Car Industry Challenges California Law

Most carmakers recognise that air pollution and global warming is a problem, but they argue that the California standard is unrealistic and would end up costing consumers thousands of dollars in higher vehicle prices.

Published: 28-Feb-2005

YORK, Feb 26 (Tierramérica) - A battle between car manufacturers and the government of the U.S. state of California, which is trying to sharply cut so-called greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, could have national and even international repercussions, activists say.

The U.S. transportation system alone gives off more carbon dioxide, the leading culprit behind climate change, than any other national economy, except China, according to the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, based in the eastern state of Virginia.

With the George W. Bush administration contesting the scientific consensus on global warming, many U.S. states are pursuing their own strategies to clear the skies.

And few have been more aggressive than the western state of California, which adopted a law last September that is the first in the world to require limits on so-called greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles.

The new rules give car companies a decade to achieve a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in all new vehicles sold in the state.

California wields considerable power over the automotive industry because its residents buy more than 1.5 million new vehicles a year, about a tenth of the national market. It has also historically played the role of an environmental leader, a model other states follow when writing their own emissions laws.

So far, clean car bills similar to California's have passed in seven northeastern states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont.

Not surprisingly, the California law is being challenged in court by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which together represent the world's major auto companies.

Most carmakers recognise that air pollution and global warming is a problem, but they argue that the California standard is unrealistic and would end up costing consumers thousands of dollars in higher vehicle prices.

They also say that California has exceeded its authority in trying to set a uniform fuel economy standard, which is the purview of the federal government.

The Kyoto Protocol on climate change --in force as of Feb. 16 -- requires 35 industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent from 1990 levels by 2012.

But the United States is not held to the terms of the treaty. President Bush withdrew the U.S. signature saying the Protocol would be too expensive to implement and would cost tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.

''The White House has offered up virtually nothing in reducing global emissions from cars,'' said Jason Mark, clean vehicles programme director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based environmental advocacy group.

And the ''Big Three'' carmakers in Detroit -- Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- are ''at the bottom of the heap when it comes to addressing greenhouse gas emissions,'' he said.

These gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, are released mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels like petroleum, natural gas and coal.

The car manufacturers ''have a very short-term investment strategy that hasn't proven to be a prudent business model. Japan has been winning over market share for decades,'' Mark told Tierramérica. ''Ultimately at stake in this lawsuit is transforming the auto industry in the United States.''

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says technology exists today to cut emissions by 20 percent in all new vehicles sold in California, using improvements in air conditioning systems, engines, and transmissions, as well as reductions in vehicle loads.

And, according to the group, new technologies still on the horizon could help reduce emissions a total of 40 percent over the next five years.

AAM spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said, ''the auto industry already spends billions developing advanced technology vehicles. We have more than 30 models that are on sale or in development.''

It would take up to 16 years for buyers of the cleaner vehicles to recoup in fuel savings the higher price tag of those cars (between 1,000 to 3,000 dollars).

''Even if there's a payback down the road, consumers are reluctant to take on the added cost,'' she said.

The new legislation was received with some scepticism by Japanese carmaker Toyota, which has sold 100,000 hybrid cars in the United States since 2000, and is part of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a collaboration of auto manufacturers, energy companies, fuel cell companies, and government agencies working to advance cleaner vehicle technology.

''We're sympathetic to the goals of the legislation, but we think it's not workable,'' Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman, told Tierramérica.

She said the company considers global warming ''a serious issue, and all Toyota affiliates worldwide ''have to formulate five-year action plans on a number of environmental issues, including carbon dioxide emissions.''

The automotive industry has an ally in President Bush, who has opposed moves in the U.S. Congress to cap carbon emissions and improve vehicle fuel efficiency -- even though the country is at a 24-year low for average fuel economy.

However, a poll taken after the November 2004 elections and released by the Natural Resources Defence Council found strong public support for cleaner car regulations, with 73 percent of respondents expressing support for California's emissions law.

Hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles, which get better gas mileage with less tailpipe pollution, also appear to be slowly catching on amongst the wider public, especially with oil prices hitting record highs.

The federal government currently offers a tax incentive of up to 2,000 dollars for consumers who choose a hybrid, but that will be cut to 500 dollars next year and eliminated altogether in 2007.

Some Asian carmakers, which have been in the vanguard of industry efforts to improve its ''green'' profile, have announced plans to increase energy efficiency in factories and expand production of eco-friendly vehicles.

Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea's biggest automaker, said Monday that it had launched a task force to ''systematically'' comply with the Kyoto Protocol.

Next year, Toyota plans to unveil two hybrid sports utility vehicles -- a highly popular model in the United States -- and pledges to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2010.

''The Japanese companies are run by engineers, but the U.S. companies are run by accountants,'' said UCS activist Mark. ''And we've seen dramatically different results.''

Ford Motor did not have anyone available to respond to Tierramérica's questions.

(*Originally published Feb. 19 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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