SPUR’s report Critical Cooling recommends 42 options for reducing local carbon emissions. This is one of them. To learn about all 42 ideas, read the full report

Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Passenger Vehicles

One of 42 options for reducing local carbon emissions, from our report Critical Cooling.

Urbanist Article
Annual savings potential:
Annual public cost:
Public cost per ton:
Implementing agency:
Horizon year:
1.49 million tons in San Francisco
Revenue neutral
California Air Resources Board


  • 457,000 private vehicles in San Francisco, and 100,000 of these are light trucks.
  • Typical car travels 10,000 miles per year and the average light truck travels 12,500 miles per year.
  • VMT will decrease 5.4 percent per year with age of the vehicle.


Implementation of the Pavley Law — which would tighten fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks sold in California — would cause CO2 emissions from passenger vehicle travel to decrease substantially, an estimated 18 percent in 2020 and 27 percent in 2030. This change will be accomplished without significant cost to local government, and with a benefit to consumers from reduced fuel cost.

What we do now
Federal CAFE standards regulate fuel efficiency for fleets of passenger cars solid in the United States, but there is no state or federal standard that explicitly regulates greenhouse gas emissions from private vehicles. The State of California passed legislation in 2002 mandating a gradual reduction in CO2 emissions from passenger vehicles sold in the state, and 13 other states have since adopted the same standards. Known as the Pavley Law after its sponsor in the Assembly, this legislation has been delayed because it requires a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granting the state permission to set standards that are stricter than the federal standards. The EPA thus far has withheld its permission.

What we could do
According a New York Times news report on Jan. 25, 2009, the Obama administration has ordered the EPA to “reconsider the Bush administration’s past rejection of the California application [for a waiver]. While it stops short of flatly ordering the Bush decision reversed, the agency’s regulators are now widely expected to do so after completing a formal review process.” California estimates that the requirements will reduce emissions from passenger vehicles in the state by 18 percent in 2020 and 27 percent in 2030.

Cost and cost components
The technology to build lower emissions vehicles is already available, but the standards will require automakers to build and market more low-emissions cars to residents of California and the 13 other states that have adopted these emission standards. The costs and benefits to automakers of adopting these standards are not known. Consumers will incur lower fuel costs.

Carbon savings potential
San Francisco’s Countywide Transportation Plan estimates that there are 457,000 private vehicles in the city. We assume that 100,000 of these are light trucks, and that the typical car travels 10,000 miles per year and the average light truck travels 12,500 miles per year. We further assume that vehicle miles traveled will decrease 5.4 percent per year with age. Using these assumptions and a methodology developed by the Center for Clean Air Policy1, we find that implementation of the Pavley Law will reduce San Francisco’s transportation emissions by 1.49 million metric tons in 2020.

1 Center for Clean Air Policy Guidebook Emissions Calculator. www.ccap.org/guidebook.