By Jim Kerr
“Transportation is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Canada.” “Given that there are approximately 18 million passenger vehicles on Canadian roads, they are a major contributor to air pollution, particularly in urban areas.” Those statements are taken directly from the Government of Canada Environment Canada Web site.
On October 19, 2006, the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment, introduced Canada’s Clean Air Act in Parliament and presented an agenda for future action to maintain and improve Canada’s air quality. While I appreciate the quality environment that most Canadians live in and encourage anything that will protect it, I believe, as do others, the Canadian Government may be going in the wrong direction where automobiles are concerned.
In part, the Clean Air Act would amend the Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act to modernize the Government of Canada’s authority to regulate new motor vehicle fuel efficiency to make them the most efficient in North America by 2010. Setting mandatory fuel consumption standards is seen as a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles purchased in Canada. All of us would like to save money by using less fuel in our vehicles, but this proposal isn’t about saving money. In fact, it could make it much more expensive to drive.
For example, moving Canadian vehicle fuel economy standards ahead of those in the United States could make it much more expensive to build vehicles just for the Canadian market. Some models are sold in limited numbers and the cost to modify them specifically for Canada would not be feasible so they wouldn’t be sold here. There is much more than just building a vehicle to meet the standards. The manufacturers must provide specific training for dealers, special parts inventory and design special diagnostics and tools to support the vehicles. This all adds cost. Keep the standards consistent with the U.S. but find other ways of protecting the environment.
So vehicles are a major contributor to air pollution – right? This may have been true at one time and is still a common misconception, but the fact is modern vehicles produce very low emissions. According to information supplied by David Paterson, VP Corporate and Environmental Affairs at General Motors, the surprising fact is that even if all new cars were somehow immediately made emissions-free, 99% of Canada’s smog and greenhouse gas emissions would remain. Painting a wall with a gallon of water-based paint generates more smog emissions than driving a new GM SUV from Toronto to Vancouver and back again. Burning a cord of wood now creates more smog than a 2007 Trailblazer would driving around the circumference of the earth 37 times or ten Chev SUV’s would in their entire lifetime.
There are major polluters in the transportation industry, which include heavy duty, rail, air and marine transportation, but they are not the new automobiles that would be affected by tightened fuel economy and emissions standards. For example, operating a snowmobile for one hour produces more emissions than driving a GM vehicle for a year. New automobiles are 33.6% cleaner than 1990 vehicles, and older vehicles are not targeted in the regulations.
Part of the emissions the Act is proposed to limit are referred to as Green House Gases, primarily carbon dioxide. Green House Gases (GHG) contribute to global warming and environmental damage. According to Canada’s 2004 GHG Inventory (released May 2006), light duty cars and trucks produce only 12.5% of all GHG and new vehicles contribute only 1% of the total. In comparison, electrical generation produces 17.1% of the GHG emissions and the Oil, Gas and Coal industries contribute 20.3%. One could argue that the Oil and Gas industry is there because of automobiles, but there are many areas where large amounts of petroleum products are used in manufacturing and heating.
The auto industry is already working proactively to protect the environment. In 2005, a voluntary agreement between the auto industry and government was made to reduce GHG emissions by 5.3 million tonnes by 2010. New technologies and fuels are making this possible. For example, even the Honda Insight, the vehicle with the best fuel economy rating in Canada produces 59% more GHG emissions than a 2006 Impala operating on E85 ethanol fuel. The Honda is great but ethanol contains less carbon molecules and therefore produces less CO2 emissions. It’s simple chemistry.
Rather than regulate standards that increase the price of driving a vehicle, the government could reduce tax rates on new vehicles while maintaining them on older vehicles and provide incentives for using low carbon fuels. Making it cheaper to purchase and operate a new vehicle than drive an older one would boost the economy while protecting the environment, all without the need for legislation and regulation. Maybe I am dreaming in my little corner, but we all need to wake up and take a look at protecting our environment. I just happen to think we are going about it the wrong way.