Stiffing California Motorists

Carbon dioxide law won't clean the air

Californians may soon be paying considerably higher prices for cars and fuel than any other state in the nation.

Why? To fight carbon dioxide. That’s right, the gas you exhale when you breathe. The California Assembly just passed a bill that would regulate carbon dioxide emissions coming from tailpipe exhaust. Now the bill is headed to the state Senate.

Here’s the problem – carbon dioxide doesn’t contribute to smog and isn’t a health threat. All of this is being done because some people believe carbon dioxide is causing global warming, and that preventing carbon dioxide from entering the air is the only answer. Never mind that there is still an ongoing scientific debate about global warming itself, and that some respected climate scientists believe that methane is a better target, California legislators have locked their sites on carbon dioxide.

What does this mean for Californians? Higher prices and more hassles with no improvement in health, safety, or environmental quality to show for it.

Unlike traditional air pollutants, carbon dioxide is not a “by-product” of fuel use that can be painlessly avoided. There are only three options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles: increase the fuel-efficiency of cars and light trucks, require the use of alternative fuels or energy sources that put out less carbon per unit of energy, or reduce driving altogether.

We can assume that people aren’t going to suddenly start riding their bikes or the bus to work in large numbers, so driving levels will remain about the same unless regulators whip out the “no-drive days” nightmare. That leaves us with increasing fuel efficiency or using alternative fuel sources.

Forcing regular gasoline vehicles into greater fuel-economy seems like a great idea, until one ponders what is required to do it. The fact is, fuel-economy mandates may actually cause us to lose ground in our attempts to curb air pollution. That’s right, lose ground. Raising the cost of new cars, which fuel-economy mandates will do, leads middle and lower-class drivers to hold onto their older, more-polluting cars longer, thus having a negative effect on air quality. That’s exactly the last thing that we want to do if we really care about reducing air pollution.

Cars have become vastly less polluting in the last 20 years. Even the popularity of SUVs will not reverse the trend toward cleaner air, since a modern SUV pollutes far less than an early 1990’s automobile. Additionally, increased fuel-efficiency often comes at the expense of safety. To make vehicles more fuel-efficient, you have to make them lighter, and lighter vehicles are less safe.

Thus, the most logical way to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide is to go with fuels or energy sources that put out less carbon per unit of energy – that means electric cars or natural gas for now, and fuel cells in the future.

Fuel cells may be the light at the end of the tunnel. Some car manufacturers are actively developing the technology, but it may not be affordable for another 20 years. Electric cars have been the darling of the technocratic set for decades, but people have shown that they are not willing to buy cars that perform poorly compared to regular gasoline vehicles, or those that lack a convenient fueling infrastructure. Electric cars flopped spectacularly in the market, even with a government mandate and massive subsidies behind them.

Natural gas vehicles fail the market test because of the heavy tanks they require, dragging their performance down and gobbling up space that consumers want for carrying things. Another major problem with natural gas is that scientists believe that methane, the major component of natural gas, is a very strong (and possibly the strongest) greenhouse gas of all and damages the ozone. An expanded natural gas distribution system would not only cost a fortune, but could replace carbon dioxide emissions with methane emissions, arguably making global warming more likely, not less.

In the meantime, many people are concerned about the prospect of global warming and well they should be. Human safety, health, and environmental quality are tied to climate stability in many ways. But given the remaining uncertainties in the science, the proper response to that concern is research and no-regrets actions that we know will produce results like tree planting and no-till agriculture.

Forcing Californians to pay more for cars and fuel is bad enough. Forcing them to pay more to satisfy regulations that do more harm than good is something only policy makers could think of.

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

Kenneth Green, D.Env., is Director of the Environmental Program at Reason Public Policy Institute and an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s most recent report on climate change. Dr. Green has published several peer-reviewed policy studies on climate change for RPPI, including A Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change, Climate Change Policy Options and Impacts, Evaluating the Kyoto Approach to Climate Change, and A Baker's Dozen: 13 Questions People Ask About the Science of Climate Change. He received his doctorate in environmental science and engineering from UCLA in 1994.