Car-tastrophe: How federal policy can help, not hinder, the greening of the automobile

Car-tastrophe: How federal policy can help, not hinder, the greening of the automobile

San Francisco—Many policies aiming to “green” the American car culture may do just the opposite, according to a new study from the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), a California-based free market think tank. Car-tastrophe: How federal policy can help, not hinder, the greening of the automobile, by Amy Kaleita, Ph.D., PRI senior fellow, explores the environmental implications of several commercially available vehicle and fuel types, and indentifies where policies could be improved to result in net benefits to Americans.

“Cars remain the primary mode of personal transportation for much of America and account for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dr. Kaleita, “But promoting electric vehicles like the new Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf could actually cause more harm than the perceived good it provides.”

“Both biofules and electric vehicles are highly incentivized by federal actions; yet, the environmental benefits of both remain questionable. Policy makers must look beyond tailpipe emissions and consider economic sustainability, performance and functionality, and overall environmental health,” added Dr. Kaleita.

Car-tastrophe debunks several myths fueling the push for more biofuels and electric vehicles. The report shows that:

  • Many biofuels, namely those most common in the U.S. sourced from corn and soybeans, can have significant negative environmental impact.
  • Generating electricity from biofuel crops is considerably more energy efficient — and potentially more carbon efficient — than using them to produce liquid fuel.
  • Electric cars are only beneficial when the electricity is generated on-board or when the car is charged with electricity generated from no- to low- carbon sources.
  • Plug-in hybrids are only cost-competitive and more environmentally sound than other options when they are short-range vehicles charged every 20 miles or less.
  • For all plug-in vehicles, hilly terrain, aggressive driving, stop-and-go traffic, and hot or cold temperatures will limit the electric range to the shorter end.

“Government investment needs to spur technological development, not simply entrench and institutionalize first-generation efforts to ‘green’ the car culture,” concluded Dr. Kaleita. “Policy makers shouldn’t promote electric vehicles until the energy sector overall becomes less reliant on high-carbon sources. They should also incorporate a holistic approach to renewable fuel policy that looks at more than carbon emissions but factors such as water and land use.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.