Meet California's Climate Heroes
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Founding director of the UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies in 1991, Sperling knows well that transportation is the source of a massive 40 percent of California’s contribution to climate change. He is not interested in convening civil engineers and urban planners in some ivory tower to make academic proclamations about it. He’s about partnerships in the real world that will lead to change.
“It’s all about policy when it comes to carbon,” said Sperling. “We’re taking what we’ve learned in California and asking, ’How can we go national?’”
Though environmentalists have known it for a long time, “the automotive industry now understands the future is in electric drive vehicles,” said Sperling. “We are starting to see battery electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles unveiled by the major car companies. … On the vehicle side, it’s a very upbeat time.”
However, replacing petroleum with low-carbon fuel alternatives remains a difficulty. Biofuels are faltering from lack of oil-company investments, said Sperling, and hydrogen remains “just over the horizon.”
“The fuels challenge is the most difficult,” he admitted.
Sperling’s work on Assembly Bill 32 created the country’s toughest low-carbon fuel standard for California. Specifically, his work was the basis for the first major regulation built on the concept of measuring greenhouse gases over a fuel’s life cycle and requiring oil refiners to either reduce the fuel’s carbon intensity or buy credits (cap and trade) from those that do. Similar policies are under consideration in 11 other states, as well as in Canada and Europe.
Sperling now advocates a similar standard at the federal level. He co-heads the National Low Carbon Fuel Standard Project, which seeks to create a similar template for a fuel policy that would save American consumers billions and usher in “cheaper, cleaner, more ’made-in-America’” fuels.
Not surprisingly, all but a few oil companies are so far opposing this. Sperling’s response is to propose a national target that lets energy companies know exactly how clean the fuel they sell needs to be. “The idea is to take decisions out of the political realm and base it on science,” he said.
The third leg of the stool when it comes to emissions has to do with land use and the vehicle user, said Sperling. If people drive less because of things like reduced urban sprawl and better public transit, carbon emissions go down and less greenhouse gas is emitted. Here again, California is on the cutting edge, thanks to passage of S.B. 375, which provided a framework for moving cities and communities to a less car-intensive future. Sperling, as a member of CARB’s board, is charged with helping figure out how to set suitable standards in various cities.
Criticized occasionally because his transportation institute accepts funding from the auto and oil industries, Sperling is nonplussed. He responds that his organization requires “soft money” (not just university funding) in order to exist. He makes every effort, he said, to show transparency, to keep his distance from special-interest groups and to minimize potential conflicts of interest.
As for the scientist’s overall sense of where things are headed for the Earth’s atmosphere? “There’s a very high probability that very bad things are going to happen to the climate,” he said. “But we are going to be here. So anything we can do, we should do.
“Humans are very creative and resourceful. If humans get focused on a task, I have confidence that we’ll dramatically reduce carbon emissions. You can get depressed … but I like to be an optimist.”
Mary Nichols, chairwoman, California Air Resources Board