Volvo's V70 plug-in hybrid is a prototype of a car that will appear in 2012. (Volvo photo)
Could it be that automakers are finally, irrevocably, going green? Let's start with Exhibit A, Volvo, which announced today that its "DRIVe Towards Zero" vision would result in "cars entirely free from harmful exhaust emissions and environment-impacting carbon dioxide." It's putting $2 billion into the effort through 2014.
Obviously, not all Volvos are green. The company produces the XC70 and XC60 crossovers, which churn out 159 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, and that's about double that of the 2010 Toyota Prius (just 89 grams).
The naked truth is that Volvos are laden down with safety equipment, and that makes them heavier than most other cars on the road. Safety is great, but weight is the enemy of green performance.
Volvo compensates in other ways. It is studying the market for a C30-based battery electric car. It has the industry's most thorough commitment to cleaning up the manufacturing process. It operates a range of biofuel cars for Europe. And it has committed to putting a plug-in hybrid on the market by 2012, running on a very efficient diesel engine (burning synthetic diesel). That car would have 123 mpg fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions of just 49 grams per kilometer -- yes, much less than the Prius. You can see it on the road here:
OK, a gold star for Volvo, then. We expect Swedes to be green, and many other automakers -- including those in Japan, Europe and China (BYD) are making similar moves. But it's a bit more surprising when American automakers side with the EPA and environmental groups against global warming skeptics. That's just what happened when an unusual coalition that included car companies and more than 30 environmental groups rose up as one to oppose an amendment proposed by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that would effectively scuttle a carefully worked-out deal on tailpipe climate emissions.
Murkowski would have triumphed a year ago, fielding a crafty proposal that, on the surface, was aimed at blocking Clean Air Act enforcement of climate emissions from stationary sources. But after EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson weighed in with an opinion that said her amendment would effectively prevent tailpipe enforcement, too, a virtual tidal wave of opposition arose--from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and its international counterpart, from the United Auto Workers and many environmental groups. And it was handily defeated.
As you may remember, in early spring there was a pinch-me-I'm dreaming scene of carmakers, greens, state and federal regulators all holding hands and agreeing to sweeping tailpipe regulation of greenhouse gases. Since in practice that means regulating fuel economy, everyone shook hands on a standard of 35.5 mpg by 2015. The auto industry got what it said it had long wanted: a single federal standard.
According to Liz Perera of the Union of Concerned Scientists' climate program, Murkowski's amendment would have blocked EPA's ability "to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that heat-trapping emissions are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Other countries are watching what Congress is doing." And Congress, at long last, did not fail. Other obfuscating amendments are a certainty, and the Senate process is far from over.
Earlier today I interviewed R.K. Pachauri, the visionary head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He described the Waxman-Markey legislation that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate "a good, promising start, but obviously not the end point." It is indeed a first tentative step, and it's nice to see automakers on the green side of this debate.
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