September 5, 2015

How to Slash Transportation Emissions

California (who else?) is leading the nation in reducing carbon emissions. The state is gripped in a devastating drought that is made worse by the effects of climate change, and Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a suite of bold mandates. By 2030, the energy efficiency of buildings must be doubled; half the state's electricity is to come from renewable energy, and California's transportation must run on half the oil that it uses today.

Of these, the first two are pretty straightforward. Energy efficiency in buildings is such a good investment that it should be a no-brainer, since many measures pay for themselves in a few years. The renewable energy sector is already providing 20 percent of California's electricity, and solar energy in particular is now growing in leaps and bounds, so it's quite possible for the renewables portion to reach 50 percent in 15 years.

Everybody can see that those two goals are within reach. But the third goal, to reduce transportation use of petroleum by half, is becoming a contentious issue. In large part it's the reality that, in California like everywhere else in the nation, almost everybody depends on their car to get them places. Places they really need to go, like work. There are pockets with great public transport, but by and large the car is it.

The oil industry, whose profits come in large part from our wallets, which we open every time we stop at the gas station, has entered the "discussion", casting the proposal as a disaster and painting a near future in which gasoline is rationed, leading to long lines like during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and even the banning of minivans.

Of course they would. It's their profits at stake here, after all, and in the long term we're talking about their very existence that's on the line, if this kind of legislation spreads beyond California the way sensible legislation tends to do.

It's naturally in an oil company's interest to scare you about an oil-free future, or even a future with a lot less oil. But the truth is that oil executives have a lot more to fear from this proposed mandate than you and I. It's their disaster we're talking about here.

Would half the Californians drive in Tesla Model S electric cars in 2030? Hmmm. It would be super cool, but unlikely: the new Model S, that P85D that broke Consumer Reports' scoring scale, has a price tag with six digits.

But there are other ways to sharply decrease our reliance on gasoline.

Go Electric.

Even right now there are a number of options for EVs and plug-ins, like the Chevy Volt, the Audi A3 e-Tron hatchback, the VW e-Golf, and the Nissan Leaf. In the coming few years the selection, like the vehicles' range, is only going to increase: car manufacturers can be expected to include one or more electric options in their lineup soon, and these will be priced so that you don't have to be super-rich to buy them.

Tesla itself is planning to offer a more affordable EV, with a 200 mile range and a price around $35,000. This is coming in 2017.

ReThink Your Ride.

This would be a good time to consider whether the car you own is really suited to your needs. If you have one or two children, and aren't planning more, do you really need that minivan?

Maybe your answer is yes. Mine was: for a while, my parents lived around the corner from us, and our minivan carried the six of us often, and very comfortably.

But my parents moved away, and I found that we did very well in a VW Golf, which is considered the "plain vanilla" family car in the Netherlands. It carries all four of us, plus our two cellos. With all doors closed. (Disclosure: one of the cellos is a 3/4 cello. But you get the idea).

If you need the back row to accommodate three child seats, it may make sense to buy the more expensive narrow car seats rather than a wider car.

Generally, smaller cars have much better fuel efficiency than larger cars, as well as smaller price tags, so you could win out both ways here.

Same Ride, Fuel Efficient Engine.

When that Golf was ten years old, we got a new car: it was another Golf. I guess we're a plain vanilla kind of family! But by that time, turbodiesel engines had come into their own and our new Golf does 38 mpg in our daily routine. That's twice as frugal as the old Golf, with the same space inside. What a deal! In the ordinary course of things (no road trips) I go to the gas station once a month.

There are actually quite a few cars out there that seat more than five people and do better than 30mpg. And eventually they will come to the United States: it's only a matter of time before the federal fuel efficiency rules will require them.

You've Got Until 2030.

Here's what really works in our favour: there's no need to rush out right now and buy a more fuel efficient car: Just be aware of these choices next time you go car shopping, which will happen at least once in the fifteen years between now and 2030. Besides, with the fuel efficiency mandate pushing towards more frugal cars as time goes on, the longer you wait, the more choices you'll have for fuel-frugal cars.

This way you have time to save up for a sweet ride. While the up-front costs may be higher, like for a diesel car or an EV, the cost of running the car is significantly less than for a conventional car running on gasoline.

Move Outside the Box

I'm talking about the box with four wheels. A bike is way less expensive than a car, and walking is absolutely free! If you manage to weave in either or both for your transportation needs, that's more savings both in emissions and financially.

If we all took these steps, many of which are more fun, or save you money in the long run, or both, we really will only need 50 percent the oil we need today for transportation, no rationing required. In fact, there will be a lot fewer people who will need to make that trip to the gas station.

And that would be a cool thing. Inside California and elsewhere.



You may also like:
1. Have your Cake and Drive it Too: of Fuel Economy, Performance, and Moms
2. Strategies for increased fuel efficiency
3. How to buy a gas sipper for less


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