Why Stronger Fuel Efficiency Standards Are So Important

©. AutoEvolution/ what the market wants

TreeHugger used to be all about incremental steps you could take to reduce your carbon footprint, but most of our readers have changed their lightbulbs by now and we totally gave up on clotheslines. The problems we face are so huge that it almost was surprising to see the article in the New York Times titled What You Can Do About Climate Change, talking about turning down your thermostat or driving more slowly. I was not alone:

But then I noticed who the authors were: Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, who have been quoted on TreeHugger many times; Michael Sivak is a research professor and Brandon Schoettle is a project manager at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. They follow the industry and produce the reports on fuel economy that Mike and I have been covering for years, the source of stories about how people are driving further, buying bigger SUVs, or that fuel efficiency is dropping. They even predict that self-driving cars will increase traffic.

It is actually all a very clever bait and switch, to show how important fuel efficiency really is. They note that all the small steps will help,

But none would come close to doing as much as driving a fuel-efficient vehicle. If vehicles averaged 31 miles per gallon, according to our research, the United States could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent. Improving fuel economy carries particular salience after the Trump administration announced this month that it would re-examine the progressively more stringent Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles in model years 2022 to 2025.

That is their real agenda and message: that improving auto efficiency is "the most efficient way to help the planet." Except that it really isn't:

Actually, Sivak and Schoettle get this, writing:

Changing how much we drive is not easy; it often requires a major change in lifestyle, like moving closer to work or making more frequent use of public transportation, which often takes longer and is less convenient than driving. It is much easier to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle; cars with fuel economy much better than the new-vehicle average of 25 m.p.g. are widely available.

However instead of even doing that, people are buying SUVs and pickup trucks because they cost the same to gas up as a tiny car did a few years ago when gas was expensive. Which brings us back to Sivak and Schoettle's agenda, which is making the case for the regulating of fuel economy, which the EPA is now looking at gutting:

Significant increases in fuel-economy standards for all vehicles, but especially for pickups and S.U.V.s, are even more important when relatively low gas prices motivate buyers to choose larger vehicles over smaller ones.

The Times article has a good list of things people should do, some transportation related (slow down, keep your tires filled, fly less) and
-In our homes (turn down the thermostat, change your bulbs, although seriously, "Replace one of every five incandescent light bulbs with LEDs." is just lame, change them all)
-and how we eat (less meat, less waste, less food: "Reduce food consumption by 2 percent, roughly 48 fewer calories for many people. A miniature box of raisins is 42 calories.") They might have added "ride a bike or walk more."

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

All those little incremental steps fade to insignificance when you look at the big picture, where our carbon is coming from, the single biggest source being that big honking green bar of petroleum powering transportation. That's why we don't just need better cars, we have to get people out of gasoline powered cars if we are going to make any real difference. But Sivak and Schoettle are right; the last thing we should be doing is scrapping or weakening the fuel efficiency standards.