An Epoch-changing Decision

You have to give the Environmental Protection Agency credit for dreaming big. Believing that the agency can put a halt to global climate change is an awfully tall order since the globe’s climate has always gone through change, but that is a task the EPA has cut out for itself by declaring that carbon dioxide emissions amount to a “public health danger” and therefore need to be regulated. Of course, climate change may or may not be caused by the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and some of the most recent scientific thought on the issue suggests we might be in for a period of cooling rather than warming because of decreased activity from the sun, no matter what happens with carbon dioxide emissions.

The reality of the climate change situation doesn’t change the stark reality that now confronts the auto manufacturers, who must toe the line to government regulations whether the regulations will actually cure an ill or not. The order of the day is to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would like the United States to adopt standards that could lower overall emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” by 80 percent by 2050, and the United States could well enter into an international treaty that would memorialize that commitment. While the efficacy of such a move is ripe for debate, listening to alternative points of view does not seem a strength of the current administration. Because of this, the signals are clear that the auto industry must be ready to respond to the regulations that will treat carbon dioxide -- the stuff you and I are exhaling right now and the stuff plants require to live -- as a pollutant. The EPA ruling isn’t just a game changer or even a season changer but an epoch changer. Far more than any government regulation we have seen up to now, this new set of regulations has the potential to change the nature of the vehicle you drive each day.

Among the other results, these regulations could send the auto manufacturing world topsy-turvy. Certainly there is the potential for innovation and breakthroughs that could send us toward a greener future -- if greener means lessening the emissions of carbon dioxide. But the policy shift also has the potential for giant unanticipated consequences, including new types of pollution, recycling headaches and higher costs to the consumer. With the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent, this issue dwarfs the 50-year transition cars and trucks have made from gross emitters of what has been commonly referred to as “pollution” to producers of so little “pollution” that the emissions are hard even to measure. The clear inference to be drawn based on our current knowledge base is that internal-combustion engines will be unable to reach the increasingly stringent targets that will be specified by the federal government, and that includes vehicles with hybrid power plants, since the current hybrids are, in essence, gasoline-powered cars that derive a small portion of assist from electric power.

Industry estimates suggest that future improvements in gasoline engines are likely to become perhaps 30 percent better in limiting CO2 emissions than they are today and that “clean diesel” technology advances might have a similar benefit. Even advanced hybrids, including plug-ins, might only move the needle another 50 percent. Why? They all burn fuel, meaning they will always emit carbon dioxide. The only alternative seems to be electrics -- either battery electrics or fuel-cell electrics. Some companies, like Renault-Nissan, are launching ambitious battery-electric vehicle initiatives. We expect to see a Nissan EV that will use lithium-ion batteries in 2010. Honda already has its FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle in a limited number of consumers’ driveways.

Is a battery-electric the right bet? Is pursuing hydrogen fuel cell technology the smart path to bringing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent? Or will changing “realities” make both mute as we better understand climate and our effects on it? For the short term at least, auto companies are moving forward with all possible speed to develop low- and no-carbon vehicles, and that will profoundly change what you drive. Whether you like it or not.