NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 22, 2009

Today, the majority of pollution comes from the oldest, dirtiest cars.  In fact, the dirtiest 10 percent of cars account for more than 50 percent of smog and carbon monoxide, and the dirtiest one-third account for 80 percent.  The Clean Air Act's requirements have sent emissions in the right direction, but Barack Obama's new plan to nationalize fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and a new tailpipe standard for CO2 emissions could slow the progress, says Robert Grady, a former trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The irony of Obama's proposals is that they may actually worsen emissions.  By the White House's own calculation, the new rules, when combined with earlier proposed increases in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, will increase the average price of a new car by $1,300, says Grady.  Herein lies the problem:

  • If you raise the price of new cars, people will buy fewer of them or put off the purchase while they drive the old clunker for a few thousand more miles.
  • Fewer new cars means more pollution, which can cause significant health problems.
  • The costs associated with excessive emissions of air pollutants like fine particulates and smog are substantial, immediate and observable.
  • The plan may also contribute to a significant increase in highway deaths as vehicles are required to quickly meet the new CAFE standard and will likely become lighter in weight as a result.

None of this is intended to argue that Obama shouldn't be attacking the problem of climate change, says Grady.  Indeed, some in Congress are proposing to cap carbon emissions and allow carbon credits to be traded, while others are proposing an increase in gasoline or carbon taxes.

Both of these approaches have their merits, although, in order not to damage the ailing economy, any increases in gasoline or carbon taxes should be matched by a cut of at least equal size in payroll taxes, concludes Grady.

Source: Robert E. Grady, "Light Cars Are Dangerous Cars," Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2009.

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