Stephen Pacala, a self-described car lover, heads the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University. Ford Motor Co. and BP PLC, the London-based energy company, are the major corporate contributors.
As an environmentalist, Pacala worries that worst-case predictions about climate change could come true - that the polar ice caps will melt and vast coastal areas will be flooded.
But as a car-loving optimist, he also believes humans can prevent disaster without giving up the vehicles they enjoy so much. Pacala, who drives an aging Ford Ranger pickup, cites the torque curve of electric cars as evidence that environmentally friendly vehicles can be fun to drive.
"The good news is that most of the problem is not coming out of the tailpipes of people's cars," Pacala says. "It's simply a misconception that people have."
But it's also true, he says, that cars and trucks are part of the problem and therefore should contribute to the solution.
The Princeton program is not working directly on vehicle technology to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But one of its big accomplishments, Pacala says, has been to develop a way to look at climate change as a manageable problem.
The scheme has attracted a lot of attention.
It divides expected greenhouse-gas emission increases over the next half century into wedges, each one representing a reasonable step that could be taken to avoid an increase in emissions. In effect, each economic sector can see what it would have to do to meet the goal of stabilizing greenhouse gases.
Viewing cars and trucks as one wedge, Pacala says the global car and truck population will triple to 2 billion vehicles in the next 50 years. So vehicles will have to average about 60 mpg by midcentury to keep emissions near today's levels.
It sounds daunting, but Pacala insists the industry need not try the hardest thing - hydrogen fuel cells - first. Instead, he says, it should focus on known and available technology, such as plug-in hybrids.
The advantage of relying more on electric power in vehicles, such as plug-in hybrids, is this: Emissions from dozens of utility plants are easier to control than those from millions of motor vehicles. Plants can use fuels with lower emissions, such as nuclear or biomass, or the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored, scientists say.
Arguing that automakers can reach the goal of dramatically improved fuel economy while still satisfying customers and making money, Pacala says, "We are a clever species."
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]