Commentary: Full Disclosure

For your car’s global warming performance, check the sticker

I"m writing this column in longhand with a pen Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell used to sign a pioneering clean car bill. In a measure previously taken only in California that provides a model for the entire nation, Connecticut will now require cars sold in the state to display a window label disclosing how much global warming gas (primarily carbon dioxide, or CO2) they emit. It’s a measure we may see echoed soon in other states that follow California emission laws, including New York, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell signs a pioneering clean car bill.© Brian C. Howard

E’s current cover story is about climate change "points of light" around the world, from Hull, Massachusetts to Estonia. It’s heartening to see how many initiatives are being undertaken to combat greenhouse gas emissions by local, state and federal governments, even in the absence of action on the part of the climate-phobic Bush Administration.

For most Americans, the connection between auto exhaust and climate change is not an exact science. Unfortunately, even though fuel economy has moved to the top of customers" concerns when buying a new car, tailpipe emissions and greenhouse gas scores remain way, way off their radar screens. Sales people tell me that customers rarely, if ever, ask about emissions performance.

Contrary to popular belief (and a point confounding even some of the seasoned politicians at the signing ceremony), CO2 is not simply another tailpipe pollutant that can be cut to near nothing by installing a better catalytic converter. Instead, CO2 emissions are closely tied to fuel economy, so the only way to reduce them is to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. And that’s what sent automakers to court when California regulators required them to reduce their climate impact. The carmakers say in their suit that the California law amounts to illegal state regulation of fuel economy.

So it’s safe to say that some of the gas-guzzling Expeditions and Excursions that formed the backdrop of Rell’s ceremony at a local Ford dealership will be getting fairly alarming climate scores (though the company’s 30-mpg Escape Hybrid, also on display, should acquit itself nicely).

State Senator Bill Finch (D-Bridgeport), one of many politicians "bowled over" by Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, said greenhouse gas regulation is essential if we’re going to avoid "palm trees in Wyoming." And Rell added, "It’s the right thing for Connecticut."

The Northeast generally, and Connecticut in particular, has fairly bad air quality, with many counties in "non-compliance" with EPA standards. That’s why I found it amusing to have a car salesman tell me last week how fortunate we are in this part of the world to have avoided California’s polluted skies. "It’s all the trees we have," he said confidently. In fact, the Northeast’s bad air is what persuaded state legislators from Maine to New York to embrace California’s emission laws, which are some of the most stringent in the world.

"Ten states have adopted California’s clean car emission rules," says a clearly energized Dan Becker, the Sierra Club’s climate change coordinator. "This is about the most exciting thing out there to fight global warming, and it shows that the U.S. doesn’t have to have its head in the sand. Governors and mayors get it even if the President doesn"t."

In 2004, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) approved regulations that would result in a dramatic 22 percent reduction in global warming emissions from vehicles by 2012, and a 30 percent reduction by 2016. That’s coupled with California’s existing regulations (far more stringent than those put in place by the federal government) to cut the tailpipe emissions that cause local smog. States have the option of following California’s tough standards or the feds" relaxed ones, and an increasing number of legislatures are siding with Sacramento.

Becker and other campaigners talk about a "tipping point" at which automakers will finally want to relieve themselves of the burden of producing two versions of their cars and trucks—a super-clean one for California states and a dirtier one for everyone else. That point will be reached when states all around the country sign on to the California program, creating a shipping nightmare for Detroit. One or two more states may force the automakers" hands.

To comply with California’s global warming provisions, the automakers would have to make their vehicles more fuel efficient, and with most of their profits coming from SUVs they’ve been loathe to do that. Through the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), the carmakers filed suit in 2004 against the California law, claiming it would cost consumers an extra $3,000 for a compliant car, and that only the federal government is empowered to set fuel economy standards.

The 30-mpg Ford Escape Hybrid gets good ratings from environmentalists.© Brian C. Howard

"What the auto companies should be doing is letting their engineers figure out how to work with these standards," says Bill Magavern, the Sierra Club’s senior representative in Sacramento. "Instead, they’re letting their lawyers loose." Magavern dismisses as "ridiculous" the automakers" argument about jurisdiction. "The California law is about global warming emissions, not fuel economy," he says. "And the federal law was drafted in the 1970s, before climate change was even an issue."

Meanwhile, California, 11 other states and a coalition of cities (including Baltimore, Washington and New York), environmental groups and the island of American Samoa (which is threatened by sea-level rise) are fighting a court battle with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which said in 2003 that it had no authority to regulate CO2 or three other global warming gasses produced by vehicles. The EPA ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court last year, but the states are determined to carry the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Connecticut stickers mentioned at the beginning of this column won’t be seen until the 2009 model year, by which time I think there will be few global warming skeptics left. The forward-thinking state law also sets up a state fund dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, funded by a $5 fee applied to vehicle sales and leases.

We don’t have to wait until 2009 to do something about global warming. We can all do our parts to counter rising sea level, melting glaciers, threatened biodiversity and sharply more intense storms. And we can start by making smart decisions on the dealer lots. With $3 a gallon gas, who could justify buying a gas guzzler anyway?

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E Magazine "Points of Light" story

California Air Resources Board

Sierra Club

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