Major automakers signed an agreement yesterday with the government of Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks, a move hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough that could force the industry to sell cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States as well.
Many of the same manufacturers have filed suit to fight a similar but more restrictive effort in California. The car companies' lobbying group said yesterday that Canada's program is a better template for working to reduce emissions in the United States than the California program.
_____Ultimate Car Guide_____
Car Resources: Find tips, resources, car reviews, special features and answers to your car-buying or selling questions.
"What Canada has done is arrived at an agreement that is voluntary nationwide and auto-industry-wide. It's not one province setting its own program, it's a national effort, so that's an important difference with the United States," said Gloria Bergquist of the U.S.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most of the major car companies here.
The Canadian agreement was hammered out by the country's natural resources department and two trade associations representing the major automakers. It calls for annual greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes to drop by 5.3 million tons by 2010. That's a nearly 6 percent reduction in the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions projected from all vehicles in Canada that year, according to government figures. The reduction in emissions from new vehicles in 2010 would be far greater than 6 percent, but officials said they could not put a figure on that amount.
Greenhouse gases consist primarily of carbon dioxide, as well as nitrous oxide and several hydrocarbons that are thought by many experts to contribute to global warming. Carbon dioxide is an unavoidable byproduct of burning petroleum in engines, so the only practical way to reduce it is to improve gas mileage. Other greenhouse gases can be reduced in other ways, including using different types of air-conditioning coolant.
Yesterday's agreement "is a very important step forward because it not only cleans up Canada's vehicles but also bolsters the effort for cleaner cars in the United States," said Dan Becker, Washington director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.
California has enacted a regulation calling for reducing greenhouse gases by roughly 30 percent by 2016, and seven eastern states that follow California's clean-air policies are considering following suit. Together, those states and Canada represent nearly a third of the total North American auto market -- a level that environmentalists say would be an economic "tipping point" that would cause widespread changes in automotive technology.
"We're very baffled why [the manufacturers] are telling the Canadian government they can build cleaner cars there but they're fighting us here in California," said Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "Americans shouldn't have to cross the border to buy cleaner cars like prescription drugs."
The difference lies in the way Canada approached the problem, several auto industry officials said. The Canadian government initially wanted to get the auto industry to improve fuel economy by 33 percent. That would have reduced greenhouse gases by 5.3 million tons a year, so the industry turned the proposal on its head: The companies agreed to reach the emissions target if they could do so in a variety of ways other than just improving fuel economy, which is considered expensive and technologically challenging.
The government still expects improvements in fuel economy, "but we don't know what they'll be," said Paul Khanna, senior adviser for vehicle fuel efficiency at Natural Resources Canada.
Instead, car companies can mount programs to change driving habits, install tire pressure gauges on all vehicles to improve performance, replace air-conditioning coolant, and take any number of other steps, as long as the final outcome is reduced greenhouse gases, Khanna said. The agreement carries no penalties for not reaching reduction targets, but the government could impose mandatory regulations if the companies fail to act.
California, by contrast, has focused on reducing carbon dioxide specifically, which the industry claims could be done only by using radical technologies to improve gas mileage.
Auto companies are challenging the California law in court, arguing that only the federal government has authority to regulate fuel economy. In addition, the industry argues that it cannot function with a patchwork of varying greenhouse gas standards around the country.