Canada Can Learn from California

To mandate or not to mandate, that is the question. At least, that is the question Canada's environment minister, Stéphan Dion, is asking in regards to fuel efficiency standards for new cars sold in Canada.

To mandate or not to mandate, that is the question.

At least, that is the question our environment minister, Stéphan Dion, is asking in regards to fuel efficiency standards for new cars sold in Canada. Minister Dion is in discussions with the auto industry and has suggested a25 per cent improvement by 2010. The industry apparently isn't happy with this goal and opposes any mandated targets that will legally oblige automakers to meet deadlines. Instead, the industry wants to continue with a "voluntary" approach.

Given the auto industry's track record on this issue, one must hope Minister Dion sticks with a mandatory approach. More than two decades ago, the industry fought fuel-efficiency legislation - touting the voluntary approach and promising to make more efficient cars. Well, we're still waiting. Today's vehicles on average actually get worse gas mileage than they did back then - back before cell phones, the Internet, satellite television and even widespread use of personal computers. It seems that every other technology has managed to leap ahead - except for our ability to make our cars more fuel efficient.

As part of a fact-finding mission, Minister Dion is in California this week to talk to Governor Schwarzenegger about legislating cleaner cars. A Republican governor may seem like an odd choice for advice on the subject, but the Government of California has just legislated mandatory emission standards for all new vehicles sold in the state. Their new laws have targets and timetables that the industry will be legally required to meet.

Of course, automakers have cried foul and are actually suing the State of California over the new laws. They point to all the innovative work they are doing on fuel cells and cars of the future. Unfortunately, such innovations are decades away from being practical or affordable. Simply making cars more fuel efficient meets both those requirements today. There's no reason why consumers should have to wait for the ultimate car of the future when solutions are available now.


This isn't the first time the auto industry has fought innovation. In the 1970s, the industry said that putting pollution control measures on their cars was technically unfeasible and too expensive, and only grudgingly made changes after legislation required them to do so. Yet now, the industry boasts about how much cleaner their cars are today. The industry also fought air bags and refused to install them until they were required by law. Again, the industry now boasts about how much safer cars are today.

California is not the only jurisdiction to be moving ahead in demanding cleaner cars. Europe and Japan have also developed new standards. In both of these regions, automakers are required to make their vehicles 25 per cent more fuel efficient. Automakers there have agreed, yet the same automakers are vehemently opposed to better standards here. China, a developing nation, is also seriously considering following Europe's lead and instituting stricter standards.

For the sake of Canadians' health and well-being, one must hope that Minister Dion will be encouraged by California's success at developing mandatory targets and stick to his guns. After all, if a Hummer-driving Republican can see the advantages of stronger fuel-efficiency legislation, we must hope that the Canadian political leaders of all stripes will be able to do the same.

Mandating cleaner cars would go a long way towards helping Canada meet our Kyoto targets. It would reduce air pollution, slow global warming and save us money at the pump. The auto industry has given us two decades of broken promises. It's time to stop asking questions and start demanding answers.

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Source: David Suzuki Foundation