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Building a Sustainable Car Culture--Perils and Pitfalls

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:02pm

Cars and light trucks now account for about 20 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and more than 40 percent of US oil consumption. This level of pollution comes not only from driving them, but from their construction—including the mining and manufacture of the metals involved which create similar levels of pollution as are created during the the lifetime of their use.

Building hybrid and battery powered cars will not completely solve the problem. There are some 250,000,000 cars in the United States. Replacing even a small portion of them would do very little to reduce the CO2 emissions from the industry. Furthermore, the present generation of hybrid cars are powered by nickel metal hydride batteries. Nickel is particularly energy intensive to mine and refine, adding to the carbon footprint of the hybrid car.

Today’s car culture is inherently inefficient. As a matter of safety, a car’s wheels must hug the road; but this causes a high level of friction that the engine must overcome (this is the reason that trains are more efficient than cars and trucks.) The second problem is the weight of the car. The average car or light truck is around two tons. Even the basic Prius is 2765 pounds—a great deal of weight to carry around one or two people. Cars sold in the U.S. have been getting steadily heavier and more powerful, resulting in lower fuel efficiency. The original Honda Civics build in the 1970s got 40 mpg with a gas engine. Hybrid cars hardly get better mileage today.

Former oil industry analyst, Jan Lunberg, has concluded that we need to “get rid of car dependency.” The present economic downturn has raised questions about whether the auto industry can continue. The $13.4 billion bridge loan given by the federal government to the auto industry in December was to give the industry time to restructure, but the details of that restructuring were not known, although the Obama administration has talked about a “new, hybrid economy.”

More fundamental changes are needed if we are to meet CO2 reduction goals and to reduce our dependency on oil. We will need smaller, less powerful cars, as well as living patterns that bring us closer to work and to shopping. These goals are not receiving serious discussion yet. In all probability they will require further price increases or even shortages before they become politically viable.
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