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California Regains Public Policy Forefront With Climate Plan

Jul 1, 2008
The California Air Resources Board's release of a draft scoping plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions strikes me as important for several reasons. The plan provides a starting point for how California will dramatically reduce its output of gases that cause global climate change, and the plan downplays the role of land use planning in those reductions.

Perhaps most important, however, the plan marks the State of California's return to the role of public policy leader.

Other states and many cities are talking about ways to address climate change, but California's greenhouse gas emissions reduction law (AB 32) and the new scoping plan for implementing that law place the state at the forefront. As Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols said in a prepared statement, "California is once again blazing a trail to lead other states and the nation to address climate change."

Two generations ago, California was a land of bold ideas and big actions. We invested heavily in huge public works projects on which we still rely. We built a three-tier system of higher education that made college accessible to every California resident. We adopted environmental protections that became models for the federal government and other states. This and more helped make California an economic powerhouse and a desirable place to live.

For about the last 35 years, however, the "big picture" has eluded us. Instead, we have spent untold energy and money arguing about details and diversions. While other states and regions innovated, we devised the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund and the "triple flip." We got passed by. In the land use arena, states such as Oregon, Washington, New Jersey and Maryland brushed California into the suburban dustbin.

But there is a void in climate change policy because the Bush administration has abdicated. Passage of AB 32 in 2006 moved California into a leadership position. The law requires the state to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80% less than 1990 levels by 2050. Those are aggressive targets. The Air Resources Board is the agency charged with implementing the law, and the draft scoping plan released last week during a board meeting that drew an audience of hundreds of people outlines how the state will meet the emission goals.

The scoping plan emphasizes cleaner-running vehicles, energy efficient buildings and appliances, renewable electricity sources, and minimizing industrial emissions. The plan calls for land use and local government activities to provide about 1% of reductions for the 2020 goal something that concerns environmentalists and smart-growth advocates, and pleases development interests and many local governments. The plan is only a proposal, so it could change. Remember, though, what's important here is the big picture.

The day after the air board released the scoping plan, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the UN body that shared last year's Nobel peace prize with Al Gore), said while speaking in Sacramento that the plan could set an example for the rest of the world.

The Sacramento Bee agreed in a Sunday editorial, saying, "More than any other government in the world, California is creating a template for tackling global warming."

Is the template the right one? No one knows. But at least the state is out on the leading edge of public policy once again.

- Paul Shigley