Week of 11/11/2007

Dear EarthTalk: We've all seen the current generation of hybrid cars, but what vehicles do the automakers have coming out that are even greener?

—Brian Smith, Seattle, WA

No longer just the domain of the Japanese, greener cars are forthcoming from just about all of the major automakers. Toyota will improve on its hot-selling Prius by adding a plug so owners can juice up the batteries overnight and make it at least six miles before switching over to the car's gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Toyota's president hinted that the plug-in hybrid, though still in the prototype stage, could attain double the fuel efficiency of the current Prius, which gets 46 miles per gallon.

While gas-electric hybrids are all the rage today, carmakers are also looking at other technologies, though none are on the market yet. Mitsubishi's new concept car, the iMiEV, runs for more than 120 miles exclusively on electricity stored in high-capacity lithium-ion batteries, and sports small electric motors on each of the front wheels, as well as another propelling both back wheels. Nissan is also getting into electrics with its Mixim concept car, which can reportedly go 155 miles on a single rapid-charge (20-40 minutes only). While Nissan says it has the technology to mass-produce the Mixim today, costs remain too high to make feasible from a marketplace perspective.

General Motors (GM) recently released a prototype of its futuristic Chevrolet Volt. This concept car is designed to go 40 miles on just its batteries, but it has an onboard gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine (not connected to the wheels) that can recharge it on the fly. GM hopes to make the Volt available to consumers within three years, but because of slow lithium-ion battery development, competitors wonder if such a timeline is too ambitious.

On the fuel-cell front, Honda already has a few dozen of its zero-emission hydrogen-powered 2007 FCX sedans on the road, and plans to lease 100 or so more of the sleeker 2008 model. Honda will only lease the vehicles to a few lucky individuals, since each FCX costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.

General Motors is launching a "test" fleet of a 100 fuel-cell powered Chevrolet Equinox SUVs in select cities across the U.S. in 2008. The company will also set up hydrogen refueling stations in the same locales. The program will last two years and GM engineers hope to glean important information on how to improve its fuel cells to perform better at lower cost.

South Korea's Hyundai is also getting involved in fuel cells, launching a U.S. test fleet of some 300 of its Tucson SUVs. The company also recently unveiled its i-Blue concept car, a decidedly space-age vehicle that reportedly can cover 372 miles before needing to refuel. The company says that it will put fuel cells into mass production by 2015, if not sooner.

Automakers are responding to growing environmental concerns—and consumer demand—by producing vehicles that our grandparents would not recognize as cars. The dream of futuristic vehicles may just yet become a reality.

CONTACTS: Toyota; Mitsubishi; Nissan; General Motors; Honda; Hyundai


Dear EarthTalk: I recently had an argument with a friend who says that if we pollute and cut down the forests, it doesn't matter because the Earth will take care of itself anyway. How would you counter such an argument?

—Alison Berglof, via e-mail

It is true that Mother Nature has amazing powers to restore her ecosystems, and most scientists agree that it would be nearly impossible for humans to destroy the Earth itself, despite our success at wreaking environmental havoc. Short of a catastrophic meteor strike or some other unforeseen galactic trauma, the Earth will likely continue to spin in the solar system, perhaps as long as there is a solar system.

Example after example from distant and recent history underscore the fact that the Earth can recover from just about any trauma—including the meteor strike 65 million years ago that many believe caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Whether subjected to tidal waves, volcanic eruptions or nuclear bomb blasts, landscapes reform anew, even if it takes years, decades, centuries or eons.

But what is at stake if we don't clean up our act may be life itself as we know it, both our own and that of other species with which we share the planet. We are already witnessing what may be an even larger species extinction than occurred with the dinosaurs—but this time thanks to various human activities. Eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson predicts that human-caused environmental destruction will lead to the extinction of half of all species on the planet within 100 years. Such species loss is a big problem for humans. That incredible diversity of life keeps our water, soil and air healthy, our stomachs full and our ailments in check (many modern medicines originated as herbal plant remedies).

And regardless of the fate of other species, the destruction of our environment also impacts us directly. Though early conservationists sought largely to preserve nature for its own sake and beauty, most environmentalists today see a direct correlation between environmental protection and human health. Modern environmental problems like fast-paced habitat destruction, toxic chemical releases and global warming (which is exacerbated by cutting down forests) raise concerns about the spread of diseases for which we have not evolved proper defenses.

According to a 2002 Princeton University study published in the journal, Science, "Pathogens that have been restricted by seasonal temperatures can invade new areas and find new victims as the climate warms and winters grow milder." That trend is already underway and has, so far, primarily impacted non-human animals. However, said Andrew Dobson, a co-author of the study, "The accumulation of evidence has us extremely worried. We share diseases with some of these species. The risk for humans is going up."

"Epidemics of Rift Valley fever, a deadly mosquito-borne disease, rage through northeastern Africa during years of unusual warmth," said the study. "If the climate becomes permanently warmer and wetter
Rift Valley fever epidemics will become frequent
Malaria and yellow fever may become more common as milder winters permit the seasonal survival of more mosquitoes, which carry these diseases. A warmer climate also could enable them to move into areas where the cold once kept them out."

CONTACT: World Health Organization "Climate and Health Fact Sheet,"