Wednesday, April 09, 2008

California's New Standard

A column in yesterday's Wall St. Journal reminded me that I had neglected to comment on the latest revision in California's targets for low- and zero-emission vehicles (ZEV.) These regulations are important signals to auto makers, and to the other states that have typically followed California's lead on environmental matters. I was struck by two facets of the new rules, both deserving at least a brief mention here.

First, at a time when the principal focus of US environmental debate is shifting away from tailpipe emissions of local pollutants--SOx, NOx, etc.--and more to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) persists in drawing the envelope around the vehicle itself, rather than its entire energy system, and thus its well-to-wheels emissions. That's consistent with CARB's mission; after all, even if they drive super-ultra-low-emission cars, 18 million Angelenos are going to create some smog. Still, the number of annual Health Advisory days in the L.A. Basin, the lowest level of air quality alerts, is now lower than the number of severe Second-Stage Alerts prevailing when I first moved there in the late 1970s. Even though L.A.'s air quality is worse than federal standards, the trend is positive, in spite of enormous population growth over the same period. Isn't it time for CARB to abandon the outdated pollution-shifting rationale behind the ZEV standard and focus mainly on the reduction of lifecycle emissions per mile? Otherwise, they risk fostering such foolishness as cars with internal combustion engines burning hydrogen produced from natural gas, resulting in higher well-to-wheels emissions than gasoline.

It also struck me that the requirement for automakers to produce 58,000 plug-in hybrids per year, starting in 2012, may be too low, rather than too high. I'm no fan of mandates such as this, but spreading that quantity of vehicle sales among a half dozen large manufacturers will likely not result in a profitable model line for any of them. 58,000 cars per year is barely enough for one successful model, let alone one requiring vastly more R&D and retooling than a conventional car. And while Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund was surely correct in his observation in his WSJ op-ed yesterday that, "a lot of people will make a killing" solving global warming, I think it's equally true--and even more important to note--that our chances of solving global warming will be low, unless there is a lot of profit in it.

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