Ambitious GHG Targets for California Drivers

On September 23, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced the adoption of ambitious, though aspirational, greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets associated with the total miles traveled by California drivers. This is the latest step in the process of implementing Senate Bill 375, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008. The significant increase in stringency of the CARB target levels over recommendations made by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) last May was surprising and although praised by some, has received significant criticism.

The law provides incentives, not mandates, for MPOs to use regional transportation strategies that encourage smart growth. Incentives for MPOs, which meet the GHG targets, can include easier access to federal funding and exemption from certain environmental review requirements. Although called ‘precedent setting’ by the media, it establishes growth policies considered similar to others that have already been implemented in California, and this law would not have a strong impact without stringent GHG reduction targets. SB 375 required CARB to set the targets, giving it the power to determine how seriously MPOs would have to invest in new development plans if they wish to take advantage of the incentives. Using 2005 as a baseline, the GHG emissions per capita reduction targets set by CARB for 2020 and 2035 were, respectively:


Region2020 Target2035 Target
San Diego Area7%13%
Sacramento Region7%16%
Bay Area Region7%15%
Southern California8%13%
San Joaquin Valley (to be revisited in 2012)5%10%
Targets for the remaining six MPOs making up 5 percent of the population match or improve upon their current plans for 2020 and 2035

The targets CARB defined were more ambitious than what the largest MPOs recommended in May. For example, recommendations for the Bay Area were 5 percent per capita for 2020 and 5 percent for 2035 (the same to account for projected population growth, which would make higher targets more difficult to achieve in 2035). Critics complained that these targets were “hijacked” by environmentalists, as CARB did not provide an explanation for the increase.

While more stringent targets are a victory for champions of climate change policy, some Californians have claimed CARB’s numbers as irresponsible because MPOs cannot afford to implement the plans needed to meet the targets. Given the state’s budget deficit and lingering impacts from the global economic recession in 2008 and 2009, budget crises for transit agencies have resulted in decreased service and increased fares. To combat expected costs, CARB has promised to help seek out more state and federal funding, although CARB member and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts is pessimistic about their chances. Business groups angrily predict that such funding will have to come from increased transportation taxes such as vehicle miles traveled fees, parking fees, and congestion pricing. Critics (Example 1, Example 2) also cite the prediction by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) of San Francisco that gas would reach a cost of $9.07 per gallon if there were a carbon or ‘vehicle miles traveled’ (VMT) tax.

CARB could address these concerns by clarifying the rationale for its decision and exposing half-truths propagated by some of its critics. For example, whether or not targets are too ambitious, SB 375 requires CARB to review them regularly and consider revisions based on economic and demographic conditions, as well as actual results achieved. The critics’ references to the MTC’s $9.07 per gallon gas are disingenuous warnings. The MTC’s gas price forecast is actually for 2035, not the immediate future, and the MTC considers a carbon or VMT tax as just one of multiple policy options. Only when this tax is added to the MTC’s unlikely forecast of gas prices (a linear extrapolation based on gas prices in 2008, the highest price ever, hitting $7.47 per gallon by 2035) does the cost of one gallon reach $9.07 in 2035. This forecast is significantly different from that of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which, as of 2010, expects a national average of $3.91 per gallon gas in 2035. In addition, sustainable development experts Calthorpe Associates’ ‘Vision California’ study highlights attainable smart growth savings for Californians that would provide a significant boost to the economy. It quantifies savings, potentially achievable through SB 375, at $6,400 per year per household by 2050, among other significant opportunities.

While it is natural to be wary of the ambitious goals, California has previously defied naysayers and achieved ambitious policy goals at lower costs than initially predicted, as happened with Title 24 building energy efficiency standards in 1978. Furthermore, it is worth noting that SB 375 will remain intact no matter the fate of Proposition 23, which seeks to suspend the Global Warming Solutions Act, Assembly Bill 32, in the upcoming elections. By providing incentive-based aggressive targets, MPOs now have greater reason to invest significantly in future transportation and land use plans. With such an investment, Californians can look forward to a more comfortable life with shorter commutes, reduced air pollution, and long-term economic growth.

Sam Wurzelmann is the Innovative Solutions intern