Greenwashing the Car
The following editorial appeared in conjunction with the "Vehicle of Change" article in the October 2002 issue of Scientific American. We thought our readers would want to see it.
The automotive industry has never been known for taking the initiative in cleaning up the environment. Ever since the federal government forced auto manufacturers to lower exhaust pollution levels in the 1970s, industry lobbyists have waged a tough rearguard action on Capitol Hill against efforts to raise fuel economy standards.
Meanwhile car companies have fiercely resisted the reclassification of their highly profitable small pickups, sport-utility and "crossover" vehicles form their current designation as moderately regulated light trucks for commercial use to what they often really are: gas-guzzling personal transport. Until not so long ago, many automakers denied even the possibility that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases might induce global warming. Following form, their representatives are fighting tooth and nail to block a recently passed California state law that restricts automotive carbon dioxide emissions.
So what are we to make of carmakers' recent protestations that they want to be environmentally friendly? They are, after all, pouring large sums into the development of clean-diesel, hybrid and fuel-cell electric vehicles. And auto manufacturers have developed some promising fuel-saving technologies that they could roll out. But, perhaps most significantly, they are talking openly about making a revolutionary shift from today's oil-based economy to one founded on hydrogen. The entire industry now seems to agree that hydrogen fuel cells represent the only feasible long-term path toward addressing the environmental, economic and geopolitical issues associated with dependence on petroleum. The Bush administration, too, supports hydrogen fuel-cell development in its FreedomCAR public-private intiative.
The new reality is that auto manufacturers, and some global energy firms as well, now seem to see the hydrogen future as a potential moneymaker rather than the road to bankruptcy. Whenever the interests of business and the environment are aligned, real change for the better becomes possible.
In their [October 2002] article, a trio of General Motors executives discusses their companies plans for vehicles powered by fuel cells rather than internal combustion engines. In their vision, gas stations of the future would truly live up to their name by dispensing hydrogen gas. Reworking the car into a clean machine while driving the establishment of a nationwide hydrogen fuel distribution system costing hundreds of billions of dollars will certainly be a daunting task.
So two cheers for the fuel-cell-car pioneers. But this transformation will start to get serious only in a decade or so. Until then, industry lobbyists will apparently continue their battle against near-term measures to improve the environment. Skeptics note that the commitment to a far-off technology lets the auto industry earn environmental kudos without necessarily incurring the costs of producing high-mileage cars today. Environmentalists have a name for this strategy in which one flaunts green credentials while pushing to maintain the ability to pollute: "greenwashing."
The long, hard quest to build affordable, practical fuel-cell cars should not become an excuse to ignore what can and should be done more immediately. If we want car companies to design a greener future, then we need a system of incentives and market opportunities that steers them that way. In the meantime, we must ensure that they make futher reasonable efforts to clean up the trusty old internal-combustion engine.
Copyright 2002, Scientific American
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