Global Warming Overcooked?

The Academy Award received by Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" was a major coup for those who believe the current global warming phenomena the Earth is experiencing are largely caused by human creations like automobiles and industrialization. But now a prominent French scientist, who 15 years ago was on the leading edge of proclaiming that global warming was of serious concern, has reversed course. Dr. Claude Allegre, a prominent geochemist who was one of 1,500 prominent scientists to sign the letter known as "The World Scientists Warning to Humanity" detailing the threat of global warming, has recently proclaimed that science does not support predictions of calamity surrounding climate change.

In an article entitled "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in the prominent weekly l' Express, he noted that there is evidence that Antarctica is actually gaining ice packs in spite of the mild warming trend scientists have noted in the Earth's temperature in the past 15-20 years. He also theorized that the retreating snow caps on mountains like Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro might stem from natural phenomena as opposed to human-produced "greenhouse gases." Flying in the face of those who say it is certain that the surface warming trend of our planet is caused by the increase of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere, Allegre wrote, "The cause of this climate change is unknown. There is no basis for saying, as most do, that the 'science is settled.'"

Further, though noting there seems to be a mild change in climate, Allegre wrote that those who predict a certain catastrophe from global warming are doing a disservice to the people they are trying to protect. He called the message of calamity surrounding the issue "simplistic and obscuring the true dangers." He was also derisive about "the greenhouse-gas fanatics whose proclamations consist in denouncing man's role on the climate without doing anything about it except organizing conferences and preparing protocols that become dead letters."

Ironically, the colossal amount of climate research that was, in part, prompted by Allegre's early warnings on the subject has subsequently convinced him that the threat is not nearly as imminent and frightening as he once thought it to be. After reviewing a substantial amount of data commissioned by entities like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which recently published its chilling report on climate change, Allegre concluded that the prediction of catastrophic effects from global warming are significantly overblown. He noted that, to his surprise, theoretical climate models that have been conceived in the past decade and studies of actual phenomena have not been successful in linking human causes like cars, power plants and industry to the Earth's slight warming trend, a trend which pales in comparisons to other Earth epochs over millions of years since the creation of the planet. He noted that evidence increasingly points to the fact that the bulk of the current warming trend is caused by natural forces on Earth and in the Solar System.

The great significance of this reversal of thinking is that no one can call Allegre a tool of conservative politicians or industries like oil or power. Long a socialist, Allegre was a member of the French Socialist government as its minister of education and technology, but his recent stance on global warming has cost him with many of the Left who have politicized the global warming issue.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Do Consumers Want 40-MPG Cars?

According to a Massachusetts-based think tank, America is now stuck in reverse when it comes to fuel-efficient vehicles. That same think tank also asserts U.S. consumers want Congress to take action to correct the situation, and it cites its own survey results to substantiate that claim. But after looking at the data one has to wonder if American consumers aren't simply providing "politically correct" answers to the survey questions, since their behavior seems to differ markedly from the opinions reflected in the survey.

What is clear is that the number of vehicles that achieve a combined rating of 40 miles per gallon or higher has dropped from five in 2005 to just two in 2007. In an update of its own December 2005 research, the Civil Society Institute (CSI)/40MPG contrasts that decline with the fact that the ranks of over-40-mpg cars rose from 86 to 113 in the same time period overseas. The organization notes that nearly two-thirds (74) of the 113 highly fuel-efficient car models that are unavailable to American consumers are either made by U.S. auto manufacturers (e.g., Ford and GM) or foreign manufacturers with substantial U.S. sales operations (e.g., Volkswagen, Nissan and Toyota).

CSI says the national opinion survey it commissioned shows there is a potential market of at least 2.5 million U.S. consumers thirsting for the fuel-efficient cars now being sold overseas but not in this country. Nearly nine out of 10 Americans (88 percent) think U.S. consumers should have access to the dozens of more fuel-efficient cars available from U.S. automakers overseas but not here. Similarly, more than four out of five Americans (81 percent) think U.S. consumers should have access to the dozens of more fuel-efficient cars available from foreign automakers overseas but, again, not in the U.S.

So it should be obvious that Americans want 40-mpg-cars, right?

