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The mpg confusion

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 September 2008 - (Español) (Français)

What reduces emissions more?
A. Someone swapping their old SUV (which gets 12 miles per gallon) for a hybrid version (18 mpg) or
B. someone upgrading their 25 mpg compact to a new 46 mpg Prius?
(ignore for a minute manufacturing issues or driving habits and assume the miles driven are the same).

The surprising answer (for those who don’t work it out) is A. It’s easy enough to see why this is the case. If the driving distance is 100 miles, then for case A the saving in fuel used (and hence emissions) is 100/12-100/18 = 2.8 gallons, while for B, you have 100/25-100/46 = 1.8 gallons. The confusion arises because people like to think linearly about numbers, not inversely, and so tend to assume that a similar change in mpg has a similar impact on fuel usage. This is not however the case – improvements in efficiency at the low end of the scale are much more useful at reducing emissions. This is actually a very general point – when trying to raise efficiency it is always sensible to start with the least efficient processes.

This confusion got some attention a couple of months ago after a piece that was published in Science by Larrick and Soll. They tested peoples instinctive reactions to changes in mpg numbers and found that people very often got it wrong, leading to less than optimal decisions. They also tested a different way of giving fuel usage information (the number of gallons used per mile), and since this is linear in emissions, people made the correct judgment much more often (it’s worth noting that the standard in most of Europe is already litres per 100 km). Rewritten in those terms, the choices above become:

A. Someone swapping their old SUV (which takes 8.3 gallons to go 100 miles) for a hybrid version (5.6 gallons/100 miles) or
B. someone upgrading their 4 gallons/100 miles compact to a new 2.2 gallons/100 mile Prius?

Much easier, right? The authors of the Science piece are trying hard to get US manufacturers and the EPA to switch over from mpg to this new standard (though they prefer gallons/10,000 miles). It all seems eminently sensible to us.


356 Responses to “The mpg confusion”

  1. 101
    tharanga says:

    Re: Ed Beroset,

    Green types have been calling for smart electric meters for some time now. Seeing what your usage is in real time, along with the associated cost, should lead to conservation. People would make a little game of it. One could directly see how much power an appliance draws whilst in “standby” mode.

    There are some such toys available commercially, but even I (who would love to have such a thing) have balked at buying one – my spending on electricity is low enough that the payback period on the gizmo would be too long.

  2. 102
    Larry Coleman says:

    Matt (#97) and others are right, based on the evidence: when gas prices fall due to decreased demand or increased supply, people flee from the Prius and toward Tahoes. That is what happened over the past 20 years.

    This is cause for deep pessimism. How will we as a nation reduce our gas consumption if, by doing so, we reduce prices, which leads inexorably to more consumption?

    A related factor is that, by our unrestrained use of gasoline, we – the US – are causing an unprecedented, huge transfer of wealth from us to petrocountries, several of which are not our friends (Russia, Venezuela, Iran, even Saudi Arabia where some of the wealth ends up in unfriendly hands). This will have longterm effects on the relative strength and stability of nations, where the US becomes weaker and these countries become stronger.

    So on the one hand we want high prices to discourage consumption, and on the other we want low prices to slow down the wealth transfer. Probably the only way to accomplish both goals, based on the evidence, is to increase the gas tax in this country. Of course, this is the third rail of politics in this free-the-consumer/driver society, but it is the only thing that has been shown to work.

    Despite the weakening of the US by our short-sighted policies, conservative politicians are unwilling to do anything, maintaining the obvious fiction instead that we can drill our way to oil independence. Apparently, their professed patriotism is all talk. It is a stunning fact that they are willing to strengthen our opponents by sending our money to them instead of raising taxes to pay ourselves where we could do some good with it.

    We have a clear choice: raise gas taxes dramatically and weaken Russia, Iran, Venezuela and the terrorists…or continue to do nothing, in which case we, but not our children and grandchildren, deserve what we get.

