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Climate Labeling for Cars: Assessing the Toll of a New Machine

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What's the "sticker price" to the climate of that new car you're considering buying? Katherine Probst would like to help you answer that question.

Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, has proposed a "global warming performance" label that would appear on the window of all new vehicles. The goal: to help educate consumers assess the climate impacts of the purchase they are about to make by allowing them to identify cars with lower emissions. Her vision is outlined in a just-released article, Combating Global Warming One Car at a Time: CO2 Emissions Labels for New Motor Vehicles.

The proposed labels, examples of which are pictured here, come at a time when the EPA is proposing new designs for the fuel economy labels required for all new cars. None of EPA's proposed designs include information on climate emissions -- a problem that Probst feels would be easy, and important, to correct. Probst is a veteran of such thinking. Two years ago, she recommended a one-page "report card" for all Superfund toxic-waste sites as well as a longer "scorecard" that would include more meaningful measures of success on the sites' clean-up than is currently reported.

Probst points out that sharing vehicles' carbon emissions data with consumers isn't a new idea. Since 2001, a European Union directive (download-PDF) has required member countries to display information on the estimated CO2 emissions on all new cars. The U.K. initiated voluntary color-coded CO2 emissions labels on all new cars beginning in September 2005. Other EU member countries are in the process of introducing their own labels.

And California last fall enacted a law that would require similar information (along with smog emissions) to be displayed beginning with 2009 model-year cars sold in the Golden State.

It's not that information about vehicles' climate emissions is secret. Versions of this information already are available on two EPA Web sites: the government's annual Fuel Economy Guide and EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. But like so much government information these days, it takes digging to find out what you want to know. And such information is far more useful at the point of purchase. (Imagine if you had to go to a government Web site to read the nutritional information about packaged food products!)

Says Probst:

Requiring a global warming performance label on all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States is an inexpensive and important first step in educating the public about something they can do to combat global warming. The information is already available online from two government agencies. Why not make it visible to all car buyers?

Probst's label isn't ideal, in my humble opinion. For starters, I'm not sure "Global Warming Performance" is the best title for this; I'd go with "Climate Rating" or some such. (Studies show that the term "global warming" itself doesn't resonate for most folks.) And the labels have just too many damn numbers that won't be meaningful for 99% of the populace.

But those are mere details. The concept makes perfect sense. If our leaders are truly interested in providing market-based solutions to climate change -- that is, letting consumer preference, not government regulations, determine the most environmentally responsible cars to buy -- they will embrace informational resources that facilitate such choices. To do otherwise is to keep the public in the dark about issues vital to their near-term and long-term future.