March 3, 1998
by Woody Justice
As the almighty liberal press gains success in alarming the developed world to the dangers of -- and their responsibility for -- global warming, corporate interests are spending their resources in a two-pronged attack to muddy the waters. In complicity with funded researchers and conservative ("opposed to change") syndicated columnists, one strategy is simply denying that there is any truth to man-made climate change (see Harbinger, 1/27 - 2/9/98). The other approach, just in case people still distrust their denials, is the "we can be reasonable" whitewash of half-truths and distortions. Such tactics are meant to confuse the issue, intended to alienate the citizenry and discourage them from trying to sort out the facts and reach their own conclusions.
An Associated Press article reported February 5th that the "Big 3 plan cleaner cars." Another AP story the following day advised that "Nissan, Honda join pursuit of cleaner air." Neither account gave much in the way of details, except that the EPA-sponsored program will "drastically cut polluting emissions." It is supposed to make us feel all warm inside that the capitalist interests can spare a thought for the environment. Technology has its limits, however, and can't perform alchemy.
One of the pollutants from automobile emissions is carbon monoxide (CO), a poisonous gas produced by incomplete combustion of fossil-fuels. The catalytic converter found on automobiles was developed to reduce CO emissions: a heated mesh of platinum causes CO in the exhaust gases to combine with oxygen, thereby completing the combustion process. The problem is that the product of this conversion is the main culprit in human-induced climate change, carbon dioxide (CO2). (Water vapor is the greenhouse gas with the greatest heat-trapping effect. While increase of this is not considered human-induced, a warmer average ocean temperature will yield a greater percentage of water vapor in the atmosphere.)
In a similar new-technology hype, AP wrote on February 11th that the former chairmen of General Motors and Chrysler got religion as well: "Ex-auto titans go electric." The good news ends there, however, when one reads the text and finds out that their aim is to produce electric bicycles and scooters. Consider it from this angle: they plan to take a human-powered vehicle used by hundreds of millions (if not billions) around the world today, the operation of which provides indisputable health benefits to the user, and market another sedentary-lifestyle device that contributes to more global warming when it is plugged into the coal-fired electric grid to be recharged. Can you see people riding one to the health club to pedal on a stationary exer-cycle? Can you say "ludicrous?" (And with a few exceptions in a handful of progressive cities, the US transportation infrastructure is biased against cyclists and pedestrians. Our elected officials talk about bike lanes but, even with federal handouts available, highway construction prevails.)
And let us not forget the claims that "it can't be done." (When catalytic converters were first mandated the auto industry forecast that the added expense would make buying a new car prohibitive; the petroleum industry responded by charging more for gasoline without the lead additive.) How often have we been told that we lack the technology to make a fuel-efficient car, or if there was one with good mpg it would be so fragile as to be unsafe on the highway? On February 19 another story of interest accompanied the USA Today report on B.A.T. International's recent stock-pricing controversy. B.A.T., currently being investigated by the Security Exchange Commission, developed a new technology that drove a Geo Metro 95 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel in a certified test. The supplementary article had a telling headline "Carmakers: 100 mpg 'no big deal.'" The facts are that GM had a functioning gasoline fueled 100 mpg concept car in 1992 and Ford showed a European 90-plus mpg car in 1996. Chrysler is 5 years away from marketing a 70 mpg mid-size Intrepid. (Chrysler claims they would have to charge a $15,000 premium for it today.) And Honda "foresees a 70 mpg US mini-car in a few years." (That seems strange considering that Honda sold a 60 mpg Civic five years ago.)
Transportation is responsible for 30 percent of America's CO2 emissions. Forty percent of the oil America uses goes into our cars and trucks. Every driver can figure his or her personal contribution: Each gallon of gasoline yields 19 pounds of CO2 when burned. For example, if the average car gets 20 miles per gallon and is driven just 10,000 miles per year, the result is nearly 5 tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere over and above the natural cycle. Even with the best technology, there is no way to reduce CO2 except by reducing the amount of gasoline burned. (As an additional health benefit, this would also reduce the creation of other pollutants such as acid-rain contributors and particulates.) This can be accomplished by each of us driving fewer miles, or by getting more miles per gallon out of the gasoline we use.
