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Big business and greenhouse: a declaration of surrender

By Sharon Beder - posted Monday, 6 February 2006


Government leaders meeting in Sydney to discuss climate change said we could trust big business to reduce greenhouse gases without regulations or binding targets. This is more a declaration of surrender than a demonstration of trust. The genuine commitment of big business is belied by their recent history of denying problems such as global warming and opposing fuel efficiency standards.

Take motor vehicle manufacturers as an example. Motor vehicles make a significant contribution to greenhouse gases and therefore global warming. Yet the response of car makers to a Californian plan to require greenhouse gas emissions from cars to be reduced by 25 per cent by 2012 was to threaten to sue the government. This is even though the cost of meeting these measures is only around $300 a vehicle.

The SUV Owners of America (SUVOA) organisation has been running a series of advertisements opposing California's proposed regulations for greenhouse gas emissions for cars. It is run by a PR firm, Strat@comm, whose clients include GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford as well as two major automobile trade associations.

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Various front groups have been formed by big oil, coal and car companies to oppose measures to prevent global warming. Perhaps the most well known was the Global Climate Coalition, a coalition of 50 US trade associations and private companies representing oil, gas, coal, automobile and chemical companies and trade associations. It spent millions of dollars in its campaign to persuade the public and governments that global warming was not a real threat. It was only when Coalition activities began receiving unwanted publicity in 1997 that corporations began to pull out, fearing for their reputations.

The Coalition for Vehicle Choice was established by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America to fight standards for fuel consumption in new cars. It was also part of the lobbying effort to undermine the Kyoto protocol during the 1990s. Its members include a variety of automobile manufacturers associations, motorists associations and business groups. It has received funds from car manufacturers including Ford, GM and Chrysler.

Motor vehicle manufacturers have long waged a campaign against proposed regulations aimed at enforcing greater fuel efficiency in new cars. The Union of Concerned Scientists claims that the car companies have the technology to improve the fuel economy of passenger cars but have instead prioritised increasing size and power. This is because there are higher profits to be made on large, powerful cars than on small, more fuel-efficient cars.

Barry Commoner quotes a former General Motors executive as having said "when we should have been planning switches to smaller, more fuel-efficient lighter cars in the late 1960s in response to growing demand in the marketplace, GM management refused because we make more money on big cars".

Little has changed. When a Bill was introduced into the US Congress in 2002 proposing fuel efficiency standards be improved, GM vice president Guy Briggs stated that none of GM's pickups, vans or sports utility vehicles (SUVs) would be able to meet them and it would be better to encourage alternative fuels and car engines, such as hybrid electric or fuel cell vehicles, with tax incentives paid to consumers who buy them.

In 1990 the California Air Resources Board ruled that 10 per cent of new cars in 2004 would have to be non-polluting. This would have amounted to about 100,000 cars, particularly electric vehicles. However the quota has been fought and eroded by car makers ever since and in 2003 the regulation was revised to require tens of thousands of gas-electric hybrids and 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2008 and 2,500 by 2011. Even this watered down requirement is likely to be challenged by car makers like Ford which says it would find it difficult to meet the quotas for fuel cell vehicles.

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Various studies have been done to show that tightened vehicle fuel efficiency standards would create jobs and save money while also reducing emissions. Recently Bezdek and Wendling found that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created, GDP would be increased, and each year drivers would save billions of dollars, oil consumption would be reduced by billions of gallons and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by around a hundred million tons.

When big business opposes such benign token measures, there is little reason to trust them to voluntarily put in place effective measures to prevent global warming any time soon.

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About the Author

Professor Sharon Beder is in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She is author of several books including This Little Kiddy Went to Market (UNSW Press, 2009), Global Spin (Scribe, 2002), Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda (Earthscan, 2006), Environmental Principles and Policies (UNSW Press, 2006) and Power Play: The Struggle for Control of the World's Electricity (Scribe, 2003). Many of her articles can be downloaded at http://herinst.org/sbeder

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