future of car design could be changed by the signing of a bill in Sacramento,
California this week. In what its supporters claim is the most significant environmental
step in the motor industry in two decades, the new law would regulate the exhaust
emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
The car and oil industries are already mobilizing fierce opposition to the
bill. They warn that it is a form of "social engineering" that could lead to more
deaths on the roads, higher taxes and petrol costs, and the outlawing of the popular
four-wheel drive SUV (sport utility vehicle) which has been blamed as one of the
worst polluting culprits.
It also presents a major political challenge to Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat
who is standing for re-election this November. He has 12 working days to decide
whether or not to sign the bill, which was passed last week by both the state
Senate and House of Representatives.
He has already come under pressure from the car industry, unions and the business
world, but is aware that, if he does not sign the bill, he will lose the vital
support of the environment movement and liberal Hollywood. An aide said a decision
was likely this week.
California is a natural battleground for the bill. Its 23 million vehicles
cause 58% of the greenhouse gas pollution in the state - compared to 31% in the
rest of the US.
The bill has the support of a number of political big hitters, including the
potential Democrat presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and John Kerry and the
Republican senator John McCain. The actor Paul Newman also campaigned for the
bill along with much of Hollywood. The American environmental movement sees it
as a powerful rebuff to President Bush's reluctance to act on global warming.
America has refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, which commits rich countries
to reducing emissions, even though the US is responsible for 24% of the world's
manmade carbon emissions.
The bill directs the California air resources board to introduce regulations
that would "achieve the maximum feasible reduction of greenhouse gases" by 2005.
These new standards would then have to apply to every new model sold in the state
from 2009 onwards.
At the heart of the argument is what the word "feasible" actually means in
this context: the car industry claims it is so vague that it could be used to
impose on them a completely new type of car; the bill's supporters say it means
a common sense approach to changes.
As California has the world's fifth-largest economy and represents 10% of
the American car market, it could mean that US motor manufacturers will have to
start making environmentally friendly cars within seven years.
While Japanese car manufacturers, in particular Honda, are already anticipating
eventual moves to such cars, American makers had assumed that the election of
Mr Bush guaranteed that there would be no immediate pressure to deal with car
emissions. Now that could all change and with it the shape of cars as designers
seek to incorporate fuel-saving engineering. All of which makes this a delicate
decision for Governor Davis.
Mr Davis's opponent in this November's election, the Republican Bill Simon,
has labeled the bill "social engineering" and a "thinly veiled attempt to regulate
the kind of vehicles Californians are allowed to drive". But he has since added
that "reviewing global warming, if indeed there is such a thing as global warming,
is always a good idea".
The coalition fighting the bill includes the car and oil industries and their
related unions. A spokesman for General Motors said last week that the bill was
indicative of the power of the environmental movement in California. "Whether
it's feasible, reasonable or in the best interests of the citizens often takes
a back seat to the environmental agenda," he said.
Another opponent, Kenneth Green, chief scientist at the Reason Foundation,
wrote in the LA Times last week that the bill would mean more expensive cars which
in turn would mean that people had "less for other needs such as education and
healthcare". Mr Green said the bill was "political carjacking at its worst". He
argued that California motorists produced less than one quarter of 1% of the world's
gas emissions linked to global warming.
"While climate change is still largely theoretical, the damaging effects of
regulatory approaches like these are well-established facts," he wrote. "Not to
put too fine a point on it, forcing people into smaller cars would kill some of
them. The National Academy of Sciences has acknowledged that lighter and smaller
cars are inherently more dangerous."
Opponents have also suggested that one of California's favorite vehicles, the
SUV, may even be banned, a claim dismissed by the bill's backers.
Ed Begley Jr, the actor and environmental activist who has been campaigning
hard for the bill, greeted its passage with enthusiasm. "It's great news," he
said. Of the claims made by the car industry, he said: "There has been lots of
hyperbole involved, a lot of scaremongering. It's the same chorus we hear every
time changes are proposed, whether they're seat belts, air bags or catalytic converters."
Kevin Finney of the Clean Air Coalition said: "This was a battle of national
significance. Neither the president nor Congress have shown much initiative, which
makes it even more significant."
He predicted that the car industry would now seek to halt the bill through
civil actions. It might also try to get the issue onto a state ballot, he said,
which would delay the bill's passage and allow for a television advertising campaign
urging people to reject it. But, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute
of California, 81% of Californians support the bill. Even 77% of SUV-owners back
If, as anticipated, Governor Davis signs it into law, it may finally trigger
a major national debate on global warming, greenhouse gases and the car industry.
Now, after years of suffering rebuffs on the issue, the environmental movement
is in the driving seat.
Combines petrol and other fuels. Toyota Prius, petrol and electric-powered,
has half the emissions of average car and still does 99mph
Often used by public utilities but not for long journeys. Low top speed. Recharging
takes up to 8 hours
Suzuki has developed car that converts hydrogen produced from the gas supply
into electricity. Still in early stages
Powered by rape seed and other natural fuels. Problem is quantity of rape seed
needed and land required
Uses petrol and less damaging liquid petroleum gas (LPG). Volvo and Vauxhall
among the pioneers
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002