I hesitate to call attention to someone else’s correction, particularly because I’ve had two of my own in short order. For a journalist, that’s enough to keep you up at night.
Still, we learn from our mistakes, and even fatal mistakes can teach others, to paraphrase Al Franken.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spokespeople provided a teachable moment for me when they quoted their boss saying:
“With motor vehicles contributing to roughly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, it is imperative that we be granted the fuel waiver from the federal government.”
The occasion was today’s decision in Fresno by U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii that California has the power to regulate tailpipe emissions for cars and light trucks, a category that includes SUV’s.
The governor has championed the state’s global warming fight on the world stage, so this was a good opportunity to cheer for a home-team touchdown.
About four hours later, the press release comes again, this time corrected to say that motor vehicles are contributing “roughly 28 percent” of California’s CO2 emissions.
As a journalist, I have to marvel that quotes can just be edited to make them more accurate. But that’s not the point here.
The point is, who knew?
Thinking back through the whirwind of discussions of how the Bay Area is going to fight global warming, I remember hearing, over and over, that our personal vehicles contribute the bulk of greenhouse gases. Some people standing at various podiums said things like “nearly half” to make the point that getting people out of their cars will make a big difference in the global warming battle.
I’m just as keen to cut back on tailpipe emissions as the next commuter, but this little correction made me scratch my head. To test my theory, I asked a co-worker what she thought cars and light trucks contributed to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Nearly half” was the answer. The answer had sunk into our subconscious.
After I found out where the mistake came from, everything made sense.
The 40 percent figure represents all transportation sources. That includes planes, trucks and ships. What California whipped the automakers in court about was tailpipe emissions standards for cars and light trucks only, that is, what contributes 28 percent of all of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
I’m not saying that there’s been this great campaign to decieve people or that global warming is a hoax. It’s just that when we’re passionate about a cause, the facts tend to get obscured.
Thinking back, I do remember more circumspect officials using the words “transportation sources” in connnection with the higher numbers for the state and Bay Area’s greenhouse gas contributions.
Still, I think many people have assumed, as whoever crafted the governor’s quote did, that our personal vehicles were a much bigger part of the equation than they actually are.
The number makes sense, too. While there are clearly a lot of cars and SUVs out there, and while tailpipe standards haven’t been increased in decades, emission controls on them are still head-and-shoulders above the rest of transportation.
Devices to improve truck and train emissions are a fairly new phenomenon, while marine and aviation emissions have been ignored up until about 10 minutes ago. Just as that old 1970s muscle car puts out enough smog for a whole fleet of modern cars, the rest of transportation pollutes disproportionately more than cars and light trucks.
Local update (12/13/07, 11:35 a.m.): Karen Schkolnick, the Bay Area Air Quality Managment District’s helpful public information person, pointed me toward some local stats: 2008 projection for all transportation sources: 52 percent of C02 emissions. Cars and light trucks: 29.5 percent. She noted that being as this is a major transportation hub, one might intuit that we’d get hit a bit more than other areas with transportation generally.
As was quickly pointed out, 28, 29 percent is a sizeable chunk, just not what a lot of people thought. On this list passenger cars (not counting light trucks) is the largest sub-category, with 18.2 million tons of CO2 projected. That’s about 19 percent of the total. The next highest emitter with its own category is combustion at landfills, at 12.4 million tons, or nearly 13 percent.
Illustration from www.wichitagov.org