My Turn: Climate villain? Our bad choices

A worker assembles an SUV at a car plant of Li Auto, a major Chinese EV maker, in Changzhou in eastern China’s Jiangsu province on March 27, 2024.

A worker assembles an SUV at a car plant of Li Auto, a major Chinese EV maker, in Changzhou in eastern China’s Jiangsu province on March 27, 2024. CHINATOPIX VIA AP, FILE

By BILL LAFLEY

Published: 06-23-2024 11:00 AM

 

I have grown weary of the narrative pushed constantly by My Turn and letter writers that corporate America and politicians are responsible for the increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the changes it appears to be causing — note the latest column, “Ruination of Nature should bring corporate death penalty,” June 15. I am sure they bear some of the responsibility, but as I look around I see a different villain.

In 1990, the percentage of SUVs registered in the U.S. was 10.5%, and pickup trucks were at 18.5%. As of 2022, larger and heavier SUV and pickups make up over 62% of registered vehicles — and not only are there more of them, but pickup trucks are on the average 1,300 pounds heavier than they were in 1990.

It does not take an engineering degree to realize that these bigger and heavier vehicles (Toyota Tundra melters, Subaru Forest burners, Toyota Sequoia killers, etc., etc.) take a lot more energy to move them. This not only results in more CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, but Americans’ supersizing of the cars they prefer has offset much of the gains in efficiency from lighter materials and newer transmission and engine technology.

This all results in more oil drilling, transporting that oil and refining it, and complicates the transition to electrifying vehicles — since larger vehicles require larger batteries, hence more mining of the heavy metals used in the batteries. At this point, we are replacing gas-guzzling for electricity-guzzling.

Corporations are not responsible for Americans wanting to drive giant vehicles. They are in the business of making money, so if millions of Americans went into car dealerships asking for cars that get 50-plus mph, then that is what they would manufacture.

A second example: The average house size in 1980 was 1,595 square feet, and in 2018 it was 2,386 square feet, a 49% increase in size — even though the average family size has fallen 7% over the same period. More space equals more heating, cooling, electricity use and materials used in construction, all resulting in higher emissions of CO2.

As with vehicles, this supersizing of homes has offset much of the gains in energy efficiency of construction, appliances, lighting, etc. It’s difficult to blame corporate America for this one, either. Every day we make dozens of economic and lifestyle choices that require those corporations to produce more and more to cater to our high-consumption lifestyles.

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It’s hard to see how reducing one’s personal carbon emissions is going to change the course of global emissions, and some of the largest emitters (concrete, steel and plastic manufacturing) are going to need innovative technologies to bring those emissions under control. However, there are over 330 million of us in the U.S., and reversing the above trends would send a message to corporations that we care about the planet and our impact on it.

As the saying from the classic baseball movie goes, “If you build it, they will come.” In the case of our choices that impact energy use and the resulting CO2 emissions, it’s just as true to say: “If you overuse it, they will mine it, generate it and drill baby drill it.”

Bill Lafley lives in New Salem.