California’s much-anticipated plan for slashing climate pollution from new cars and trucks is previewed in today’s New York Times.

The announcement opens a juicy opportunity for the Northwest states and BC, as I’ll explain in a moment.

First, though, the numbers in the draft plan: a 30 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction among new cars, phased in between 2009 and 2030. Because vehicles remain in the fleet for about 15 years, on average, it will take until 2045 before the full effects are felt.

Second, some perspective: That’s a pretty bold step compared with the federal government, but it’s paltry compared with the atmospheric need. By 2045 or thereabouts-a time as close to us as the year 1963-the snowpack in the Washington and Oregon Cascades will likely be cut in half by climate change, according to the UW Climate Impacts Group. In fact, much of the Oregon range will be snowless.

  • Still, it’s a start, a good start. A 30 percent reduction per vehicle demonstrates a commitment to bring the California transportation system into the climate-conscious reality that Europe, Japan, and other Kyoto signatories have already entered.

    Third, and finally, what does any of this have to do with the Northwest? California, unlike all other states in the nation, has special rights under the Clean Air Act to create standards for air pollution more stringent than EPA’s. Other states are permitted to opt into California’s plan or, by failing to do so, following EPA’s. They are not permitted to create their own. (A strange and unjustified policy, yes, but that’s the law.)

    If Northwest states now sign up for the California air plan, they’ll be able to ride along for the climate-change program in 2009. That program will bring fuel conservation, reduced gasoline imports, and the attendant economic benefits.

    And joining California is Cascadia’s best real option for accelerating change in vehicle engineering. Our regional economy doesn’t have enough market leverage to change engine designs in Detroit, even if we had the legal standing to attempt it. (We don’t, with the exception of BC.) The Golden State, on the other hand, has enormous market leverage: it has twice as many residents as Cascadia, and it’s the world’s sixth largest economy.

    By following California’s lead, the Northwest states will become part of a West Coast vehicle market that takes energy efficiency seriously. BC can join in, too, for the strength in numbers it will gain.

    And the West Coast Governors’ Global Warming Initiative, now in development, is the perfect way to seize this chance.