[pagebreak:Will California Give Cities Carbon Budgets?] A California policymaker has proposed emissions limits for the state’s cities.

At the UC Berkeley Energy Symposium in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, Dan Sperling, a professor at the University of California at Davis and a member of the California Air Resources Board, laid out a plan to establish carbon budgets for cities.

The plan would put the burden of monitoring and meting out carbon-dioxide emissions on cities in order to meet California’s goal of reducing emissions by 25 percent by 2020. The Air Resources Board has been charged with finding a way to reach that goal.

Many cities already have carbon-cutting action plans, but most of them are voluntary, said Sperling, a civil engineering and environmental science and policy professor, director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and an associate director of the school’s Energy Efficiency Center. 

"I don’t think [voluntary cuts] will be very effective," he said. "I’m suggesting, just as we have a cap-and-trade program for stationary energy, [that we have the] same idea for cities. Everything produces carbon and we have to account for it. This would push to the cities a lot of the responsibility, but it’s empowering at the same time."

If the program takes effect, it could be a boon for a number of energy-efficiency and urban emission-monitoring technologies, Sperling said in a conversation after the panel.

"There are so many opportunities to use energy more efficiently in our society it’s mind-boggling," he said. "People here drive twice as much as in Europe and much more than [in] Japan."

Technologies such as plug-in hybrids, as well as more efficient lights and air-conditioning systems, also could play a role.

"There’s not a strong motivation to do that [now]" Sperling said. "We haven’t focused our attention on it -- our brain power, our resources."

The idea behind the carbon-budget plan is to encourage these efforts without picking technology winners, he said.

"The last thing we need is politicians picking winners," he said, with a laugh. "They’ll pick corn ethanol."

Still, he said, most of the work needed to reduce carbon emissions is political, not technological.

"We want cities to think about this," he said.

Aside from technologies that use energy more efficiently, activities that reduce the so-called "vehicle miles traveled," such as land-use reform and better public transportation, also have an important role to play, Sperling said.

He called for transportation prices to reflect the real costs, including a price for carbon.

"If four people are going to a concert in Berkeley, it is cheaper to drive than to use BART," he said, adding that the San Francisco-area electric train system is well-understood technology that costs much less than is reflected in the ticket prices. "That’s crazy. It’s deeply evil for the government to be lying to the public about what it costs."

[pagebreak:Carbon Budgets: Continued]

For public transportation, the real cost really is nearly nothing, he said.

"What’s the cost of an [extra] passenger on a train with an empty seat?" he asked.

Assigning a cost to carbon might be the boost many energy-efficiency technologies are waiting for.

While venture capitalists and greentech advocates have often called such technologies "the low-hanging fruit" -- including David Sandalow, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book "Freedom From Oil" who spoke at the symposium -- the technologies received only 5.6 percent of the global cleantech venture-capital investment in 2007, according to the Cleantech Group.

In North America, energy-efficiency investments made up about 7 percent of the cleantech VC total, down from about 10 percent in North America in 2005, when Cleantech Group Chairman Nicholas Parker already said energy management had been considered an "arcane niche" (see Negawatts for Positive Returns).

Discussions at the UC Berkeley Symposium seemed to highlight the concept that energy efficiency, while important, still isn’t sexy.

During one keynote session, John Doerr, a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, ran out of time to answer several questions relating to energy efficiency, including one about how venture capitalists can make money from energy-efficient technologies and applications.

Sandalow also didn’t address the topic in his keynote speech, but brought up the omission of energy efficiency in a question-and-answer session afterward.

"I have yet to mention in this keynote session efficiency and conservation," he said, calling it "the most important single step."