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Europe Considers Banning Sports Cars For Global Warming

Bloomberg | July 11, 2007
Doron Levin

If one of the more extreme responses to global warming comes true, driving a sports car anywhere but on a racetrack might be relegated to history's dustbin.

Fast, powerful cars within a few years may be outlawed in Europe, an idea that has been raised ostensibly because Ferraris and Porsches produce too much carbon dioxide. For those who abhor sports cars as vulgar symbols of affluence (along with vacation homes, furs and fancy jewelry), such a ban could be a two-fer: Saving the planet while cutting economic inequality.

Who are these people anyway who decide on behalf of everyone what car is proper to drive? In the U.S. they're members of Congress, which is considering fuel-efficiency standards that will affect vehicle size. In Europe, it's the ministers and parliamentarians of the European Union, which wants to limit how much CO2 cars can emit as a proxy for a fuel- consumption standard.

Chris Davies, a British member of the European Parliament, is proposing one of the most-extreme measures -- a prohibition on any car that goes faster than 162 kilometers (101 miles) an hour, a speed that everything from the humble Honda Civic on up can exceed. He ridiculed fast cars as ``boys' toys.''

The proposed ban would take effect in 2013. Davies told the Guardian newspaper that ``cars designed to go at stupid speeds have to be built to withstand the effects of a crash at those speeds. They are heavier than necessary, less fuel-efficient and produce too many emissions.''

His last point is telling, even though there are many reasons why cars are heavier, including safety measures such as air bags and steel-reinforced crumple zones.

Focused on Cars

The idea is to limit CO2, a so-called greenhouse gas blamed for causing the earth's temperature to rise.

But the debate isn't just about how much carbon dioxide to allow into the atmosphere and whether the amount actually matters. It's also about disdain some hold for the size or speed of the cars others drive.

``Automobiles always seem to be the focus, even though they only consume 15 percent or 20 percent of energy,'' said Csaba Csere, editor of Car & Driver magazine. If politicians really cared about the atmosphere they might concentrate first on power plants or factories, he said.

The folks against sports cars in Europe and big sport utility vehicles in the U.S. often are same ones who hate McMansion-sized homes, corporate jets, jumbo freezers, yachts, 60-inch flat-screens TVs, overnight-delivery services and other trappings of Western-style wealth and energy use.

Do people demonize these goods because they can't afford them? Or because they think others shouldn't have them? Proposals to limit carbon dioxide often sound like basic opposition to prosperity and rising living standards.

Planet in Peril?

Outside of a handful of command economies, few today would agree that a central authority ought to regulate who owns what. But attacking those who ``waste'' energy achieves the same goal.

Many ardent environmentalists are convinced that the planet is in peril. Why can't they be just a bit cautious, humble or skeptical in their advocacy of reduced energy consumption, which in turn must mean reduced global economic growth?

The main reason I'm wary of Al Gore's call for radical, immediate reduction of worldwide energy consumption is that he's way too sure that the human race is on the cusp of catastrophe. With no credentials of his own, Gore relies on scientists who insist we must hurry because we're approaching a point of no return.

But how about other scientists, ones who aren't sure we're on the brink? Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading climatologist, says that even if nothing is done to limit CO2, the world will heat up by 1 degree Celsius, or a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, in the next 50 to 100 years.

Move Inland

We know from everyday experience that weather forecasting is a notoriously inexact. And if the world got a bit warmer there might be more arable land and longer growing seasons in northern latitudes. Is it heresy to suggest that if seas rise, moving back from the shore might be more practical than trying to change the weather?

The polar bear population, supposedly close to being wiped out, is ``not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present,'' Mitchell Taylor of the Department of the Environment, Government of Nunavut, told the Toronto Star last year. One population in the eastern Arctic has grown to 2,100 from 850 since the mid-1980s, he said.

A half-century ago Rachel Carson popularized the modern environmental movement with ``The Silent Spring,'' a book claiming that the pesticide DDT was destroying America's wildlife. The book's impact was reduced use of the pesticide DDT, thereby leading to the unintended consequence of more mosquitoes and more malaria deaths in developing countries.

One Little Bite

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies noted an alarming rise of malaria in places like South Africa and Peru after DDT was banned in the late 1970s. Since the mid-1990s, when DDT spraying resumed, the incidence of the disease has fallen.

Calls for limits on carbon dioxide ignore a basic point. People are likely to be better judges of the benefits of fast cars, TVs, air conditioners, and jets than government planners.

Besides, the brunt of government limits on energy use may well fall on the world's poorest nations, which need more energy -- thus generating more carbon dioxide -- to provide lighting, refrigeration, harvesting, water purification and transportation.

What right do environmentalists in rich countries have to deny residents of poorer ones the benefits of higher living standards?

I have a hunch that a ban on sports cars won't be enacted soon in Europe, largely because the Italians love their Lamborghinis, the British their Bentleys and the Germans their Porsches. But this won't be the last time that anti-consumption crusaders come disguised as guardians of the Earth.

(Doron Levin is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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