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Cash for Clunkers: An Environmental Thought Experiment

Because the specifics of all of the cars traded and sold are obviously out of our reach at the moment (as well as the government’s, it seems), let’s just calculate the absolute minimal environmental difference the $1 billion made. Because consumers could take advantage of the CARS program as long as they traded in a car that got a combined fuel economy of less than 18 mpg for one that got an EPA rating of 4 mpg more than the trade-in, we’ll use only that example.

Yes, we understand trucks and SUVs are also part of the equation, but early reports show an overwhelming amount of the trade-ins were for cars. A slight majority even earned the top $4,500 credit, meaning they got a new car with a 10-mpg improvement over their trade-in. But we’re just sticking to these figures to hedge our bets and give a basic outlook.

Say you scrapped a 2000 Chevrolet Blazer with two-wheel drive, which gets a combined EPA rating of 18 mpg, for a 2009 Honda Element with two-wheel drive with an EPA rating of 22 mpg.

According to the Department of Energy, your annual fuel cost (based on driving 15,000 miles with gas averaging $2.44 per gallon) would drop from $2,035 to $1,665. You would save 3.4 barrels of oil, which yields 142.8 gallons of gas for the year. According to Terrapass.com, your carbon footprint would drop from 13,043 pounds of CO2 per year to 10,671 pounds per year.

So, if we assume that all of the approximate 250,000 Cash for Clunker trade-ins followed this very minimal model — helping the environment and U.S. oil dependency by only the weakest measure the program would allow — we’re still talking about an annual fuel savings of $92.5 million for American drivers.

We’re talking about 850,000 barrels of oil saved per year, or 35.7 million gallons of gas.

We’re talking about 593 million pounds of carbon dioxide that’s not spewed into the atmosphere.

And again, let us stress that this is assuming no one scrapped a Silverado for a Prius.

Say what you will about the CARS program being bureaucratic mess, but when’s the last time anyone made an environmental impact like this in one week?