By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - When it comes to environmental performance Japanese automakers still far outpace their American rivals, according to a new survey released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), but all six of the automakers that dominate the U.S. market need further pressure from policymakers if any significant reduction in pollution from automobiles is to be expected.
There has been significant progress over the past three decades in reducing the per vehicle emissions of key pollutants, UCS scientists say, but the "benefits obtained from new vehicle regulations have been tempered by the growth of vehicle travel and a shift toward larger, more polluting vehicles."
The average new model 2001 (MY01) vehicle sold by the six surveyed companies released 24 percent fewer smog forming emissions from the tailpipe than the average MY00 vehicle, largely due to the onset of new national tailpipe standards. Still, the average heat trapping gas emissions from a new MY01 vehicle were higher than they have been in two decades.
"The automobile industry's record for introducing environmental technology over the last few decades is really poor," Mark added. "We need the government to step in and force the automakers to build more fuel efficient vehicles."
Automakers have repeatedly opposed further fuel efficiency standards, arguing that they respond best to consumer pressure, not government intervention.
Honda tops the public policy group's second biennial environmental ranking of the six automotive companies that make nearly nine out of every 10 vehicles sold in the United States. Honda is followed by Toyota, Nissan, Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.
The study, "Automaker Rankings: The Environmental Performance of Car Companies" is based on the relative emissions of the average new vehicle sold by each company in MY01. Each automaker is then ranked with equal weight on their contribution to smog and carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.
Vehicles from these six automotive companies account for 93 percent of all smog forming pollution and 92 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the two major environmental problems analyzed by UCS for this study.
Passenger vehicles emit some 20 percent of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for more carbon dioxide emissions than all but three countries in the world.
The environmental performance of the three American firms, which hold some 68 percent U.S. market share, is negatively impacted by their high truck sales. U.S. environmental regulations are different for cars and trucks, with trucks, including the increasingly popular sport utility vehicles (SUVs), permitted to pollute more than cars.
Trucks, on average, consume one third more fuel than cars, and sales of the largest, dirtiest SUVs increased by more than 30 percent in just one year according to the survey. SUVs and minivans account for more than 50 percent of all new U.S. vehicle sales.
As a result, the average MY01 truck released 2.4 times more smog forming pollution and 1.4 times more global warming gases than the average MY01 car.
Ford was the only manufacturer to move up from the previous ranking, edging ahead of General Motors. This change was largely the result of Ford's commitment to offer trucks with lower smog forming emissions. But Ford's improvement is somewhat offset by the low fuel efficiency of its overall vehicle fleet.
Honda, which has some seven percent of the U.S. automobile market, retained its leadership position largely because it sells the fewest dirty trucks and offers the best fuel economy. The average new MY01 vehicle sold by Honda emitted 21 percent less global warming gases and 31 percent less smog forming pollution than the average for the six automakers.
Honda's average MY01 vehicle has an average fuel economy of 30.1 mpg, well above second place Toyota at 26.4 mpg and last place DaimlerChrysler, which has an average MY01 vehicle mpg of 21.9.
The average MY01 vehicle sold by DaimlerChrysler was 10 percent dirtier than average for smog forming emissions and nine percent dirtier for greenhouse gases. DaimlerChrysler sold 1.78 million MY01 trucks with an average fuel economy of 20 mpg and 1.13 million cars with an average fuel economy of 27.2 mpg.
Honda led the pack, but the company's lead over its rivals has slipped since the last ranking as a result of tighter tailpipe emission standards that went into effect for MY01 vehicles.
"Our study proves that tougher smog standards worked," Mark said. "Now policymakers need to push the automakers on fuel economy."
The current CAFE standard for cars is 27 mpg and has not been changed since 1985. The standard of 20.7 mpg for light trucks was established in 1996.
Opponents argue that raising CAFE standards would further distort the U.S. automobile market by forcing manufacturers to make and sell cars for which there is little market demand. Critics also say the fuel economy standards result in smaller, less safe vehicles.
"We do not need any more stringent fuel economy standards because the only result of that would be to downsize both SUVs and cars and those standards have already proven to be incredibly deadly," said Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "They're a bigger killer in terms of reducing consumer safety than any other federal regulation on the books.
A Congressional effort to raise CAFE standards was voted down last spring, and the Bush administration has shown little interest in tackling the issue. The administration has indicated it might raise the standard for light trucks by 1.5 mpg, but it would give the industry until 2007 to comply. This increase, Mark said, is already well below what is technologically possible.
UCS and others estimate that "an average light truck could get 24 to 25 mpg, about a four to five mpg increase for the cost of about $500 extra at the dealership," Mark said.
"But you'd make that $500 back at the pump in about a year and a half of driving because you have a more fuel efficient vehicle and you are spending less on gas," the UCS scientist explained. "That is on today's prices, but if we invade Iraq and world oil prices double or triple like they did the last time we invaded Iraq then the cost savings are going to go even higher for consumers."
As for vehicles with alternative fuel technologies, there aren't enough being sold to "move the needle on our environmental rankings," Mark said.
But there is further evidence that the Japanese automakers are keen to stay ahead of the curve for new automotive technologies. Toyota and Honda both announced yesterday the launch of new hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles.
Both companies have leased a few of their new models to the Japanese government and to the University of California and the city of Los Angeles. California has been the U.S. leader in tackling pollution from automobiles and has called for all cars sold in the state to have near zero emissions by 2009.
In the new program, UC Davis and its sister campus at Irvine will share six Toyota fuel cell vehicles and grants from Toyota of more than $4 million over the next 3.5 years. Cars powered by fuel cells have zero tailpipe emissions.
American automakers would do well to strive for the environmental performance of their Japanese rivals, according to Laura Huskins, a financial analyst with Trillium Asset Management.
"The Japanese manufacturers are green in more ways than one," she said. "Not only do they sell clean cars, they prove out a business model that suggests environmental protection and financial health can go hand in hand."
To read the full report, click here.