Correction to This Article
A June 28 Business article on the contribution from vehicles in the United States to the world's greenhouse gases incorrectly characterized the U.S. contribution. Although Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population, U.S. transportation sources contribute 45 percent of the world's emission of carbon dioxide, according to a report by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Pollution in Overdrive

Environmental Defense's report points out that while SUVs get a bad rap, more pollution is caused by smaller cars because there are far more of them on the road.
Environmental Defense's report points out that while SUVs get a bad rap, more pollution is caused by smaller cars because there are far more of them on the road. (Jerome T. Nakagawa - AP)

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

When it comes to greenhouse gases, U.S. drivers are getting more of the blame.

Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population but contribute 45 percent of the world's emission of carbon dioxide, the main pollutant that causes global warming, according to a report by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Americans own 30 percent of the world's vehicles, drive farther each year than the international average and burn more fuel per mile, the report says. Additionally, the sport-utility boom of the past decade put vehicles on the road that could be spewing carbon dioxide for years to come.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have long been the targets of environmentalists and other groups concerned with global warming. Vehicles made by GM, the No. 1 U.S. automaker, produced as much carbon dioxide in 2004 as American Electric Power Co., the nation's largest operator of coal-fired power plants, the report says.

Auto industry representatives declined to comment on the report, saying they had yet to see it. Most auto companies have been working to reduce emissions by designing more-efficient engines and vehicles capable of running on alternative fuels.

Automakers, though, have generally resisted government restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, saying such limits would force extensive design changes and drive up prices for consumers.

Environmental Defense, which plans to release the report publicly today, attempted to quantify how much carbon dioxide is produced by vehicles sold by various automakers. But the group said auto companies should not be singled out for blame, because consumer choices also play a role.

"What we are trying to do is make the connections for people," said John DeCicco, a senior fellow at Environmental Defense and an author of the report.

He said consumers could buy gas-electric hybrids or cars with smaller engines that burn less fuel and they could be more aware of how much they are driving, no matter the gas mileage of their cars. The report points out, for example, that although SUVs may be known as gas guzzlers, smaller cars cause more pollution because there are many more of them on the road. The authors also suggest that communities reconsider land use policies because Americans are taking more and longer trips, often to shop.

With the report, the group is trying to build support for government policies aiming at curbing greenhouse gases, including a system that would cap carbon dioxide emissions but allow companies and utilities to trade credits, mirroring Clean Air Act rules that govern sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. Under such a system, a company would get an allowance for carbon dioxide emissions each year, and if it did not reach that limit, it could sell off the remaining allotment to others.

The group's report is the latest effort by environmentalists to draw attention to global warming. Former vice president Al Gore also addresses the issue in his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which presents climate change from global warming as a fact he says is no longer debatable.

For years, though, environmental groups have run into resistance in Washington. The Bush administration has questioned the science behind global warming, and environmentalists complain that congressional leaders are ignoring proposals to raise fuel economy standards while pushing to expand offshore drilling.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on whether the federal government has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. The Bush administration is seeking to convince the court that the federal government has no obligation to restrict greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of burning gasoline in vehicles. Scientists say the atmosphere can absorb a great deal of it, but many worry that people are adding more than nature can handle. They say the gases are building up around the Earth, trapping heat and raising the planet's temperature.

The report considered national statistics on how long vehicles are used and how far they are driven as they age. New and used vehicles were examined.

Carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles are disproportionately high in the United States for two primary reasons, the report says: U.S. drivers average 11,000 miles per year, 29 percent above the global average, and U.S. autos consume more fuel, emitting 15 percent more carbon dioxide per mile than the average vehicle in the rest of the world.

The Environmental Defense report found that in 2004, U.S. cars and light trucks emitted 314 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of a coal train 50,000 miles long.

Greg Martin, a GM spokesman, said the automaker was working to reduce emissions. It will continue to focus on developing technologies to improve fuel efficiency. He said the automaker also plans to build more vehicles capable of burning alternative fuels, as well as more hybrids.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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