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Meteor Blades posted a story on Cash for Clunkers, suggesting that we make it long term. There's a big plea for environmental friendliness there, and I truly appreciate that sentiment.

The problem is a plan to use CARS to help the environment doesn't seem that compelling. I don't mean to call him out, but the numbers don't suggest to me that what he says will really help. I'd like to run you through some statistics and show why I'm not convinced.

(Just to clarify, I support CARS as an economic measure; I just don't believe it's worth much environmentally.)

Warning: numbers are frequently and heavily rounded. This is not intended to be rigorous.

According to the Department of Transportation, there are around 136 million cars on the road. That excludes trucks and buses, so it's basically the total pool of cars that could conceivably be traded in. This is the baseline for how much impact a cash for clunkers program can have. The absolute total, including buses and trucks, is 250 million vehicles.

I also looked up the US fuel consumption. We use 820 million gallons of raw petroleum a day, of which 378 million is motor gasoline, stuff that could actually feed cars. 71% of all petroleum is used for transportation; that's 582 million gallons. If 100% of motor gasoline goes to cars, that leaves around 204 million gallons of other types of fuel being burned for transportation purposes. Based on detailed statistics, we can assume that all the other transportation petroleum is jet fuel and distillate fuel oil (trucks, ships, buses, anything else diesel). It doesn't quite add up but it's close enough for the time being.

Quick recap: around two thirds of burnt transport petroleum is used by cars. The rest are diesel or jets or ships, none of which are particularly clean burners, I don't think. Let's move on.

Let's round off Cash for Clunkers as being a $5000 credit, and imagine we set aside $25 billion for the program. So far, $3 billion has been approved, so this would represent a massive expansion in the program. That $25 billion could help fund five million new cars. Slightly under 3.7% of the cars in the country would be replaced with vastly more fuel efficient models. How much more fuel efficient? Let's say the trade in average is 16 mpg and the new average is 32 mpg. True these are made up, but they are at least reasonable I think. Let's even assume that, thanks to better engine and exhaust technology, the emissions of those new vehicles are zero.

Since those 3.7% are now consuming half the fuel they used and emitting none of the pollution, we've managed to cut the total fuel consumption of all cars by 1.8% and emissions by 3.7%. That's 1.2% of all transport petroleum and, if we assume all emissions rates to be the same, 2.4% of total transport emissions. As a broadly round baseline, let's simply say that overall petroleum consumption and overall emissions are decreased by 2%. This is about 11.5 million gallons per day, as the result of what I think is an overly optimistic, if not completely unrealistic, estimate.

The total effect on our transportation petroleum consumption is that it goes from 582 million gallons a day to 570 million gallons a day. That's not nothing, but considering it's the theoretical result of a massively expanded CARS program which people take advantage of at high rates, I'm not sure how much we've gained.

And then there's one last, tricky little detail. How much gasoline does it take to destroy and process five million old clunkers, and then build five million new cars AND send them across the country to dealerships? If this expansion takes five years, then that's 2700 cars arriving at dealerships every single day. Parts have to be moved around from all over the world, more so than ever for advanced cars like the Prius that use quite a few semi-exotic materials.

I support CARS as an economic initiative, but as an environmental one? I just don't see it. Now, Meteor's proposals are a little better thought out and more complex than CARS as it currently stands, of course. Expanding other budgets to match is a good idea. Changing attitudes is a good idea. Destroying old cars makes no sense. But if you're strictly targeting replacement of fuel guzzling cars, the environment isn't gaining much. It's just losing slightly less -- hopefully.

[Quick note: I wrote this diary before reading the end of Meteor's post properly. I don't intend to criticize his suggestions, just offer a look at what kind of numbers we're dealing with.]

Update: Meteor Blades responded. My numbers are based on the current version of CARS, which is in fact substantially different from Meteor Blades' proposal. One key point -- linking the credit amount directly to the MPG of the new car, which biases the whole thing towards far higher gains in efficiency. That's how it should've been handled in the first place.

Originally posted to Element 61 on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 06:43 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It is not going to affect fuel use at this scale (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The next CARS II should require cars to get 30+ mpg.   Then 35 mpg.

  •  Simply put ... (6+ / 0-)

    CARS is a multiple challenge / benefit. If it is being sold solely on its energy savings and environmental benefit, from the direct program, it isn't cost effective.

    On the other hand, it is a stimulus program. And, it does seem to be doing that well.

    And, it might just be an important 'change the mentality' moment with a very clear demand for efficient vehicles. (Not 100% of the buyers but a lot were looking to boost their fuel efficiency as much as possible.  What signal does that send to auto companies, dealers, other car owners, etc ...) What does it say to the neighbors when someone trades in an SUV for a fuel-efficient sedan?

