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Cash for Clunkers: “Environmental Effects Will Be Negligible”

The Cash for Clunkers program is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Photo by ThreadedThoughts.

The Cash for Clunkers program, which gives consumers up to a $4,500 discount when they trade in their old vehicle for a newer, more fuel-efficient one, will have little impact on fuel use or carbon emissions, according to new research from Lee Schipper, the founder of EMBARQ and longtime contributor for TheCityFix.

Schipper and his colleagues — Joel Mehler from Stanford University, Brian Gould of GMS, and Chris Ganson from the World Resources Institute — published their research in an op-ed that ran in The Washington Post’s Sunday paper.

What did they find out?

The program will save less than two days worth of carbon dioxide emissions projected between now and 2019. Merely a drop in the bucket when it comes to curbing global warming.

People are likely to use their shiny new cars more than their clunkers — so CO2 savings are offset by increased driving.

The new cars aren’t really that much more fuel efficient than the cars currently sold in the United States. So what’s the point?

“A better program would have pinned the reward to a calculation of fuel savings based on the remaining life of the clunker and the miles per gallon of the clunker and the new car,” the authors write. “The math is simple, but Congress is run by lawyers!”

Access the full article, plus charts and graphs, here.

Related news stories:

Critics Say ‘Clunkers’ Program Isn’t Very Green
August 3, 2009

Cash for Clunkers: How Green Is It?
August 5, 2009

`Cash for clunkers’ effect on pollution? A blip

August 5, 2009
Associated Press

Doing the ‘Clunker’ Calculus
August 7, 2009
New York Times

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  • Garrett

    Really great information I really enjoyed it!

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  • Thanks for Meander’s comments. An article in tuesday Aug 11 NY Times points out that the original version of the bill would have driven a much larger wedge between clunked and new car MPG, so that the new car would have been much better than the standards and what was being bought anyway. Feebates and other mechanisms would help. In fact buyers have reacted to higher fuel prices by buying cars that in the first half of Model Year 2009 were almost 15% above the CAFE standards, while light trucks were just ahead of standards that were tightened after 2003.
    That was one of the points we tried to make – the “outcome” of C4C should be framed as “what was bought versus what would have been bought otherwise”? There the answer is ab out 7.5% less fuel/mile.
    And since new cars are driven way more than old clunkers, which car’s miles were replaced. We think from the data DOt kept from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey that the cars the new vehicle replace were former first vehicles getting 20-22 MPG on the road, NOT the clunkers.

    The 2008 Household survey will be available later this year. If DOT releases files on the exact switch for each C4C deal we might be able to measure the impact of C4C.

    But with at most 750 000 vehicles affected out of perhaps 10 000 000 sold this year and many more in a normal year, the impact is tiny.

    Lee Schipper

  • meander

    Although lawmakers from the auto-making states reduced the effectiveness of the fuel consumption (and thus CO2 emission) portion of the cash for clunkers program, the program will have many other benefits, including cleaner air and fewer injuries.

    A reduction in smog-forming air pollutants — which many areas in the U.S. desperately need — is almost guaranteed (note that the S.F. Bay Area and L.A. air quality districts have similar programs to get the dirtiest cars off the road). Consider the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for a smog precursor called nitrogen oxide. In 1994, the standard for passenger cars was 0.6 grams per mile. In 2004 the standard was lowered to just 0.07 grams per mile. That’s almost a 90% reduction from the 1994 level. Emission limits on other pollutants like hydrocarbons (another smog precursor and often toxic on their own) were also significantly reduced between 1994 and 2004. Another benefit is that newer cars are safer, as air bag technology and structural design have improved greatly in recent years and they are less likely to have mechanical failures. It’s also possible that newer cars will run closer to the advertised MPG rating than an older car — the components on older cars are worn, not up to the original precision, and so on.

    Ideally, though, all of this criticism will cause future rounds to be much more stringent, perhaps following some of the suggestions proposed by various commentators, like a fee-bate type structure, or a sliding scale for the rebate.

    All of the (complicated, phased-in) standards can be found at the EPA’s website: