Cali’s Kyoto: Working Off A Bad Model – Corrected

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Undaunted by the mess they made of California's electricity marketplace, Sacramento politicians are poised to play havoc with another vital realm of consumer welfare — the marketplace for new cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Assembly Bill 1058, introduced by Fran Pavley (D., Woodland Hills), passed the state assembly by the narrowest of margins on a strict party-line vote. The bill would require the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to develop and adopt regulations mandating “maximum feasible” reductions in carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from new cars and light trucks. The senate is expected to consider the bill this week. If enacted, AB 1058 could empower CARB to do to SUVs what federal “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” (CAFE) standards did to big, family-friendly station wagons — price them beyond reach of ordinary folks, and, ultimately, regulate them into oblivion.

The bill explicitly prohibits CARB from banning the sale of any class of vehicles. However, government need not ban a product to restrict its manufacture, sale, or use. Tax a thing, and there will be less of it. A CO2 standard would function as an implicit carbon tax on gasoline-powered vehicles.

Because no existing technology can control CO2 emissions from vehicles, manufacturers subject to a CO2 standard would have to make changes in vehicle design and construction. For example, automakers might have to replace gasoline-powered engines with exotic technologies like hybrid-gas electric engines, and/or replace gasoline with alternative fuels (like ethanol) for which there is no national distribution infrastructure. Depending on the stringency of the CO2 controls, the sticker price of a new car could increase by several thousand dollars.

Of course, the simplest way to emit less CO2 is to burn less fuel. And the simplest way to reduce fuel consumption is to make cars lighter and smaller. But how many soccer moms would want to buy a cramped, safety-challenged, “Mini-SUV,” even if it were affordably priced?

Decades of research confirm what common sense tells us: Big cars are safer. The more your car resembles a tank rather than a go-cart, the more protection it provides from collision forces. The size and weight reductions induced by the federal CAFE program add 1,300 to 2,600 fatalities to the nation's annual highway death toll, according to the National Research Council. Congress, thankfully, has long refused to tighten CAFE standards, and did so again last month.

CARB, however, has an even longer history of trying to dictate consumer preferences by regulatory fiat. For example, in 1990, CARB decreed that, by 2003, 10 percent of all new cars produced for sale in California (about 170,000 automobiles) must be “zero emission vehicles”(ZEVs), i.e., electric cars. Twelve years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, electric cars are a rarity on California's freeways. The ZEV mandate is a flop of Edsel-like proportions. Giving CARB even more power over automotive design, as AB 1058 proposes, would be sheer folly.

But that's just the half of it. Proponents practically boast that AB 1058 will begin — without ratification — to implement the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.-sponsored, economy-chilling climate treaty that the U.S. Senate preemptively rejected in July 1997, when it passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution by a vote of 95 to zero.

Ms. Pavley claims that, “Global warming is the most urgent environmental problem we face.” No, it isn't. The earth appears to have warmed 1 degree F during the past century — but that is only half the amount projected by the computer-climate models underpinning the Kyoto Protocol. Super-accurate satellite measurements since 1979 show virtually no warming in the lower atmosphere — exactly where the climate models predict the most warming. The models, moreover, indicate that it makes no practical difference in the long run whether governments install CO2 controls now or 20 years from now. If global warming is a problem, it is not an “urgent” one.

Ms. Pavley claims her bill will “protect” California “from the potentially devastating effects of global warming.” No, it won't. Even if global warming were the dire threat climate alarmists imagine it to be, AB 1058 would be an expensive exercise in futility. According to the world's most advanced climate model, a fully implemented Kyoto treaty would avoid only 0.1 degree F of global warming by 2050. Banning all gasoline-powered engines in California — a measure that goes far beyond AB 1058 — would still achieve only a fraction of Kyoto's overall emissions reduction target. Whatever “protection” AB 1058 could provide would be purely hypothetical and totally undetectable.

Proponents also claim AB 1058 will reduce southern California smog by mitigating the warming temperatures that enhance smog formation. But, as we have just seen, the bill will have zero impact on climate change.

The irony is that AB 1058 could actually harm air quality. Today's new cars and light trucks emit 96-percent less air pollution than their 1960's predecessors, and tomorrow's vehicles will be cleaner still. Anything that slows down auto-fleet turnover — the replacement of older vehicles by newer models — is bad air-pollution policy. But the bill might do just that. By increasing the cost and/or reducing the utility of new cars, CO2 controls could encourage motorists to hang on longer to older vehicles — a consumer response known as the “Jalopy Effect.”

Unfortunately, the mischief AB 1058 would unleash does not stop with motorists and cars. The bill would also require California's “Climate Action Registry” to establish CO2 “emission reduction goals…for specific industries and economic sectors,” and design “implementing organization-specific plans” capable of achieving those targets. In other words, the bill's assault on SUVs would merely be the first phase of a wider, Kyoto-inspired assault on all carbon-based energy use.

The broader danger is that, “as California goes, so goes the Nation,” with policymakers in other states and Washington, DC taking their cues from AB 1058. On the other hand, the recent California electricity debacle would be chump change compared to the economic damage inflicted by Kyoto-style energy rationing. Folly of that magnitude might just furnish useful lessons for the rest of the country — but at crippling cost to the Golden State.