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Energy symposium weighs perils and opportunities of climate change

| 05 March 2009

While the average Californian now uses about 40 percent less electricity than the average American, we cannot rest on our laurels, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, told a gathering at Berkeley last week that convened to explore "bold ideas for a new energy landscape." To meet the challenges of global warming and the state's goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 each Californian needs to cut his or her carbon footprint from the current average, 14 tons per year, to 10, she said.

Nichols addressed the third annual UC Berkeley Energy Symposium, where the dangers and opportunities political, economic, and environmental of the present moment were a recurring theme. While warning that societies often fail "to come to grips with crises," Nichols high-lighted opportunities for progress on climate change under the Obama Administration, which many expect to leverage California's record of environmental leadership at the national level. The state's landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 is one example of its past successes, along with the long-term economic effect of California's energy-efficiency standards.

Charged with implementing the state's climate-change legislation, the California Air Resources Board was stymied by the Bush administration when it created auto-emissions standards that exceeded federal standards. Barack Obama, in one of his first official acts as President, directed the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider California's right to set its own auto-emissions standards. "'Consistently, California has hit the bar and the rest of the country has followed,'" Nichols quoted Obama as saying.

The symposium was presented by the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC), a student organization. This year's sold-out symposium attracted broad public interest, as engineering and business grad students rubbed shoulders with venture capitalists and utility-industry employees. BERC co-president Sarah Barker-Ball, a Berkeley law student, said a particular goal this year was to stimulate "the hard conversations" by including a wide range of perspectives, including those of the oil and auto industries.