Higher Gas Prices Alone Won’t Make Cleaner Cars a Reality

epa_chart.pngThe average carbon emissions of U.S. vehicles. (Image: EPA)

It’s a storyline that the media and the auto industry have embraced: Higher gas prices are the magic ingredient that U.S. carmakers need in order to sell more fuel-efficient vehicles to consumers. 

The narrative is tempting, especially for those who believe federal gas taxes need to rise in order to fairly price the environmental impact of driving. But if it were true, the record rise in U.S. fuel prices that began in 2007 and lasted through 2008 might be expected to spur a notable increase in production of cleaner cars.

And that didn’t happen, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported today in a new analysis [PDF] of carbon emissions and fuel economy trends in the U.S. auto fleet. The average fuel-efficiency of American cars went from 20.6 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2007 to 21.0 mpg in 2008, according to the EPA, and is poised to rise by just 0.1 for the 2009 model year.

In real pollution terms, that means the average American car will emit just 2 grams fewer CO2 per mile this year than it did in 2008. For Dan Becker, a longtime environmental advocate who directs the Safe Climate Campaign, that paltry progress is an argument for stronger, consistent increases in the nation’s fuel-efficiency and emissions standards. Becker said in a statement:

Conventional wisdom — and auto company
lobbyists — maintain that high-priced gasoline is enough to improve fuel
economy. Both are wrong. Gas prices have risen each year from 2002 to 2008; industry
has failed to keep pace by improving mileage. This report demonstrates that
even when gas hit more than $4 a gallon, mileage barely improved.

High gasoline prices won’t be enough to put
cleaner cars on our roads. They do not force industry to change its wasteful
and polluting ways. Strict laws do. The Obama administration must repeatedly
ratchet up mileage and tailpipe standards. 

Sadly, the administration’s plan to raise fuel-efficiency standards to 35.5 mpg by 2016 contains enough accounting loopholes to make Enron proud.

  • Andrew

    “In real pollution terms, that means the average American car will emit just 2 gallons fewer CO2 per mile this year than it did in 2008.”

    You can’t measure a gas by volume. Gases will fill up any container you put them in. Gaseous carbon dioxide must be measured by weight.

  • Larry

    Come on. US gas consumption has declined since the price spike. Recycling the fleet takes 15 years or so, and longer in times as tough as these. And prices crashed as quickly as they had risen. If you want proof, check out your local Hummer dealer, if you still have one. Those folks are not happy campers, because nobody is buying those rides anymore.

  • Andrew – You’re quite right. The chart in the EPA’s report uses the symbol “g” to refer to gallon, but in this case it should have been labeled “gram.” Thanks for the heads up.

    Larry – As it happens, US gas consumption since June has been posting monthly and year-over-year increases, according to the government’s Energy Information Administration. Link here: http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/steo/pub/contents.html#US_Crude_Oil_And_Liquid_Fuels

  • Larry

    Elana –

    Your trend line is pretty short. Oil prices crashed after the spike, enabling higher consumption. Now that they appear to be settling around 80, we’ll get a chance to see what our real consumption looks like. The comparison isn’t versus consumption at the price peak, but with consumption in 07 or so.

  • MU

    There’s some valid points here, but I’m not sure the data proves the premise. Consistantly as gas prices rose during this time there was the belief the price was being driven by speculators and that it was artificially high. Buying behavior was somewhat affected by short term prices. But to affect automakers design and production, there has to be a firm expectation that high gas prices are a long term reality. Bringing a new car to market can take up to 10 years, even for a fairly conventional design. For car makers to make a bet on less profitable, more efficient designs, they have to believe high prices are here to stay.

    Dan Becker is correct that “strict laws” will “force industry to change its wasteful ways.” However, that assumes the current suite of CAFE laws are ever going to be strict. They are and likely always will be riddled with loopholes designed to help domestic automakers compete against foreign makers that have had to deal with high gas prices in their home markets for a generation. Whether there is political will to put in high enough gas taxes to really change the landscape is debatable. But when you set an energy cost higher, there are no loopholes. All manufacturers will work on ways to make their products more competitive.

    Regardless, the bigger issue is that moderate improvements in gas mileage is not going to make much of a difference in GHG emmissions and climate change anyway. It’s akin to asking your attacker to push the knife in you “slower and not quite so deep.” Much more radical change in transportation systems, land use, and energy sources will be required to have any meaningful impact. Even if we all drove Priuses, we are still releasing massive amounts of GHG that the system cannot absorb.

  • zach

    Larry, agreed with your first statement. It takes years for people to change their vehicles, and gas prices just weren’t high enough for long enough. Perhaps we need a comparison across countries? I recently spent time in the UK ($6.50/gallon) and Egypt ($1.25/gallon) and my lungs tell a very clear story.

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