At Witz’ End: CAFE, the 0.2% Solution



If CO2 causes global warming, why are critics attacking cars alone?


The man-made global warming theory touted by technologically challenged alarmists, agenda-driven politicians, and their willing accomplices in the mainstream media holds that increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is causing our planet to warm, potentially catastrophically. They scold us for burning carbon-based fuel in our automobiles, try to shame us into switching to tiny cars, walking or riding bikes to “save the planet,” and cry for dramatically increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) levels.


With many excellent reasons to improve vehicle efficiency, all automakers have worked diligently to do so across their lineups. They do so to stay competitive and satisfy customers’ recently increasing demand for it, while simultaneously ramping up their vehicles’ levels of luxury, convenience, performance, and safety — all of which adds fuel-consuming weight — to meet ever-higher expectations.


But even if you believe that man-made carbon dioxide — which is not a “pollutant” but the fizz in your beer or soda and the harmless gas that all air-breathing animals exhale — is a major climate change contributor, you should understand how ridiculously futile increasing vehicle CAFE would be as a means of reducing it.


Cars’ contribution


The U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) says that 20 percent of the total new CO2 produced in this country by carbon fuel consumption comes from passenger cars and light trucks. The EPA attributes 12 percent to “other transportation” (heavy trucks, planes, trains, boats, and ships), 31 percent to industry, 19 percent to residential, 16 percent to commercial sources, and two percent to agriculture.


So if cutting CO2 is so critically important to the future of our fragile planet, what about that other 80 percent? Are there federal CO2 limits on planes, trains, boats, and big trucks? Nope. The nearly one-third from industry? Nope (long-time limits on actual smog-producing “smokestack” emissions, yes, but not CO2). The 37 percent that comes from from agricultural, residential, and commercial? Nope. Does EPA even count man-made CO2 from lawnmowers, snow-blowers, backyard barbeques, and beers? If so, it has not tried to regulate any of it.


So why is media, public, and regulatory attention focused exclusively on that one-fifth from cars and light trucks?


“That’s a good question,” says Charles Territo, Communications Director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents GM, Ford, Chrysler, VW, Porsche, BMW, Toyota, Mazda, and Mitsubishi in Washington . “For the last 30 years, the auto industry has been the only industry that is carbon constrained through the regulation of fuel economy, and we certainly have wondered why it is the only one. Even if you agree that CO2 has to be reduced, there has to be a comprehensive plan. You can’t just get reductions from the auto industry and say you are doing something about it.”


Despite the rapid economic, population, and fuel-usage growth of China, India and other developing countries, the U.S. is blamed for 25 percent of the planet’s human-caused CO2. So the 20 percent of that the EPA attributes to U.S. cars and light trucks is just five percent of the world’s newly generated man-made CO2. But only four percent of new CO2 is man-made; 96 percent comes from natural sources, primarily decaying plant and animal life and solar heating of sea water. So U.S. autos contribute five percent of that four percent, or just 0.2 percent of new CO2 added to the atmospheric mix. That is what CAFE targets.


And consider that the U.S. vehicle fleet, currently about 250 million cars and trucks, is growing at the rate of six million a year. Even if those new ones get incrementally more fuel-efficient, their per-vehicle improvements will be overwhelmed by that explosive growth.


Would you buy a 35-mpg car?


Legislators, media, and citizens with no understanding of technology or costs share the naive belief that greatly increased CAFE standards will make the same kinds of cars and trucks we enjoy today much more efficient. Those who know better know that’s a pipe dream.


One engineer who has worked on CAFE compliance for decades says that to meet a 35-mpg CAFE, passenger cars will have to average 38-39 mpg and trucks 25-28 mpg, and achieving those levels will require virtually all of both to be either diesel or gas-electric hybrids at a probable incremental OEM cost (not retail price) of $5000 to $8000 per vehicle. He also points out that EPA uses “harmonic averaging” to emphasize fuel consumption (gallons per mile) rather than fuel economy (mpg). ”In CAFE math,” he says, “to offset a 25-mpg vehicle to get a 35-mpg average, believe it or not, you need a car that gets 58.3 mpg, not 45.”


High-CAFE boosters also believe that whatever ultra-efficient vehicles their proposed 35-mpg car and truck standards would bring, people would have no choice but to buy them. But those less thirsty cars (and trucks, if any) would be dramatically smaller and lighter – less room, less comfort, less capability, far fewer features. And due to expensive technology, lightweight materials, and diesel and/or hybrid powertrains, they would be substantially more expensive.


Most people buy or lease a new vehicle because they want one, not because they really need one. They invest in a new model because it is clearly better and more desirable than the one it will replace. But if the old, less fuel-efficient one is otherwise far more desirable, why would most not recondition and keep it, maybe indefinitely, and invest the difference in their homes, education, or retirement? CAFE can’t force consumers to buy what they don’t want.


Given that scenario, the demand for good used vehicles would skyrocket, and what may remain of the auto industry will have to survive on parts and service to keep them running. Is that far-fetched? Resourceful car owners in Castro’s Cuba have kept 1950s vehicles going for five decades without access to proper replacement parts.


Better solution


If U.S. policymakers really want to reduce Americans’ consumption of motor-vehicle fuel, they must muster the courage to somehow increase its cost. It should be abundantly obvious to even the dimmest political minds that higher fuel prices will motivate Americans to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and drive them less – as they do in Europe, Asia, and almost everywhere else. And that boosting CAFE to increase vehicle fuel economy, by contrast, reduces the cost of driving, which encourages larger vehicles and more and faster driving.


Most of us remember the infamous 1974 seat-belt/ignition interlock, a well-meaning rule that Congress quickly rescinded as soon as it realized that the NHTSA had issued a mandate that consumers would not accept. That unfortunate mistake was corrected quickly and fairly inexpensively. But unreasonable and potentially disastrous CAFE requirements will not be easily corrected once in place and billions of dollars have been wasted trying to meet them.


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