This is why I worry about using complementary policies to reduce carbon emisisons, rather than a firm and declining cap on transportation fuels. Take California’s “clean car standards”—a first rate policy if there ever was one.* As CNN reports, it isn’t working out as planned:

California regulators have drastically cut the number of zero-emission vehicles required to be sold in the state by the year 2014, a decision that frustrated environmentalists but came as a relief to auto manufacturers. The rules adopted Thursday put the number of electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that automakers sell in California at 7,500 by 2014—a 70 percent reduction from the 2003 target.

All too often, it turns out that even the best laid plans go awry. California and the 12 other states (including Oregon and Washington) that have adopted the same standards have staked a lot on the “clean cars” policy. If it turns out that the program doesn’t work as planned, it could pose a big problem for the states’ climate goals.

Now, I’m not saying that this setback is necessarily the fault of policymakers. Other forces may be at work too, including intransigent auto manufacturers. But that’s sort of my point: good intentions are thwarted in the real world. This shouldn’t surprise us; it’s precisely the sort of bump in the road that we should expect.

 After all, it’s not like this is the first time that the standards have been weakened:

  • California adopted its zero-emission vehicle mandate in 1990 as part of an attempt to reduce smog-forming emissions such as nitrogen oxide. The rule required that 10 percent of new cars sold in the state by the country’s six leading auto manufacturers be completely nonpolluting by 2003.

    The rules have been modified four times since they were introduced. The biggest change came in 2003, when the Air Resources Board significantly scaled back the mandate and ruled that hydrogen cars, hybrids and cleaner-burning gasoline vehicles could meet the state’s goals.

    The revised 2003 rules set a goal of putting at least 25,000 zero-emission cars on the road in California by 2014, far below the original 10 percent mandate. The rules adopted Thursday put the number of zero-emission vehicles required by 2014 even lower.

    And this sort of problem isn’t confined to California’s vehicle standards. We’ve seen the same thing in the endlessly deferred market for plug-in electric hybrids, HyperCars, Freedom Cars, hydrogen cars, and so on. (Of course, these things all exist, but a scalable version with real market penetration is always “just around the corner.”) And we may be seeing much the same thing with biofuels, as new studies suggest that future demand could result in a carbon-disaster of forest clearing and grassland plowing.

    We can try reducing vehicle miles traveled, or implementing low-carbon fuel standards, or better land-use planning. (And we should try all these things: they’re potentially good and important policies.) But without a cap on our emissions there’s simply no guarantee that we’ll actually get real reductions.

    It’s time to learn from experience. And history teaches that our best policies and new technologies are often delayed, provisional, and imperfect. So if we mean to tackle our climate emissions, we’d better factor in a margin of error, and we shouldn’t be suprised if our plans don’t work exactly as we hope. It’s all the more reason why we need a limit on carbon — a real, enforceable cap—that covers as much of our economy as possible. And that includes the transportation sector.


    *Sightline’s a boosterish supporter of the California clean car standards. And we’re not changing our tune: it’s a terrific policy. It’s just that like many policies, implementation is messy, time-consuming, and uncertain. And when it comes to reducing our emissions, we don’t have a lot of time left for uncertainty