Cars and Global Warming: What's the Link? RFF Scholar Proposes CO2 Emissions Labels on All New Cars
(WASHINGTON, March 23, 2006) -- Would providing car buyers information on the carbon dioxide emissions of their new vehicle help them make the link between the cars they drive and global warming?
Most consumers think about fuel economy and miles per gallon in terms of dollars at the pump and impact on their wallets. There is, however, another aspect of fuel economy. The more gas used, the greater the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced. The increased buildup of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere leads to climate change and, many scientists say, to global warming.
To help consumers make this link, Kate Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, proposes that a window label showing estimated annual CO2 emissions be displayed on every new car and light truck for sale in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could require this label, or car manufacturers could voluntarily implement this approach.
The proposed new CO2 label is described in Combating Global Emissions One Car at a Time: CO2 Emissions Labels for New Motor Vehicles. It comes at a time when EPA is proposing new designs for the fuel economy labels required for all new cars. None of EPA's proposed designs include information on CO2 emissions -- a problem that Probst feels would be easy, and important, to correct.
"For every gallon of gas burned, your car produces roughly 20 pounds of CO2," she said. "Why not provide consumers details on CO2 emissions on a car-by-car basis and enable them to draw on that information if they are concerned about the issue?"
Interested car buyers can find information on CO2 emissions on a car-by-car basis on government websites maintained by EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. However, readily available and easy-to-understand information is missing in one key place: the automobile showroom.
The United States is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases in general, and CO2 in particular. Fully 23 percent of all CO2 emissions come from the United States. One-third of these emissions come from the transportation sector.
"This label could help consumers understand the importance of driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and enable them to be active participants in the climate change debate," Probst noted. "Every 100 gallons of gas saved puts one less ton of CO2 into the atmosphere."
Probst's proposed CO2 label design incorporates several basic requirements for consumer education: It must be simple to read and understand. It must include specific information on estimated CO2 emissions. And it must provide some kind of ranking system. The suggested label groups cars and light trucks into five easy-to-comprehend categories, from "Best" to "Worst."
The idea of displaying CO2 emissions information has already taken hold in the European Union: beginning in January 2001, it was required on all new cars. Since then, EU countries have worked to develop a more user-friendly means of displaying the information. The United Kingdom implemented a color-coded label system in September 2005, and other member countries are following suit. Moreover, a California law enacted in 2005 would require similar information beginning with 2009 model-year cars sold in the state.
Would a new window sticker actually influence consumer car choices?
"Certainly, requiring CO2 labels on every new car won't change consumer behavior tomorrow," says Probst. "In fact, it may not affect buying habits for several years. However, this label would help educate consumers on the link between the car they drive and CO2 buildup in the atmosphere and enable those already concerned about global warming to take action at a personal level by selecting cars with lower emissions. This label is an important step toward enabling consumers to make the most informed decision possible."
Resources for the Future, an independent and nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think-tank, seeks to improve environmental and natural resource policymaking worldwide through objective social science research of the highest caliber.
Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution.