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Hybrid Greenwash


I’m back from a busy week in B.C. at SWANA’s combined Canadian and Northwest Chapter Symposium. (You can read about that in the forthcoming April/May edition of the magazine.)
Today I noticed an article from BusinessWeek Online about hybrid cars. (For convenience, I’ve pasted it below.) It turns out that many models are not nearly as environmentally friendly as folks have been led to believe. Often it appears the cars get just a couple more kilometres per gallon of gas than a similar car model produced as a regular vehicle.
It appears that many people are buying them because the electric part of the engine (which utilizes waste energy from the braking system) develops tremendous torque and hence fast acceleration. So yuppies can have a fast-accelerating high-performance car, and “feel good” about the environment, yet the environmental benefit is almost non-existent.
I’ve also read that the performance of even the better models (GM is supposedly the worst, Toyota the best) sounds a lot better in U.S. EPA reports (under lab conditions) than in “real world” driving tests performed by Car & Driver and other auto magazines. Way worse!
In theory, hybrids could really have a positive environmental impact, but so far they don’t justify the very large extra money required up front to buy one. As an aside, I have a friend from Ireland who says diesel is the way to go. Cars like his Volkswagon diesel — which gets an amazing 1000 kilometres on a single tank — are ubiquitous in Europe. And they burn clean — not like the smoke-belching trucks that come to mind when you think of diesel. With fuel efficiency like that, maybe we should be switching to diesel before these other gimmicks. Anyone for a hybrid diesel car?
Now here’s the article.


Hybrid Talk: Big Auto Bandies the H Word
Hybrids used to be the environmentalists’ great shining hope for combating auto pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and gas guzzling. Those were the romance days for hybrids, the first two or three years following their introduction in 2000. But the honeymoon is over. With the emergence of performance-oriented hybrids and ultra-mild hybrid systems, environmentalists now see the technology as one more example of how Big Auto has hoodwinked consumers into believing their products are as green as they can possibly get.
But it may be too late for the auto makers to put the hybrid cat back in the bag. Everybody has seen what the best of hybrid technology can do, shattering Detroit’s myth that it lacks the know-how to greatly extend average fuel economy. “Hybrids are the poster child for the fuel economy debate,” says Jason Mark, director of the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, like the Sierra Club, BlueWater Network, the Rainforest Action Network/Global Exchange, and others, share the view that the latest hybrids are being used as greenwash, but they appear divided on which car company is the worst culprit. The UCS, for example, sees General Motors (NYSE:GM – News) as enemy No. 1. They have applied the term “hollow hybrid” to GM’s current hybrid offerings.
“Bad Boys.” “We think that hybrid technology ought to be reserved for the environmental and consumer benefits [it] can deliver,” says UCS’s Jason Mark. “Every quasi-hybrid under the sun is being labeled as a hybrid for public relations benefits.” Mark thinks that hybrid technology should be put to better uses than turning a 16-mpg vehicle into an 18-mpg vehicle. “The point is not to turn extreme gas-guzzlers into moderate gas guzzlers.”
What perturbs Mark and others is not only the mislabeling or misuse of hybrid technology on the part of certain auto makers, but that those same auto makers are lobbying and litigating to block any public policy that will hold them accountable for the detrimental environmental and social effects of their products. Mark calls GM “the bad boys of public policy for fuel economy, emissions, and greenhouse gases. In all public forums, they are the most aggressive in fighting environmental regulations. If you ask anybody to rank the auto makers on their policy performance, GM would be on the bottom.”
The folks at Jumpstart Ford, a project of Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network, might disagree. Their disapproval and public protests are aimed at the Ford Motor Co (NYSE:F – News). Jennifer Krill, zero emissions campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, thinks that Ford deserves credit for producing the Ford Escape Hybrid. But, she said, the same year that Ford released the Escape Hybrid, they “had the worst overall fuel-efficiency record. One hybrid doesn’t let them off the hook for being the most wasteful auto maker.”
Nobody’S Perfect. Don’t think that Prius-producing Toyota has escaped the attention of the environmentalists. Last fall, when Toyota (TM) launched its “Hybrid Synergy Drive” ad campaign, BlueWater Network launched its own campaign, entitled “Toyota: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” The full-page ads in The New York Times and other publications showed CEO Katsuaki Watanabe in the foreground and a man wearing a wolf’s head in the background.
“What people don’t know, and what we wanted to tell them, is that Toyota is not as green as it makes itself out to be,” says Danielle Fugere, director of climate change at BlueWater. “Yes, it has some good green technology, like the Prius. But Toyota has consistently lobbied against every attempt to increase vehicle fuel economy. It’s part of a group of auto makers suing against California’s greenhouse gas law.”
While the various environmental groups have each chosen a different company to target for their public education campaigns, they stand unified in their criticism of the auto makers who have sued California to block the enactment of AB1493, the greenhouse gas capping law known as the Pavley Law. The regulation, which could affect as much as 30% of the U.S. market (not just California), would be phased in from 2009 to 2016. It would require the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its new fleets by approximately 30%.
Major Lawsuit. The response from auto makers is that greenhouse gas restrictions are a surrogate for fuel economy, because increasing fuel efficiency is the only effective way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Therefore, they claim, California is trying to regulate fuel economy standards, which only can be established at the federal level. Otherwise, they argue, manufacturers would have to produce vehicles based on two or more different emissions standards. [In fact, tailpipe emissions are already set at the state level.]
BlueWaterNetwork, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and the National Resources Defense Council have all joined the lawsuit to defend the Pavley Law against the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Alliance of International Automobile Manufacturers, which includes all of the major carmakers, including those who sell hybrids.
The state of California and the environmental groups say that greenhouse gas emissions are not strictly related to fuel economy. “The auto makers can comply by using alternative-fuel vehicles,” says Blue Water’s Fugere. “In some cases, an alternative-fuel vehicle will get less fuel economy. California doesn’t care if fuel economy goes up or goes down. We want to know how much CO2 is coming up from the tailpipe.”
Green Challenge. The legal contest, scheduled for 2007, is shaping up into the biggest battle over automobile emissions and efficiency since CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] was enacted 30 years ago. And it highlights the fact that producing a hybrid — however you define it — no longer makes a car company a green company. “I would like to have a name like ‘hybrid’ denote this is a great, fuel-efficient vehicle,” says Fugere. “Point of fact, the auto manufacturers are using the hybrid terminology to fool people.”
Now the only way for a car company to be considered environmentally friendly is to remove its name from the lawsuit blocking the Pavley Law. Toyota? Honda? Ford? Anybody?
Business Week


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