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The future gets real

The fight against global warming will affect us all. But it doesn't have to be an economic loser.

June 26, 2008

Until now, this state's pioneering exercise in turning down the world's thermostat has been mostly theoretical. Californians might be aware that the Legislature passed a law in 2006, AB 32, that aims to cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020 in order to combat global warming, but few details have emerged about how that's going to happen. Today that changes.

The California Air Resources Board today releases its draft "scoping plan," which lays out the regulatory steps needed to comply with AB 32. The plan is only an outline, but it has enough specifics to make one thing abundantly clear: By the time all its regulatory structures are in place in 2012, it will affect nearly everyone in California.

Over the next 10 years, it will probably change the kind of car you drive, the kind of fuel you put in it, the amount you pay for electricity, where that electricity comes from, the way you heat or cool your home and how you do business. Among other things, it calls for an ambitious cap-and-trade program involving seven Western states and three Canadian provinces. It calls for more fuel-efficient vehicles, a big hike in wind and solar power, more energy-efficient appliances and stricter building standards, and even sets up a voluntary program to build methane digesters over manure pits at the state's dairies and ranches.

If all that sounds expensive, it will be. Yet Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board, made a startling assertion in an interview with The Times: The regulations will have a net positive economic impact. In other words, their costs will be more than made up by the savings they encourage and the economic activity they generate. If she's right, AB 32 won't just be groundbreaking, it will be earth-shattering.

Conservatives have largely given up arguing that global warming isn't happening or that it isn't caused by humans, but they persist in claiming that the costs of fighting it aren't worth the benefits. If it makes economic as well as environmental sense to cut carbon, they're left without a plank to stand on.

That's a big "if." The air board hasn't yet completed its study of the economic impacts of its plans. Even if it predicts a net economic gain from AB 32, there will be plenty of room for disagreement. Sweeping regulations tend to have unforeseen, and expensive, consequences. But this state is big enough, bold enough and innovative enough to overcome the hurdles it meets on the way to a better future.

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