Automaker Strategies Aggravate Global Warming

Despite growing concern over global warming, major automakers still pursue product strategies that make the problem worse. Through 2003, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — a primary cause of global warming — from U.S. cars and light trucks have increased 25 percent above the 1990 level. Both the total CO2 emissions and the average emissions per vehicle continue to rise. These are among the findings of a new report from Environmental Defense, Automakers' Corporate Carbon Burdens.

Analyzing federal data, the report examines what's behind the growing global warming pollution from cars. Among the six largest automakers, who account for 87 percent of U.S. sales, Nissan's new fleet-average CO2 emissions rate increased the most, rising 8.4 percent between 1990 and 2003. Ford's performance was second worst, with its average CO2 emissions rate rising 7.7 percent. DaimlerChrysler's rose by 6.8 percent and GM's did by 6.3 percent. Even as they pioneered hybrid-electric cars Honda's and Toyota's product strategies were still damaging overall, with their new fleet-average CO2 emissions rates rising 5.7 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2003.

"What is remarkable is that we see no decline in automotive carbon burden trends over the past several years," said Environmental Defense automotive expert Dr. John DeCicco, lead author of the report. "Emissions keep rising despite factors that many people think should lower them, including market forces from higher gasoline prices and advances in technology such as hybrid-electric vehicles."

General Motors and Ford still have the largest total new fleet CO2 emissions. "An automaker's carbon burden is the product of its sales and the average CO2 emissions rate of the vehicles it sells," explained Dr. DeCicco. "The greater a firm's carbon burden, the greater their responsibility for helping solve the problem." Over their lifetime, GM's model year 2003 vehicles will emit 6.4 million tons of carbon annually, the biggest carbon burden among automakers.

Mainly because of its sales success, Toyota's total carbon burden rose substantially, increasing the company's responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Although the Toyota's fleet-average CO2 emissions rate worsened by 2.9 percent, less than other major automakers, it still reflects a harmful trend. "While the company cultivates a green image, Toyota is merely staying on top in what remains a race to the bottom in this crucial area of environmental performance," said Dr. DeCicco.

A major factor for automotive CO2 emissions is the steady rise of light trucks in each company's product mix. The report finds no evidence that this trend is tapering off. Trucks comprised a staggering 74 percent of DaimlerChrysler's model year 2003 light vehicle sales and truck fractions continue to rise for all automakers. Because they are held to a lax fuel economy standard, new light trucks emitted 38 percent more CO2 per mile than new cars in 2003.

"The auto industry is a massive roadblock to climate protection because of their emphasis on inefficient trucks combined with opposition to meaningful policies to cut their carbon burdens," said Kevin Mills, director of Environmental Defense's Clean Car Campaign.

The report compares automakers' hybrid offerings to their broader product strategies and reveals that showcasing a few green products does little to protect the planet. Having reneged on its pledge for across-the-board improvements in the efficiency of its sport-utility vehicles, Ford would have to sell over 650,000 vehicles that cut CO2 emissions as much as the Escape Hybrid just to compensate for the increase in the company's new fleet-average CO2 emissions rate between 1990 and 2003.

"Automakers should support a national greenhouse gas cap in order to create a context in which greener vehicles will flourish," said Mills.

"The market alone can't solve global warming and even the best technology is worthless without the right policy," noted Dr. DeCicco. "Automakers hold the key to open the door to the political commitment needed for true progress."

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