  3. 103
    Ike Solem says:

    Rod B,
    Waxman’s rule only applies to U.S. government purchases, much like the U.S. government is largely restricted to purchasing automobiles made by U.S. firms (at least, I think that’s still the case).

    However, once the various gasoline components have been refined and purified, they are blended and mixed – so essentially it is impossible to keep the tar sand gasoline out of the conventional crude gasoline, as I understand it.

    What is also remarkable about the Canadian tar sand model is how destructive it will be to Canada’s long-term energy and environmental outlooks.

    Canada has a limited supply of natural gas, and much of it is now being fed into tar sand oil production. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, with the highest energy release per carbon atom (due to the higher energy release on combustion of a carbon-hydrogen bond vs. a carbon-carbon bond; methane has 4 C-H bonds per carbon atom).

    That leads to the standard phase-out rule: coal, tar sands and shale oil are the most polluting and have the least energy, conventional petroleum is in the middle, and natural gas is by far the best.

    As far as the comments about cars in this context, the whole issue is ensuring that transportation is zero-emission. I think this particular post leaves out the major issues, though.

    If we extend the argument presented, it becomes clear that the real savings will come at the trucking and agricultural equipment level. Those machines use mass amounts of fuel, and often get only 1 or 2 mpg. Electric trucks and electric farm equipment should thus be at the top of the agenda.

    Furthermore, we need laws and regulations – there are no “free-market solutions” – for one thing, the global energy market is not a free market by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it operates largely as a cartel system, with inordinate political power. It is very clear that as a result, the U.S. government regularly intervenes in energy markets to promote fossil fuels and suppress renewable competition – this goes on at the academic level, the Congressional level, and the Executive level (i.e. DOE, NSF, etc.).

    The proof? Billions in credit guarantees for fossil fuel energy projects, and not even a stable renewable energy tax credit for renewables – let alone credit guarantees for renewable energy projects.

    This even extends to intervention in climate science projects to suppress data collection that would clearly demonstrate what’s going on. Here, we are talking about NASA and its director, Michael Griffith, who have refused to launch Triana (the Deep Space Climate Observatory) for about a decade now: http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/15/opinion/edpark.php

    Griffin is something else – he claimed today that “space exploration is critical to humanity’s survival” but he won’t allow the most important climate satellite ever devised to be launched:

    http://www.space-travel.com/reports/Space_exploration_key_to_mankinds_survival_NASA_chief_999.html

    What is the guy saying – let’s trash the Earth to the point where it won’t support our global population, and then go find “somewhere else?”

    That’s bad science fiction in the tradition of Michael Crichton, not responsible administration of the U.S. space agency. What a nightmare.

  4. 104
    oxnardprof says:

    In response to the question of the ‘pay’ for driving slower to save gas, maybe this answers the question.

    1 Assume 10,000 miles per year of driving (just to use a round number).

    2 Compare two speeds: 65 MPH and 60 MPH, and assume my 10 % increase in MPG can be generalized.

    3. At 65 MPH, I would drive 10000 miles in 154 hours. At 60 MPH, I would drive 10000 miles in 167 hours. Time difference is 13 hours.

    4. In my case, at 50 mpg, I consume 200 gallons and at 55 mph I consume 182 gallons, for a savings of 18 gallons. My last fillup was at a cost of $3.50, so I would save $63 in 10000 miles. $63 / 14 hours gives a ‘pay’ of $4.85 per hour.

    5. Let’s assume I drive a vehicle that will achieve 20 mpg at 65 mph and 18 mpg at 60 mph. In this case, I go from consuming 555 gallons (18 mph) to 500 gallons (60 mph). Again at $3.50 per gallon, I would save $193 over the 10000 miles. $193 / 14 gives a ‘pay’ of $13.75.

    Thus, the hourly value of saving fuel depends on your fuel consumption, which ties in to the original post. Thinking of fuel consumption in terms of fuel per mile is more constructive than thinking of fuel consumption in terms of mile per unti of fuel consumed.