The survey numbers say that quite clearly, but the behavior of the American car-buyer says something quite different. In the past, when a greater selection of over-40-mpg models was available on the American market, their combined market penetration was less than one percent of the total U.S. light-vehicle market. It is obvious from CSI's own data that both U.S. automakers and overseas automakers have the technology to build and market cars that get over 40 miles per gallon, and, because the U.S. and global car markets are so hotly competitive, you can bet that at least some of the auto manufacturers would try to exploit the ultra-high-mileage-seeker if they thought they existed in numbers large enough to be a viable market. But up to now, the over-40-mpg market has not tempted them, largely because their market research and prior sales results have told them the market is not nearly as large as CSI believes.

What the organization fails to mention in its analysis of the ultra-high-mileage cars that are available overseas but are not available here is the fact that the vast majority of them are diesels. Diesel-engined vehicles, especially small-displacement diesels such as those used in the foreign small cars not on sale here, have never achieved any popularity in the United States, primarily because of their lack of performance. Diesels have also had a very difficult time passing stringent U.S. smog laws, laws that are so tight that sales of new diesels have been essentially outlawed in highly populated states like California and New York. New, "clean diesel" technology is changing that, but market observers suggest it will take years before diesels reach the level of acceptance they enjoy currently overseas, where government taxation often favors them. 

So while some might argue that automakers are intentionally keeping American consumers from high-mileage cars, the fact is that differing market conditions and the preferences of American consumers themselves, expressed by dollars spent on various vehicle types, are the key reasons we don't see more over-40-mpg cars in America. The intentions of CSI are laudable, but its analysis doesn't tell the real story.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini has covered the auto industry for nearly three decades.

Biofuels: The Future is Here

The answer to the twin problems of global climate change and petroleum-related geopolitical blackmail might come from an unlikely source -- garbage. Biofuels created from landfill gas and crop residues are likely to help U.S. consumers reduce their reliance on foreign oil. While some visionaries have been proposing this effort for years now, that point of view got a recent big boost from President George W. Bush, who urged the nation to increase its production of biofuels and ethanol in an effort to wean drivers from consuming the vast quantities of gasoline we now use.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a new renewable energy standard that will require fuel blenders to use up to 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2017. The proposal found an immediate sympathetic ear in the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which hopes to catapult bio-based fuel technology from its current level into the American mainstream.

If the President's wishes are carried out, America could soon be producing a significant portion of its transportation fuel needs from crops and crop residues with the help of improved crop yields from agricultural biotechnology, increased ethanol production efficiency from industrial biotechnology and the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol. Science suggests this is a good idea, since one gallon of cellulose biomass ethanol can replace 30 gallons of imported oil equivalents. Further, ethanol from cellulose produces 85 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, and carbon sequestered by dedicated energy crops could eventually provide a net greenhouse gas benefit to the environment, according to published studies.

"With recent advances in industrial biotechnology, the United States can significantly increase production of biofuels to meet the ambitious goals set by the President," BIO Executive Vice President Brent Erickson said. "The biotechnology and ethanol industries are ready to take motor fuel production to the next level."

The initiative is seen as important in getting farmers, gasoline refiners, consumers and investors on board to make the biofuels sector a major contributor to American energy independence. The good news is there is the likelihood that we can cost-effectively turn what are now regarded as waste products -- things like corn stover and cereal straws -- into fuel that will supplement our current fuel supply. Money that is currently being spent overseas will stay at home to invest in the sustainable harvesting of agricultural residues, the infrastructure to deliver feed stocks from farms to new biorefineries and, of course, those biorefineries themselves.

"And it is doesn't stop with biofuels," Erickson said. "Other products currently made from petroleum resources, such as bio-based plastics, can also be made from the same agricultural feed stocks used for biofuels. The President recognizes that we are moving toward the creation of a bio-based economy and that is good news for our economy, our security and our environment."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes on the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

How Green is that Eco-Celebrity?

A number of American film and television stars have expressed their disdain for big, gas-guzzling SUVs. Brad Pitt, for instance, made a heartfelt (if somewhat bumbling) pitch for a California proposition that sought to tax oil companies in the state to pay for alternative fuel research recently. The proposition failed at the ballot box, but to his credit Pitt puts his money where his mouth is on environmental issues by driving a Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle, which turns in the best fuel economy of any car available from a major manufacturer in America.

But now Pitt’s “green” credentials and those of other celebrities have been called into question by London’s The Sunday Times and the U.S.-based gossip Web site TMZ. While Pitt does drive a Prius, when he traveled to Namibia recently to meet girlfriend Angelina Jolie, he took a charter jet that, according to TMZ, burned 11,000 gallons of jet fuel.

