Backfire! With Cleaner Cars, People Drive More
Sweden, that sustainability superstar, really prides itself on being "green." It is one of the few countries to decouple CO2 emissions from economic growth. It has switched a huge portion of its heating away from fossil fuels (district heating). It's the best recycling nation on Earth. It consistently lands in the top ten of rankings of most sustainable nations. Sweden even has made the audacious claim that it will go fossil-fuel free by 2020. It has green trains, green planes, and designed a car that automatically stop for peds and cyclists. But Sweden also has a dirty little transportation secret.For the last three years, Sweden has led the world in its per capita sales of so-called green automobiles. Ethanol cars have been a big winner, as have cleaner diesel vehicles.
Swedes love to keep statistics on green car sales, but there's a new statistic that doesn't reflect so well on squeaky-green Sweden. People rushed to buy green cars (there was a generous subsidy) and they are now driving them more.
Emissions from the transport segment rose by 100,000 tons last year in Sweden. Trafikverket, the Swedish Tranport Agency (STA), reported that while purchases of efficient and greener cars decreased carbon dioxide emissions on a per car basis (from 164 to 151 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilometer driven), people's increased driving caused emissions to rise.
This isn't a big surprise - it has happened so many times before that researchers call this the backfire effect - make a service more efficient and cleaner and people can eat up the green gains by using it more.
These numbers don't exactly sit well with the STA, which cautions (my translation):
"It is clear that more effective motors and biofuels are not enough to offset increased traffic - at the most these can only stabilize emissions levels. To achieve cuts will require a change of direction in the development of society and infrastructure. The car must be less important in favor of increased public transport, cycling, rail transport, and shipping."
Out of the mouths of Swedes.