North Coast on track to meet AB32 levels long before 2020

California’s north coast, long cherished for its majestic redwoods, rivers and sweeping coastline, is becoming known for something else: It is expected to cut its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels long before the deadline – still 11 years away – imposed by California’s law to reduce carbon emissions, AB 32. In fact, it may already have done so.

The apparent speed in complying with the new, still-unfinished law is as much circumstance as it is design, experts say, and many factors are cited. It also comes as a surprise to AB 32 watchers  — and there are many in the Capitol – who see greenhouse gas reductions as happening later rather sooner.

But the decreases in the North State are real now, due in part to the painful shrinkage of local economies.

There has been a dramatic decline in the logging industry in an area that once depended mightily on timber harvesting. The result is that there is less wood processing, less burning of scrap, fewer industrial emissions, less electricity consumption and less timber-related activities, such as transport. A key rail line was lost in 1998, forcing some freight hauling onto the highways and resulting, apparently, in a slight increase in per-capita miles driven. The climate is cool most of the year, typically 45 to 65 degrees. Brisk breezes continually blow in from the ocean. The area is covered by trees that emit oxygen in vast quantities. Population growth is relatively flat, unlike surges in Southern California and the Central Valley.

A Redwood Coast Energy Authority study that culled data from 2003 through 2006 reflects those changes, although local officials emphasize that the findings are preliminary only and require further review. The study was released two weeks ago.

“The decreases in general were attributed to the shift that we are experiencing in the transition from a natural resource-based economy,” said Jill Duffy, a Humboldt County supervisor and chairwoman of the air-quality management district that has jurisdiction over Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties. “But it is not possible to pinpoint the primary cause for this.”

California’s law, AB 32, was authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. It was Part II of her legislative effort to curb carbon emissions. The first, which targeted vehicular emissions, was AB 1493 of 2002, which was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. That bill, AB 1493, was the nation’s first law cutting greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. It has been in limbo for years amid opposition from the Bush administration, but the new Obama administration has reversed that policy.

The second bill is AB 32 which, like its predecessor, has received international attention. Under the jurisdiction of the Air Resources Board, AB 32 requires the state to gradually reduce its climate-changing greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels within the next 12 years. One of the goals of the legislation is to wean industry – and the populace – from fossil fuels. Many scientists believe that man-made carbon emissions, often the product of fossil fuels, are contributing to the earth’s long-term temperature increase.

Because of the preliminary nature of the North Coast data and because the state is only in the initial stages of writing the regulations, it is not possible to know exactly where the North Coast is located on the greenhouse gas-reduction scale – or where any other area is, for that matter. Among other things, air-quality officials, state and local, must establish an inventory of carbon gas emitters, track the emissions, calculate the levels and then figure out whether they meet the AB 32 rules.

“The general trends of the categories indicated that from an electrical consumption perspective, we had seen a pretty significant decrease within the industrial and commercial areas, and within the residential, too,” Duffy said. “You have to stand back to see we’ve really experienced a lot of change here. We’ve lost a tremendous number of mills that closed down for one reason or another, and the mills that are still in existence have made significant upgrades.”

But absent industry, any sparsely populated, forested region with a congenial climate presumably would generate only modest carbon emissions and have an easier time of meeting the AB 32 requirements than an urban, industrialized zone.

“At this point, we don’t actually require every county drop its emissions overall by 30 percent. We are going at it on a sector by sector basis,” said ARB spokesman Stanley Young. “We want to see reductions in the use of electricity and use of natural gas in the next 12 years to meet specific goals. We would like to see reduced vehicle miles.”

Vehicle mileage is up slightly in the North Coast, as it is in the rest of the state. Statewide, annual miles-driven has increased between 1 percent and 2 percent and exceeds population growth.

The increase was one reason for the passage of legislation, SB 375, authored by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that sets forth a long-term regional planning strategy to minimize suburban sprawl, encourage so-called “in-fill” development in order to cut commute times and vehicle emissions.

“Local governments are taking to heart the mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they are understanding the real purpose of what AB 32 is all about – to steer California away from its dependence on fossil fuels. Anything that gets us in that direction is beneficial,” Young said.

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