Update on Cash for Clunkers, Fence-sitters, and Then Vacate

by Bill Chameides | August 7th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

That Cash for Clinkers program is doing a lot better than I had predicted.

The news this morning is that Congress injected another $2 billion into the Cash for Clunkers program. Many are hailing it as a great success. And I have to say, even from the point of view of carbon emission, it’s been pretty good, a lot better than I’d predicted.

I have been critical of the Cash for Clunkers program (see this post or check out my “appearance” on NPR) — by design, it was not nearly stringent enough in its fuel-economy requirements. Under the program someone could scrap a car that gets 18 miles per gallon (mpg) for one that gets 22 mpg. That 22-mpg requirement seemed far too lenient. If one objective of the program is to get more fuel-efficient cars on the road, why not require something like 27.5 mpg, which is our fuel-economy standard for cars?

Suppose someone bought a car through the program doing the minimum — scrapping an 18 mpg car for one with 22 mpg. A simple calculation shows that it would take the purchaser something like five and a half years of driving 13,000 miles annually just to cancel out the carbon emitted to make the new car.

But according to the White House, the differential between the average mpg of the old and new cars has been almost 10 mpg, well above the minimum requirement of four mpg. The cars being scrapped have had an average of 15.8 mpg, pretty close to the 18 max allowed. But surprisingly, the new cars being bought have had an average 25.4 mpg.

This works out a lot better for carbon emissions — on average it will take about 2.4 years instead of 5.6 years to “pay back” the carbon emissions embedded in the new car at the time or purchase. That’s not as short as it could be, but it’s not bad either.

It seems as if my criticism of the Cash For Clunkers program was misplaced. I had not counted on the fact that American consumers are apparently no longer huge fans of gas-guzzlers and are opting for cars with better fuel economy.

But allow me one parting shot. Before we all congratulate ourselves on a great environmental program, we probably need to at least consider the environmental impact of scrapping all those cars. Sustainability and a throwaway economy don’t mix too well.

Fence-sitters on Climate Change

Yesterday fence-sitter’s post was on Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who wants any climate bill to protect American manufacturers from imports from countries without restrictions on carbon emissions.

It turns out that just as our post was making it into the ether, a group of 10 Democratic senators, including Brown, was sending a letter to the White House warning that they would only support a climate bill that had protections for American industry, for example, in the form of a border tariff. The letter signers were from the Midwest and coal-producing states and included Senators Specter and Bayh, as well – also subjects of previous fence-sitter posts.


Starting tomorrow TheGreenGrok is off on summer vacation. Next post August 18. Y’all use sunscreen, but before slathering it on, check out this guide first.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, faculty, transportation
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  1. Susan
    Aug 9, 2009

    It seems to me the purpose was not only to reduce fuel consumption/oil dependency, but to stimulate the economy through sales of an item’s manufacture that employs upwards of 2.5 to 3 million people, and to not require that the large numbers of now-underemployed buy cars with highest mileage costing $35,000. Note that the most commonly bought model with this stimulus is the Ford Fusion($19,035-$25,605),eg.,not a $50k Lexus.(read: our income is 50% of what we earned two years ago, bec of employers going over border *three times*, in this typical hshld), AND to equitably remove badly tuned/old tech polluters (especially in urban, poor areas where children are afflicted w/asthma at such a high rate). AND many not-so-overwhelmed dealers have time to properly scrap (recycle metals, sell parts)the clunkers, since they must be mobile to turn in.Most landfills totally ban motor vehicles and parts.Many can only stockpile ’til later, they are so busy. Please acknowledge the fact that the WH/Congress is trying to hit on several problems with this one idea of Cash for Clunkers and I think they’ve done a great job. p.s. I learned a lot about sunscreen this year!and nanoparticles…and here we all thought they were going to just be nano-robots clearing our arteries…

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 18, 2009

      Susan, The Cash for Clunkers program is indeed intended to address a lot of problems at once. However, if one intention is to address environmental concerns, why not require that the new car have the fuel economy of the average car sold in America of 27.5 mpg instead of the paltry 22 mpg?

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