    However, there is ‘hidden pay’ that will be gained by using energy more efficiently. The clear benefit is enjoying a lower energy bill. The hidden benefit, if all aspects of society focused on energy efficiency would be lower oil consumption, which would result in lower energy costs (supply / demand) and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollutants.

    If we can reorient our cultural thinking towards energy efficiency, we may make more progress on developing effective public transportation in more regions of the country, better physical fitness (perhaps) if people walk more and drive less, etc etc.

  5. 105
    dagobert says:

    I wonder how relevant this is in terms of global impact. Lets assume the US would gradually reduce their average mileage to current european levels over the next ten years (ambitious when taking into account how many cars already exist that can’t simply be swapped, especially in times of financial cirsis) – how much would that reduce glocal co2 emissions?

  6. 106
    dagobert says:

    There I said it: “reduced”. I meant “increased”, of course. We’re talking about consumption here in europe, where “less” is “less” and not “more”. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. 107
    justjohn says:

    oxnardprof (#104): I think your calculations and conclusion are good. One thing I would point out, is comparing those two speeds might give people the wrong impression.

    My usual vehicle is a 2000 dodge mini-van. It has the fancier “driver info center” that lists instantaneous mpg, engine running time, and average vehicle speed. I was skeptical of the accuracy when I first used it, but it really seems quite accurate. I was very surprised to find that my average speed (after driving for a week) was about 32MPH. I live 20 miles out of town, so most of driving is at 50-60MPH on rural highways – or so I thought! My conclusion is that slowing down 5MPH would be almost unnoticeable.

    And I have generally been driving slower. At 75, I might get 19mpg. At 65 it might improve to 26mpg. (didn’t seem to help much going down to 55) My favorite is drafting behind a semi, can get 35mpg that way, but it is hard to come across that situation.

  8. 108
    Figen Mekik says:

    I have a small Honda Civic which is a pretty efficient car, but I have to admit I drive very fast when I can. I’m in the Midwest, God’s great open spaces and all that.. It is very seductive if you want to drive fast. Though i know better intellectually, I keep being tempted by the notion if the road is open, why not just go? But I am being humbled and embarrassed by my driving habits as this discussion is progressing and even thinking of changing my ways :)

  9. 109
    Guy says:

    #102 and others – as well as price mechanisms, another way to reduce carbon emissions from cars is to… well, reduce the carbon emissions from cars. This is what the European Union have done today, in a surprise and very bold move (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markmardell/2008/09/blow_to_carmakers.html). And following the recent stock market madness, regulation may not be as dirty a word today as it has been for the last 20 years or so…

    Great though all this increasing efficiency tinkering is, it is clearly nowhere near enough though. The only remotely effective response would be to ban all new petrol and diesel cars in about 10 or 15 years time, and all existing fossil fuel cars on the road given no more than another 10 years after that (parallel with colossol low-carbon electricity expansion). And all that really needs is legislation and plenty of warning so companies can adapt and a new infrustructure can be put in place.

    Easy, eh?!

  10. 110
    Mark Hadfield says:

    You’re trying to get Americans to switch to different units?! Good luck with that.

    In NZ we switched to the metric system (or that’s what we called it) a few decades ago. People are quite comfortable with distances in km and buying petrol by the litre, but still tend to talk about fuel consumption in miles per gallon. If they don’t, they use km per litre. The official unit (litres per 100 km) is considered unintuitive.

    And NZers are much more adaptable than Americans!

  11. 111
    David B. Benson says:

    I think we have much more serious and immediate problems than the main topic of this thread implies:

    http://climateprogress.org/2008/09/25/global-carbon-emissions-jumped-3-in-2007/

    despite an economic quasi-recession, despite small beginnings of greater energy efficiency, despite …

  12. 112
    Jim Bullis says:

    Gavin, I agree with your suggestion of a clearer statement of efficiency.

