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Is ‘Cash For Clunkers’ Really Greener?

An editorial from the usually evergreen Washington Post:

When the Clunker Is Greener

By Gwen Ottinger
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Want to be green? Consider keeping your "clunker."

The wildly popular "Cash for Clunkers" program is one of a number of policies funded by this year’s stimulus package that encourage consumers to make major purchases in the name of the environment. The program offers incentives for car owners to trade in automobiles getting fewer than 18 miles per gallon for more fuel-efficient vehicles. State-run rebate programs for Energy Star appliances operate similarly, encouraging consumers to replace their washers, dryers and refrigerators with new models that meet efficiency standards set by government agencies. These programs presumably benefit the economy and the environment simultaneously: Increased consumer spending helps manufacturers and retailers, while increases in fuel efficiency reduce the amount of fossil fuels consumed and greenhouse gases generated.

But these consumption-promoting policies are not necessarily a boon to the environment.

First, even when new cars and appliances are more efficient than the ones they replace, the act of replacing them entails environmental costs not accounted for in the stimulus programs. Building a new car, washing machine or refrigerator takes energy and resources: The manufacture of steel, aluminum and plastics are energy-intensive processes, and some of the materials used in durable goods, especially plastics, use non-renewable fossil fuels as feedstocks as well as energy sources. Disposing of old products, a step required by most incentive and rebate programs, also has environmental costs: It takes additional energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes.

Policies that encourage purchases of energy-efficient products may also increase, rather than decrease, energy use by confusing efficiency with consumption. For example, Energy Star refrigerators, which now qualify for rebates in many states, are certified to be 10 to 20 percent more efficient than "standard" models. Yet the Energy Star rating is awarded overwhelmingly to refrigerators far larger than would have been the norm two decades ago, and smaller models of refrigerator, which use less energy simply because they have a smaller volume of air to cool, were not even included in the Energy Star program until 2002. Consumers who wish to benefit from environmentally friendly stimulus money, then, are pushed toward purchasing "efficient" but relatively large models rather than being encouraged to opt for the smallest refrigerator, with the smallest energy demands, that meets their needs.

Beyond these concrete environmental drawbacks, product-replacement policies also send a message that old things are dirty and inefficient, while new ones are necessarily green and efficient. Under the Cash for Clunkers program, for example, old cars must be traded in for new ones. Yet plenty of used cars exceed the required 22 mpg: The Toyota Prius hybrid, on the market since 2001, gets upward of 40 mpg, and even a 15-year-old Honda Civic gets 28. By assuming that only new products can be environmentally friendly, these policies lead us to discount the environmental gains that could be made through well-established and low-tech means, such as smaller refrigerators. They also reinforce the idea that all products, even "durable goods," quickly become obsolete — a notion that leads to overwhelming amounts of environment-despoiling waste.

Cash for Clunkers and related incentive programs have stimulated consumer spending and might well be deemed successful economic policies. They have certainly also pushed some consumers toward more energy-efficient products than they might otherwise have bought. But that in itself does not make them successful environmental policies. The environmental issues surrounding durable goods are too complex to be reduced to consumer-level measures of environmental efficiency. Nor can being environmentally conscious be conflated with buying the "best" new product. Conscientious consumption may mean repairing a product rather than replacing it to save it from the landfill, or trading in a gas-guzzler for a smaller used car.

If policymakers sincerely want to use stimulus money to further environmental goals, they need to look past narrow definitions of efficiency, incorporate environmental analyses of product lifecycles from manufacturing through disposal, and refuse to broadly equate "old" with "obsolete." Only then can they hope to craft policies that will serve both the economy and the environment.

The writer is a program researcher in environmental history and policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy in Philadelphia.

We like the ‘cash for clunkers’ program, since it is one of the few if only ideas out of the ‘stimulus’ package that is doing any acutal stimulating. (Not counting the funding of pornography, of course.)

But the impetus for the program was supposed to be that it ultimately would help Mother Earth – or rather, the Goddess Gaia.

But it should have been obvious to even the slowest among us (meaning environmentalists and other leftists) that it would ultimately cause more harm than good for the planet. Instead, it is just further proof of how nobody thinks these things through – not even a little.

If something as fairly simple as ‘cash for clunkers’ is turning out to have the opposite effect from what was intended, what will Obama-care do to our healthcare system?

This article was posted by Steve on Tuesday, August 4th, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

7 Responses to “Is ‘Cash For Clunkers’ Really Greener?”

  1. proreason says:

    The point of Cash for Clunkers is not to stimulate the economy, nor to remove environmentally unfriendly vehicles.

    The point is to buy votes.

  2. EvaTheFrisbeeDog says:

    This program will raise the cost of used cars, the kind of vehicles the working poor, single moms and students drive. The repair cost will also go up since there will be fewer spare parts. For most of these folks, public transportation doesn’t make sense. Imagine loading your groceries on a bus or dropping the kids off at day care on a train.

    The vehicles that don’t qualify are terrible for families — ever try fitting a baby seat in the back of a Honda?

    If the intent is to reduce the amount of gasoline used, why not just raise taxes at the pump? Instead, Obama takes the cowardly path of sticking it to the poor, single moms and other who can’t afford the $750 for a new car.

  3. Gladius et Scutum says:

    I appreciate your faith in (non-governmental) human nature, but since I investigate fraud in private industry, let me assure everyone that very few of the clunkers are actually being harmed. They will shortly be appearing on used car lots under assumed identities: Quite possibly in Mexico, Russia, or Nigeria.

    Read through “How the Government Kills Clunkers” If you cannot see four or five ways to ‘game the system’ on your first read, it is because you are much more honest than your neighbors.

  4. marinetbryant says:

    Really stimulating. GM announcing layoff plans-more jobs created/saved! Bloomberg reporting Ford Focus #1 seller in C4C program. Next four are made by Honda and Toyota.

  5. Liberals Demise says:

    Think about it for a moment …………. Our tax dollars are what color?

    Oh hell, “SPEND THAT CABBAGE!!”

  6. proreason says:

    Johan Goldberg has great commentary on this topic today:


    “Under the government’s program, tax dollars are being diverted to people with cheap cars so they can buy expensive ones. That’s just really inefficient wealth distribution, not wealth creation. But government can see it, and that’s all that counts. ”

    translation: the only reason the program is “a success” is that it publicizes “government action”. In reality, it is simply takes money from your pocket in the future, and puts it in somebody else’s pocket today.

  7. karenc says:

    C4C is hurting charity car donation also because the amount of the voucher is so much greater than the tax deduction a person receives when they donate a car charity. People are now only donating cars that aren’t eligible for a voucher because they don’t run. Since the flood of C4C cars entering the scrap yards is lowering the price of scrap metal, these car don’t have much value. The cars that are going to C4C are the ones that would normally be donated so charities are losing out on both ends.

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