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Is ‘Cash for Clunkers’ Really Green?

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I was driving in East Austin this evening when a story about the ‘cash for clunkers’ program aired on NPR. My ears pricked up because I’ve been idly wondering how ‘green’ the program really is. I’ve also been pondering whether to trade in my ’92 Toyota Pickup (no, we aren’t getting rich at the Observer) for a newer, more fuel-efficient model. One sticking point for me has been the thought of my truck being turned into scrap metal.

Not only do I have a bit of sentimental attachment to the vehicle (it’s been with me for five years), but it only has 108,000 miles on it and these old Toyotas are known to go for 200,000, even 300,000 miles. The stereo sucks, the sides are dinged up, and the upholstery leaves something to be desired… Still, there’s a lot of life left. Is my truck really a ‘clunker’? And, more important, isn’t it wasteful to junk a perfectly-decent vehicle before the end of its life?

According to the NPR piece, there’s actually a strong argument to be made that the environmental benefits of ‘cash for clunkers’ are more modest than the auto industry and the White House would lead us to believe.

[I]t takes electricity to make a new car, and fuel to ship it.

“The estimates vary, but somewhere between 3 and, say, 12 tons of CO2 are produced for every car you make,” says William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

Chameides calculates that if you trade in an 18 mpg clunker for a 22 mpg new car (22 miles per gallon is the minimum mileage allowed for a new car under the program), it would take five and a half years of typical driving to offset the new car’s carbon footprint. With trucks, it might take eight or nine years, he says.

Incidentally, my truck gets exactly 18 mpg, according to EPA. So, if I were to opt for a sligtly more fuel-efficient vehicle it could take five or eight or nine years to get into the positive karma zone. Not terribly impressive.

And people with big cars tend to buy new cars that are still pretty large, according to Brand Fowler, vice president of Sheehy Auto. He says more customers are opting for modest trade-ups, close to the four mile-per-gallon minimum improvement that’s required for cars. Auto analysts say they’re seeing plenty of deals for new cars that get 10 miles a gallon more. So far, though, there’s not much data to indicate where the final average will end up.

But either way, it’s not enough, says Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign. “The problem is the auto industry hijacked this law so it doesn’t get the better ones on the road,” he says. “All it does is replace old clunkers with new clunkers.”

It’s too early to tell what the average gas mileage will be of the cars purchased through ‘cash for clunkers’. Perhaps the math will work out for both the economy and environment. As for me, I think for now I’m sticking with my tried-and-true clunker.

Update: NYTimes reports that the average fuel efficiency of trade-ins is 15.8mpg and the average fuel efficiency of the new vehicles is 25.4mpg – a 61 percent increase in fuel efficiency. Democrats are praising the program.

“The statistics are much better than anybody dreamed they would be,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. The actual mileage gain so far, she said, was not due to the details of the law but “the good judgment of the American people.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.