    However, my concern is that there is an great opportunity for a much larger and fairly rapid improvement that could be lost. If we could reduce the CO2 emissions due to personal transportation by 90%, we would make a serious impact on the global warming situation. This is possible if high efficiency cars were to be adapted on a large scale. People seem reluctant to change how they ride in their cars, and if a sense of improvement such as you describe, (a) by trading in an SUV for a hybrid SUV, or (b) trading in a typical car for a Prius, will lead to complacency, can be accomplished with these part steps then people will not look hard at their current operating patterns. People will not change cars all that often, so we need to get this right.

    Even worse, would be to trade in the SUV for the hybrid SUV that is a “plug-in” hybrid, or simply all electric vehicle. The electric power is really a carrier of power from central power stations, and due to economic reality and capacity of various types of power stations, this additional load will result in added coal usage. This will approximately make up for any possible efficiency improvement of central power stations compared to typical car engines. The net reduction in CO2 is not much, if any. And we are about to see $25 billion handed to the auto industry to do just that.

    Unlike Guy (109) who would ban cars, I would prefer to make high efficiency cars that could keep us in our present chosen life styles, and still accomplish a nearly complete solution to the CO2 problem from personal cars.

  13. 113
    Sontaran says:

    There is too much error in this method of analysis. MPG does not reliably correlate (inversely) to emissions when comparing older to newer vehicles.
    Many newer vehicles have low-emission engines, especially Honda, but also Subaru and others. The engine and exhaust technologies are so important that they could topple the winner chosen by using the comparison method suggested in the article.
    Another factor in choosing a vehicle that will be low in emissions is how well the engine is able to retain efficiency between regular tune-ups. That is: what is the rate of decline in efficiency between maintenance cycles? Subaru and Mercedes will often beat GM and Chrysler in this area.
    Further, proper maintenance of the vehicle is at least as important as what vehicle you buy. Something as simple as failing to keep your tires at the right pressure can reduce efficiency a lot (as well as ruin your tires’ substructure).

    [Response: CO2 emissions are related to fuel usage not post-processing of the exhaust. You are correct in terms of NOx and CO, however. - gavin]

  14. 114
    Craig Allen says:

    Regarding the concern that increasing the use of high mileage cars will lower fuel prices and people will then return to guzzlers:

    Not so if the demand for higher mileage cars leads to economies of scales and the development of new technologies that enable electric cars with long driving ranges to be built at competitive prices.

    No matter what petrol will not get cheaper than now. And even at the prices of a few years ago most people would not be vain enough to choose to pour money into a petrol driven car if there was comparable performance alternative.

  15. 115
    Craig Allen says:

    Ouch, sorry about the crumby grammar in the last paragraph of my last post. What I meant is that reduced demand as people shift to more efficient cars may have an effect, but there is no reason why this would make enough people shift back to inefficient cars to bring demand and prices back to current levels. If the price of fuel was a quarter what it is at the moment, most people would still prefer not to pay it if they had a reasonable alternative.

  16. 116
    Rod B says:

    Ike (103), thanks for the clarification. What got my curiosity up was the strange use of the word “synthetic” by Waxman. I wasn’t sure at all what he meant by that or if he knew what he was talking about.

    I think you’re stretching the gov’t's support for fossil fuels and their suppression of renewables way beyond the pale. I’m not sure what you mean by “Billions in credit guarantees for fossil fuel energy projects”; and your “not even a stable renewable energy tax credit for renewables…” statement doesn’t ring true. The gov’t pumps $billions into renewable research, development and support. If you’re referring to the needs-to-be-renewed tax credit for wind power, e.g. as not being “stable”, you have an accurate point, but it’s miniscule. T. Boone would not be investing $billions in a wind farm if he had the least indication that the production credit was less than 100% certain.

