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Debating points

I spent time in New Orleans last week, heading a panel on vehicle emissions at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference. In addition to myself as moderator, it included a Toyota spokesman, a qualified mechanical engineer from the Environmental Defense green group, and an SUV-loving, small-car-hating lawyer from the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.

We agreed to disagree on many topics. John DeCicco, the man from Environmental Defense, is a contrarian on some green issues. He’s not sure we’ll ever be driving the bright, shiny zero-pollution fuel-cell cars that both the greens and the Bush administration see on the horizon. We still have to figure out how to get fuel cells to perform reliably under the hood of a car at a reasonable cost, conquer range issues, solve huge hydrogen infrastructure problems, settle on standardized methods of production, address manufacturability, and a whole lot more.

Dr. DeCicco says that instead of relying on fuel cells to solve all our problems, we should be addressing fuel economy issues right now, and making personal sacrifices for the good of the planet.

And he also wants you to know that carmakers’ fleets impose huge "carbon burdens" in their release of global warming gas. General Motors, his research shows, is the industry leader, producing 6.7 million metric tons per year, followed closely by Ford, with 5.6 million tons. In third place is DaimlerChrysler, with 4.1 million tons.

The surprise of the report is that green-thinking Toyota is in fourth place, producing 2 million metric tons of carbon annually. DeCicco’s report says that Toyota’s carbon burden grew 72 percent since 1990, compared to 33-percent growth for the market as a whole.

Carmakers, says DeCicco, an ED senior fellow, "have put their design and marketing talents into anything but addressing their products’ harm to the planet and liability for oil dependence."

The Toyota guy, environmental engineer Dave Hermance, took some exception to DeCicco’s analysis. Armed with a Power Point rebuttal, he claimed DeCicco’s analysis was simply based on absolute increases in carbon emissions, and that a relative analysis of the carbon burden put his company in fifth place, ahead of Nissan but behind Honda.

A Union of Concerned Scientists report was friendlier to Toyota, putting it 10-percent below the big six manufacturers, and crediting it as "the only company whose greenhouse gas emissions dropped from 2000 to 2001," a noteworthy achievement considering its shift to producing more trucks.

As for Sam Kazman and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, well, he sees no bad SUVs, only bad environmentalists who would take them away from consumers. He particularly decries the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law that imposes penalties on carmakers whose fleets guzzle too much gas. "CAFE kills people by forcing manufacturers to make vehicles smaller and therefore less crashworthy than they otherwise would be," he said. Arming your family with larger (and in his view, safer) SUVs is only common sense, he believes.

But it is equally commonsensical to point out that large SUVs are a menace to everything else on the road, and that Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty shows them to be no safer than cars for their own occupants.

This whole debate was proceeding against a heartening development in California. The very regulation decried by Kazman has produced whole fleets of super-clean partial-zero-emission (PZEV) vehicles on state roads. These editions of the Honda Accord, Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and other cars offer both drastically reduced emissions and excellent fuel economy, at a cost estimated at $200-$500 per car. Some of them will soon go national, giving consumers the best of both worlds.

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