In the early 1970s, the United States took the global lead in promoting environmental action. While Europe's roadsides were littered with trash, and Japan's rapid industrial growth overwhelmed all environmental concerns, Congress was passing landmark measures to protect the nation's air and water. U.S. industry responded with technological brilliance -- catalytic converters, smokestack scrubbers and water-filtration systems.
U.S. environmental leadership has eroded, however, in recent years. At the same time that nascent Green parties were winning seats in Europe's parliaments and introducing more stringent environmental standards, the Reagan administration was undermining environmental protection laws as part of its campaign to deregulate the economy. Japan quickly stepped in to satisfy American consumers' appetites for fuel-efficient, less-polluting cars while Detroit expended its energy on fighting fuel-economy standards.
Critics say that President Bush, the self-appointed “environmental president,” has done little to enhance U.S. leadership in environmental affairs. Aside from the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which impose stricter standards on emissions of airborne pollutants, the past four years have seen relatively little progress in federal initiatives to protect the environment. Recently, the United States refused to adopt a timetable for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide as part of an international effort to curb global warming.#
The strictest measures to protect the environment are coming from state legislatures, led by California. Dealers there must begin selling pollution-free cars in 1998. By 2003, 10 percent of all new cars sold in the state must be free of harmful emissions. The only cars able to meet this standard run on batteries. Because California itself is one of the biggest auto markets in the world -- and because other states are considering adopting its pollution standards -- Detroit carmakers are rushing to meet the deadlines.
Electric cars are not entirely new, but Detroit has never put much effort into developing them. Older prototypes can only travel relatively short distances before the battery runs down. But with the huge California auto market at stake, Detroit is suddenly showing renewed interest in the electric car. General Motors took the lead, and already has developed a two-passenger model, the Impact, scheduled for production in the mid-1990s.
Ford, too, is gearing up. It has developed a conventional gasoline powered car for the California market. The 1993 Escort, a subcompact, will meet the state's emissions standards for 1997 when it goes on sale in California later this month. Chrysler, meanwhile, has entered into a joint venture with Westinghouse Electric Corp. to develop a faster electric car with a longer travel range between rechargings.
But Detroit will face stiff competition in California from Japan and several European carmakers. Clean Air Transport Ltd., an Anglo- Swedish company, plans next year to introduce a car that runs on both gasoline and electricity. Italy's Fiat has already begun producing the tiny Panda Elettra, and BMW of Germany has also developed an electric prototype. Japan, Detroit's main competitor in the conventional car market, is weighing in with an electric car built by Nissan Motor Co. and another model under joint development by Mitsubishi Motors and Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Because of increasingly stringent pollution control laws at home, these foreign companies were busy gearing up to develop low-emission vehicles at the same time Detroit was relaxing in the deregulatory climate of the past decade. Michael E. Porter, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, cites the example of fuel- efficiency standards, which the Reagan administration reduced. Today, he writes, “The strictest regulations in many of these areas are first introduced abroad. Foreign companies learn to deal with stricter standards before American firms, giving them an advantage when U.S. regulations catch up.”##
Both European and Japanese companies work much more closely with their governments in research efforts, a tradition that further enhances their ability to quickly develop new technologies. In 1990, for example, Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) presented a longrange plan for coordinating industry efforts to cope with environmental problems.
“The future holds great promise for technologies and products that are responsive to environmental concerns,” says Michael Bean, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “The perception exists that Japan is way ahead of us on that. Just as they were way ahead of us in producing small, fuel-efficient cars, they are way ahead of us in producing new solar and other energy technologies. Our failure to capitalize on the future demand for that sort of technology will mean that the jobs to create those products will exist out of the country, not here.” # The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, the so-called Earth Summit, begins June 6 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of its main aims is signing a treaty to limit emissions of carbon dioxide. As a result of U.S. opposition, negotiators in early May dropped language from the draft treaty requiring industrial nations to cut their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. ## Michael E. Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, (1990), p. 525.