Green Car of the Year Award - The Environment Means Business

For today’s auto industry, the environment means business. And as the last few tumultous years have shown, fuel efficency is literally a matter of survival.

Consumers are voting with their wallets and are demanding fuel efficient vehicles: the latest EPA fuel economy statistics showed that between 2008 and 2009, the average fuel economy of new passenger vehicles grew by a whopping 1.4 mpg, the largest annual increase in the last three decades. A recent poll by a leading polling firm, The Mellman Group (commissioned by NRDC and three other groups), showed an overwhelming 74% support for federal standard requiring the auto industry to meet a 60 mile per gallon fleetwide average.

And in the three largest auto markets globally – the US, the European, and Union China – environmental concerns are driving a push for stronger pollution and fuel economy standards. Being globally competitive means automakers must get down to the business of making and selling green cars. According to the International Council for Clean Transportation in these critical markets, fuel economy and pollution standards will be greatly strengthened in the future. The US is considering 2025 pollution and fuel economy standards as high as 62 mpg, the European Union is considering a 2020 standard equivalent to about 60 mpg, and  China is considering a 2020 fleetwide average of about 50 mpg. 

This year’s Green Car of the Year Award is yet another indicator the environment means big business, with two electric cars (GM Volt and Nissan Leaf), two hybrids (Lincoln MKZ and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid) and high mileage car (Ford Fiesta).  The head of my organization, Frances Beinecke, is one of the two environmental jurors of the award this year. Since balloting is secret, I cannot reveal how she voted for but I will describe to you how from an environmental perspective, we evaluate these five very solid choices:

Greenhouse gas and other pollution. Averting dangerous climate change is the top environmental challenge of our generation. We estimate in order of reducing greenhouse gases and other pollutants, the five candidates rank in the following order (best, or most reductions, is first): Leaf, Volt, MKZ, Sonata, and Fiesta.

  • The greenhouse gas reduction winner, the Leaf, cuts global warming pollution by about half compared to an average 2009 car, assuming an “average” electricity grid. That value rises to about two-thirds when charged up on California’s very clean electricity grid.
  • We estimate The Volt cuts global warming pollution by a little less than half but it’s difficult to accurately estimate since the official test numbers have not been revealed.
  • The MKZ and Sonata hybrids each cut global warming pollution by about over one-third, and the Fiesta by about one quarter.

Getting off of fossil fuels. As the Gulf disaster most recently demonstrated, our dangerous dependency on oil imperils our environment, our health and badly distorts our foreign policy. Passenger vehicles account for 60% of our total oil demand. On the other hand, half of our electricity grid is powered by coal, the most polluting and environmentally destructive source of electricity. Fortunately certain areas of the country rely much less on coal, in particular, the West coast and the Northeast.

So unfortunately, there is no clear winner here until we clean up the grid but in certain regions of the country that are less dependent on coal, the edge goes to the Leaf and the Volt for helping getting us off of oil.

The story will only get better as the competition heats up.  According to a recent forecast, the number of hybrids, electric and fuel cell cars models offered in the US will quadruple over the next five years, from about 25 distinct models today to over 100 models by 2015. New innovations spurred on by stronger standards globally and higher oil prices will give future Green Car of the Year jurors the welcome headache of too many good choices.

Update 11/29: Here's a link to the Green Car of the Year Award ceremony at the LA Auto show last thursday (11/18) where I gave a short speech.