Cleaning the Air in California

Plan to cut greenhouse gases is bad policy

Once again, California regulators are out to get full-size gasoline cars and light trucks. In the old days, such attacks would be tied to the goal of reducing smog or soot levels. But as air pollution continues to decline – despite people driving larger cars over longer distances, regulators have to find a new excuse to keep them in business, and the latest excuse is climate change.

The California Air Resources Board isn’t targeting smog or soot, but rather carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, the latter of which is better known as laughing gas. But ARBs proposed regulation is no laughing matter.

On Sept. 23 the state’s Air Resources Board is set to mandate that new vehicles sold in California cut their greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2016. By proposing a greenhouse gas emission standard for the California new vehicle fleet, regulators have shown they just don’t get it: through millions of independent spending decisions, California drivers have demonstrated that they just don’t want the gizmos that government technocrats want to peddle. They don’t want tiny compact cars, they don’t want electric vehicles, they’re don’t want to pay high premiums for hybrid cars, and they’re not going to want to pay still more money for smaller, more “greenhouse-friendly” compact cars. Yes, there are news stories about new, sky-high demand for hybrids – but sales of all hybrids is expected to total 88,000 cars this year, a miniscule figure when you consider that there were 16.6 million light vehicles sold in 2003.

First, let’s get the climate change excuse out of the way. California cars aren’t causing climate change and even taking all of the state’s cars off the road completely wouldn’t make a dent in emissions. According to government emissions data, California motorists produce less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the world’s emissions of the gases theoretically linked to global warming – a share that’s declining every day as countries such as China and India continue to grow. On top of that, the proposed regulation only addresses only four out of the six major greenhouse gases, and only passenger vehicles, not commercial vehicles. Now, whether you believe that we face a risk of catastrophic climate change due to manmade gas emissions or not, it should be obvious that this new regulatory regime will provide little or no climate protection to current or future generations.

What about the effect on consumer choice and health? While the Air Resources Board postulates a hodgepodge of technologies they claim will reduce greenhouse gas emissions (like low-leak air conditioning systems), the only truly effective way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from cars is to either reduce the amount of fuel they collectively burn or change to a fuel that puts out less greenhouse gas per unit of energy. And the only way to do that is through mandating technology that would lighten and shrink cars or forcing “alternative fuel” vehicles, hybrid cars and battery-electric cars onto a market that has shown little desire for them.

The danger of such technocratic mandates doesn’t lie simply in their failure – such mandates can expose people to higher risks in traffic accidents by forcing them into smaller, less protective vehicles. Such mandates also reduce consumer choice, suck resources out of the productive economy, and sink those resources into bureaucratic paper-shuffling and bean-counting.

California’s new greenhouse gas standards would also jeopardize the progress being made against smog and soot. When people trade older cars for newer cars (yes, even newer SUVs), they generally put out less smog and less soot than before. Raising the cost of newer cars slows down such purchases and the associated air pollution benefit. And this proposal will certainly raise vehicle costs. While the creative accountants at ARB claim that people will save money over the lifetime of such vehicles because of fuel savings, the up-front costs ARB admits to are not-trivial. ARB claims that their proposed measures would add $960.00 to the cost of a new vehicle in 2016. But given their performance in predicting the cost and benefits of other measures, such as battery-electric cars and reformulated gasoline, there’s every reason to assume that this newest estimate lowballs the costs, and blue-skies the benefits.

All of this adds up to making Californians less safe in the face of a climate that has always been and will always be variable, and occasionally extreme. Taking money out of people’s pockets for higher fuel and automobile costs will mean less for all the other investments that can protect them from climate variability such as securing water resources, building resilient infrastructure and energy supplies, building a more diverse, robust, and resilient economy, or investing in education or health care. And that’s no laughing matter.

Dr. Kenneth Green is senior fellow at Reason Foundation and Chief Scientist at Frasier Institute.