'Think Tank' Aspires to Decrease Auto Pollution





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At the opening ceremony of the 2000 summer Olympic games, Honda debuted its new television commercial, claiming that it is the least polluting car company in the market.

The ranking was conducted by the independent Union of Concerned Scientists, a national organization with transportation headquarters in Berkeley. The study used recent data on air pollution and emissions to rank each automaker's sales in the nation.

The Berkeley office of the Union of Concerned Scientists helps to shape government policies by conducting state-wide technical studies and raising citizen advocacy of environmental issues.

In California, the group is currently undertaking two major projects.

The first involves getting zero-emission vehicles, cars that emit no tailpipe pollution, on the road. In fact, unlike conventional automobiles, these new vehicles will not need tailpipes. Instead, they will rely on a new fuel-cell technology that promises high efficiency, zero emissions, and use of non-petroleum fuels, says Jason Mark, senior transportation analyst.

"As with other electric-drive vehicles, fuel-cell cars are quiet, smooth and fun to drive," says Mark. "Fuel cell buses are already operating in Chicago and Vancouver, while California is working with automakers and fuel companies to produce up to 50 demonstration vehicles in the next few years."

Millions of people across the country face serious health hazards from breathing polluted air, according to the organization's reports. While federal regulations have focused increasing attention on these health hazards, they have not completely solved the problems arising from car and truck emissions. In fact, transportation is still the largest single source of air pollution in the United States, a report says.

The organization recently scored a large victory when California regulators upheld a rule that will require automakers to bring zero-emission cars to California starting in 2003. As a result, harmful tailpipe emissions will be reduced to near-zero levels in at least 10 percent of the new cars sold in California in 2003.

The second major area in which the group is involved in California is diesel pollution. Diesel engines power most of the nation's trucks and buses. Yet each diesel engine can produce tons of air pollutants, posing major health hazards to the public.

"AC Transit has shown interest in zero-emission buses by experimenting with fuel cell buses," said Mark. "But Muni in San Francisco has been disappointing."

The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded in 1969 by faculty members and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who were concerned about the misuse of science and technology in society.

Their mission called for scientific research that would address environmental and social problems. The California office, which is located here in Berkeley, started in 1992 to focus on transportation policy.

"The exciting thing about the UCS is the unique role that we provide in the community - the combination of scientific grounding with environmental advocacy," says Michael Pancook, a spokesperson for the group.

On the national level, the Union of Concerned Scientists is working on a campaign to bring "greener" SUVs to the road.

"There are loopholes existing in clean air rules that allow SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans to be less efficient and more polluting than cars," says Mark. "If you are driving an SUV, you are paying more at the pump and contributing more to global warming and pollution."

In an effort to encourage automakers to incorporate environmentally sound designs in their vehicles, a group of engineers at the organization took the Ford Explorer, the most popular SUV on the market, and redesigned it using affordable, existing technology. The new model, named the Exemplar, achieved 50 percent better mileage, pollutes 75 percent less and has a lower total cost comparable to the Ford Explorer.

"As a result of our work, Ford has come out and said they are going to voluntarily boost fuel economy of the SUVs by 25 percent by 2005," says Mark. "GM came out a week later and said they're going to match for it."

The Union of Concerned Scientists interacts often with UC Berkeley's Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering departments, as well as the scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"One of the reasons why we set up our office in Berkeley is because the university is here," says Mark. "It is logical for an organization that is built upon research and science to try to get scientists involved in the public policy process."

The organization has received praise from scientists and environmentalists alike.

"They (Union of Concerned Scientists) do a great job of bringing scientists' expertise into the policies," said Susan Stevenson, manager of the California Global Warming Campaign. "They identify spokespeople in the scientific community to speak out about environmental issues, particularly issues around air quality, technology, and nuclear issues."

What distinguishes the Union of Concerned Scientists from other research and environmental groups?

"We are more characterized as the environmental think tank," Mark says. "We look at the information that research laboratories will produce and draw conclusions from those for policy-makers. The power we have comes from understanding the technical issues and having some expertise in the policy area rather than strength numbers."

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