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Synthesis/Regeneration 45   (Winter 2008)

The Tragedy of Less Bad

by Keita Kusano

The biggest and perhaps most misleading or problematic fact about today’s movement to stop climate change is what superficially sounds good: increased energy efficiency. Increasing energy efficiency (say, miles per gallon) would be an excellent way to reduce energy use or emissions. It is great, absolutely. But it is great only if it leads to a decrease in total energy consumption. If you increase your car’s miles per gallon (mpg) from 10 to 20 but drive twice as far as you used to, you achieve nothing. What if the population grows? If you increase the mpg of all types of cars from 10 to 20 and drive as much as you used to, but population doubles, you also achieve nothing.

It can be difficult to calculate these factors. Therefore, it is very unlikely to achieve an 80% reduction, which has to be achieved by 2050 to stop climate change, by focusing on energyefficiency. Data regarding carbon intensity decreases, energyefficiency increases and total carbon dioxide emission increases over the last few decades show the impossibility of achieving an 80% reduction.

Case 1: Carbon intensity decrease. Over the last 30 years, technological advances, associated with changes in the sources of energy supply, have caused carbon emissions to grow onlyhalf as fast as the gross world product (1.5% versus 3 % per year). [1] As a consequence, global carbon intensity — the ratio of global carbon emissions to gross world product — has been consistently falling.

So, is this good news? Not necessarily. The in-crease in total emissions is more critical than the decrease of carbon intensity. The impact of each product on the environment became less bad, but total impact became worse. In fact, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the single most important indicator of global warming, have increased more in the last 25 years than ever before.

Case 2: Miles per gallon increase. In the US, transportationaccounts for 30% of total carbon emissions and, within the transportation sector, motor gasoline accounts for 60% of total carbon emissions. [2] That is, about one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is emitted from car use. In the last 20 years, fuel efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1980, the fuel economy average of all 1980 model cars used in the US was only 24.3 miles per gallon. [3] Twenty years later, it went up to 28.5 mpg. [3] An additional four miles can be driven on the same amount of gasoline. This seems to be good news. Unfortunately, however, this 17% energy efficiency increase has not led to a 17% decrease in energy use. Between 1980 and 2000, energy consumption in the transportation sector increased by around 34% and, consequently, carbon dioxide emissions from the sector increased as well by almost the same percentage. [2] The contradiction between increased fuel efficiency and increased energy consumption can be explained bylooking at what happened to the numbers of drivers and cars and the characteristics of cars during that period.

Between 1980 and 2000, around 45,000 drivers and more than 70,000 vehicles were added to the roads. What happenedduring this period was the increasing popularity of high-energyconsuming cars such as light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Shares of light trucks in the light vehicle market significantly increased from 16.5% to 44.9% between 1980 and 2000, though the average fuel economy for the light truck did not increase at all between 1987 and 1998. [4] Between 1980 and 2000, SUVs also increased their share in the light truck market from 1.6% to 18.9%. [4] The energy inefficiency of SUVs is such that, according to the Sierra Club, switching from driving an average car to driving an SUV with a fuel economy of 13 mpg (same as that of a Ford Excursion) for just one year, will result in “wasting more energy than leaving the refrigerator door open for 6 years or leaving the TV on for 28 years.” [5]

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), enacted in 1978, is the sales-weighted average fuel economy that manufacturers of automobiles have to meet for fleets of new cars and light trucks. Although it has been a single main force to increase average mileage per gallon, it has big problems that account for why increased fuel efficiency has not led to a decrease in total emissions. First and foremost, CAFE aims at vehicles but not drivers, thus does not discourage drivers from driving more. [6] Increases in fuel economy reduce the cost of driving; thus, drivers are encouraged to drive more. In fact, “vehicle miles traveled during the 1980s climbed at almost four times the rate of population growth.” [6] Second, the impact of CAFE has been small on the overall energy efficiency of vehicles. [6] CAFÉ aims at new cars, not at old cars, but new vehicles represent only a fraction of all registered passenger vehicles. A study found that each year’s new vehicles account for less than 4% of national oil consumption. [6] In addition, since it aims at new cars, CAFE makes it more expensive to make new cars, and the replacement of old cars is significantly disturbed by making old cars less expensive.

Efforts to protect the environment in the past few decades have resulted in a less carbon-intense society and increased energy efficiency. As a consequence, the negative impact of each product on the environment, in general, has declined. There is no denying facts or arguments for that. The good effort and will, however, have not led to a decrease in total carbon emissions. Although carbon intensity has decreased and energy efficiency has increased, total carbon emissions have been continuously increasing. As the two cases above indicate, no matter how small the negative impact of each product becomes, it does not make any difference unless total emissions decrease. Being less bad pays only when total consumption decreases. It is very unlikely for the US to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050 by focusing on energy efficiency.

Keita Kusano is a dual degree student at American University and Ritsumeikan University (Kyoto, Japan) majoring in international relations.


1. Socolow, Robert.et al. Solving the climate problem. Environment. December 2004. ProQuest. American University Library, Washington DC. April 23, 2007. http://www.proquest.com/>.

2. US Department of Energy. Energy Information Agency. U.S. Carbon Emissions from Fossil Energy Consumption: by End-Use Sector, 1990–2003, U.S. Carbon Emissions from Energy Use in the Transportation Sector, 1990–2003, Energy Consumption by Sector, 1949-2005, and Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Energy Consumption by Sector, 1980-2004. April 23, 2007. http://www.eia.doe.gov >.

3. US Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Domestic and Import Passenger Car and Light Truck Fuel Economy Averages for Model Years 1978-2003. April 23, 2007. http://www.nhtsa.gov.

4. Center for Transportation Analysis. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Light Vehicle Market Shares by Size Class, Model Years 1975–2005. April 23, 2007. http://cta.ornl.gov .

5. Sporty inefficiency. Environment. December 2001. ProQuest. American University Library. Washington DC. April 23. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/.

6. Pietro S., Nivola. and Robert W. Crandall. The extra mile. Brookings Review. Winter 1995. ProQuest. American University Library. Washington DC. April 23, 2007. http://www.proquest.com/.

[21 jan 08]

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