For years, while Washington slept, most of the serious work on climate change has occurred in the states, and no state has worked harder than California. The latest example of California’s originality is a new law — the nation’s first — intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by curbing urban sprawl and cutting back the time people have to spend in their automobiles.
Passenger vehicles are the biggest single source of carbon dioxide in California, producing nearly one-third of the total. Meanwhile, the number of miles driven in California has increased 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth, largely because people have to drive greater distances in their daily lives.
The new law has many moving parts, but the basic sequence is straightforward. The state’s Air Resources Board will determine the level of emissions produced by cars and light trucks, including S.U.V.’s, in each of California’s 17 metropolitan planning areas. Emissions-reduction goals for 2020 and 2035 would be assigned to each area. Local governments would then devise strategies for housing development, road-building and other land uses to shorten travel distances, reduce driving and meet the new targets.
One obvious solution would be to change zoning laws so developers can build new housing closer to where people work. Another is to improve mass transit — in woefully short supply in California — so commuters don’t have to rely so much on cars.
The bill contains significant incentives, including the promise of substantial federal and state money to regions whose plans pass muster. In addition, and with the consent of the environmental community, the state will relax various environmental rules to allow “infill” — higher-density land use in or near cities and towns.
The bill’s architect, State Senator Darrell Steinberg, worked closely with developers and environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. The measure is the latest in a string of initiatives from the California Legislature, including a 2002 law that would greatly reduce carbon emissions from automobiles, and a 2006 law requiring that one-fifth of California’s energy come from wind and other renewable sources.
Given California’s size, these and other initiatives will help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Even more progress would be made if others follow. New York and 15 other states have already said they will adopt California’s automobile emissions standards when the federal government gives them the green light — which the Bush administration has stubbornly refused to do.
There is, of course, no substitute for federal action or for American global leadership on climate change, both of which the next president will have to deliver.