Driving fewer miles? Short of a significant increase in gas prices, people aren't likely to do that voluntarily. Too bad this is an election year: since gasoline is at its lowest price in four years, this would be a good time to institute a carbon-tax that would help us meet CO2 reduction goals. Besides a higher tariff on gasoline at the pump, a gas-guzzler tax has been proposed that would make the polluter pay. This would increase the purchase price of inefficient vehicles that use more fuel and create more pollution, yet still allow those who so choose to drive whatever they wanted. The income from these programs could go to subsidizing new technologies and reducing the cost to buyers of super-efficient cars.
There are solutions for reducing miles driven other than the politically-charged ones with the four-letter word "tax" involved. The average solo commuter would use one-fourth as much energy to get to work if he or she would take mass-transit -- if there was a reliable option. Providing High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that allow car-poolers to bypass traffic congestion is an effective approach in metropolitan areas. Expensive non-subsidized downtown parking encourages commuters to pool expenses and their CO2 output. Car-pooling and mass transit are proven energy- saving strategies, but independent Americans love nothing more than the freedom of tooling down the road where and when they want to.
So, what about efficient automobiles? Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were instituted in 1975. The requirement allowed continued sales of gas-guzzlers as long as the auto manufacturer's product line consisted of enough vehicles of suitable efficiency to bring the average mpg rating in line. (Be aware that the EPA's mpg figures are very conservative: a car running at steady speeds on a level path, perfectly maintained mechanically, without speeding or surging ahead - in short, unlike real life.) The mandate for passenger cars was gradually raised from 13.8 mpg in 1975 to 27.5 mpg in 1985. In 1974 Ford (Motor Company, not President) predicted that the 27.5 standard would yield a "product line consisting of either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick." Actually, 85 percent of the efficiency gain from the first ten years of CAFE came from technical improvements and the rest from size and weight reductions.
Current CAFE limits remain at 1985 levels: 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for light trucks. All the reduction of petroleum use that was gained in the first decade has been eliminated in the second, first by more Americans in more cars driving more miles, and just recently, the increase in light trucks on the road: pick-ups, minivans and Jeep-type station wagons now account for over one-third of the car market. Mostly due to this phenomenon, the combined average fuel economy of all automobiles in use dropped from a peak of 25 mpg in 1985 to the current 24.5; last year the efficiency of vehicles going to the junkyard beat that of autos leaving the showrooms.
Technological advances have since been directed into greater horsepower instead of fuel- efficiency. Sport utility vehicles, or SUVs (the trendy name "sport utes" is insulting and a little too cute for my taste), are being marketed to the well-off boomers. Advertisements brag about muscle and cargo room, but more often they are only used to haul large egos and they never leave the pavement. GM and Chrysler are planning to increase the size and weight of their largest light trucks and Ford is introducing a new three-ton, 19-foot behemoth. With the high sticker-prices such vehicles bring, it is obvious that greater profit-margins are the driving force. This example, at least, proves that without government intervention, businesses will not provide saner alternatives.
In 1997 all three US automakers did not meet even the weak CAFE standards for light trucks. Rather than make improvements, the corporations have focused on lobbying members of Congress to pass one year freezes on the law. Last year was the third time that such a freeze was passed. The biggest single step to reduce CO2 emissions would be to raise CAFE standards over ten years to 46 mpg for cars and 34 for light trucks. Five years after that (to allow for replacement of older vehicles), making this change would save annually between 65 and 70 billion dollars, according to consumer and environmental groups. Money now being spent on converting gasoline to air pollution would be available to reinvest in the economy. The average US household would see annual savings of over $500 and Alabama citizens would average more than $600. Whatever additional costs for advances in technology passed on to the consumer by the car manufacturer would easily be paid back in lower fuel bills.
CAFE is an average of the vehicles manufactured and sold. People who really use real trucks would still be able to buy the vehicles they need. First of all, trucks would have a lower average mandated economy, incremented to 34 mpg over ten years. And heavy duty gas-guzzling pick-ups represent only about 10 percent of the light truck fleet. As with luxury passenger cars being balanced out by sales of compact models, improvements in the SUV-line will compensate for the lower mileage inherent in the heavy, work-type pick-up truck.
Another benefit of bringing the SUVs more in line with realities is highway safety. Department of Transportation and insurance institute studies show that the prevalence of light trucks significantly contributes to more passenger car deaths. An industry-front group, Americans for Automotive Choice, determined that the solution to that is for everyone to drive heavy, oversized vehicles. That is a scary strategy reminiscent of Cold War nuclear proliferation.