Air Board Attempts Justice Guide for Greenhouse Gas Reductions

By Published On: March 16, 2007

A committee that will try to steer the California Air Resources Board away from greenhouse gas reduction strategies under AB 32 that could affect poor, predominantly minority communities is set to focus on the board’s moves toward a cap-and-trade program. During its first meeting March 15, the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee also agreed to closely track early voluntary carbon curbs initiated by utilities, oil refineries, and other stationary sources approved by the air board prior to implementing AB 32’s mandates. AB 32 is the state law that aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Low-income communities often bear the brunt of industrial production and its pollution. Not only are power plants, oil refineries, and big factories predominantly built in or near these communities, but many fear that a carbon trading system could exacerbate the problem by shifting more carbon gases to these polluted areas. Thus, the question of “justice” to richer and poorer communities becomes an issue. Former Assemblymember Fran Pavley, the key author of AB 32, made efforts to ensure that environmental justice was served during the law’s execution. Margaret Taylor, University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, urged a focus on the 80 percent global warming reduction goal set for 2050 by California’s governor to help ensure a robust clean energy technology market and real carbon emissions cuts. Utilities and other industries need to start constructing long-lived clean plants that will help the state achieve the huge carbon reduction goal 40 years down the road, she said. Taylor also noted hurdles in the way of getting innovative energy technology from birth to maturity, including ensuring a market for the product. “Private investment incentives are weak. That is why government incentives are needed,” she said. One of the environmental justice committee members pointed out that the success of a new technology is not just a question of effective innovation but how the technology gets diffused. “Because of institutional barriers, we are still stuck with technology from 25 years ago.” “More stringent technology standards lead to the greatest innovation in certain technologies,” Taylor added. She did not put a lot of faith in tax credits for alternative technologies nor in a cap-and-trade system. Tax incentives tend to be unreliable because of the fickle nature of politics. During budget crunches, tax credits are the fist thing to go out the door, she said. Existing carbon trading systems have produced mixed results, largely because of price volatility in pollution and carbon trading markets, she said. Prices usually fall because of investors’ early expectations. But the price also can soar. During the 2000-01 energy crisis, for example, the price of nitrogen oxides went from $220 to $124,000 a metric ton. Lenny Goldberg, consumer advocate lobbyist, warned that lower-income communities will be the ones most burdened by the expected carbon prices. Karen Douglas, an attorney with Environmental Defense, however, backed the air board’s creation of a trading scheme because it “puts a quantitative limit on how much can be emitted.” She added that a key to its success was performance standards.

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