Hummer vs. Prius, Regulation vs. Market Signals

The headline on the front page of today’s Globe, Ottawa can’t shift green rebates into gear, is regrettably predictable. In short, not a single buyer of a 2006 or 2007 eligible model has yet received the rebate they’re entitled to under the ecoAuto program. Further, no one knows what 2008 models are eligible for the rebate (it hasn’t been announced), causing confusion and inconsistency that’s creating a “customer nightmare” and adding “an element of risk to doing business in Canada” according to Honda and DaimlerChrysler, respectively.

What’s worse, these rebates never made sense in the first place. Vehicles were made eligible for rebates based on their class first, and their emissions second. In other words, if you buy an “efficient SUV” you’re eligible for a rebate not available to someone who buys an “inefficient” regular car, even though your SUV emits more carbon emissions.

Add to the mix this confusing column about a study that concluded a Hummer is greener than a Prius, and early-eco-adopters must be ready to throw up their hands in defeat. The study took into account the total “dust to dust” (I prefer “cradle to cradle,” but ok) energy and material inputs for each vehicle, and concluded that a Hummer’s life-time environmental impact is less than that of a Toyota Prius.

Did the study get it right? I doubt it. Others have already pointed out a number of flaws and question marks with the methodology. For example, the study authors arbitrarily assigned the Prius a lifetime of 100,000 miles and the Hummer 300,000 miles (artificially amortizing the embedded energy required for research and production over a much longer period), despite the fact that a Prius will last at least twice as long as that. Not to mention the fact that the study was conducted not by a scientific group, but by a marketing company whose client list includes Chevrolet, a brand of Hummer-manufacturer General Motors. (I’m yet to see that reported anywhere, by the way.)

Why has this report nonetheless garnered so much attention and so little scrutiny outside of the blogosphere? Well, if it were true, wouldn’t it be great to rub it in the face of that treehugging, smug, judgmental Prius-owning neighbour of yours? In some circles, “environmentalist” is still a tainted word, hearkening back to the arrogant, ignorant EPA official in Ghostbusters who almost destroys the whole world with rash actions motivated by his presumed superiority.

And what if, on the other hand, there is some truth to the report? It’s possible. Considering the full life-cycle environmental and energy impacts of everything we make is a very important thing to do, and the results will often surprise us. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to tackle extremely complex problems through government regulation, and why it would be more effective in this case to harness market tools as well. A carbon tax applied early in the process would help to reveal and deter hidden energy bloat at every stage in the production process.

Government regulation can’t do that. Turns out they can’t even send out a simple cheque.

3 thoughts on “Hummer vs. Prius, Regulation vs. Market Signals

  1. I still believe in govm’t grants and surcharges (like the air conditionner tax you pay when u purchase a new car). If they put a $2000 tax on the inefficient SUVs and gave prius buyers a discount, this could work.

    If Harper’s plan is failing, it is in its implementation.

    Let’s not throw out the baby w/ the bath water. Maybe a liberal govm’t could get this right. They were good at sending cheques to voters (Chretien’s right-b4-xmas gift from several years ago).


  2. Anyone who thinks a Hummer is more efficient than any hybrid vehicle seriously needs to give their head a shake. The only way a Hummer is more efficient than a hybrid would be if the Hummer only sat in the driveway and was never used.

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