Why environmentalists and policymakers should read auto mags

I’m not sure what environmentalists and policymakers read in their spare time but I’d like to suggest they could do worse than read the odd car magazine. I’ve been reading them for years and have found them to be a window into emerging social trends, technologies and how government and industry can work together to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. For example, I first heard about cell phone technology in Road & Track. Other auto publications have helped expand my knowledge of recycling, energy use and pollution control – and all while being entertained.

The auto industry is often vilified by people who are passionate about living in a more environmentally and socially responsible way. For some, the car is a symbol of everything that is wrong with our modern industrial culture. There is no denying that private vehicles, for all the economic, convenience, and other benefits they provide, also impose a significant burden on the planet’s finite resources. And car accidents claim lives or leave people permanently injured, serious social and economic costs. Still, though, the car genie is long out of the bottle and won’t be put back soon, or easily, so we really have to be clever about how we live with the genie now and in the future.

The car was born of ingenuity, coincident technological developments and entrepreneurial spirit. The industry’s early and rapid growth and its ascension to a place of prominence in our modern economy bear testimony to the power of capitalism and free markets. Automobiles directly or indirectly transformed everything, from the physical landscape to how we live, work and play. Over time, and as vehicle ownership and use became pervasive, some of the negative aspects, e.g., tailpipe emissions or safety concerns, became more and more apparent and less and less tolerable.

Even if you view the car as a problem and an impediment to realizing a safer, greener world, there are valuable lessons to be learned from our now century-plus relationship with it. Over the past 40-50 years, the industry and its products have been transformed. This was achieved by identifying specific targets and then enacting regulations that forced automakers to respond. For example, tailpipe emissions of various gases and particulates have been dramatically reduced in response to California-led legislation that over the years established ever more stringent standards.  The smog over Los Angeles and other major urban centres – a visible manifestation of auto use – was the catalyst for massive, positive change. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports “…emissions from a new car purchased today are well over 90 percent cleaner than a new vehicle purchased in 1970.” Even with more vehicles on the road, the total environmental burden for specific emissions is lower. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/peg_caa/carstrucks.html

Great strides have also been made in recycling vehicles that have reached the end of their useful life. In 2000, the European Union issued a vehicle end of life directive and there have been many other initiatives on the part of governments and automakers globally aimed at reducing the volume of material that goes to landfill. Today, attention is paid to this issue from the design stage forward.

Similarly, highway death tolls and other safety concerns prompted the introduction of regulated standards so that modern automobiles are far more crash-worthy than their predecessors (check out this crash between a ’59 Chevy Bel Air and an ’09 Chevy Malibu staged by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety http://www.iihs.org/50th/default.html. In addition to all of the “passive” safety features, e.g., collapsible steering column, seat belts, deformable structures and air bags found in modern vehicles, there are also “active” safety systems such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control which improve drivers’ chances of avoiding collisions in the first place.

Currently, automakers are focusing considerable attention on fuel economy. The US (Canada is following) is ramping up its fuel economy standards dramatically as a means for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The objective is straightforward – reduced fuel use and, therefore, lower carbon emissions – even if the solution is not.  Automakers are working on combustion technology, aerodynamics, new weight-saving materials and construction techniques, and other technologies to meet the regulatory requirements. They’re even building electric vehicles. The market will also play its role in shaping the final solution(s).

This approach differs in a very important way from other approaches such as the hotly debated idea of a carbon tax. People may or may not respond as hoped depending on their willingness and ability to shift consumption away from other goods so as to maintain their same level of energy consumption. A carbon tax is a blunt instrument that will potentially impose hardship on those who can least afford it. The objective of a tax is to raise money; taxes have generally been ineffective instruments for achieving other policy objectives. Governments are notorious for collecting revenues for a specific purpose and then redirecting the funds toward unrelated objectives.

Governments also founder when they attempt to pick solutions rather than set targets and regulate industry participants. In a number of jurisdictions globally, in an effort to reduce GHG emissions associated with electricity generation, governments picked wind and solar power as the solution. They have then have imposed taxpayer-funded subsidies to try and make their solution work, distorting the market in the process while also harming their domestic economies. In many cases, they simply shift emissions to a neighbouring country from which they buy power to make up for generation shortfalls.

Cars continue to play an important role in our everyday lives and in the global economy. That is why environmentalists and policymakers should read car magazines. They might then understand how regulated targets and market responses can, and do, deliver meaningful, positive outcomes. They would get some reasonable insight into the massive progress automakers have made toward making their products more socially and environmentally responsible and how that could be effected in other industries. They might also understand how consumers are willing to play along or even advocate for change when they have access to information about the intent and results of the process.

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