By Donella Meadows
–July 28, 1988–
In more than 60 U.S. cities, where 75 million Americans live, the air regularly violates health standards, and it’s getting worse.
The original Clean Air Act deadline for making city air breathable was 1975. That deadline was extended to 1977, then 1982, then December 31, 1987, then August 31, 1988. If the EPA ever decides to enforce the law, the penalty for non-compliance will be a moratorium on construction of new air-pollution sources and a termination of federal funds for highways, sewers, and other growth-inducing infrastructure.
The cities are searching frantically for some way to make the air cleaner. One solution to their problem, they hope, is methanol.
Methanol is made from natural gas, coal, or biomass. With some fiddling, internal combustion engines can be made to run on methanol-gasoline mixtures. Those mixtures reduce emissions of some air pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide.
Formaldehyde, a carcinogen and also a smog constituent, increases when methanol is burned. But formaldehyde levels are not now a problem in the cities. So there is an enormous push to get methanol into automobile fuel.
Congress has come up with the Alternative Fuels Act to promote the use of methanol, ethanol, and other new fuels. Among other provisions, the Act offers auto makers an enticement they’ve been wanting for a long time. To the extent that they make cars that can burn relatively clean fuels like methanol, they will be exempted from the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards, the regulations that have forced them, against their undying resistance, to make vehicles with better gas mileage.
The car companies love the Alternate Fuels Act because of the CAFE rollback. City officials love it — it looks like a magic-bullet solution to their air quality problem. Celanese, the company now ready to make methanol from natural gas, loves it. Congressmen from mining states see in it a vast new market for coal. The Act passed the House 327-29 and the Senate unanimously. It is now in conference committee, soon to be sent to President Reagan for signing.
The Alternative Fuels Act is intended to improve the environment, but one environmentalist I know calls it “a lose-lose-lose proposition.” Lose #1 — it tackles a large, complex problem with a vastly inadequate solution. Lose #2 — it makes other problems worse. Lose #3 — it reverses or deflects attention from far more effective measures.
The act doesn’t require drivers to use methanol, even if their cars are equipped for it. It can’t guarantee that methanol-fuelled vehicles will be driven in the areas with the offending air. It won’t affect the car fleet fast enough to clean up urban air any time this century. It does not address non-vehicular sources of air pollution.
Worse, methanol burning will increase emissions of carbon dioxide, a major cause of greenhouse warming and global climate change. If methanol is made from natural gas, it will produce about as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy used as gasoline — with the fuel efficiency rollback, that means more carbon dioxide per mile driven. If methanol is made from coal, it will DOUBLE carbon dioxide emissions, even if efficiency remains the same.
Worst of all, scuttling the CAFE standards undoes one of the most effective measures for reducing urban air pollution AND greenhouse emissions, acid rain, fossil-fuel depletion, oil imports, and Persian Gulf defense costs.
The CAFE standards have brought the U.S. car fleet’s average mileage up from 13 mpg in 1973 to 18 mpg, saving billions of dollars, millions of barrels of imported oil, and tons of pollutants. The current average mileage requirement for new American-made cars is 26 mpg (Congress set it at 27.5, but the administration weakened it.) Of course 30, 40, or 50 mpg cars are possible — many are on our roads now. If we tighten CAFE standards instead of loosening them, we can double the mileage of cars, vans, and light trucks, save money doing it, and make progress on many economic and environmental problems at once.
Fuel efficiency is one of the best ways to clean up the air, but it’s not the only one. The cities and the federal government know very well what else needs to be done. If they were not clinging to the hope of magical new fuels, they would get on with it. They would enforce federal standards and the cities’ own clean air plans. They would assure inspection of pollution control equipment, tighten emission standards on trucks and buses, provide decent mass-transit systems, and crack down on gross polluters.
Above all, they would take transportation and land-use planning seriously They would address the questions that they’re going to have to face anyway one of these days. Even if each factory, building, and car emits less pollution, how many of them can be crammed into a finite space? How big should cities be?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988