How the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Works

Pollution and smog cloud the view of Hollywood, Calif. with downtown Los Angeles in the background. Is the air quality better now than it was several decades ago? See pictures of global warming.
Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Los Angeles is famous for a lot of reasons -- Hollywood, the Lakers, and that thick bowl of smog that seems to permanently hover over ­the city. But in California, air pollution isn't just limited to L.A.

­-- it's a problem everywhere. The state's mountains, high population, long summers, and hot temperatures mean that


historically the state has had

some of the worst air quality in the United States. In fact, According to a recent study by the American

Lung Association, five of the top

10 cities most polluted by long-term particle pollution are in California [source: Martin].

Government officials in California are serious about protecting the public health by reducing air pollution. Due to its high levels of pollution, the state has some of the tightest air quality restrictions on vehicles, ships, factories and consumer products in the United States. California has stricter tailpipe emissions regulations for cars than the federal Environmental Protection Agency does. In fact, until 2008, no automaker built a diesel engine that was clean enough to be sold in the Golden State.

The group that regulates anything having to do with air quality in the state of California is known as the California Air Resources Board (CARB). This 11-member board is comprised of experts in various fields relating to air quality, including automotive, medicine, agriculture and law. The board also includes local elected officials.

The board's stated mission is to "promote and protect public health, welfare and ecological resources through the effective and efficient reduction of air pollutants while recognizing and considering the effects on the economy of the state" [source: California Air Resources Board].

"Back in the '50s and '60s, you couldn't see across the street some days," said Gennet Paauwe, a spokeswoman for the board. "The rest of the U.S. wasn't seeing the kind of problems we had."

In this article, we'll look at what the California Air Resource Board does, how it affects air regulations and what it has meant for the cars you drive every day.

The Air Resources Board

This photo, taken in 1956, shows the skyline of downtown Los Angeles including the city hall (center), the United States Courthouse (left) and Hall of Justice (right) obscured by smog.
American Stock/Getty Images


After World War II, California, like many other states, enacted a number of laws to try to regulate air pollution emitted by a growing society that was buying cars, building factories and constructing roads and freeways at an incredible rate.


In 1967, the Federal Air Quality Act was signed into law, and it gave California the ability to enforce its own, stricter emissions regulations for new vehicles. This was mostly due to the fact that California was suffering from the worst air quality

in the nation at the time. That same year, legislation signed by Governor Ronald Reagan created the Air Resources Board, and mandated that each county have an air pollution control district to enforce local, state and federal air laws.

Today, the board has nine main divisions:

  • Administrative Services Division: includes customer service, human resources and accounting
  • Enforcement Division: enforces the laws and regulations regarding sources of air pollution
  • Mobile Source Control Division and Mobile Source Operations Division: regulate cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, construction vehicles, marine vehicles and small engines
  • Monitoring and Laboratory Division: monitors air quality trends in California
  • Office of Information Services: provides information and Internet systems management
  • Planning and Technical Support Division: implements statewide strategies to improve air quality
  • Research Division: gathers scientific information and develops technology to protect public health from the effects of air pollution
  • Stationary Source Division: monitors and regulate motor vehicle fuels, consumer products and stationary sources, like power plants

[source: California Air Resources Board]

The 11 board members are appointed by the state's governor and serve as long as he or she wants them to. Five of the board positions must be filled by one elected official from each air quality district. These districts include San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin Valley and the greater Los Angeles region, plus one member from any other California district.

The remaining six positions are filled by experts in engineering, science, agriculture, law and medicine, among others. Two of the board members are called public members. These public members can be anyone who is not an elected official. Typically, public members have expertise within the topics the board addresses.

The only person on the board who is a full-time employee is its chairman. The other members have day jobs or are elected officials. The board meets every month with the exception of August, and its meetings are open to the public. The board also conducts workshops on different issues across the state.

PZEV, SULEV, and ULEV -- you may have read these acronyms in the news, or automotive journals over the past few years, but what do they really mean? In the next section, we'll talk about what California's emissions standards are all about.

California Emissions

The 2009 Tesla Roadster is a zero emission vehicle (ZEV).
Mike Guastella/WireImage/Getty Images

California's emissions standards are stricter than the federal EPA requirements. They're more stringent on hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions -- which become smog -- from vehicles, and they have heavier requirements that older construction vehicles be retrofitted so that they operate cleaner. California's gasoline also has less sulfur, benzene and hydrocarbons than most gasoline sold elsewhere in the U.S.

The state has created a number of categories for motor vehicle emissions. Even if you don't live in California, if you have a relatively new car, you've likely seen stickers somewhere on your vehicle that indicate these emissions:


  • LEV: Low Emission Vehicle. Every new car sold in California after 2004 must be a LEV or better.
  • ULEV: Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. These vehicles have 50 percent cleaner emissions than the average new car.
  • SULEV: Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. These vehicles have 90 percent cleaner emissions than the average new car.
  • PZEV: Partial Zero Emission Vehicle. These vehicles must meet the same emission standards and as SULEV vehicles, but have zero evaporative emissions -- emissions when the fuel itself evaporates, often while the car is idling -- and a 15-year warranty.
  • ZEV: Zero Emission Vehicle. These vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. Cars in this category include plug-in electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.


In the arena of fuel economy and emissions "we are the market that sets the standards," said Tom Cackette, the deputy chief executive officer for the board. California has one of the largest populations in the United States, so carmakers have to meet the state's standards or miss out on a very lucrative vehicle market.

Cackette estimates that by 2010, one-third of all cars in the United States will meet California's emission standards. Often, the EPA adopts California's standards a few years after the state institutes them.

