California’s Latest Endangered Species: SUVs

This week, California’s Gov. Gray Davis signed into law the first measure that regulates carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks, and SUVs. The tough new standards take the debate over global warming off of the blackboard and into the daily lives of many Americans. While Californians are clearly affected, environmentalists are hoping to use California as an example to push other states into adopting the tough standards as well. The only problem is that the debate over global warming and human influences on climate are far from settled. Which means that consumers may have to endure costly new mandates and changes in their daily lives with little or no environmental improvements.

The new legislation for tailpipe emissions requires the California Air Resources Board to establish strict, but “economically feasible” standards for carbon dioxide emissions. In effect, this legislation is backdoor implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on climate change that the U.S. Senate rejected in a vote of 95-0 and the Bush administration has refused to endorse. The reluctance is warranted, because the divergence between uncertain science and certain economic impacts is substantial. While there may be consensus among scientists that the global climate is warming, there is not a similar consensus on the role of human influences on global warming. Computer models that have trouble depicting the real world forecast much of the predicted warming. Looking at data from the real world it is much more difficult to attribute global warming to human activities. There have been a number of warming and cooling trends throughout the Earth’s history, with similar warming trends occurring in the absence of industrial activity. On the other hand, government estimates of the economic impact suggest that the Kyoto treaty could cost as much as $397 billion annually.

Worse yet, many have challenged the Kyoto Protocol’s effectiveness. Even if the treaty were implemented fully, any reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are questionable, because much of the world is exempt from any new mandates, including developing nations and China, which are likely to be significant new sources of carbon dioxide in the future. Nonetheless, California is moving ahead with an even smaller scale reduction in carbon dioxide that will have no measurable effect on global carbon dioxide levels. As noted by the Reason Foundation’s Chief Scientist, Ken Green, California’s vehicles produce less than one-quarter of one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

While there may be no measurable change in greenhouse gases, Californians will see substantial changes when it comes to driving. Because burning fossil fuels naturally results in carbon dioxide emissions, reductions can be accomplished in only two ways. The first is to switch to an alternative fuel source such as electricity, or fuel cells. The second is to increase the fuel efficiency of existing fuels.

Alternative fuels may lower carbon dioxide emissions, but they offer little hope in the near term. Supporters of California’s new carbon dioxide regulations view the new requirements as an incentive that will spur innovations and the development of new fuel sources. However, the research is far from complete, and adopting new fuels will require a costly transition.

The more likely scenario for the near term would appear to be mandated increases in fuel efficiency. In the past, this has been done by making cars smaller and lighter, an approach that has two drawbacks. First, this requires building more of the cars that consumers do not want. High-mileage, fuel-efficient cars are readily available, but do not sell well. Minivans and SUVs are popular vehicles because of the attributes they offer: roominess, the ability to seat more people, and the ability to hold more cargo. Consumers have shown far less interest in the smaller vehicles that increased fuel efficiency standards would require. Again, this may change in the future as new technologies and materials are developed. But the transition will be costly; Professor Robert Sawyer of the University of California, Berkeley, notes: “The downside of all the advanced technology we’re talking about is that it costs more.”

The second concern with tighter fuel efficiency standards is the potential safety problems associated with smaller and lighter cars. Studies have shown that larger vehicles are more crashworthy, and as vehicle size and weight are reduced to meet fuel efficiency requirements, the number of fatalities increases.

In the end, it is difficult to identify the benefits of California’s ambitious new regulatory scheme. Even when fully implemented, the impact on global emissions will be inconsequential. Nonetheless, environmentalists hail this legislation as an important victory, probably because they are looking beyond California. By forcing producers to meet new mandates in California, environmentalists are hoping to change driving behavior across the country. California represents 10 percent of the U.S. market for vehicles, so mandates from California have a strong impact on automakers. With SUVs and minivans on the endangered list in California, environmentalists will now pressure other states to adopt the new standard as well. But given the exemptions from the Kyoto Protocol that many nations would enjoy, forcing American consumers to pay higher costs while restricting what kind of cars they drive is a Pyrrhic victory at best. At worst, it is bad environmental policy masquerading as science.

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