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The Terminator: I'll be backing biofuel

Date: 24 January 2007

How Arnie and California are pushing the climate change agenda in the US. Guy Bird writes

Arnold Schwarzenegger's carbon footprint didn't used to be so light. As one of the world's biggest movie stars, endless global travel, plush hotels and a major cigar habit made the man heavily energy-intensive and polluting, which in today's climate change-obsessed world is a 'bad thing' - especially when all you really have to show for it are the first two Terminator movies and at a push Total Recall. (I shudder to think of the pointless but heavy CO2 impact of making and distributing Red Sonja.)

Add in the fact he was almost single-handedly responsible for making the vaguely sensible Humvee military vehicle into the hugely ridiculous and fuel-hungry commercial Hummer passenger truck, and you have the most unlikely Friend of the Earth on earth.

How things change. Since becoming Governor of California the body-builder-turned-politician has converted his Hummer to run on hydrogen and spotted the link between environmental awareness and potential profits. Take just one case in point - if California's climate gets too hot through global warming its massive wine industry could be done for. That would be a local economic disaster and vote loser for the big guy (not to mention bad news for New World wine lovers).

California greening

Thus, like many of its leaders before him, Schwarzenegger and California are leading the political charge to make the US greener, and his latest plan to do it is by embracing biofuels. In the opening week of the Detroit motor show - where the truck (and muscle car) are kings - Schwarzenegger announced he would ask regulators to require California State's oil refineries and gas stations to cut global warming gas production by 10% by 2020.

Experts say he intends to achieve that reduction by using ethanol, fossil fuel blends, natural gas and other alternative fuels, which will kick-start local production of corn-based ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable fuels, and will therefore boost the Californian economy.

It has been heralded as the first example of the practical impact of the deal Arnie struck last summer to bind the State into reducing carbon dioxide by about 25% overall by 2020 (transport accounts for 40% of Cali's CO2 output - with cars representing half of that).

And rather than sell it as a purely moral crusade, the truck-happy electorate is being told it's a way to free the US from dependency on foreign oil. Smooth manoeuvre.

Zero emission to hero decision?

"So what?" you might think. One state in the US has pledged to do what most European countries - including the UK - have already said they'd do. But just remember that California is at least the 10th biggest economy in the world (according to the CIA-produced 2005 World Factbook) with emissions to match, and where it leads, other US states (and countries) will follow.

Yes, it does a few daft things like trying to sue carmakers over air quality and demand zero emission vehicles from manufacturers before they can make them commercially viable, but its impetus is in the right direction and - just like Gordon Brown incentivising Euro4 diesels before anyone made them - encourages change. There are plenty of Euro4 diesels now in the UK and there may just be plenty of biofuel cars in the US pretty soon too - which strengthens the economic case for carmakers to produce them and for companies to provide more biofuel. And as you should know by now, if every vehicle in the world drank only 5% blend of petrol or diesel with biofuel it would do a lot more for the planet's overheating than a few Prius hybrids.

Of course, both routes are useful, but Cali's clear and clean thinking could really be the start of something big - a change of US mindset with meaningful action that actually makes things happen without us all having to wear hair shirts.

Unfortunately, Arnie was unavailable to talk directly to BusinessCar but we did receive a strange message on our answer phone last week with a distinctly Austro-American-electronic twang: "I'll be back-ing biofuel," it said. Way to go Mr Terminator.

Guy Bird is our editor-at-large and political columnist