Tailpipe turnaround

Pub date February 4, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

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GREEN CITY Word that automobile emissions standards may soon improve was good news, but Bay Area leaders and communities are demanding even more to offset the harm that comes from tailpipes.

President Barack Obama last month called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow California and as many as 13 other states to employ their own emissions restrictions. "Our goal," said Obama at the White House, "is not to further burden an already struggling industry. It is to help America’s automakers prepare for the future."

A review of the request is now underway and manufacturers were reassured they would have enough time to rework their 2011 lines. By then, cars and trucks should have improved efficiency and better mileage, outpacing three-year-old national standards that have been in place since the EPA refused to grant a waiver from the federal Clean Air Act.

Locally, the city’s Transportation Authority is reworking the local Climate Action Plan to emphasize emissions reductions. But the problem is expected to get worse before it gets better. Researchers at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District expect greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to increase dramatically from 42.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide this year to 65.4 million in 2029 under "business as usual conditions."

That may be why Mayor Gavin Newsom and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed released a letter Jan. 23 opposing federal plans for an auto industry bailout unless there are more strings attached to the money and more progressive programs to develop low-emission vehicles regionally. The two mayors called for an auto bailout that would "not divert funds from innovative emerging transportation technologies."

Jan Lundberg, a former oil industry analyst turned activist and a former member of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, calls for even bolder steps: "The kinds of amelioration being talked about and offered are woefully inadequate. We should just get rid of car dependency. Most of the pollution involved — into the air, from the car — is not from the tailpipe. It’s from the mining and the manufacturing associated with the car."

The real challenge for local governments is not in adapting their vehicles, but adapting policy to reflect progressive approaches like San Francisco’s "Precautionary Principle," adopted in 2003. The policy puts the burden of proof on advocates of new technology to show it is safe. Debbie Raphael, the Green Building Program Manager with San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, has been pushing for a change in how environmental codes are implemented. "Taxpayers have every right to know the risks," she said. "The burden then falls on industry to study possible negative consequences and to investigate safer alternatives."

Writer and activist Bill McKibben addressed the issue last fall when he spoke at Herbst Theatre, recognizing San Francisco as an environmental leader among cities. "This is clearly a community that is doing so many of the things right that need to be done. One community at a time is a very noble way to proceed. But in the end, it’s only half the battle. We’ve got to get the political movement going that allows us to do this everywhere, not just in the places that already understand it."