Megan McArdle has a piece at BloombergView that will certainly rankle the feathers of many that are fans of electric cars and hybrids. And she does it without even mentioning Jevons paradox, which has questioned whether people who have "green" cars actually end up driving more than they did previously. McArdle brings some good data to the discussion of what can actually be done about carbon emissions. It's a difficult and important grown-up discussion: what can individuals actually do that has an impact and what needs to be accomplished by industry and government?
Here's a couple of key points:
Passenger cars do consume a lot of energy. But they are 45 percent of 28 percent of our emissions, or about 13 percent of the total. By one estimate, driving a Volt in a middle American city such as Houston saves about 25 to 30 percent of the carbon emissions associated with driving. That suggests that if everyone in the country bought a Volt, we might shave our emissions by 3.5 percent -- impressive, and maybe worth doing, but hardly enough to offset the rise in China's emissions.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this isn’t some easy fix that consists of buying somewhat more expensive products while keeping our way of life essentially the same. America’s outsized carbon emissions are not mainly due to the fact that we drive huge sport utility vehicles. Our outsized carbon emissions are mainly due to the fact that we produce a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of stuff. We like to live in large houses that have several hundred square feet of space per person. We like to be warm in winter and cool in summer, in a climate that has a lot more temperature extremes than Europe. We grow and eat a lot of food. When stuff breaks, we throw it out instead of relying on Mom’s skills with a needle and Dad’s carpentry mojo for repairs.
McArdle's opinion is that the primary need is for cheap, renewable energy sources, since we're likely not to support any reduction in our lifestyle expectations. That's a reasonable assumption, as long as external forces don't force that reduction.
But there's also another thing people can do, or at least another way to look at this. Yes, cars are 45% of 28% for emissions, but if you look at the chart you see that essentially all vehicles are 80%-ish of that 28%, since a fair amount of that is trucking. If someone wants to have a true impact beyond the 3.5% reduction of using an electric car, then ditch the car entirely. Join the ranks who are biking and walking as the lifestyle choice, and you can raise that 3.5% to 13%. Next, electrify the trucking fleet, and we can start to dramatically reduce at least the transportation portion of emissions.
I feel like a broken record today, but this doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. We can effectively build up renewable resources while also working on the demand side of the equation. In fact, we have to.
McArdle shares some harsh realities of emissions, what we can do and what is happening elsewhere. There's no point in arguing those facts, just like there's also no point in throwing up our hands and saying we can't have an impact. We can and should lead by example. If we don't make change ourselves we have absolutely no moral standing to ask others to do so, nor will we have data on what works. But let's not get caught up in the vortex that people can have no impact. Sure you can - get a bike, get a good pair of shoes; learn to live smaller and more simply. You might even be shocked to find out you enjoy yourself more.