    I heard someone is building a commercial all-electric train locomotive (though I don’t know exactly what “all electric” means); Do you know if this is accurate?

  17. 117
    Rod B says:

    Figen, Midwest! Aah! God’s country. Kansas is the best for driving. Roads that go for tens of miles with no hills, curves or other cars.

  18. 118
    Mark says:

    Larry, this:

    “Recently, I wondered how much one would “earn” as an hourly wage in terms of the money saved per hour of extra travel time due to the lower speed.”

    Sounds like you ARE talking about how much you earn driving. It was soon after someone posted they drove slower and were five minutes later than normal.

    If this isn’t about driving to work, why do you care about how much you’d “earn”? You’d not earn anything. You’d merely not have to spend (which is like finding free money), so it doesn’t matter if it works out do 5p an hour, that’s 5p for one hours “work” you had to do anyway and weren’t being paid for anyway.

    Maybe you ought to explain why you wanted to do that calculation, put it up on this site as a comment and decry that it was barely minimum wage.

  19. 119
    Marcus says:

    Mark: It is, in fact, fairly common procedure for economists to look at savings/unit time and ask “is this worth it?” Yes, this is an opportunity cost calculation, as you point out, but usually economists assumed that people value their free time at about their average hourly wage.

    Obviously in the real world people do not calculate out every action they take in monetary terms, but I would argue this that this example is cleaner than most. 5 minutes longer in a car is 5 minutes less doing everything else I want to do. If it is a work commute, than that is 5 minutes EVERY SINGLE DAY which adds up pretty quickly. Now, if you enjoy the time spent sitting in your car as much as the time spent reading a book curled up in the comfy chair at home, then, ok, that’s free money. But, if you happen to rather dislike driving, then you’d want a pretty good payback rate.

    One way to think about this: if I came up to you and said “if I offer you 5p to sit in this car for an hour” would you take it? I don’t think so. Everyone has a different point at which they’d agree to sit in that car – mine is probably on the order of $50 (unless I’m allowed to bring in the aforementioned book).

    Now, my calculation for driving is different: I don’t want to spend more time in the car, but I also gain some pleasure from “helping the environment” so in fact, saving $10 an hour plus feeling better about myself might be enough to change my driving habits. (and personally, I have chosen to live near a metro stop so I can take public transit to work and everything else so I don’t need to drive at all)

  20. 120
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Rod, the fossil fuel industries do get significant tax advantages and subsidies. Enforcement of the royalties they owe has been consistently lax for a number of years. I don’t know the exact numbers, so I won’t mention billions. Links to where your “billions for renewables” come from?

  21. 121
    Mark says:

    Marcus, #119.

    However, it can’t apply in this case, unless your job IS driving.

    Sell five minutes of your time.

    If you can account five minutes of a day “lost” to earning potential then each time you take a bathroom break, you’re pssing away money. Washing your hands after? Why? Your wages are FAR more potent than that!!!

    The idea is a silly one and shouldn’t be used. Heck, someone calculated that it wasn’t worth Bill Gates’ time to pick up anything less than a fifty from the floor, since he’d earn more in the time it took to bend down and pick it up than $20. But in a Two Ronnies sketch, two tramps are talking:

    Tramp1: If I was as rich as Rockerfella, I’d be richer than Rockerfella
    Tramp2: How’s that, then?
    Tramp1: I’d do a bit of window cleaning on the side.

  22. 122
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod writes above — as he has before — that he’s “not sure” what people mean by referring to “billions” for fossil fuel subsidies.

    Rod, you be looking this stuff up if you wanted to know it.
    Falling for the pretense that you needed help, I’ve looked it up for you several times before.

    You paste in the same talking points. You aren’t reading the answers
    or remembering them. Why should we bother answering them again?

