California Presses Ahead on Global Warming Pacts

Diplomats gathered in Montreal for the largest discussion of climate change since the Kyoto Protocol was signed eight years ago. The U.S. pulled out of Kyoto, but the state of California sent a delegation to Montreal to make its own deals.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Montreal, diplomats are wrapping up the largest meeting on climate change since the Kyoto protocol was signed eight years ago. They are starting to talk about what to do in 2012 when the Kyoto pact to slow global warming expires. The US is not officially participating. It has rejected the agreement. That hasn't stopped one major political player, the state of California, from going to Montreal to discuss ways of joining the anti-warming campaign. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

It's 10 below zero outside, but everyone inside this cavernous convention hall is talking about how to keep the planet from overheating. People have come from 189 countries for two weeks. Their Canadian hosts are trying to keep their spirits up. Entertainers cruise the hallways in a polar bear suit. Environmental groups demonstrate almost daily to urge the delegates to find solutions for global warming. Diane Wittenberg is the head of a delegation from California. She runs the California Climate Action Registry, which keeps track of greenhouse gases in the state.

Ms. DIANE WITTENBERG (California Climate Action Registry): It's a great bazaar for exchanging ideas, finding out what somebody else is doing, what policy options work other places, what things can be tweaked. I've gotten a million ideas since I've been here.

JOYCE: The California delegation is actually bigger than the one from Washington. That's perhaps not surprising from a state whose economy is the eighth largest in the world and one that often leads the nation in environmental matters.

Neither delegation has official status at these negotiations since the Bush administration has rejected the treaty. The president argues that Kyoto-style cuts in emissions would damage the economy. The California delegation is making its own deal, however. This week they've signed one with Sao Paulo, the largest state in Brazil, to swap ideas on how to cut carbon from industry and cars. Brazil runs millions of cars on alcohol fuel made from sugarcane. Jose Goldenberg, the environment director for Sao Paulo, says at first the streets smelled like a pub, but the country benefited.

Mr. JOSE GOLDENBERG (Environment Director, Sao Paulo): It's an experimental fact. It did not hurt the economic growth and some people made money.

JOYCE: Making money from more efficient technology is one experiment that California wants to try. The state already claims to be the most efficient user of electricity and gasoline in the country. That means less greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and other industrial emissions that warm the planet's atmosphere. But the state gets one-fifth of its electricity from coal-fired power plants located outside the state's borders. Coal plants create more greenhouse gases than any other kind, so California now wants new power plants that serve California, no matter where they're located, to be as carbon-clean as the leading natural gas turbines. State environment director Alan Lloyd says that will mean less greenhouse gases, but it will cost consumers more.

Ms. ALAN LLOYD (State Environment Director, California): It surprised me a little bit to see that we get 20 percent of our electricity from coal-fired power plants outside the state. This is something that we need to do. We're pioneering some other way. It's going to be a tough issue.

JOYCE: California is already being sued by automakers because the state requires future models to use less gas. The new electricity standard will likely draw fire as well, but that's no deterrent, says Diane Groenig(ph), a member of the state's Public Utility Commission.

Ms. DIANE GROENIG (Public Utilities Commission, California): Here's the way that I look at it, is that I have two 12-year-old children and I want to give them a world that they can live in in the future. And I consider myself a very strong environmentalist in California. And I consider that we can do better than having 20 percent of California's electricity supplied by conventional coal plants.

JOYCE: Groenig says opinion polls suggest that Californians will pay more for electricity if it means less global warming. The state has already adopted some accounting rules that make it more attractive for investors to put their money into power plants that produce less carbon. And the California Climate Action Registry asks businesses to declare how much carbon they emit. It's voluntary now, but could become mandatory, according to a senior state official.

These and other efforts to decarbonize the state got standing-room-only attention at the Montreal meeting, but James Boyd, head of the California Energy Commission, says the state is not trying to follow the Kyoto treaty's model.

Mr. JAMES BOYD (California Energy Commission): There's such a diverse economy and diverse geographical and climatological state that we stand to really be significantly impacted. And if California can point to the need for people taking action because they will be affected, so be it.

JOYCE: As the conference drew to an end, the US delegation made it clear the Bush administration would stick with its approach to curbing global warming, one-based on voluntary efforts by industry. The rest of the industrialized world is wrestling with Kyoto's mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, and California is going its own way. Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Montreal.

MONTAGNE: World opinion on Kyoto is divided. At npr.org, you can read editorials from around the world.

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