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.

  • DJB

    New cars are only a small fraction of total cars on the road. It takes time for improvements in fuel economy in one model year to raise the average fuel economy of the entire fleet. Also, when gasoline is expensive, people use their existing cars less, and drive them with less of a lead foot.

    We need more expensive gasoline AND tighter regulations. It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Regulations like CAFE can miss the mark if people don’t buy the cars that are efficient (since CAFE just says the average fuel economy of all of a company’s vehicles has to be at a certain level), high gas prices create the right incentives to select well within that range.

    Plus, high gas prices provide an incentive to CHANGE MODES, fuel economy regulations don’t.

  • Fred

    The article repeats the tired propaganda that CO2 = “pollution”.

  • Brent

    If this study didn’t look at the European experience, it has a gaping hole in it. Most of the countries in Europe have high gasoline taxes, and many of them place large sales taxes on purchases. In some places (The Netherlands), car ownership costs can absorb a third of a middle-income family salaries. As such, cars are generally smaller and more fuel efficient. I don’t think that the brief flirtation with $5.00 gasoline we had in 2008 would change behavior at all. We need a multi-year experience with higher prices.

  • MU

    To further DJB’s point. Not only do fuel economy regulations not encourage people to change modes, they actually incentivize people to drive more. While economy standards drive up the initial cost of the vehicle, they drive down its usage cost. So I just put more of my income in to buy the car and it costs me less per mile to drive, so I have a psychological and financial incentive to drive it more.

    @Fred – even if you don’t believe in human caused climate change, I think we can all agree that importing huge amounts of oil from hostile foreign powers so we sit on congested freeways because we have no better transit option is not a wise long term energy strategy. Being energy independent and having more time to engage in productive activities are good old-fashioned conservative principles.

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