Pitt is certainly not the only “environmentalist” celebrity to have a penchant for private planes either. Julia Roberts is reported to be an owner of a Toyota Prius as well, and she has spoken out for environmentalist causes, but on a recent trip between Los Angeles and Chicago the private jet she traveled on consumed an estimated 2,100 gallons of fuel.

According to the New York Post, another Prius driver -- Leonardo DiCaprio -- put his girlfriend, mother and grandmother on a private jet from Paris to Rome so they could attend the Italian premiere of his latest movie, “The Departed.” There was no report on the amount of fuel consumed by that excursion, but you can bet it was more than would have been burned had the three lovely ladies traveled by full-size SUV. Or in three of them, for that matter.

George Clooney goes his Prius-driving friends one better by owning an all-electric vehicle called the Tango, which is really more motorcycle than car, but one has to wonder how much he actually drives it. Resembling nothing so much as an oversized high-top gym shoe, it seats two in a fore-and-aft rather than side-by-side configuration -- not the greatest for courting starlets. One also must wonder why he decided to make the 5,500 mile trip from Hollywood to Tokyo recently in a private jet that guzzled 7,000 gallons of fossil fuel that might otherwise have gone to disadvantaged families in Third World countries.  We’re not suggesting he should have traveled by electric car or even electric airplane, but taking a commercial flight would have saved thousands of gallons of fuel and significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Talking the talk while failing to walk the walk is not confined simply to Hollywood stars either. When former Vice President Al Gore promoted his movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film about global warming, he traveled around the country by private jet. We are compelled to wonder how many glaciers melted.


Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and la condition humaine from his home in Villeperce, France.

Hello, Clean Diesel; Good-bye Soot

These days gasoline-electric hybrids get the applause, while older technologies get no respect. But in the United States a quiet revolution in fuel technology has been occurring, largely unnoticed. It is the mid-October shift to low-sulfur diesel fuel, a shift that will make the epitome of "clean diesel" technology available to American car buyers, including, with luck, those who reside in the "green" states that follow the lead of the California Air Resources Board.

The promise of excellent fuel economy from diesel engines is one of the great, if largely unreported, facts demonstrated by ongoing government and automaker research. When one looks at the nation's fuel economy champs as identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, several hybrids lead the pack but closely bunched right behind are diesel-powered models.

The Diesel Technology Forum claims diesels can reduce fuel consumption by 30 to 60 percent in some automotive models, obviously a giant reduction that has to be examined yet again in this age of onerous fuel prices. Further, those kinds of reductions can be accomplished with environmentally clean engines fitted with advanced exhaust emissions controls and after-treatment technology. That point of view was recently reinforced by a study done by the National Academy of Sciences.

The new low-sulfur diesel fuel is designed to facilitate the new pollution-abating technology. It contains just three percent of the pollution-generating and particulate filter-clogging sulfur that was in the previous blend sold in the United States. (Europe has been running on low-sulfur diesel for some years now.) The fuel mixture has two key benefits. It severely limits the amount of sulfur expelled into the air from diesel engines, and that alone is a huge advantage because high concentrations of sulfur are nasty. But even more important, it will open the way to a spread of clean diesel technology in America's cars and trucks, progress that was previously blocked by the previous fuel's sulfur content.

While the combustion within a diesel engine might never be as quite as clean as that in an internal combustion engine burning compressed natural gas or even gasoline, catalysts and filters can make the exhaust emissions virtually as pure. The keys to clean diesel's low emissions are in both the combustion process itself, which can be made more precise and complete using computerized controls and sensors, and in the treatment and capture of exhaust emissions after the combustion process.

In the wake of the introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuel, the difference in U.S. air quality and reliance on foreign fuels should be substantial. If the buying public is willing to give this new round of diesels a try, that is. Diesels of the past were not pretty. In 1995, gasoline-powered cars outnumbered diesel-powered trucks and buses by 28 to one, yet diesel vehicles emitted 43 percent of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of the soot particles that went into our air. Largely because of that, Americans have never embraced diesel-powered cars and light trucks with the exception of some diesel pickup truck loyalists. While the move to low-sulfur diesel fuel will have its most immediate effects by helping clean up the pollution emitted by big trucks and buses, it is also expected to result in a substantial increase in high-fuel-mileage diesel cars and SUVs.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley studies the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.