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By Steve Levy

Reducing Carbon Emissions, Improving Air Quality, Reducing Energy Costs

Uploaded: Jan 6, 2015

The Governor outlined three major environmental goals in his State of the State speech yesterday and recently Gil Friend, Palo Alto's Chief Sustainability Officer, blogged about a vision for Palo Alto in 2030. Both had a heavy emphasis on slowing or reversing the impacts of climate change.

I am writing to suggest that there are two other important goals that relate to our energy use and costs and to local air quality. Sometimes policies can address all three areas but sometimes there are differences and a focus on climate change alone can distract us from important programs that affect ourselves and our region. While climate change is everyone's challenge, our air quality and our energy use and costs are more local but important areas for progress.

In the last few days the Bay Area has had Spare the Air days because local atmospheric conditions trap smoke that causes pollution and health risks. Particulates in the air are another example of where regional air quality can be threatened but not climate change. So sometimes policies to improve air quality and policies to reduce carbon emission policies overlap. But sometimes different policies are needed for each goal.

The Governor's three goals and the example above help to illustrate where addressing climate change, improving air quality and reducing energy use and cost can lead to similar and when to different policies.

--increase from 1/3 to 50% our electricity derived from renewable sources
--reduce petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50%
--Double the efficiency of existing buildings and make heating fuels cleaner

Reducing petroleum use in cars and trucks is an example of a policy that can address air quality, climate change and costs simultaneously. Higher mileage vehicles (whether electric or not) can reduce pollutants that dirty the air and impair health while saving users money—and at the same time reduce carbon emissions. Such a policy also respects the mobility choices many families make to own and use cars for a variety of purposes. I am all for improving land use and transportation options to reduce car use but also respect that cars will remain important in the future for many.

Improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings has many potential benefits and it is a policy that is within our means to implement as individuals, businesses and government agencies. I am not an expert but understand from what I read that there are many cost effective opportunities to reduce energy use and save money. There may be climate change benefits as well. In our home we replaced the heating units and are saving on energy use and costs in a way that will repay our investment quickly. I do favor paying close attention to costs in choosing which options to pursue particularly if they are done or mandated by governments.

California is already implementing policies to make gasoline cleaner and less carbon intensive. Starting on January 1st, AB 32 requires producers of carbon fuels for vehicles to reduce the emissions caused by the use, not just the production of these fuels under the state's cap and trade system. So far increases in the price of gasoline from this change are far below industry estimates and the program requires progressive reductions in these emissions. This may be a policy more focused on climate change than air quality or cost reduction.

The policies for increasing renewable electricity sources are primarily directed at climate change but I am hopeful that implementation will focus on policies that are cost effective.

I am all for thoughtful local approaches to reducing carbon emissions but am equally hopeful that important local goals of improving air quality and saving on energy costs will not be forgotten when they require different policies.