Photo of drought in Australia by Vicki via Flickr Creative Commons

Clearing the Air: Drought, Dirty Air and Climate Change

By Tom Frantz 

Most people living in the San Joaquin Valley are concerned about air pollution and drought. A warming planet can make both situations worse, so solving climate change could help solve current problems. Face it, we have the worst air in the nation and our health statistics prove it. Ozone levels and fine particulates will only increase with a warming climate. We are also experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. The tree rings in the mountains may not record this event because the trees are dying.

Science is beginning to clarify and strengthen the relationship between the current drought and climate change. Alarming predictions show the California drought situation will become worse in the future as the planet warms.

One promise of California’s 2006 global warming legislation (AB32) was reduced air pollution concurrent with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The reduction of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel and methane from oil and gas production or dairies can easily coincide with reductions in the other emissions fouling our air if direct regulations are enforced on these sources of pollution.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has been sarcastically saying recently that we will have to ban all fossil fuel combustion in the Valley in order to meet more health protective ozone rules. Ironically, there will be new greenhouse gas reduction laws this year in California that will effectively require just that by 2050.

Basically, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will be the agency to clean up our air over the next 35 years. It is in charge of reducing greenhouse gases, or carbon emissions, as they are sometimes called. Obviously, real and local greenhouse gas reductions in the Valley will dramatically improve air quality.

However, is the CARB going to take actions that will make this happen? Unfortunately, the cap-and-trade approach favored by the CARB allows big polluters to buy their way out of reductions and spend money elsewhere to get reductions. Not all of these reductions will take place in the Valley or even in California. The CARB also is forcing businesses to purchase emission allowances, and that money is often being grabbed by politicians for projects with little or no benefits for air quality and few benefits for greenhouse gas reductions.

The CARB is definitely not being tough enough with its cap-and-trade, and the needed reductions are being continually delayed so the economy will not be hurt. Even though the law mandating reductions was passed in 2006, nine years later we still do not see the steady downward trend in carbon emissions.

While our economy grows at current rates of around 3% per year, total carbon emissions are growing at 1%. To reach 2050 goals, the economy needs to continue its 3% growth rate while carbon emissions are actually cut by about 5% per year. The CARB seems to prefer the approach of small reductions now and leaving the big ones for a future generation.

One rule enforced by the CARB is the low carbon fuel standard. It says the carbon intensity of our transportation fuels must be reduced 10% by 2020 with higher reductions in the future. The CARB knows that ethanol from corn is inefficient and hardly makes a dent in the carbon-intensity calculations, but it is currently changing the rules to make corn ethanol more attractive. There is no consideration of the effect this will have on food prices worldwide. Added ethanol plants in the Valley will make our air worse. The CARB is also delaying the reductions needed per year in recent changes to this rule.

Of course, the only way to decrease the carbon in our transportation fuel is to move strongly toward electric vehicles and make sure the production of electricity is based on solar and wind. Allowing food crops to be grown for fuel is nonsense, even in the short term.

Finally, many economists are advocating for a carbon fee and rebate instead of a cap on emissions with a carbon trading scheme for meeting the cap. A fee-and-rebate plan is far less complicated with predictable results. Cap-and-trade is complicated because the price for carbon allowances is market dependent and the money collected might or might not get the needed reductions.

Essentially, with fee-and-rebate, a fee is put on all sources of carbon emissions at the point of entry into the economy. It would raise the price of gasoline, diesel, natural gas and fossil fuel based electricity by predictable and escalating amounts. But the rebate returns all the money collected equally to every resident of the state. Those with the lowest carbon footprints make money initially. There is no political scramble for the money. As people demand a more affordable low-carbon lifestyle, the economy is stimulated in that direction.

Another benefit of fee-and-rebate is that the big carbon polluters in the Valley are also the big air polluters, and they will simply not be able to afford to pollute our air any longer if there is a large carbon fee placed on their products.

Clearly, fee-and-rebate would benefit low-income residents in the San Joaquin Valley. It would make short-term higher energy costs from fossil fuel more affordable, and it would clean the air and improve their health. Cap-and-trade does neither. It is also questionable whether cap-and-trade will make the planet livable a hundred years from now.

*****

Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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