California's Policy Model to Reduce Oil Use and Vehicle Emissions

California is leading emissions standards in an effort to reduce air pollution. Photo by Ben Amstutz.

Despite having continual governing issues, budget problems and high employment, California has been a leader in developing policy to address climate change. Dan Sperling, discussing California’s leadership in vehicle emissions standards at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at an event held on Monday, spoke about his joint report with Mary Nichols, titled, “California’s Policy Model for Reducing Oil Use and Emissions from Transportation.”

The report discusses the suite of policies, developed without federal or international mandate, which can serve as a model for other governments. The policies address three areas: vehicles, fuels, and travel demand. Sperling notes that whereas vehicle technology will likely be the largest contributor to reductions in transportation emissions in the developed world, travel demand in China will have the greatest impact on its transportation emissions.

California, having the original, iconic car-oriented lifestyle, adopted vehicle emissions standards as early as the 1960s to reduce air pollution. Since then, the state has been at a unique crossroads allowing the progression of GHG policy. It has political authority on motor vehicle regulations, general concern for the environment (citizens voted down attempts to postpone implementation of climate change laws), is home to major technological innovation, and has relatively few in-state industries to compete with the policies. It is not the first entity to adopt each of the standards, but it has been a leader in the mix of policies and in targeting multiple sectors.

In a review draft of the report distributed to event participants, Sperling lists the following timeline of recent legislation:

  • 2002: Pavley Law (AB 1493) to reduce vehicle emissions
  • 2006: AB 32 signed to reduce statewide emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020
  • 2008: SB 375 to reduce sprawl and vehicle use
  • 2009: Low Carbon Fuel Standard adopted by California Air Resources Board
  • 2010: Carbon Cap and Trade adopted by California Air Resources Board
  • 2011: Law requiring 33 percent renewable energy by 2020
  • 2012: Vehicle GHG standards adopted by California Air Resources Board for 2017-2025

These policies are “a mix of rules, incentives, and market instruments,” as Sperling sees it. Because travel demand has proven to be fairly inelastic with respect to fuel prices, Sperling says California’s policies focus mostly on regulatory instruments. This approach is more complex than simply taxing fuel, and it creates the potential for conflicts between markets and regulation. However, it has limited additional costs to taxpayers and few specific directives on how each city or industry should reach the desired results. This leaves room for local governments to decide how their community can best achieve the mandated reductions.

Though Sperling says California still has more work ahead and faces many fiscal challenges, it is good news that cities and industries can be moved to action on climate change.

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