Car and Driver

Monday, May 12, 2008

THE DISMAL April car sales data out of Detroit illustrated an important lesson about what it will take to reduce U.S. consumption of foreign oil and to cut greenhouse gas emissions. With the reality sinking in that high gas prices (already more than $4 per gallon in some places) are here to stay, American car buyers ended their nearly two-decade love affair with the sport-utility vehicle and other gas guzzlers. Overall sales at the Big Three automakers were way down compared with figures from April 2007 -- and the drop was driven by plummeting sales of light trucks and SUVs. Chrysler's Jeep Commander SUV dropped 49 percent. General Motors' Chevrolet Tahoe fell 35 percent. And Ford's F-series pickup trucks declined 27 percent.

Meanwhile, fuel-efficient cars were rolling off the lots. The Big Three automakers saw increased sales in cars with high gas mileage, as did Toyota, which had an overall sales gain of 12 percent over April 2007. The Toyota Prius notched a 54 percent increase.

Had Congress the courage to impose a price on carbon, these positive changes could have been achieved years ago -- and without the side effect of pouring fresh money into the government coffers of Iran, Venezuela and Russia. Instead, the financial squeeze at the pump brought on by global increases in oil prices finally brought about the change in behavior in the driving public that could not be achieved by appealing to citizens' better natures. The next attitude adjustment should come in Detroit, where the free fall of bottom lines ought to prompt a decisive shift away from the production of SUVs and other gas guzzlers.

With a carbon tax, the price of gas might be even higher than it is now. But as we have seen, high prices encourage less driving and a demand for more efficient vehicles and energy alternatives, which result in reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. More important, the billions generated by a carbon tax could help fund projects that would reduce U.S. dependence on petroleum imports from unfriendly or unstable countries. Yes, we know: A carbon tax is a non-starter on tax-averse Capitol Hill. But with debate on a cap-and-trade bill from Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) starting next month, some price on carbon may be coming. Finally.

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