Experts see ways to cut contributions to global warming

By Jim Wasserman, The Associated Press
Monday July 08, 2002

SACRAMENTO – Smoother-rolling tires, quick-shifting transmissions and even credits for telecommuting. These are ways California may curb carbon dioxide emissions if Gov. Gray Davis targets the nation’s largest vehicle fleet to fight global warming. 

Though California’s proposed war on tailpipes doesn’t begin until 2009, experts and automotive authorities say there are countless ways to wage it. They cite prospects for more hybrid gas-electric cars and engines that shut down at traffic lights. 

They also tout cleaner-burning natural gas. 

But first Davis must sign the contentious global warming bill that narrowly passed the Legislature last week. The bill proposes the nation’s first state government crusade against carbon dioxide in vehicle exhaust. 

Davis has said “in all probability,” he’ll sign the bill, which triggered bitter opposition from global automakers. They call it a “backdoor” attempt to force higher fuel mileage from more than 2 million cars and trucks sold annually in California. Fewer than 13 percent now get more than 30 miles per gallon, according to the California Motor Car Dealers Association. It also opposes the bill. 

The legislation by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, requires the California Air Resources Board to write regulations by 2005 to “achieve the maximum feasible reduction of greenhouse gases.” 

A consortium of 13 American, European and Japanese automakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, is now vowing to explore “any option” to block the bill if it becomes law, including lawsuits, a public referendum or new legislation next year. Industry lobbyists have long maintained that no technology exists to remove carbon dioxide, a natural nontoxic byproduct of internal combustion, from vehicle exhaust. 

But environmentalists, exulting in their narrow legislative victory, claim the state has plenty of options to rein in vehicle emissions — and hope other states follow its lead. 

“There are a lot of things that are really easy,” says Julia Levin, California policy coordinator for Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “There are straightforward no-brainers.” 

Among suggestions are financial incentives for fuel-efficient tires that increase mileage by 5 to 8 percent, and greater use of natural gas fuels to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent. 

“There are continuously variable transmissions that shift through large number of gears and smoother transmissions that are not on the market, but are on the shelf,” offers Russell Long, director of the Bluewater Network, the San Francisco-based environmental group that sponsored the bill. 

“It may be slightly more expensive,” he says, “but not much.” 

Jerry Martin, spokesman for the Air Resources Board, which would write regulations to implement the law, says automakers won’t have to invent new technology. He cites technical improvements already in motion to make cars cleaner and more efficient. Among them: variable cylinder valve timing to cut carbon dioxide emissions about 5 percent and cylinders that stop when unnecessary to keep the vehicle moving — cutting emissions up to 6 percent. 

“It’s not so much that it will demand new inventions and force the industry to do a lot that it hadn’t planned on doing,” Martin says. “It would be more like speeding up the evolution of what is happening already.” 

At Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA, officials are banking on plans to sell 300,000 hybrid gasoline-electricity vehicles a year worldwide by 2005. Many of those would land in California, a company spokesman says. 

“That’s one very obvious way that Toyota plans to deal with fuel efficiency and lower emissions levels,” says John Hanson, Toyota’s national product news manager. Many of those cars already get up to 50 miles per gallon, he says. 

Hanson says the next generation of hybrid vehicles, expected before 2009, will raise fuel mileage even higher, even for larger vehicles such as sedans and mid-size sport utility vehicles. 

American Honda Motor Co. also touts its fuel efficiency as a primary tool to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 

“Honda has the highest average fuel economy of any major manufacturer,” says Ed Cohen, the firm’s Washington, D.C.-based vice president of industry and government relations. 

Cohen notes numerous other ways to trim emissions and fuel burning, including lightweight materials to cut weight, four-valve cylinders to cut fuel consumption, integrated starter-generators that shut off the engine at traffic stops and bigger batteries to run the vehicle’s “amenities,” while drawing less power from the engine. 

General Motors Corp. referred calls to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. 

More reductions will come from trimming nitrous oxide emissions — 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide — from catalytic converters designed to curb smog. 

“My guess is in newer cars emissions are going to be lower,” says Tom Durbin, assistant research engineer at the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California, Riverside. 

Solutions that aren’t in the mix include new taxes on gasoline or sport utility vehicles. The Air Resources Board also can’t force carmakers to sell lighter vehicles, require lower speed limits or make Californians drive less. Those bans were added to the bill to undercut an auto industry advertising blitz that suggested all were possibilities. 

Levin admits that California’s efforts will trim less than 1 percent of the world’s “greenhouse gases” which contribute to global warming. Even in California, she says, new emission limits won’t keep up with dramatic growth projections for driving and fuel consumption in the years to come. 

The California Energy Commission reports gasoline demand could rise to 20 billion gallons yearly by 2020, compared to more than 14 billion gallons annually today. 

“Nobody’s talking about reversing that and getting below today’s level,” Levin says. “Nobody’s talking about reversing the trend. They’re just to slow the growth.”