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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Dealing

Air Date: Week of

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California has moved into the forefront in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, California’s initiative to curtail vehicle CO2 emissions is sending a strong message to automakers and the Bush administration.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. California is keeping its role as a trendsetter and is set to go where the Bush administration will not go when it comes to fighting climate change. Automakers will have to cut the amount of carbon dioxide coming from the tailpipes of the vehicles they sell in California, starting in model year 2009. California's move is significant, both because it is the nation's largest car market, and because the Golden State's economy is bigger than all but a half dozen nations in the world. The auto industry opposed the new law and is looking at how it might make legal challenges.

The legislation was spurred by a little know environmental group from the San Francisco Bay area. Their success raises a series of questions, from the role of states in environmental protection to how cars that American drive in the future will look and feel. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: The idea of regulating automobile CO2, that is, asking drivers to address global warming, was such a stretch that when Russell Long of the Bluewater Network wrote the bill, at first, he couldn't get the support of the big name green groups. Environmental Defense, The Sierra Club, The Natural Resources Defense Council wouldn't sign on.

LONG: It was big awkward in the beginning stages of this legislation because some assembly members actually said to us, "Look, you have a lot of environmental support, but none of the big groups have come out favoring this bill. Why should we support something that the big groups are not supporting."

LOBET: The southern California group Coalition for Clean Air did sign on, along with some state legislators. Then, with growing support and some, shall we say, artful weekend lawmaking, environment interest outmaneuvered the auto industry, passing the first such law in the country. They even overcame the catchy ads recorded by, perhaps, the state's best known car dealer.

[WORTHINGTON SINGING OVER MUSIC]: If you want to save a your truck, if you want to save a buck, do it now, do it now, do it now.

WORHTINGTON: Well howdy, again, I'm Cal Worthington. Hey, I'm here to warn you about something that is very, very important to all of us. You know, they're about to pass a new law here in California that would prevent you from buying the vehicle you need and want.

LOBET: It's by no means the first time California has set a precedent in air legislation. The state has an exemption from the Clean Air Act that allows it, alone, to regulate tailpipe emissions more strictly than the federal government. Again, Russell Long of the Bluewater Network.

LONG: California has always led. We developed the first catalytic converter, and to clean up smog from the vehicle fleet. We did similar things with unleaded gasoline. We've led the fight for cleaner fuels. We've led the fight in California for hybrid-powered and electric vehicles.

LOBET: Several states and some corporations are now trying to address global warming. Once thought to be the province of nations, the New England states, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida and Illinois have all taken steps to reduce CO2. In March, the Bush Administration announced it was rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, the world agreement on reducing greenhouse gases. Dave Hawkins, Climate Director at The Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington says states are taking matters into their own hands.

HAWKINS: The public does not like the message they've been hearing from Washington that we should just get used to global warming, live with drought, live with floods, figure out how to build higher dams, figure out how to build better air conditioners. The public doesn't like that message. We're not used to being treated as victims in America.

LOBET: This latest move by California is also making headlines outside the United States. Jennifer Morgan spends half her time overseas as Climate Change Director for the World Wildlife Fund.

MORGAN: And the hope, of course, is that these statewide initiatives will build up to demonstrate to President Bush that actually tackling global warming is not an economic nightmare and, therefore, the nation, as a whole, can participate in the Kyoto Protocol.

LOBET: No one knows exactly what the new California regulations will look like. That's up to the 11 member Air Resources Board. They could require lower friction tires on some vehicles, or better mileage from SUVs. Or they could go even further, allowing carmakers to plant, say, a "Ford Forest," since trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

But automakers say their options are limited. It's not as easy to cut CO2 emissions as carbon monoxide or oxides of nitrogen. The main way is to burn less fuel and reduce total trip exhaust. Federal law, however, says no state, not even California, can require higher fuel efficiency. Only Congress can. Charles Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says the California law is illegal, a naked attempt to make SUVs more fuel efficient.

TERRITO: This legislation, make no mistake about it, is a backdoor attempt at increasing fuel economy standards for the state of California. And that's something that we think is very dangerous. And it's something that we think is reserved for the United States Congress, and should be done on a state by state basis.

LOBET: Carmakers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in vehicles that do produce less CO2. But they resent a law that dictates when to bring those products to market. California automobiles won't have to change until 2008. Still, Stuart Schorr, Public Affairs Manager for Daimler Chrysler says the law will mean lighter, smaller vehicles, vehicles that are less desirable to the consumer.

SCHORR: Until there's a dramatic breakthrough in technology, there's only so many ways you can get a significantly improved fuel economy without sacrificing something in the vehicle. And that something might be the amount of cargo it can carry.

LOBET: Other carmakers say they may have to remove less fuel efficient models from California car lots. What will happen next is still the stuff of feverish planning. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says it will go to court, accusing California of overstepping its bounds. And it recently won that argument in a different case. Charles Territo says they may also fight with a referendum or an initiative.

TERRITO: All of the above. Those are all options that we're considering.

LOBET: Clearly, California is testing its right to address global warming. One observer, who works for Honda, predicts this issue will go to the Supreme Court. Another observer with The Coalition for Clean Air believes that regulating CO2 will soon seem as normal as seatbelts or unleaded gas.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.




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