Planet Gets a Lemon as Global Car Industry Revs Up

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The world’s auto manufacturers produced a record 67 million vehicles in 2006, putting more cars on the road than ever before, according to a new Vital Signs Update from the Worldwatch Institute. While global production grew 4 percent last year, China increased its production by nearly 30 percent, overtaking Germany to become the third largest producer.

"America’s car addiction is becoming a global phenomenon with no sign of reversing,” says Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner, who authored the update. “This trend begs immediate and innovative transportation solutions to address the consumption of fossil fuels that is harming our climate.”

China’s rise represents the most dramatic change in the world auto industry, with production there more than quintupling in the last decade. Sales within China surpassed the 3 million mark in 2005, with nearly 9 million passenger cars on the country’s roads. While this is still a comparatively small fleet, it is likely to grow rapidly in coming years, and China is expected to become a major exporter within the next four years.

Traffic congestion, road accidents, air pollution, climate change, and peak oil are all challenges the world faces from car-centered transportation, according to the Institute’s State of the World 2007 report. On average, urban car travel uses nearly twice as much energy as urban bus travel.

Despite growing awareness of environmental impacts from burning fossil fuels, consumers have generally been slow to adopt more fuel-efficient vehicles. However, the rise in oil prices and concerns about climate change in recent years have spurred interest in more efficient vehicles, including low-emission diesels and hybrids. Toyota, the largest distributor of hybrid gasoline-electric cars, sold 312,500 hybrids in 2006 and expects to sell 430,000 in 2007. Dozens of new hybrid vehicle models are under development by Toyota and other companies.

Governments are increasingly eager to regulate fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions. In the late 1990s, car manufacturers selling to the European Union voluntarily agreed to reduce carbon emissions to 140 grams per kilometer by 2008, but they have not yet come close to meeting this target. In response, the EU decided to impose mandatory limits requiring further cuts to 130 grams per kilometer. Meanwhile, California sued six of the world’s largest automakers over climate change, charging that greenhouse gases from their vehicles have caused billions of dollars in damages. China’s first national mandatory fuel economy standards went into force in July 2005, and a more stringent second phase will be introduced in January 2008.

In the United States, where the 2006 model year included the heaviest vehicles in three decades, the Senate passed an energy bill last week that includes an increase in average fuel economy from 25 to 35 miles per gallon for cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks by 2020.

“With more cars on the road year after year, regulating auto fuel consumption and emissions alone is not a solution. What is truly needed is a transportation revolution,” says Renner. “Cities from Bogotá to London are decreasing their dependence on cars, and many more cities could follow their example. We need denser cities with better land-use practices and a commitment to public transportation.” Innovative transportation solutions, such as bus rapid transit and light rail, are already helping to green urban transportation, according to State of the World 2007.