In 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that would allow the state to regulate greenhouse gases -- primarily carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming -- starting with 2009 model year vehicles. However, the EPA has denied the state the ability to do so, and while the law is on the books, it's not being enforced, Cackette said. The EPA decided that separate California standards are not necessary to address the nationwide problem of greenhouse gas emissions. The state is suing the federal government to overturn the decision.

Cackette said he sees the battle over greenhouse gas emissions as the next big step in emissions regulations. He asked, "How do we get greenhouse gas emissions low enough to get the atmosphere under control? That will cause a big change in the industry."

By 2050, Cackette predicts a market comprised of vehicles running mainly on biofuels, fuel cells and electricity -- no more than 10 percent of the market will run on gasoline, and those that do will have to get 70 mpg (29.76 km/l) or better.

Remember carburetors? Up next, we'll look how the California Air Resources Board helped to get rid of them, and the impact the board has had on the vehicle you drive today.

Big Decisions

The 1973 Honda Civic 1500 was the first car to use the CVCC engine.

California was the first state to start regulating vehicle emissions back in the 1960s. Since then, the Air Resources Board has created a number of mandates that have shaped the car industry in surprising ways.

One example of this came in the form of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. This meant that cars had to get clean -- fast. The federal law mandated that cars made in and after 1975 should emit one-tenth the level of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons as existing cars. The first car company to build an engine that met these strict standards without using a catalytic converter was Honda, who at the time was a small, up-and-coming manufacturer, mainly known for its motorcycles.


The engine they built was called the CVCC, for Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion. It used two combustion chambers to burn a leaner mix of air and fuel, therefore reducing emissions. It was introduced in Japan on the 1973 Honda Civic, but the car came to the U.S. just two years later and was acclaimed for its low emissions and high gas mileage on both leaded and unleaded fuel.

In another example, when the board tightened nitrogen oxide emissions in the 1980s, it effectively caused the demise of the carburetor in favor of fuel injection, a much cleaner method of fuel delivery. The first catalytic converters, onboard computers, check engine lights and several other clean vehicle technologies were developed in response to, or to accommodate, California standards. "The track record is that automakers always comply, and do it in a way that costs a lot less money than they thought," Cackette said.

Some of the board's monumental decisions include:

  • 1971: The board adopts the nation's first nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions standards on cars.
  • 1975: The board determines emissions regulations that mandate catalytic converters.
  • 1988: According to the board, all cars made after 1994 must have on-board diagnostic computers that monitor emissions and tell owners when the engine needs to be checked.
  • 1990: The board created the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which stipulated that 10 percent of new vehicles sold by manufacturers must meet zero-emissions standards by 2003. CARB was sued by car companies who were convinced they couldn't make the deadline, so the board now institutes a system of credits based on fuel-efficient vehicles which can add up to meet the strict requirements.
  • 1998: The board amended the state's Low Emission Vehicle regulations, and extended them to sport utility vehicles.
  • 2006: The board is responsible for regulating greenhouse gases, but the federal government currently does not allow the law to be enforced.

[source: California Air Resources Board]

"You wouldn't see hybrid-electric vehicles if it weren't for the ARB," board spokeswoman Gennet Paauwe said of the effect the board has on car companies. "They come up with amazing technology to meet these [requirements]."

Paauwe said that because 11 percent of new vehicle sales are in California, it's cheaper for carmakers to meet the state's standards than it is to make two engines -- one for California and one for everyone else. She added that Japanese automakers tend to be quickest to comply with Califiornia's emission and fuel economy standards. "A few step up to the plate early on and adopt the emissions required," she said. "Others drag their feet and use litigation to try and change the standards."

On the next page, we'll look at how California's air board impacts other states -- and how you may already be living in a "California emissions" state.


CARB Standards in Other States

Honda's FCX Clarity is a zero emission vehicle (ZEV).

Currently, 16 other states have either adopted, or are in the process of adopting, California's strict emissions standards. These states include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Maryland, Florida, and several others. They vary on when they adopted the standards: Connecticut, for example, adopted California emissions in 2004, and the strict regulations will impact cars made in 2008 and beyond. New York agreed to do the same in 2005, and that state requires a reduction in emissions by 2016.

More than a dozen states have also joined California's lawsuit against the EPA to allow the regulation of greenhouse gases. "They want clean air for their residents, too," Paauwe said, of why other states would adopt the strict California emissions laws.


For more information about the California Air Resources Board and other related topics, follow the links on the next page. They'll provide you with lots more information.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • A phone interview with Tom Cackette. Deputy CEO, California Air Resources Board.
  • California Air Resources Board. "ARB 40th history." (Sept. 10, 2008)
  • California Air Resources Board. "Key Events in the History or Air Quality in California." July 18, 2008.
  • California Air Resources Board. "Organizations in the California Air Resources Board." November 8, 2007.
  • "FAQs Summary #2." (Sept. 10, 2008)
  • Egelko, Bob. "State bid to limit emissions hits court snag." San Francisco Chronicle. July 26, 2008.
  • Frisman, Paul. "California Emissions Standards." Connecticut General Assembly. Dec. 13, 2005.
  • Hakim, Danny. "Battle Lines Set as New York Acts to Cut Emissions." New York Times. Nov. 26, 2005.
  • Honda Motor Co. "The 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act." (Sept. 10, 2008)
  • Martin, Carrie. "First City Outside California (Pittsburgh) Tops One of the Most-polluted Lists." American Lung Association. May 1, 2008.
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency. "California Greenhouse - Gas Waiver Request." March 12, 2008.
  • Williams, Sarah. "Florida Department of Environmental Protection Joins California Emissions Lawsuit." Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Feb. 6, 2008.