Was Cash for Clunkers a success?

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Photo courtesy of natashalcd at Flickr.com

The jury is still out on the Cash for Clunkers program. The last paperwork was filed on Monday, August 24, 2009, but crushed cars still waiting to be recycled. The final numbers are in – so how did the program score?

All told, C4C took 690,114 clunkers off of the road:

84 percent of consumers traded in trucks and 59 percent purchased passenger cars. The average fuel economy of the vehicles traded in was 15.8 miles per gallon and the average fuel economy of vehicles purchased is 24.9 mpg. – a 58 percent improvement.

That sounds wonderful, but a lot of people are wondering how effective C4C really was. Some argue that the program was a handout to car makers, that it was economically ineffective, that it increased consumer debt, or that it will create a price bubble for used cars.

There’s some truth in each of these claims, and policy makers are hopefully taking notes. Cash for Clunkers generated a lot of strong emotions. Even among environmentalists, there was spirited debate over the program. For example, ethanol lobbyists and wind turbine manufacturers opposed the program because it threatened their funding.

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Photo courtesy of cluestream at Flickr.com

The Federal Cash For Clunkers program is also being blamed for distorting the value of carbon credits. Depending on the vehicles involved in the trade, the government set a carbon price of between $237 and $500 per ton. That compares with an average price of $5 to $40 per ton for carbon credits available on the open market.

Critics have argued that the low fuel efficiency requirements for replacement cars will have minimal impacts over the long term. Under the program, some trucks were replaced with other trucks that “only” received a 2 mpg improvement (18 mpg –> 20 mpg). That is more than a 10% improvement – and improving the mileage of a work truck has a much larger impact than improving the mileage of an economy car.

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Photo courtesy of shimonkey at Flickr.com

One of the strongest arguments about C4C is that the environmental impact of making new cars may be greater than the benefits provided by improved fuel efficiency. Mining ore, molding rubber, welding parts, and moving the finished product to showrooms are all processes that produce carbon emissions:

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to produce a new car has been estimated to range from about 3.5 to 12.5 tons, or an average of about 6.7 tons. So buying a new car means an extra 6.7 tons of CO2 emissions — you wouldn’t have emitted all that pollution had you just kept your old car.

Yet, the bulk of CO2 that a car releases comes from day to day operation:

According to a literature review by the Pacific Institute, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the life-cycle carbon emissions of the average car come not from driving but from manufacturing and disposal.

The other 80-90% comes from driving. It doesn’t take a large increase in efficiency to make up for the carbon released in making a new vehicle.

So, is it worthwhile to replace the less fuel efficient cars with fuel sipping models? Does it produce more pollution to build the vehicles than it takes to operate older, less efficient engines? Setting up a formula is pretty simple – let’s say the 690,114 cars produced for C4C released average amounts of carbon dioxide. 690,114 x 6.7 tons = 4,623,763.8 tons of CO2. That’s how much Cash For Clunkers caused to be released.

On the other side of the equation is how much CO2 saved by getting gas guzzlers off of the road. The average American drives more than 13,000 miles per year. The vehicles that were replaced would have burned approximately 596,511,828 gallons of gasoline per year ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 15.8 mpg). The replacement cars would only burn 378,509,513 gallons ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 24.9 mpg). That’s 218,002,315 gallons saved per year.

Each gallon of gasoline that’s burned produces about 19.4 lbs of CO2. 19.4 lbs of CO2 is ~0.008799692 metric tons.

So, after all that math, C4C is currently reducing our CO2 emissions by approximately 1,918,353 tons per year. In less than 2 and a half years, the program will “pay” for itself in terms of CO2. The average passenger car is driven for 7 years or more, so over their lifetime, Cash For Clunkers vehicles will save approximately 13,428,471 tons of Carbon Dioxide.

With numbers this large, sometimes it helps to put them in perspective. A large elephant weighs approximately 6 tons, so 13,428,471 tons of carbon weighs more than 2 million elephants!

