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American Consumers and Greener Vehicles

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There will be more and more cars on the road like the Chevy Volt. But for low carbon transportation to really take hold, Americans must overcome their resistence to changeCutting emissions from US automobiles will be critical to any strategy for slowing global warming. America’s adoption of hybrids, fully electric vehicles and fuel efficient small cars are also crucial to the transition to a low carbon economy. According to an Environmental Defence study, Global Warming on the Road (pdf), US automobiles and light trucks are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles globally.

The Global Warming on the Road study, also found that the Big Three American automakers—General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler—accounted for nearly three-quarters of the carbon dioxide released by cars and pickup trucks on US roads. The authors of the report found that cars in the US account for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions because they are driven farther, have lower fuel economy standards, and burn fuel with higher levels of carbon than many of the cars in other countries.

Although the switch to electric cars will be difficult, it is not without precedent in the US. In 1900, 38 percent of America’s fledgling car market was electric, and only 22 percent ran on gasoline. Then throughout the twentieth century, fossil fuels dominated vehicle production.

Today vehicle demand is starting to shift away from gas power towards hybrid and electric cars. Of the 11.6 million vehicles Americans bought in 2010, 2.4 percent were hybrids and this number is growing in 2011. The US vehicle market is forecasted to grow 11 percent in 2011 lead by hybrids and clean diesels.

Sales of hybrids, diesels, and small cars are the fastest growing sector of the car market. According to an analysis from the firm Baum & Associates, sales of hybrids, small cars and diesels rose at nearly three times the rate of the market as a whole from March 2010 to March 2011. Those three vehicle categories were up 46 percent this March, while the overall market was up 17 percent.

While small and hybrid cars are selling well, gas guzzling SUVs have experienced sluggish demand. In SUV sales, 2008 stands out as a declining year for this type of vehicle. Baum points out that traditional SUVs now amount to less than seven percent of the vehicle market. The increasing demand for smaller cars is also holding true in the used car segment. Earlier this year, Adesa, which is a major wholesaler for used cars, reported a 16-percent rise on prices of used four-cylinder vehicles.

According to a very conservative 2010 UK report, 21 per cent of all vehicles sold by 2020 will be hybrid or fully electric. Anaylsts at Eurotax Glass’s reported that hybrid cars are currently dominating the green market and will continue to do so until 2019, when electric vehicle sales are expected to rise.

PSA has already announced plans to produce more than 10,000 electric cars a year by the end of 2011. Nissan plans to produce 500,000 electric vehicles worldwide by the end of 2015. GM has announced a 2012 production target for the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt of 60,000 cars, 45,000 of which are designated for the US market. However, modest sales are making the American automaker reluctant to commit to significant long term production schedules. Greg Martin, spokesman for GM’s Washington office said, “We haven’t really committed to any production targets beyond 2012.”

While the adoption of electric cars may be crucial to the low carbon economy, in the US, resistance to change makes the adoption of EVs difficult. Lee Schipper, a fellow at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, has suggested that Americans are “no good at transitions.” It will be the same for electric vehicles, he said, not least because the market is not prepared to make that kind of shift.

Although the future of the planet may depend on electric vehicle sales, Americans will need to learn to embrace change.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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