Two articles in the Financial Times about transport and the consumption of oil recently caught my attention. The first which discusses intelligent traffic systems includes a graph that shows a continual rise in miles travelled by vehicles in the UK, whilst the second reports a fall in demand for oil in the US. Coupled with news about a 60 mile traffic jam on the northern approach to Beijing and the fact that transportation accounts for a growing percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions (going on 25%), I thought I would raise the question:
What would it take to reduce people's use of the car?
- Price? This would appear to be the most effective mechanism for changing habits, but as I have discussed in an earlier post, motorists are more than willing to pay a high 'carbon tax' for the opportunity to drive their cars. In the UK, we presently pay around £1.25 ($2.00) a litre for petrol whilst motorists in the US typically pay 46 pence a litre ($2.7/US gallon) for their gasoline. What kind of price increase would be needed to reduce demand and reflect a truer value of the embodied energy content of this finite resource? £2, 3 or even £5 a litre? Just try asking this question of friends and wait for their outraged responses !!
- Demand? The second of the two graphs shows how the recession and loss of employment could be affecting recent demand for oil in the US. As the FT points out, Americans drive to buy 'stuff', take holidays and get to work. It is not that much different here in the UK, except that using the car to go on holiday may not represent such a large a percentage of annual consumption as in the US. Either way, economic activity as we currently know it, remains stubbornly linked to the purchase of hydrocarbons and the driving of vehicles.
Vehicle Traffic in the UK and Oil Demand in the US
Reproduced from the FT (without permission). Sources - see links above
- Supply? Might we ever see a 'Mad Max' type of world, where scarcity of supply would dramatically curb use?
- Public Transport? Enhancements to public transport could persuade city commuters to leave their cars at home, but for those living in the suburbs, buses and trains will struggle to compete with the convenience of having a car parked in the drive.
- Road Pricing? Excessive use of the car gives rise to externalities (pollution, traffic jams, etc.) that governments have attempted to tax or charge. In the case of the UK, such efforts have commonly been voted down by local referendum or shunted into touch by popular outcry. We will wait to see if the new Coalition Government is interested in promoting some national form of road pricing for lorries and/or cars.
- Other Taxation? Longer term, I wonder whether thought might be given to charging for the energy / carbon dioxide expended by vehicles in generating economic wealth. For example, how would the return on energy used in driving to a shopping mall to buy a weekly complement of food compare with that expended by the supermarket using a van to deliver the same food to your home? How much energy does a fast food outlet consume in using a moped to deliver pizza to an office and is this a sustainable business model?
- Concern about Climate Change? Ha ha !! The idea that oil might be a finite resource, some of which should be saved for our grand-children or that on-going combustion of fuels could lead to problems with the climate still does not have a place in people's thinking.
- New Technologies? Deployment of hybrid- or new electric cars might improve fuel efficiencies marginally, but essentially energy must be consumed to develop such technologies. See Professor MacKay's commentary in Chapter 20 of "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air" for more information about the future options for such modes of transport.
- The Value of Time? Is there something in people's perception of discounting the future that might influence their decision to travel by car? What is the value of time and convenience to people in a modern society?
I would be interested to hear what others might have to say about all this.