From: Janet Raloff , ScienceNews
Published October 19, 2009 11:12 AM

Carbon Emissions Trends: A Hurting Economy Can Help the Planet

Sometimes what’s bad for the economy can be good for the planet. Or so argued Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, yesterday. This environmental trend spotter pointed to several developments that may have escaped our attention as the global economy alternately sputtered and entered periods of freefall throughout the past 18 months.

Trend one: U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, have taken a tumble. They’re down 9 percent since 2007, Brown notes, fueled in part by a couple other developments.

Such as trend two: Americans are buying/keeping fewer cars. During the mid- to late-1990s, automakers sold more than 15 million cars a year. "Then, in 1999, [sales] jumped up to 17 million a year, and remained there for about eight years or so," Brown says. This year: Those sales slumped to a measly 10 million. Meanwhile, U.S. motorists are on track to scrap about 14 million cars this year. So the U.S. fleet could shrink this year by nearly two percent.


Trend three: New cars tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than those now being scrapped — a trend that will only continue. There is already a rapidly expanding population of gas-sipping hybrids on the roads, and some moderately affordable, super-efficient electric and plug-in hybrids are slated to roll off assembly lines in about a year. (To help consumers find out how various cars compare in their fuel economy, the Environmental Protection Agency today released its 2010 passenger-car mileage guide.) And by 2016, thanks to a new White House policy issued in May, new U.S. cars must get an average 35.5 mpg. That's four years earlier than the 2007 Corporate Average Fuel Economy law would have driven such a 40 percent boost in average mileage.

Trend four: The weight of U.S. cars has been diminishing as increasing amounts of steel have been replaced with lighter-weight structural materials. The result: "The amount of steel in the cars being retired is at least 40 percent larger than in the new cars being sold." That’s contributing to a "steel surplus," Brown says. Virtually every gram of steel in a retired car is recycled, he explains. Because it requires only about one-third as much energy to reuse steel than to produce it from scratch, pre-owned steel not only costs less but also contributes far fewer carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

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