A landmark global warming law that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to sign today commits California to the ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.
How exactly that will be accomplished – and at what cost – is unknown. But it’s clear that if the state intends to meet its goals, Californians will see many changes over the next 14 years, from higher fuel prices to bigger forests.
In essence, California is challenging other states and the rest of the world to tackle global warming, a threat that Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley, called “the greatest environmental challenge the world has ever faced.”
If other governments respond, California could gain new moral authority and a head start in the potentially lucrative race to develop new energy-saving technologies and policies.
But California also is taking a big risk. If others do not follow, the state’s residents and companies could end up paying hundreds of millions of dollars to make cuts that by themselves will do little to curb global warming.
Under the new law, Californians must reduce their annual discharge of carbon dioxide and other gases by 174 million tons, a weight equal to the steel in 1,700 Golden Gate Bridges.
Making cuts that large won’t be easy. Even if all 26 million of the state’s gasoline-burning automobiles were permanently parked and all of the coal and natural-gas power plants serving California were replaced with hydroelectric dams and nuclear reactors, it still would not be enough to do the trick.
The state plans to reach the target with less drastic measures, but Californians still will see big changes in how they live and work.
Gasoline and electricity will probably cost more. But cars will consume less fuel, and many will burn ethanol or biofuel. Wind and sun will generate more of the state’s electricity, and buildings and appliances will waste less of it.
New housing developments would be denser and closer to shopping and transit networks. Forests will need to become bigger and healthier, and water use must become more efficient because a whopping 19 percent of electricity used in California is consumed moving, treating and dispensing water.
Emissions caps likely will be imposed on businesses, and some may profit by buying and selling credits for making emissions cuts. And California’s technology industry hopes to get a boost as money pours in for research and development to create new energy-saving devices.
The so-called “cap and trade” provision, in which low-emissions industries sell some of their pollution capacity to dirtier industries, is the most controversial aspect of the law. Many of the industries in the latter group, notably oil refineries, argue that the program will drive them out of California and that the economic loss will cripple the state.
But some experts draw the opposite conclusion. A study by Mills College Professor David Roland-Host concluded that cutting annual emissions by 174 million tons in 2020 would add at least $60 billion to the annual gross state product and 17,000 jobs to the state’s economy. New technology investment and reduced energy use would more than offset the costs of emission-reduction measures, he wrote.
In March, a Schwarzenegger administration report presented a menu of measures – redesigned cars and trucks, greener electricity, energy conservation, tree planting, smarter development and transportation planning – that could cut greenhouse gases by 190 million tons a year, more than the level required under the new law.
The job of drawing up rules and overseeing this vast program will fall to the California Air Resources Board. Mandates already on the books can deliver one-third of the necessary emissions cuts, state officials estimate, mostly from motorists and users of electricity and natural gas. Other programs still on the drawing board will need to be developed to cut as much as 100 million more tons.
“While the intent is clear, the implementation is far from clear,” Borenstein said.
Based on the March report, here is an outline of how California could make the mandated emissions cuts over the next 14 years.
Transportation accounts for about 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse emissions, but the sector will have to provide only about 25 percent of the reductions.
The biggest slice – 30 million tons a year – is supposed to be delivered by implementing a 2002 law that requires improved transmissions, engines and air conditioners on new cars and trucks starting with the 2009 model year.
Complying with the new rules would add more than $1,000 to the price of each new vehicle, but owners would more than recoup that cost through operating savings, the air resources board says.
However, in a lawsuit set to go to trial in January, automakers and dealers claim that the rule is prohibited by a federal law that says only the federal government can set mileage standards. They argue that the pending rule would require passenger cars to reach 43 miles per gallon by 2016 and would cost too much.
If the 2002 law is voided, the state would be left with only 3 million tons of cuts from cars and trucks from existing rules that require more efficient tires and reduced idling by diesel trucks. That would send state lawmakers and regulators scrambling to find new sources of cuts.
While legislators recently passed a bill that would require half of the cars sold in 2020 to run on cleaner fuels, Schwarzenegger has yet to sign it.
California expects even greater emissions cuts from a host of changes to the vast network of power plants and related facilities that provide light, heat and other forms of energy to the state’s homes and businesses. That network accounts for about one-fifth of the state’s current emissions, but is expected to be the source of more than one-third of the required cuts.
The emissions plan envisions that electricity generators will get 33 percent of their power from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020, about triple the current share. As an intermediate step, Schwarzenegger signed a bill Tuesday that requires investor-owned utilities to reach a 20 percent target by 2010.
Tighter conservation rules for buildings and appliances are supposed to save an additional 9 million tons. In between, several rules and incentives requiring utilities to squeeze more power out of cleaner facilities are expected to cut an additional 38 million tons.
Executing this ambitious program without sending power bills through the roof will prove challenging. A program that aims to reduce demand by providing $3.5 billion in subsidies to install solar panels has proved politically popular but will deliver only 3 million tons of emissions cuts.
The state’s uneasy relationship with coal, a heavy-emissions fuel used in out-of-state plants that supply 20 percent of the state’s power, highlights the difficulties with California’s Lone Ranger approach.
Legislation that Schwarzenegger is expected to sign would require all power sold in California to come from plants that meet higher emissions standards than existing coal facilities. But enforcement will be difficult because of the complicated nature of how power is bought and sold among states.
Trees, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air, are expected to play a big role in meeting California’s emissions targets. Planting and preserving trees could cut more emissions than cleaner cars, according to the state plan.
But strategies to do that are preliminary at best, including plans to reforest 500,000 acres of federal and private lands, preserve existing forests, plant 5 million trees in cities and improve forest management.
Forestry efforts could get a boost if California sets up a market where owners of greenhouse-gas-emitting factories can buy credits from landowners who plant trees.
But any broad changes to state forestry policy will require consensus among a range of contentious interest groups. “The real question is the politics,” said John Kadyszewski, a program director at Winrock International, a non-profit organization that studies forestry policy.
Another big chunk of California’s greenhouse gas cuts is expected to come from planning rules and incentives. By tweaking the state’s sprawling transportation network and encouraging higher-density housing development near stores and transit corridors, planners say they can reduce auto travel. That, according to the March report, could cut emissions by 27 million tons.
But even supporters view this target as ambitious. Meeting it will require the state to “integrate all these plans – infrastructure, land use, environmental – in a way that is politically palatable in a state where local control of land use policy is cherished,” said Elisa Barbour, an analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California.
By Rick Jurgens and Mike Taugher
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