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By Sherry Listgarten

SB-50: To Save our Planet?

Uploaded: Mar 26, 2019

Yesterday State Senator Scott Wiener and Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen wrote an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that SB-50, and bills like it, are needed to address climate change.

In a nutshell, their argument is:
- Car transportation is California’s biggest source of emissions.
- Vehicle electrification is not happening fast enough.
- We must get people out of single-occupancy cars and reduce long commutes.
- Restrictive housing policies and sprawl are exacerbating this. More people are driving farther, and mass transit becomes less effective.
- To fix this, we need SB-50 (and bills like it).
- It has many other benefits as well: improved social, racial, health, and economic equality.

The authors conclude by saying that housing and transit are largely under city and state control, unlike many other climate policy challenges. And so they see the growing interest in densification, mass transit, and YIMBY as “perhaps the most hopeful development in the American climate movement in recent years.”

I am interested in your thoughts on this. In particular, is it appropriate to position SB-50 as a climate bill? I am having some difficulty with that. I worry when climate fixes are bundled in with complex and contentious topics like housing densification, health care for all, or a living wage, among others. I understand why politicians are doing that, and there is certainly some value to looking holistically at several issues at once. But my concern is that reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is so important and so urgent that I would rather we address it more directly and forcefully.

So my take is that it is misleading to portray SB-50 as a climate bill, and in particular one focused on vehicle emissions. Can we really change how we live and build our cities faster than we can electrify our vehicles? Build out charging infrastructure? Develop an effective system of electric buses and other transit? Put a meaningful tax on natural gas, so we just leave more of it in the ground? AFAIK, these are all under city and state control. So why the alternative focus on this “most hopeful development”, which arguably distracts from these simpler and (imo) more effective and immediate fixes?

Notes and References

1. The authors cite a recent CARB report as a basis for much of their argument. From my quick reading, that report argues for more housing for the health of society as much as for improving emissions, which seems odd coming from CARB. But I need to do a more thorough read.

2. Interestingly, this FAQ for an earlier study by Kammen that I covered in this blog post indicates that denser suburbs have a higher household carbon footprint (HCF), up to a point. “When classifying suburbs into low, medium and high population, more populous and population dense suburbs have higher HCF. Large suburbs have population densities 3 times larger than mid-sized suburbs, and 6% higher carbon footprints…. This is largely because more population dense suburbs have higher incomes than less dense suburbs. Higher incomes translates to important social, cultural and economic benefits, but higher incomes also generally correspond with higher consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”

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