Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Has the USA started getting the message on CO2 emissions?

Fresh from their willingness to at least "talk about talks" on climate change in Bali, the US Congress has also, for the first time since 1975, moved to significantly beef up the requirements on for more energy efficient vehicles. It aims to reduce America’s dependency on imported oil by raising corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) for new cars and trucks to 35 miles per US gallon on average. The 40% increase over the current CAFE standard is intended to cut oil demand by 1.1 million barrels a day by 2020. (The current standards mandate 27.5mpg for cars and 20.7mpg for light trucks. These are equivalent to approximately 33 and 25mpg using the Imperial gallon in the UK, or for cars 8.56l/100km, or 197gCO2/km. The new CAFE standard is equivalent to 42mpg (UK) or 6.73l/100km or 155gCO2/km.)

The proposals were part of a wider Energy Bill passed by the senate at the end of last week (13 December). The Energy Bill did however lose two other key environmental elements, one of which would have required utilities to get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources, and the other which would have eliminated huge tax breaks for oil companies. These were removed in response to a likely veto from President Bush.

The Energy Bill also contains a requirement to increase by nearly fivefold US production of renewable motor fuels like ethanol to 83 billion litres by 2022, although this may, as the EnergyDon has noted before, cause more problems than solutions, leading to rising food prices and a potential shortage of corn and soya beans for food uses. (There is also worrying evidence that the US Midwest may run out of irrigation water from underground aquifers, but that's another story...)

Electricity companies in Southern States lobbied strongly against the 15% renewable electricity provision, arguing there are few renewable energy sources like wind in their part of the USA, in contrast to plentiful (and polluting) supplies of cheap coal. No wind along the Gulf Coast – now does that sound right?

While the cut-down energy bill might not be as environmentally benign as its sponsors had hoped, it still represents progress. It is to be hoped that a greener White House in 2008 will allow the change of reintroducing some of the elements lost this year.

Meanwhile the European Commission has confirmed its plans to table draft legislation on this week to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars, even though the final details of the plan appear to be uncertain. In particular, the Commission may allow car manufacturers to form emissions groups for the purpose of calculating average fleet emissions. This would be similar to a basic form of emissions trading, where producers of larger vehicles could pay the makers of smaller cars to offset their higher emissions.

The European Commission is also expected to try and differentiate between different car classes in meeting the anticipated overall target of 130gCO2/km by 2012. The calculation will probably be based on three variables, including the weight of the car, in an apparent concession to German manufacturers which manufacture significantly large (and so heavier) cars than the EU average.

So does the new action in the USA mean that it is catching up the European Union, and is this something that we should be pleased about? To answer the second question first, any progress in improving the lamentably bad US fuel economy standards has to be welcomed. However, if they reach 35 miles per US gallon by 2020, they will still be no further forward than we are now, and the EU's proposed standards, while watered down from earlier proposals of 120gCO2/km, will still be 16% better and 8 years earlier.

But there is another more serious problem. Historically the USA has defended its large, inefficient vehicles by pointing out that their country is large, with a severe climate and long distances. To some extent this has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. US cities suffer from a vast urban sprawl, linked by traffic-clogged freeways, with in most cases few public transport alternatives. If you are sitting in a jam on the Santa Monica freeway in 90° heat, for example, you expect a bit of space in which to stretch and a nicely air-conditioned vehicle. To overcome America's dependency on oil will require more than smaller or more fuel-efficient cars; it will also need a re-think about how America does business and builds itself.

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