Counterproductive GHG Policy in California

California’s Senate Bill 375 appears likely to pass tomorrow. The bill would establish greenhouse gas emissions targets for the state’s metropolitan areas and includes financial incentives that would seek to encourage more dense development and would ultimately interfere with local zoning prerogatives. The underlying assumptions of SB 375 are at best unproven and at the worst could lead to serious economic disruption.

One of the principal concerns in reducing greenhouse gases is to do so in a manner that allows strong economic growth to continue. Strong economic growth is much more than theoretical --- it is required to minimize poverty and to preserve the quality of life. Because of this concern, considerable research has been undertaken by the International Panel on Climate Change, which has concluded that significant (and sufficient) reductions of greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved at from $20 to $50 per ton.

The problem with SB 375 is that it applies no cost test. It is simply assumed that suburban development and driving are “bad” and that they must be curbed. There has been no cost-based modeling to justify this view. Indeed, Australian research indicates that, overall, GHG emissions per capita are less in suburban areas than in higher density areas (in a process that allocates every gram of GHG to a household location). Similarly, the average new car is as GHG friendly as the average transit ride (on a passenger mile basis) outside New York.

By skipping over the issue of costs, SB 375 could do far more harm than good. It will effectively ration land for development, which is likely to substantially increase its costs. This will lead to less affordable housing and higher product costs. Further, SB 375 would increase traffic congestion. Virtually all of the evidence from around the world indicates that more dense development, which will occur as a result of SB 375, leads to greater traffic congestion. This will increase the intensity of local air pollution and thereby local health risks. It will also increase GHG emissions, because cars emit more GHGs when they operate slower and in stop and go conditions.

All of this comes at a time that California faces a financial crisis, while there is a strong out-migration of residents to other states, according to United States Census estimates (1.2 million just from 2000 to 2007).

SB 375 represents a triumph of ideology over reason.