TCS Daily

Dust Off the Yugos

By Herbert Inhaber - July 19, 2002 12:00 AM

California leads the world again, but in a peculiar way. Those who fumed, giving off greenhouse gases (GHGs) through their ears when President Bush said he wouldn't ratify the Kyoto Treaty, now have something to cheer about in the Golden State. The legislature has sent to Governor Davis a plan to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

There was all kinds of legislative maneuvering, which was covered in a previous TCS column. Ultimately, the only way to move the bill forward after it stalled in the state Assembly was to add amendments. For example, it now states that SUVs will not be explicitly banned, and that taxes on vehicles will not rise.

In order, to insulate the politicians from the inevitable fallout when the goals are not met, the actual decision-making was left to an agency, the California Air Resources Board (CARB, an acronym that coincides nicely with the issue at hand). The bill instructs the board to take "feasible" steps towards reducing greenhouse gases from vehicles. Legislators got the seven-year itch when writing the bill -- the rules are to be implemented in 2009.

Bad Policy

The bill is bad policy for a number of reasons. First, even if California were to reduce its greenhouse emissions as much as the Kyoto Treaty set for the U.S. -- seven percent compared to 1990 emissions -- it would still be a drop in a bucket of quadrillions of carbon dioxide molecules. At the same time that California is cutting back, China, India and other developing nations will be merrily building coal and other fossil fuel plants.

Second, the bill is designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But why? Is carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act or any other federal regulation and thus a health hazard? The answer is no. California was allowed to have more stringent air pollution laws than those applied nationwide because it started those rules before the feds passed their own law. The reason for this was obvious -- Los Angeles has had the worst air pollution in the country for decades (mostly due to natural inversion forces.

But unfortunately for the proponents of the new bill, carbon dioxide -- and other greenhouse gases such as water vapor, given off by every vehicle in the nation -- are not pollutants. If they were, people would have to be eliminated from the face of the earth (a prospect that some environmental groups wouldn't mind). You have given off carbon dioxide after every breath while reading this.

Third, it is imprudent to palm off decision-making authority to an unelected board, with marching orders calling for "maximum feasible and cost-effective" levels of GHGs. Nobody knows precisely what that means. Decades ago when Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on air pollution, at least the EPA was required to use science to estimate dose-response coefficients for pollutants, many of which were later tested in court. But there is no such system that could do the same for greenhouse gases, since they are not pollutants in the ordinary sense.

I Go? Yugo

There really are only three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California transportation: electric (or hybrid) vehicles, much smaller autos, or both. Yugos rusting in junkyards may be brought back from the dead if the CARB requirements are anything more than cosmetic. California tried the electric car route years ago. According to their law, 10 percent of new vehicles in 2003 were to be electric. Seen many recently?

California will have to place massive new taxes on gasoline, vehicles or both to get people into vehicles like the Prius or Insight. Those two cars, getting over twice the average mileage of average vehicles, aren't exactly best sellers. Why should anyone buy them? They cost as much or more than regular cars, but save only perhaps $200 a year in gasoline. If you really want to save money, buy a used vehicle, even an Expedition.

The only hope for rational people in this situation is that the electric-car fiasco will repeat itself, with California regulators and politicians admitting that they missed the mark by a mile.



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