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A version of the following opinion editorial appeared in the Toronto Star, July 4, 2007

Ontario misses bus on emissions

Following Premier Dalton McGuinty's auto sector subsidy announcement last month, two questions inevitably come to mind:

Is paying auto manufacturers to produce green cars really an effective way to reduce tailpipe emissions?

If the premier is serious about reducing emissions, why not join California, Quebec, British Columbia and 13 other U.S. states in regulating reductions in car emissions – an approach proven to be effective?

Handing over $650 million to industry may help keep assembly plants open and auto workers on the job in the short term, but there is no guarantee emissions from cars will be reduced.

On the other hand, regulating emissions reductions is a proven winner. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California leads North America in regulating reductions in carbon emissions from vehicles and will require car manufacturers to slash emissions from new vehicles by 30 per cent by 2016.

If the rest of Canada joins California and the others, 40 per cent of the North American market would fall under these stringent standards – a truly significant move toward real greenhouse gas emission reductions.

But rather than joining the leaders, McGuinty appears to have been duped by auto industry threats of economic ruin.

The auto industry has a track record of overestimating the costs, and underestimating the benefits, of environmental regulations.

For example, in 1972, General Motors vice-president Earnest Starkman declared that if automakers were forced to introduce catalytic converters, "complete stoppage of the entire production could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and communities." Ford president Lee Iacocca claimed that the catalytic converter rule would mean a shutdown of his company and job losses of 800,000.

Obviously these industry titans were just plain wrong. The economic impacts of regulations to reduce pollution and improve fuel efficiency have proved to be overwhelmingly positive and helped North American cars stay competitive.

Strong regulation is the best tool to spur innovation and guarantee improvements in fuel efficiency. In fact, the history of automotive regulation shows that regulations provide certainty to the industry and offer a strong competitive incentive for automakers and suppliers to innovate in a way that would radically reduce their costs and emissions.

Furthermore, "spillover" effects have provided other unexpected technological advances.

The truth is that strict fuel efficiency standards could help save the North American car industry just as they did in the 1980s, as well as significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and North America.

Past efforts have shown regulations to be the most effective way to reduce emissions from cars. Fuel economy in the U.S. improved by more than 100 per cent from the time federal standards were first introduced until 1990.

Since then, standards have not been improved, and U.S. vehicles today are becoming less fuel efficient than they were in the 1980s.

It's time McGuinty and North American automakers got out of the rut of building yesterday's cars, and history shows that tough fuel efficiency regulations can make it happen.

Emilie Moorhouse is Sierra Club of Canada's Atmosphere and Energy Campaigner.

 


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