How do you say “clunker” in French?

The U.S. “cash-for-clunkers” program—formally known as the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) Program—has apparently been successful far beyond what Washington policy-makers expected.  The $1 billion set aside for the program ran out in a matter of days, leading Congress to vote an additional $2 billion for it. Government data indicate that the average rating for the new car purchases that were stimulated by the program was 25.4 miles per gallon, compared with an average of just 15.8 mpg for the surrendered clunkers.

For a nation that for many years defiantly purchased clunkers … err, SUVs, in the face of worrisome resource and environmental trends, that’s not a mean feat to accomplish.  Still, the 7 million tons of carbon emissions avoided over the next decade by trading in a quarter million gas guzzlers are equal to just 0.04 percent of total U.S. emissions of 16 billion tons from gasoline-powered vehicles over the same period of time.

The United States will have to keep working hard to reduce the environmental footprint of its transportation system, catching up to Europe, Japan, and even China in fuel economy.

France, which already has far more efficient vehicles than the United States, in December 2007 adopted an “ecological bonus-malus” program [PDF; in French] for new car purchases to further reduce the carbon footprint of cars. The program offers a bonus of €200–1,000 ($275–1,380) for vehicles emitting a maximum of 130 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer, and €5,000 for those emitting no more than 60 grams. (More efficient cars emit less CO2).

But the program also brings in revenue, and provides an incentive not to purchase less efficient cars. Vehicles emitting more than 160 grams of CO2 are subject to a charge of €200–2,600 ($275–3,580). As a result, the share of newly registered vehicles that emit less than 130 grams per kilometer rose from 31 percent to 44 percent in a single year.

The French experience offers some good lessons for the United States.  Automobile manufacturers would have far greater incentive to meet and surpass corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards if car buyers could be persuaded to consistently seek out the most efficient models.  As under the French approach, buying a gas guzzler would attract a hefty fee, while purchasing a top-performing vehicle would be supported either with cash incentives or tax benefits.

Further, instead of only imposing average fuel economy requirements, the government should consider outlawing sales of any vehicle that does not meet a minimal mileage requirement. This floor could then be raised with each passing year.

There is no shortage of effective measures to reduce the climate footprint of vehicles.  Ultimately, however, it’s even more important to work on reducing the heavy reliance on cars and to promote public transit, rail, and walkable communities.

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