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By Dr. James Fine and Derek Walker of the Environmental Defense Fund.

During President Obama's nationally televised address to the joint session of Congress in February, he signaled his intention to fulfill a campaign promise to combat climate change by calling on Congress to "send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution."

Obama also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider its Bush-era rejection of a federal Clean Air Act waiver request by California and 13 other states seeking to regulate global warming pollution from cars. The EPA expected to issue its decision by May.

These 14 states, plus three others that plan to adopt the standard, account for nearly half of the American market for cars and light trucks. They are poised to dramatically reduce one of our nation's leading sources of global warming pollution. In fact, tailpipe emissions from cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) represent about 17% of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide and nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in California. They will continue to grow unless strong action is taken to control them.

Detroit automakers have spent years fighting California's clean cars law, and before it was passed they spent decades utterly stonewalling progress at the federal level. The California standards will reduce emissions from passenger cars by 18% by 2020 and 27% by 2030 while allowing for flexible, fleet-wide compliance.

The Wall Street Journal published a story last year about California's place in the "new gold rush' that is resulting from its emphasis on the environment, helping to create new green industries in the state. California is home to five of the top "clean tech" cities, according to SustainLane.com. The vast majority of green venture capital funding is flowing to startups in California. Chip companies are investing in battery and fuel cell technologies to power zero-emission and low-emission vehicles while other renewable energy companies are setting up shop there to leverage the unparalleled entrepreneurial talent, skilled workforce and friendly regulatory setting.

This new gold rush could last a long time. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the greenhouse gases that cause climate change are pollutants under the Clean Air Act and found that the U.S. government has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. On Feb. 22, the Obama administration's special adviser on climate and energy, Carol Browner, said that EPA is close to a ruling that carbon dioxide is harmful to the public, so it needs to be regulated. That could result in tougher vehicle emission legislation modeled after California's more protective standards.

Clean car standards can be achieved using available engine technologies, cleaner fuels and better aerodynamics and transmissions, and other improvements. What's more, the auto industry's financial woes clearly have reversed its public messaging about government standards to reduce global warming emissions and increase fuel economy standards. General Motors ( GM)says compliance with California's regulations "will be addressed as any such programs are finalized," and that the company "will work with the administration and others to develop any changes needed to the company's product and financial plans to meet such additional requirements." Ford ( F) plans to introduce a battery-powered commercial van in 2010, a battery-powered small car the following year and a plug-in hybrid to challenge the Volt starting in 2012.

In short, carmakers are retooling their factories to produce cleaner vehicles that consumers want, which will come to market sooner if the EPA grants California's Clean Air Act waiver and if policy makers in Congress and the Obama administration work together on a national greenhouse gas standard for vehicles.

Clean car standards are an important complement to the growing effort to pass a national greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program that will limit greenhouse gas emissions efficiently, deliver greater and greener consumer options, protect competitiveness and create new customers around the world for American clean energy technologies.

Last month, Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) said her timetable for the committee to pass emissions cap legislation is as soon as a few weeks. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) recently said that he wants the committee to approve comprehensive climate change and energy legislation before the Memorial Day recess.

EPA approval of California's clean car waiver is an essential step in reorienting our automobile industry toward sustainability. A national cap-and-trade policy will help to turn our environmental and energy crises into entrepreneurial innovation and economic opportunity. The world has been waiting patiently for the United States to lead by example and reverse course on climate change, and the President Obama and leaders in Congress are clearly signaling that a new day is upon us.

James Fine, Ph.D., is an economist and policy scientist for the Climate & Air Program for Environmental Defense Fund, which The Economist calls "America's most economically literate green campaigners."

Derek Walker is Director of the California Climate Campaign for Environmental Defense Fund.

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