Increasing fuel efficiency in vehicles by itself simply lowers the cost of driving and encourages more sprawl development.
By Don McLean
Published March 19, 2007
People concerned about the fate of the planet should think carefully about calling for improved fuel efficiency in automobiles, and not just because George W. Bush is a recent convert to this idea. While on the surface this looks like a way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, even that objective may not be attained, and several related problems will actually get worse.
The OPEC oil price jump in the 1970s led various governments, including those in Canada and the US, to raise the standards for vehicle fuel efficiency. It is now understood that the initial reductions in fuel consumption were fairly quickly overwhelmed by an increase in the amount of driving and the number of cars, especially once the price of oil went back down.
This is often described as the Jevons Paradox, a reference to the observations of an English economist in the 1800s that improved efficiency of steam engines actually resulted in much greater consumption of the coal to drive them.
A more recent example is the rapid expansion in the size of houses (the McMansion phenomena) as the energy costs of heating such behemoths has decreased.
None of this should be surprising. Improving vehicle fuel efficiency means lowering the price of driving. A car that gets 20 km to the litre costs its owner half the amount of gas as a car that gets only 10 km to the litre to go the same distance.
To the extent that price matters to the owner of the more efficient vehicle, that may well lead him to drive twice as far in any given year. It also appears to have contributed to the shift from a one-car family to a two, three or four car family.
So the fuel efficiency that is supposed to reduce consumption of fuel, also increases consumption of vehicles (and all the energy output required to produce them)!
Evidence of this can be seen in the rapid rise in sales of Toyota, Mazda and other more fuel efficient vehicles, while the gas guzzlers are dragging GM, Ford and Chrysler toward bankruptcy. And this trend began well before the recent jumps in gas prices.
Another effect of improved car fuel efficiency is less incentive to switch to alternative forms of transportation such as transit, cycling and walking.
The price advantage of these much more environmentally friendly ways of getting around is eroded by improved car fuel efficiency, so higher car fuel efficiency likely means fewer people moving to transit.
Perhaps even more problematic is that improved fuel efficiency doesn't reduce any of the other problems associated with car dependency. Indeed it likely increases demand for more roads as well as for more sprawl development, since it is now cheaper to live further away from where you work and shop.
Since it leads to more driving, it also results in additions to the already staggering toll of injuries and deaths associated with vehicle use.
Fuel efficiency standards have other problems. They are applied to manufacturers of vehicles, not to the purchasers and users, so they perpetuate the myth that someone else is going to deal with air pollution and climate change. Indeed, instead of penalizing people for driving more and accelerating climate change, government imposition of fuel efficiency standards actually rewards people for driving more.
One approach that would seem to hold more promise in a market economy is to impose regulations that directly increase the cost of driving. Some governments have gingerly started down this path by imposing higher vehicle licensing fees on V8s, SUVs and other high fuel consumption vehicle types.
But these measures only penalize drivers for the type of vehicle they own, leaving them free to drive that gas guzzler as often and as far as they want. Once you've bought the bigger vehicle, it's a big move to sell it just to save on the annual licence fee. There's no small step here, only a complete reversal of the original decision on what vehicle to buy.
So let's add another element to the licence fee mix by linking the amount of the fee directly to the amount of kilometres driven in the previous year. The more you drive, the more you pay. And conversely, if you drive less, you save money on your licence fee.
The average Canadian vehicle travels about 18,000 km a year (1,500 a month). We could start by charging an extra fee, on a sliding scale, for anything over this average, probably calculating in 1000 km increments.
So if you were over 19,000 you might pay an extra $25, and over 20,000 it would be an extra $50, and so on. This system should also allow for some reductions in fees – in small increments for driving 1000 or more less than the average.
Once the system was in place, then the distance per year at which there was no penalty could be steadily ratched down – in the same way that a carbon trading system works. So in the second year the "average" at which no extra charges were imposed could be moved down to 17,000. As governments (and the public) become increasingly worried about climate change, the ratchetting could become more rapid.
A step-by-step introduction would give drivers the time to modify their habits to avoid the extra charges – perhaps moving their home closer to their job, talking their kid out of "rep" hockey, using the transit system more often, cycling to the some destinations, and so on.
Such a system would be much fairer than the current one where the person wanting to reduce their greenhouse gas output usually has to pay far more for a hybrid or other more efficient vehicle – effectively penalizing positive behaviour and rewarding negative.
In this new system, the person who drove the most, and therefore put the most carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, would have to pay the most. The person who drove less, and thus demanded fewer roads, made less contribution to congestion and accidents, and probably used alternative transportation more often, would pay less and thus be rewarded for their more positive behaviour.
The fee structure for such a system would have to be set carefully to ensure that there was no financial incentive to go out and buy another car so both your vehicles would get under the ‘average' cutoff. This would require a relatively high basic charge for every licenced vehicle, but doesn't appear to be a insurmountable obstacle.
The same principles can be applied to electrical and other energy use. Increasing the price will have a lot more beneficial effect for the public good, than increasing the efficiency.
Does that mean that we should oppose increased fuel efficiency? No, but let's not get caught up in the false belief that it's going to get us much closer to addressing climate change, and we shouldn't allow governments and manufacturers to use fuel standards to avoid much more effective measures.
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