February 25, 2010

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

Posted on February 25, 2010 by Mary Nichols

In his 1971 book, The Closing Circle, ecologist Barry Commoner outlined an informal set of “laws of ecology” governing life on Earth. I have found the “First Law” especially helpful in governing the California Air Resources Board. It says, “Everything is connected to everything else.” 

Commoner wrote this brilliantly simple principle in the context of ecosystems. But I find this law of nature reliably guides my thinking on how best to develop policies and regulations to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

 The brain trusts that the Air Resources Board has assembled for these climate change solutions are a kaleidoscope of experts in energy, public health, urban planning, economics, venture capital, automotive and building design, forestry and dairy management – to name just some of the disciplines.

This holistic approach to problem solving is a relatively recent development at the ARB. In my first stint as board chairman, 1978 – 1983, engineers pretty much ran the air pollution control shop. Chemical engineers reformulated gasoline to be lead-free. Mechanical engineers redesigned exhaust systems to remove ozone-forming emissions. A big part of my job then was to phase out leaded gasoline and phase in catalytic converters.

The ARB, where I’m once again chairman, continues to rely on engineers for ever-cleaner fuels and engines. But our expanded mission of fighting global warming (Assembly Bill 32) has vastly diversified the expertise we require, the audiences we reach and the interests we regulate.

We recently expanded our venue from vehicles to entire transportation systems. We’re now at the forefront on streamlining freight operations across the board, from ships to ports to freeways and rail yards.

We entered the field of energy regulation last fall when Governor Schwarzenegger directed the ARB to implement an accelerated Renewable Portfolio Standard – by 2020 utilities must generate at least 33 percent of their electricity from sources such as solar and wind power that do not rely on fossil fuels.

At the same time, we’ve proposed the nation’s first plan for a broad-based cap-and-trade system to use market forces to reduce global warming emissions.

And, in what is perhaps our most eye-opening move afield, the ARB is venturing in land use – as yet another way to reduce climate-altering vehicle emissions. Under a new state “sustainable communities” law (Senate Bill 375), the board this year will be setting emission reduction targets for passenger cars and trucks in 18 urban areas in the state. But – significantly – we’re leaving it to local government to decide how best to achieve those goals. Regional transportation planning authorities will be working with counties and cities to develop planning measures such as compact and mixed-use housing that will lower the average household’s vehicle miles traveled.

The growing diversity and collaboration reflects a broader shift toward more integrated environmental problem solving, not just at the ARB or in California, but across continents. It’s a more holistic approach driven by the urgency of global warming and the lure of profit in the transition to a low-carbon economy. It reflects the interconnectivity of climate change itself.

Tags: Air


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