The Cash for Clunkers program, which ended earlier this week, was touted by many as both an economic stimulus and a boon for the environment.
But at least one expert – UC Davis professor Charles Knittel – didn’t think so.
Knittel released an 11-page research paper last week arguing that the Cash for Clunkers program wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Cash for Clunkers is an ineffective environmental policy,” he said in a phone interview. “It might be an effective and efficient stimulus policy, but not an environmental one.“
Knittel uses numbers from a CNN report about the average mileage and miles per gallon of the clunkers and their replacement vehicles in order to set up his calculations. Assuming 12,000 miles driven for each vehicle at 16 mpg and 25 mpg respectively, the Cash for Clunkers program saves approximately 270 gallons of fuel per year per car – a minimal reduction at best.
But even that figure could be generous.
“It’s possible there can actually be no gain,” Knittel said. “I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible. The savings are reduced if you think the new car will be driven more than the old car.“
The environmental benefits of the program do not improve even if the numbers widen to include other pollutants.
“Even if you credit the program for [reducing] those emissions, it’s still an expensive program,“ he said.
Knittel is not alone in his questioning of the program’s environmental benefits. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argued publicly that assisting consumers in acquiring more fuel-efficient vehicles would increase rather than decrease the amount of pollution.
“If the amount of cookie consumption was constant, then a lower-calorie cookie would lead to thinner waistlines,” he wrote. “But if someone makes a less fattening, delicious cookie, I’ll want to eat plenty of them.“
Despite the programs‘ shortcomings in terms of environmental protection, many agreed that it was effective in accomplishing its other objective – selling more cars.
“It has been successful beyond anyone’s imagination,” said President Obama last week during a radio interview with host Mike Smerconish.
The Cash for Clunkers program will be followed in the fall by the Cash for Refrigerators program, which would allow consumers to trade in outdated appliances for a rebate that would ideally be used to purchase a more environmentally conscious version of the same appliance.
RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.