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Photo courtesy of ECU Digital Collections at Flickr.com

CO2 isn’t the only pollutant that the program has reduced. It isn’t even the type of emission that new cars have the greatest impact on:

Older vehicles emit conventional air-pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, at rates as much as 100 times higher than newer vehicles, he says. That’s because they have less-sophisticated pollution controls and because emission levels tend to worsen as vehicles age.

Most of the greenhouse gas released in the US comes from other sources. We cause more pollution with coal power plants, oil refining, chemical extraction, and other industrial processes. So, the Cash For Clunkers reductions are really just a drop in the bucket:

…on average, every hour, America emits 728,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The total savings per year from cash for clunkers translates to about 57 minutes of America’s output of the chief greenhouse gas.

Cash for Clunkers isn’t going to solve our emissions problem. But it’s a start.

As a side note – $2B of funds were added to extend the Cash For Clunkers program. Unfortunately, those funds were taken from the $6B set aside for other green technology. This means that there will be less investment in wind turbines, energy efficiency upgrades, power storing devices, smart grids, and other uses that may have delivered more of an environmentally friendly bang-for-the-buck.

There are also plans to mirror the program with rebates for energy efficient appliances.

Photo courtesy of Uncle Bumpy at Flickr.com

What do you think about Cash For Clunkers? Would the money have been better spent on public transportation, alternative energy generation, research, or other uses? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

10 Cool iPhone Apps for Environmentalists

Just about everyone I know has one of these iPhone things.  I played around my nephews the other day and was amazed at all the colorful, useless apps that he had on the thing.  I think there were a dozen “flashlight” apps alone.

But the iPhone really does have some legitimate apps out there for those of us that are a bit green conscious.  These represent to me the most practical of the bunch.  Ones that you wont just play with a few times and put aside, but apps that you might find yourself using day after day in your quest to live a more green life.

1) The Green Meter An iPhone app that “computes your vehicle’s power and fuel usage characteristics and evaluates your driving to increase efficiency, reduce fuel consumption and cost, and lower your environmental impact.” Pretty impressive. The app uses the iPhone’s accelerometer data combined with user supplied info about the vehicle to provide a real time picture of your fuel consumption and environmental emissions. $5.99

2) iRecycle is an application from our friends at Earth911.com. Simple but essential, you input what you are looking to recycle, and it not only tells you were to go, it also shows a map and gives you directions based on your current location. Free

3) GoodGuide is an app that: “Provides iPhone users access to the world’s largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental and social performance of everyday products and companies. That’s free, easy, mobile access to data on over 70,000 products — from shampoo to household cleaners.” Free

4) Bike Your Drive is a bike app that records GPS info, calories burned, gas saved and CO2 offset. This REI created iPhone application plots out a map of the distance you cover on a bike and even geo-tags photos you take on the way, so you can see where they were taken. It also allows you to share the details of your bike trip. Free

5) GreenSpot Available in  a free (ad supported) version, or a pay version for $1.99 GreenSpot delivers green oriented news from major news feeds directly to your iPhone. $1.99

6) Craigsphone Although not strictly an environmental app, buying used or even checking the free section of Craigslist is a great way to help the environment. You save space in the landfill, and you save the environmental impact associated with polluting. If you are doing home repair or remodeling check out the materials section. Often builders will have leftover supplies or fixtures removed from another house at a fraction of the cost of new. Craigsphone gives you the local craigslist and can dial the numbers for you. Free

7) Find Green provides a local, GPS based guide to green business in your immediate area. In addition, it lets the user add, rate and review their own favorite green business. It’s like a Yelp! for green businesses, and best of all, it’s free.

8 ) Uni-Bus provides bus routes, schedules and arrival times for many major cities using the google transit feed.  The app maps out bus stops and allows you to save favorite bus stops.  $1.99

9) Traffic gives real time traffic reports based on your location. By avoiding traffic jams and slowdowns, you can save gas and improve air quality.  The app allows you to view data in list format, or on a map.  $1.99

10) Green card No, this doesn’t have anything to do with immigration.  I have tons of business cards laying around my house that are now useless because an address, a phone number, or an email address changed.  Greencard allows you to send your business card electronically to all you contacts.  And if you change an email or phone number, all of those people holding your electronic card get an update within minutes.  Nothing goes to the landfill, no extra trees are harmed.  And it’s free.

