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Memo to Neil Young: Higher MPG Standards Are a Good Thing

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Neil Young, this note's for you.

Your recent Huffington Post blog reminded me of the first and only time I ever wrote about you. That was back in 1970, when I reviewed your third studio album, After the Gold Rush, for my high school newspaper.

What prompted my flashback was the fact that the album's title track featured the line, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s."

In your blog, you were talking about Mother Nature again, 40 years later.

"For survival of the planet and our way of life as human beings," you wrote, "we need to drastically reduce our carbon output."

You got that right.

If we don't dramatically cut carbon emissions, scientists expect more extreme weather, including heat waves, droughts and heavy precipitation; declines in agricultural yields; a sea level rise of 2 to 5 feet over the next 100 years; and the rapid loss of snowpack and glaciers that supply 16 percent of the world's population with fresh water.

You would have to change the words to "Like a Hurricane" to "Like a hurricane on steroids."

That said, you should reconsider your take on the value of new U.S. fuel economy standards. You said they're "flawed" because they won't by themselves significantly cut carbon pollution.

In fact, the standards will go a long way to reduce emissions, and--perhaps more important--they were never intended to stand alone. Yes, there is much more that the United States needs to do to address global warming, especially given the fact that we're responsible for about 20 percent of the world's total emissions and emit more carbon per capita than any other country. That doesn't mean setting higher mileage standards isn't worthwhile.

Don't let it bring you down, Mr. Young. Indulge me a bit. Let me explain just what these new standards will accomplish and how some complementary policies--including cutting U.S. oil use in half--would help us, as you termed it, "get real on carbon."

There's more to the picture than meets the eye. In April 2010, the Obama administration finalized the first big improvements in fuel economy for cars and light trucks since you released Tonight's the Night in 1975. These new standards, which cover model years 2012 through 2016, will boost the average fleetwide fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States to 34.1 miles per gallon (mpg) by model year 2016. The standards also set the first national global warming emissions standard for vehicles at 250 grams per mile, nearly 30 percent less than the average car on the road today.

In late August, the administration followed up with new standards covering passenger vehicles for model years 2017 through 2025. By 2025, average fuel economy for new vehicles will be about 50 mpg and global warming pollution will be cut to 163 grams per mile.

According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the combined standards covering 2012 through 2025 will:

• Cut oil use by as much as 3.1 million barrels per day by 2030, more than what we currently import from any one nation, including your home country, Canada, our largest supplier;

• Save drivers $8,000 over the life of a model year 2025 vehicle compared with the average vehicle on the road today--after factoring in fuel savings and the cost of fuel-saving technology; and

• Reduce U.S. global warming pollution by as much as 570 million metric tons in 2030 alone, the equivalent of taking a third--85 million--of today's cars and trucks off the road for an entire year.

Improving passenger vehicle fuel economy is only a part of the solution to curb our oil consumption, the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions. To make a bigger dent, we need to make commercial vehicles--delivery trucks, buses and big rigs--as well as planes, trains and ships cleaner and more efficient; make electric vehicles more practical; and invest in better biofuels, including ones made from perennial grasses and waste products instead of corn and soybeans. UCS's Half the Oil Plan, which would cut projected U.S. oil use by 50 percent over the next two decades, would do just that (see video below).

Mother Earth has many enemies; there's much work to be done. Your blog focused mainly on cars, but a third of U.S. carbon emissions come from generating electricity, and 75 percent of that pollution comes from coal-fired power plants. There are state policies addressing these emissions, including energy efficiency programs and standards requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable, carbon-free energy sources (which are under attack by the fossil fuel industries), but federal action has been sorely lacking.

Economists of all stripes largely agree that the federal government needs to put a price on carbon. One way to do that would be to create a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit, or cap, on the quantity of carbon emissions that can be ratcheted down over time. That cap is then divided up into a fixed number of permits, called allowances. Each allowance authorizes a polluter to emit a ton of carbon dioxide, the dominant global warming pollutant, and participating facilities would need enough allowances to cover their emissions.

Establishing and distributing these limited allowances creates a market for polluters to buy allowances, preferably through a government-run auction, as well as trade them. Auction revenues then could be invested in programs and technologies that further cut emissions.

There are two such systems operating in the United States. The oldest one is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which was established in 2008 by 10 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce power plant global warming pollution. The newest one, which just got off the ground in California last month, is broader in scope. It covers not only power plants, but also oil refineries, cement producers and other industrial polluters, and because of the state's large economy, it is the second largest carbon market in the world after the European Union's. At this point, however, there is little hope for a national cap-and-trade regime. The House of Representatives--when it was still controlled by the Democrats--narrowly approved such a system in June 2009, but the legislation failed in the Senate. It wouldn't pass either chamber today.

Another approach, a carbon tax, has received some media attention recently, but currently the odds are against it, too. Some maintain that placing a tax on carbon emitters of a certain dollar amount per ton of emissions, say $20, would be much simpler than a cap-and-trade system, but it would come with its own set of issues, as Grist staff writer David Roberts pointed out in a November 19 column.

Then there are some economists, including my colleague Rachel Cleetus, who are trying to figure out how to combine the best attributes of a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax. Cleetus wrote a paper for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year in which she argued that a hybrid of the two policies could be a starting point for discussions on Capitol Hill if and when the prospect for a federal climate policy improves.

The main obstacle, she says, is not the debate over how we should price carbon, it's the oil and coal industries' stranglehold on Congress. You might call them a wrecking ball, and you'd be right.

The world is ready for a whole new game. I'll spare you the details of these approaches to cutting carbon emissions. Suffice it to say, there are a number of things we can--and must--do at the local, state, national and international level to, as you said, "encourage change and responsibility." Pushing the auto industry to make cars that go farther on a gallon of gasoline is definitely one of them.

In any case, you're right that we're at a fork in the road, and my colleagues and I appreciate the fact that you're speakin' out on this critical issue. We would love to sit down with you and talk cars and carbon well before the next harvest moon. Time is running out.

Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The first person who can identify the number of references in this blog to Neil Young songs, album titles and lyrics will win a free copy of UCS's new book, Cooler Smarter. Just respond in the comments section.

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