California Standards on Automobile Emissions

California is leading the way to greener transportation by setting new limits on automobile emissions of carbon dioxide.

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The impact of the automobile program could be huge if it survives legal challenges. Cars and light trucks (a category that includes sport utility vehicles) account for one-fifth of America’s greenhouse gas emissions and about 40 percent of its oil consumption.

PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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New York state announced last November that it would adopt California’s strict limits on automobile emissions of carbon dioxide, a major global warming gas. The announcement fulfills Gov. George Pataki’s pledge to make all cars sold in New York adhere to the California standards. It also puts him on a direct collision course with the Bush administration, which has joined the major automobile manufacturers in opposing the California program.

The California standards, approved by its state legislature in 2002, require manufacturers to begin cutting carbon dioxide emissions in 2009 model year vehicles, with a goal of reducing these emissions 30 percent by the 2016 model year. This is an ambitious target, and absent a sudden technological breakthrough, the only feasible way to meet it is for automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars, which produce less emissions.

The program faces a legal siege. The automakers and the Bush administration argue that this is merely a backdoor way of mandating tougher fuel economy standards, which under current law is the responsibility of the federal government. California’s reply is that it has a right — indeed, an obligation — under the Clean Air Act to remove pollutants of any kind from California’s air.

The larger issue here is one of political leadership. President Bush has refused to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from any source — cars, power plants or industrial sites — preferring instead a softer, voluntary approach that has yielded little progress. Congress, meanwhile, has refused to mandate significant increases in fuel efficiency.

Impatient governors who take global warming more seriously than the President and Congress — including Republicans like Pataki and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — have therefore decided to take matters into their own hands.

Altogether, more than 30 states have approved global warming laws of one sort or another. A consortium of Northeastern states has announced a breakthrough program that imposes regional caps on power plants’ emissions and sets up a trading program to help cut these emissions in a cost-effective manner.

The impact of the automobile program could be huge if it survives legal challenges. Cars and light trucks (a category that includes sport utility vehicles) account for one-fifth of America’s greenhouse gas emissions and about 40 percent of its oil consumption. In addition to New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont have opted to follow the California standards.

This means that by early 2006, nearly one-third of the automobile retail market is likely to be covered by the new regulations—a tremendous incentive to the industry to start making fuel-efficient cars for everyone.


This editorial originally appeared in The New York Times on Nov. 11, 2005. Copyright by The New York Times Co.; reprinted with permission.