 million by 2020 and 150 million by 2029, an increase of 44% in two decades.

But good gravy, how can that be? Isn’t California “leading the way” in greenhouse gas reductions? Well, yes and no. Henry Hilken, Director of Planning and Research for the district, explained that because most of the state’s aggressive mitigation programs are not yet in place, his number crunchers did not take them into account in their calculations. In other words AB-32, cap-and-trade, the so-called Pavley regulations on tailpipe emissions, the low-carbon fuel standard–none of it is actually happening yet. The projections represent a future based on “business-as-usual.”

That’s likely to change, however. State regulators have been virtually assured that they’ll get the required EPA waiver to put stricter tailpipe regulations in place, shortly after President-elect Obama takes office, to use just one example. For more on this issue, listen to Sasha Khokha’s feature from The California Report, earlier this week. On the other side of the ledger, full implementation of AB-32 remains in question, as the funding mechanism is not fully in place.

How much would the picture change with all those–or even some of those measures in place? Hilken says he hasn’t attempted those calculations. It’s also likely that a long, deep recession could put a kink in the emissions trend. So while you can argue that the numbers in the inventory are a weak predictor of things to come, they are a useful snapshot of where we are–and a sobering assessment of where we’ll end up without an aggressive climate policy.

The Air District report tracks two types of carbon dioxide (CO2), along with methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and a handful of lesser-known gases. The non-CO2 emissions are converted mathematically to “CO2-equivalent” values.

The Other Greenhouse Gases

Carbon dioxide is the 900-pound gorilla of greenhouse gases. There’s little doubt of that, whether you’re tracking news coverage or policy measures.

But lately, some of the other beasts are getting more scrutiny. Reuters published a story last week that focused on nitrogen triflouride, a by-product of semiconductor manufacturing and a key ingredient in flat-screen TVs.

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego have been tracking the gas, which goes by the shorthand NF3, and concluded that the atmospheric load of the stuff is growing at 11% a year. What makes that a little scary is that NF3 is said to be 17,000 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, though over all it’s still a much smaller factor in global warming.

At the same time, Kirk Smith of UC Berkeley is taking his show on the road, with a lecture he calls “CO2 on Steroids.” It’s about the role that methane plays in the warming equation and what he believes are the opportunities to make relatively fast headway against global warming by attacking methane emissions. Smith will present his findings at the state air board’s Chair’s seminar series in Sacramento. You can watch a webcast of his lecture on November 10.

I interviewed Smith for an upcoming Climate Watch radio feature on the methane issue in California. Listen for it on The California Report in mid-November.