Prescription: A healthier global warming plan

Even if pictures of stranded polar bears failed to warm your heart, global warming’s effect on your health should get your circulation going. As the California Air Resources Board takes on climate change with a plan scheduled for Oct. 3 release, Californians ought to scrutinize the effects that plan will have on our bodies.

Public health officials have predicted that human-induced warming will cause our elderly, outdoors workers and athletes to suffer increased amounts of heat-related illness, which in 2006 killed more than 100 vulnerable residents.

By taking action to slow global warming, we not only can lessen heat-related illness, we can also reduce the air pollution that plagues most of California. Curbing the pollution that causes global warming could prevent more than 3,000 premature deaths by 2020 and stave off an estimated 110,000 asthma cases, the California Air Resources Board has estimated.

Fortunately, the Global Warming Solutions Act, Assembly Bill 32, was passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in 2006. Air Board experts have been developing their scoping plan for meeting that law’s requirement that California return its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. A revised version of the plan should come out Oct. 3.

As they design measures to reduce greenhouse gases, Air Board officials should provide the additional benefit of improving air quality, especially in communities that suffer from the most severe smog, particulates, and toxic air emissions. Low-income communities and communities of color should not have to sacrifice their right to breathe clean air in an environmentally just world.

The good news is that many common-sense measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will also help us breathe easier. By raising the clean-energy standard for our electricity providers to 33%, allowing cities and counties to power up their purchase of renewable energy by combining buying power at the local level, and telling the automakers to put zero-emission vehicles on the road, California can combat climate change and air pollution at the same time.

But some proposals to address climate change could have drawbacks for local air quality if they are poorly designed. If the Air Board sets up a pollution-trading system for greenhouse gases, as it intends to do, permits to pollute should not be given away to the polluters. Handing out a valuable asset to the big oil and power companies would not motivate them to clean up dirty facilities in low-income communities as quickly as possible. Instead, polluters should have to pay for emission allowances through an auction. Funds raised through the auction should be used for public purposes such as energy efficiency, promotion of renewable energy and public transit, aid to low-income consumers, and providing training for green jobs.

Greenhouse gas “offsets” are another controversial issue. Offsets may have a role in reducing greenhouse gas, but they should be limited to assure the integrity of the emission reductions and fulfill the letter and spirit of the law. While projects such as planting trees or building clean energy facilities may benefit individual communities, regulators must not let polluters off the hook or those who breathe the air near polluting plants, landfills and kilns will suffer.

AB 32, which we strongly supported, drew much of its backing from the prospect that an enforceable cap on our state’s greenhouse gas emissions would spur the technological innovations required to fundamentally transform our energy economy, and that California would benefit by creating the green technologies that the rest of the country and the rest of the world will demand. Curbing global warming will require a rapid greening of our vehicles, fuels and power plants. If those sectors are able to comply with AB 32 requirements by outsourcing their emission reductions to other sectors and other jurisdictions, it could hold back the entire clean energy revolution.

We must prioritize offset projects that will provide environmental benefits to California, especially in communities suffering from excessive levels of pollution. AB 32 requires CARB to ensure that its implementation rules “complement, and do not interfere with efforts to achieve and maintain federal and state ambient air quality standards and to reduce toxic air contaminant emissions.”
Strengthening our global warming plan will provide a bigger dose of health benefits to California’s poorest and most powerless residents as we reduce climate change.

Plus, it might help the polar bears too.

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