Do you have a favorite iPhone app about the environment that we didn’t cover? Leave a comment and tell us about it! Be sure to use the exact name, so that people can find it on iTunes.

World Habitat Day – 10/5/2009

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Photo courtesy of oxfam international at Flickr.com

Poverty has drastic effects on the natural world. People living without access to treated water, sustainable fuel supplies, or adequate food can have a huge impact on their surroundings. Slums and destructive farming techniques can do as much damage as SUVs and chemical spills.

To highlight this issue, the UN has an annual event that focuses attention on living conditions. World Habitat Day falls on the first Monday in October. The theme of this year’s celebration is Planning our Urban Future.

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Photo courtesy of andreasnilsson1976 at Flickr.com

Why should we focus on the urban environment? People are moving into cities at a staggering rate, and the way that these cities grow is going to have a huge impact on surrounding areas. At the dawn of the twentieth century, only 14% of humanity lived in cities. Now, more than half of all people call a city their home. Some of the largest cities have more than 10,000,000 inhabitants.

People who are starving are more interested in survival than in wildlife conservation. When your stomach is empty, conserving natural resources is an abstract concern. Without working sewage systems, trash services, or reliable electricity, people are unable to minimize their impact on the natural world.

Many endangered birds have beautiful plumage or produce enchanting birdsong, but starving people are unlikely to be interested in watching or listening to Blyth’s Tragopan Pheasants or Mandarin Ducks. They’re more likely to eat them.

Poverty is tightly associated with a host of environmental problems, including sewage contamination of wetlands, deforestation, and poaching ( for food as well as profit). When drought or poor management cause crops to fail, baboons, gazelles, elephants, and other endangered animals often show up on the dinner table. Native plants and animals are often featured in local medical and spiritual practices; when these species are harvested with modern technology, they are often unable to reproduce fast enough to replace their losses.

Poverty and cultural attachment were cited as the main reasons for bushmeat exploitation. Bushmeat-eating households regard bushmeat as more tasty and medicinal than livestock meat and fish

Looking down the road, there is major concern that climate change and over exploitation of resources by developed countries are going to make the problem worse. As new land is cleared for human use, wildlife habitat disappears. As the number of people living in an area grows, so do appetites for food and timber.

While a lot of attention has been focused on how McMansions waste resources, poor urban development is a problem that affects both the affluent and the indigent. For example, growing slums are also destroying forests to supply building materials and charcoal (for cooking and staying warm in the winter). Disease and illiteracy are major problems in these shanty towns that can easily affect the wealthier neighborhoods of town.

PE - World Habitat Day - The Advocacy Project
Photo courtesy of the Advocacy Project at Flickr.com

Even though poachers earn very little money from killing endangered species, wealth is relative. Small sums of money are often a kings ransom in third world countries. People who have no other job prospects are often tempted to break the law, especially when enforcement is weak or when the animals are seen as a nuisance.

“A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to US$6,000 [HK$46,800] in Lhasa.”

To address these environmental issues, it’s important to tackle the root causes of deforestation, resource depletion, and poverty. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is encouraging leaders to engage their citizens in urban planning and to avoid letting inertia determine how we deal with these problems. If you have an idea or a novel solution to fighting urban blight or dependency, now is the time to speak up and act out.

According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problem living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.

Even if those millions of people are squatting in alleyways, hiding under tin sheets, and digging through garbage today, tomorrow they will move mountains and uproot forests in their search for food and shelter. The question of our generation is how to enlist their help in building a healthier, safer, and greener future.

PE - World Habitat Day - Enzinho83
Photo courtesy of Enzinho83 at Flickr.com