    •  And what about safety? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lenzy1000, radmul

      Newer cars have additional safety features that until recently were confined to high-end products, like anti-lock braking systems.

      That might be an added benefit.

    •  People who drive more are more motivated. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      The guy who drives 100 miles a day -- commuting to Omaha, for example -- is motivated big time to do CARS and get rid of his guzzler.

      The figures I see about this program never, ever address the microeconomics on the consumer side of the equation. and there's nothing out yet, doing follow-up.

      Rural commuters are going to be huge for this program.

      BTW: the Chrysler PT Cruisers are going at 1/2 price.

      The $18,700 basic car is going at $9,700, minus the clunker salvage value.

      Cummon... that's a giveaway. For some poor schnook fighting a 14 mpg clunker and driving 100 miles a day, that's a free car when you figure in the gas bills.

      A lot of the Midwest does this. Same for rural everywhere. Gotta love it -- and those CARS buyers are going to link this program to Democrats, overwhelmingly.

      Angry White Males + DSM IV Personality Disorder delusionals + sane Pro-Lifers =EQ= The Base

      by vets74 on Mon Aug 10, 2009 at 05:31:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In the big picture... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vets74, JeffW, satanicpanic

    it will be a huge success for the environmnent as it forever changes the tastes of the American people for cars over SUVs and therefore creates increased demand for high mileage vehicles...into the forseeable future...this program was wise beyond its wildest dreams despite its relatively small investment...

    Obama - Change I still believe in

    by dvogel001 on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 07:00:27 PM PDT

  •  These 5 million cars are going to be built anyway (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We might be speeding up the process, but it is going to happen anyway.

    BTW, Meteor didn't want to trash the "good" cars. In his post, he only wanted to trash the true clunkers.

    But cars ultimately go to auto heaven and all we are doing is speeding up the process...

    Over a period of 15 years, all 136 million cars will be replaced. I believe it is premature to have a massive Cars for Clunkers program. When electrics can go 100+ miles on a charge [the Nissan Leaf is promising this, so we are getting close], then we should put the pedal to the metal on building electric infrastructure, and a new major CARS program.

  •  I Really Suspect Much of the Demand Is Fear (0+ / 0-)

    because so many established models and dealers are closing.

    I'd bet that some percentage are trading in clunkers out of concern that there won't be proper support or warranty for their existing cars.

    We have an old Saturn and we had enough money of our own to get a 2nd car for just that reason.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 07:11:18 PM PDT

  •  I like your calcuations, and I think you were (0+ / 0-)

    even generous in a few spots.

    One thing that isn't noted, and I'm not sure how prevalent it actually is, is that really old clunkers don't always get shipped off to junkyards in some countries.  I'm not sure if it's true in the states, but, for instance, older cars in japan wind up on the new zealand market.  So I could guess that older non-cash for clunkers cars might wind up spewing exhaust in mexico and points further south for decades.  I had wondered about the point of completely trashing the 'clunkers', and suspect that might be one reason why they're trashed rather than taken apart for spare parts.

    So you might not only be cutting short the extra gas here for a decade or so, but also preventing another few decades on a third world market for those cars.  In which case the 'CARS' program might actually be making life more expensive for non-US residents.

    Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God. - Thomas Jefferson

    by Ezekial 23 20 on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 07:16:03 PM PDT

    •  The only parts the c4c program ... (0+ / 0-)

      ...destroys are engines and drive-trains. The cars are not, as some right-wing sites have claimed, crushed, so all the other parts are still available for sale.

      Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

      by Meteor Blades on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 11:48:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Interesting to know. (0+ / 0-)

        This is the only political site I read, so I didn't know what the RW sites were saying, just saw a piece on the local news that showed first A) glass being poured in the engine, then B) a car being loaded into the standard 'turn it into a cube of metal' machine.  Perhaps that was just stock footage.

        Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God. - Thomas Jefferson

        by Ezekial 23 20 on Mon Aug 10, 2009 at 04:41:17 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  In the long run it will (0+ / 0-)

    People will get use to buying smaller fuel efficient cars.

    My only complaint is allow time so that US manufacturers will have time to replenish their inventory.

    DONATE! McCain=Bush 3rd Term--US worst nightmare; Stop Republican obstructionism- Elect a Democratic Majority.

    by timber on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 07:16:21 PM PDT

  •  Interesting (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have heard, although never verified that you can actually buy a hummer technically under the plan.  Doesn't sound too good for the economy.  
    But eliminating almost 2% of all total emissions from vehicles on the road?  If true, that is actually not a bad number for me for a cost of around $3 billion.  Still a high road to climb, but we will find ways to find even better ways to improve the environment.  I also think about Gore's film where finding ways to be more efficient on the margin really helps.  

