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Climate Labeling for Cars: Assessing the Toll of a New Machine
Joel Makower, 23 Mar 06

What's the "sticker price" to the climate of that new car you're considering buying? Katherine Probst would like to help you answer that question.

Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, has proposed a "global warming performance" label that would appear on the window of all new vehicles. The goal: to help educate consumers assess the climate impacts of the purchase they are about to make by allowing them to identify cars with lower emissions. Her vision is outlined in a just-released article, Combating Global Warming One Car at a Time: CO2 Emissions Labels for New Motor Vehicles.

The proposed labels, examples of which are pictured here, come at a time when the EPA is proposing new designs for the fuel economy labels required for all new cars. None of EPA's proposed designs include information on climate emissions -- a problem that Probst feels would be easy, and important, to correct. Probst is a veteran of such thinking. Two years ago, she recommended a one-page "report card" for all Superfund toxic-waste sites as well as a longer "scorecard" that would include more meaningful measures of success on the sites' clean-up than is currently reported.

Probst points out that sharing vehicles' carbon emissions data with consumers isn't a new idea. Since 2001, a European Union directive (download-PDF) has required member countries to display information on the estimated CO2 emissions on all new cars. The U.K. initiated voluntary color-coded CO2 emissions labels on all new cars beginning in September 2005 [WorldChanging posted about this early last year]. Other EU member countries are in the process of introducing their own labels.

And California last fall enacted a law that would require similar information (along with smog emissions) to be displayed beginning with 2009 model-year cars sold in the Golden State.

It's not that information about vehicles' climate emissions is secret. Versions of this information already are available on two EPA Web sites: the government's annual Fuel Economy Guide and EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. But like so much government information these days, it takes digging to find out what you want to know. And such information is far more useful at the point of purchase. (Imagine if you had to go to a government Web site to read the nutritional information about packaged food products!)

Says Probst:

Requiring a global warming performance label on all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States is an inexpensive and important first step in educating the public about something they can do to combat global warming. The information is already available online from two government agencies. Why not make it visible to all car buyers?

Probst's label isn't ideal, in my humble opinion. For starters, I'm not sure "Global Warming Performance" is the best title for this; I'd go with "Climate Rating" or some such. (Studies show that the term "global warming" itself doesn't resonate for most folks.) And the labels have just too many damn numbers that won't be meaningful for 99% of the populace.

But those are mere details. The concept makes perfect sense. If our leaders are truly interested in providing market-based solutions to climate change -- that is, letting consumer preference, not government regulations, determine the most environmentally responsible cars to buy -- they will embrace informational resources that facilitate such choices. To do otherwise is to keep the public in the dark about issues vital to their near-term and long-term future.

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Climate Labeling for Cars should be extended to all things.

Instead of 5 colors, stick to what we know: RED= STOP, Orange= Caution, Danger and Green = Go.

You may need the various cool color graphic dots for corporate EPA and car companies, but I would say burning planet art requires more drama.

The red should be an illustrated planet on fire with a STOP on it. The orange an ember color glow off the edges and the green a big beautiful biodiversity filled world.

Create a website where planes, cars, energy plants and all other products get a chain of custody indicating how earth friendly (greenhouse gas exhaust) the product is to buy.

Then you TAX at highest rate the Darth Vaders who are producing crap and killing us. The greenest products get feebates -- see Lovins, Northwest Environment Watch etc...

Why on earth are we allowing planes to go relatively tax free? They are absolutely the worst carbon dioxide loading transport system, used almost exclusively by wealthy people.

People can enter all their trips and other energy uses in CO2 calculators as a first step to see if their lifestyle is green, orange or RED.

Finally -- the art should be widely available so activists can tag products to build awareness and educate citizens about deiscions they are making today that affect us all.


best fishes,

Timothy Colman

Posted by: Tim Colman on 23 Mar 06

We have this in the UK - see Dept of Transport - using the same graphic language that we have had for fridges etc for a while.

Posted by: Ben Reason on 23 Mar 06

Sorry now see you have a link to similar in your post above.

Posted by: Ben Reason on 23 Mar 06

One question I have is, how do hybrid/electric vehicles figure into this (or any other emissions-related) scheme? I'd assume they would receive high ratings because they don't produce many emissions, but surely when you plug one in, it's getting power from, potentially, a coal-fired power plant or other such source? Would it be deceptive to give such vehicles a high "Global Warming Performance" rating based on their CO2 emissions alone, without an appropriate caveat?

I think maybe calling it "Global Warming Performance" is overstating the case. Why not call it "Emissions Rating" or something? That would be more specific and more correct. I mean, it already says "CO2 emissions" a bit lower on the label anyway, but some people only read the headline, as it were.

Posted by: Scott Bai on 23 Mar 06

Actually, my understanding is that grid power in a plug-in hybrid is a lot lower in emissions than burning gasoline is. I'm not sure why that is - higher efficiency of power stations? Nuclear electricity? I don't know - I'd love it if somebody would fill me in on this thread :-)

The next step is "feebates" - to tax the worst vehicles in each class, and refund that money to buyers of the best vehicles.

The classes need to be carefully designed, of course - you don't want to penalize people for picking 4WD because, dammit, some people need 4WD: you want to encourge them to buy the most *efficient* 4WD if they need one.

All, of course, in / from "Winning the Oil Endgame." - free download.

Posted by: Vinay on 23 Mar 06

Great idea, need some fine-tuning.

Need to be as simple as a star rating or perhaps the green-orange-red idea proposed by Timothy, that was good.

Scott raised a good point about hybrids, so "emissions rating" would be a better, more specific term to use.

Eventually, when petrol (gas) is phased out, there'll need to be a sticker something like "energy source=(non/) renewable electricity".

Until then it'll be a little dubious in the transition from petrol (gas) to electric. A smaller more fuel economic combustion engine may be better than a larger hybrid or electric car...just an example, point being there are other thing to consider besides fuel/power source. I.e. size of engine, capacity of vehicle etcÂ…

Interesting thread.


Posted by: Vincenze on 24 Mar 06

Vinay, that's a good point. I've read a lot recently about how much cleaner coal is than it used to be. Of course, I'm still hoping that tokamaks will become viable.

Posted by: Scott Bai on 24 Mar 06



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