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Week one: climate won

If you’ve been following climate policy for the past decade, you’ve got to be encouraged by President Obama’s first major environmental decision:

The president directed the EPA to reconsider a request by the state of California to enact air pollution regulations for cars and light trucks that would be tougher than current federal standards. This may sound like Washington talk, but it’s actually a big deal.

California passed a clean car law in 2002 that for the first time regulated greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. By 2005, the state had developed CO2 limits per vehicle that would decline steadily until by 2020 total annual emissions would drop by 29 million metric tons. But before California could put the rules into effect, it had to get a waiver from the EPA. Republican and Democratic administrations have granted California such waivers over 50 times during the modern history of air pollution regulation. This is how the federal government has spurred innovation among states that seek to go beyond the basic smog laws. However, the Bush team at EPA stalled for two years and then ultimately rejected California’s request in 2007.

In a high-profile announcement at the White House yesterday, President Obama said that “the days of Washington dragging its heels are over.” Gov. Schwarzenegger of California praised the president’s decision within hours. Flanked by environmental leaders, the Republican governor said that when implemented the state law would have the effect of taking 6.5 million cars off the road.

While it may take until May for Obama’s EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to complete the necessary reviews, the U.S. is already on a new course. Thirteen other states, which together with California represent almost half of the American car market, are already making plans to adopt similar laws regulating GHGs from vehicles.

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