  •  I appreciate your evaluation ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Element 61

    ...and I think you make some good points. However, your numbers don't match up.

    The mileage that traded-in clunkers get in my proposal is zero. I switched to a different approach.

    The floor of my program is 30 mpg. If the average mileage of cars bought is 32 mpg, that is, they go from consuming 3.33 gallons of gas per 100 miles to consuming 3.125 gp100m, that's about 6% improvement, meaning only $600 per new car purchased, on average. So under your proposal, getting 5 million cars off the road would only cost $3 billion, not $25 billion.

    A $5000 credit would require a new car to get 60 mpg. Under my proposal, let's say the average is 45 mpg. This would mean a 35% improvement measured by gp100m. So the average credit would be $3500, for a total outlay of $17 billion. So, instead of, let's say, 10 million gallons day, as per your model, we're actually saving around 30 million g/d, a drop in gasoline consumption of about 8%. And a daily drop in CO2 emissions of 300,000 tons (plus the CO2 emitted from drilling, refining and distribution of gasoline to the consumer).

    Moreover, as I noted, cars that already are at the CAFE standard would NOT be destroyed, only those that get less. So some number less than 5 million would be destroyed.

    Again, I appreciate your efforts. Just as in Energize America 2020, fine-tuning is necessary. But I'd ask that you redo your numbers in light of what I actually proposed.

    Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

    by Meteor Blades on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 11:44:06 PM PDT

    •  60 mpg - $5000 you may be giving cars away (0+ / 0-)

      Outside of hybrid technology, there are very very few cars that can achiev 60 mpg. Those that do tend to be extremely small, because the fuel consumed is a function of the mass to be moved.

      Very small (light) cars have less materials and and are therefore cheaper to manufacture.

      Ipso facto - if the subsidy increases as the vehicle cost decreases you will approach the point where the subsidy is higher than the cost.

      Lets relaunch the Citroen 2cv with updated mechanics and free cars for all.

      •  Currently, that is true. But more and more ... (0+ / 0-)

        ...high mpg cars will be coming out. Prius III is slated for 50 mpg and it is a medium-sized sedan. Electrics should get some set subsidy as well.

        Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

        by Meteor Blades on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 11:55:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks Meteor (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Meteor Blades

      I have to admit, I didn't read your post quite properly before I published this -- it was more a trigger for me to vent against the current version of CARS. I should have been more clear about that. I'm all for your version of the program, just not the environmentally boneheaded one we currently have.

  •  I made a similar point last week (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    where a back of an envelope calculation said that a $4bn program would reduce the demand for gas by about 0.3%

    In order to get a significant reduction, US fuel consumption levels need to approach European levels, and the only way to do this is via a progressive gas tax.

    •  I have supported a progressive ... (0+ / 0-) on gasoline since 1981 when I first published an editorial about it. But try to get one passed. Every time that is brought up even at Daily Kos, the majority opposes it outright. Even the 10-cent a gallon tax (which would raise $14 billion a year) that I proposed for my restructured C4C plan has encountered major opposition. So how to get something most Kossacks don't like through a far more conservative Congress?

      Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

      by Meteor Blades on Sun Aug 09, 2009 at 11:52:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I diaried this back in December (0+ / 0-)

        and appreciate that the stumbling block is the politics.

        But the fact is that the peakoil is here, or just around the corner, and gas prices are going to rise anyway.

        Increasing the tax imho is the neccessary to push that back a little, with the advantage that the revenue stays in the US instead of being transferred to the producers of oil.

        {arhaps the taxes should by hypothecated to make the tax more palatable.

        •  I obviously agree. If my 1981 proposal ... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          senilebiker, geodemographics

          ...of a 5 cent tax increase annually had been actually carried out over the past 28 years, we'd have raised more than $4 trillion inflation-adjusted dollars that could have been put into battery and electric car research (or whatever improved energy option one might prefer). And even now, the price of gasoline would only be $1.40 more than it is, having been gradually increased over three decades.

          Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

          by Meteor Blades on Mon Aug 10, 2009 at 12:08:49 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  It would be interesting to have a timeline (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            on European gas tax increases.

            I know that at one point, the UK was systematically increasing taxes as the price of crude was falling after one of the occassional peaks, with the result that the consumer never really noticed.

            •  Yep. I made that proposal, too ... (0+ / 0-)

              ...right here on Daily Kos before gasoline prices started dropping. Suggested that once they hit national average of $3/gal, it would be a good time to institute a tax increase. This could be readjusted every six months or so. Or even more frequently.

              Some people would be better off not reading diaries they comment on, since they already have all the answers.

              by Meteor Blades on Mon Aug 10, 2009 at 12:41:57 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

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