WASHINGTON - General Motors' large-car assembly plant at Orion Township, Mich., is using landfill gas from two adjacent dumps to provide power to the factory.
The effort is an example of voluntary steps the automobile industry is taking to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. But amid warnings that the effects of global warming could be worse than predicted, questions are being raised about whether voluntary efforts are enough.
The Orion program, largely unheralded, uses the power to heat and cool the factory and to run production equipment. Better known is the work industrywide to develop hybrid-powered and fuel-cell-powered vehicles with sharply reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Many scientists say such gases build up in the atmosphere and threaten the global climate.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in two reports this year said that average temperatures may rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years and that damage will be more severe and widespread than previously thought.
Alliance seeks a policy
Even President Bush, who campaigned against the 1997 Kyoto Treaty on global warming, is talking about possible controls on carbon dioxide emissions from utility plants. The tailpipes of automobiles are the next biggest source of carbon dioxide - normally a benign, even beneficial compound, but the most common of the greenhouse gases.
In short, the global warming heat is on for the automobile industry.
When he became chairman of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers this year, Jim Press, COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., said the industry needs a climate change policy.
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the alliance, which represents 13 automakers, last week said the organization is working on a policy draft.
She said, however, that concern about climate change was not a factor when alliance members decided Feb. 22 to stop asking Congress to keep federal fuel economy standards frozen at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks.
But environmental groups believe they have renewed impetus to push regulation as a climate change remedy. They still have a petition pending before the EPA seeking regulation of motor vehicles.
Terry Pritchett, director of the global climate issue team at GM's public policy center, said the emphasis must stay on development of long-term technological solutions. 'The significant reductions that are going to be needed only are going to come from a focus on technology,' he said.
Still, even shorter-term voluntary efforts add up, Pritchett said.
In its most recent report to the U.S. Department of Energy, GM said its voluntary efforts had cut emissions the equivalent of 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 1999 alone. GM is the only major automaker filing such reports.
The Department of Energy said that all voluntary reductions reported to it in 1999 totaled 226 million metric tons, about 3.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
But the EPA said total national emissions still keep edging upward, and in 1998 they were 11 percent higher than in 1990. The U.N. panel says that stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 1990 levels will require a 60 percent cut in expected worldwide emissions by 2050.