    Well, for the next really ignorant or uneducated person who actually doesn’t know better:

    http://www.energy.gov/news/6152.htm

    That’s from:
    http://www.google.com/search?q=Billions+in+credit+guarantees+for+fossil+fuel+energy+projects

  23. 123
    Rod B says:

    Phillipe, I recognize the oil industry gets tax advantages; significant is relative, though it certainly is noticeable; subsidizes I’m not sure of; billions in “credits” is not even close.

    There was a recent discourse here on the $billions DOE, for example, pushes at renewables. Then there is some from the National Labs/NSF, and NASA might even be included — though not by billions….

  24. 124
    Mark says:

    Rod, #123.

    Wars in the middle east.

    for the benefit of oil.

    Not just the local one. WW I was over oil. Or did you think Archduke Ferdinand WAS that highly thought of?

    Lives and money spent. For oil.

  25. 125
    Marty S says:

    I’m sorry, but maybe my feeble brain is missing the point. I understand the importance of lowering emissions but I thought the whole point of buying a fuel-efficient vehicle is to lower our dependence on fossil fuel and foreign oil? So going from a 12 mpg SUV to a 35 mpg Toyota Corolla (let’s take out the Hybrid issue for this one) would save me from using an additional 822 gallons of gas per year based on a 15K per year rate. And forgot about the $$$ savings since it’s really about saving the environment and not about saving money.

  26. 126
    RichardC says:

    On Time and Speed… People spend money on cars precisely because they want to convert the chore of getting from A to B into the fun of risking life and limb. It is EXCITING to drive fast. There is little reason to buy a car with over 75 HP other than to convert utility into recreation. Thus, the whole time saved argument fails. Nobody cares about the 5 minutes; they care about the hour of BORING driving VS the 55 minutes of FUN. Plus, when some ***hole wants to compare testosterone, the satisfaction of being able to blow him away is priceless, even though it has nothing to do with one’s real prowess.

  27. 127
    Robert Edele says:

    My main fear is that the person buying the 18 mpg hybrid SUV will rest on their laurels and will be oblivious that 18 mpg is still very poor fuel economy. Also, by having another large hulking vehicle on the road, it’ll produce more of the ‘keep up with the Joneses’ effect that is behind much of the demand for SUVs.

    A much better solution is to convince or coerce (through taxes, propaganda, or education) that person to choose the smallest vehicle that will do the job (which may be no vehicle at all in some city centres) and to use it sparingly. It’s not only quite good for the environment, but it’s also pretty cheap and has a reverse ‘keep up with the Joneses’ effect in that it will reduce pressures on the neighbors to show off.

  28. 128
    Craig Allen says:

    Rod, the subsidies add up to about $300 billion per year according to a recent UN study.

  29. 129
    David B. Benson says:

    Off-topic, but some may care to read

    reCAPTCHA: Human-Based Character Recognition via Web Security Measures
    Science (09/12/08) Vol. 321, No. 5895, P. 1465; von Ahn, Luis; Maurer, Benjamin; McMillen, Colin

  30. 130
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., Billions on renewables? The entire DOE budget for solar energy in 2007 was $124 million. Wind? $49.3 million. Any wonder why we’re still dependent on oil.

  31. 131
    Craig Allen says:

    Rod, according to this analysis of the US tax code and federal budget, the oil companies are slated to receive more than $32.9 billion in handouts from taxpayers over the next five years. Imagine how far the US would get in converting to solar and wind energy generation, and in developing electric and fuel efficient vehicles if those industries were to get even a fraction of those subsidies.

  32. 132
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Noticeable eh? Hanks’ link is more informative, for sure.

  33. 133
    matt says:

    127 Craig Allen: Rod, the subsidies add up to about $300 billion per year according to a recent UN study.

    Subsidies in the US are very, very small relative to the sales. We probably spend about $1.5T in oil per year, and there’s roughly $20B in gov’t subsidies (and those I think have already gone away). So, that’s roughly 1%. But oil company subsidies don’t end up in oil company pockets. The oil companies charge what the free market will tolerate. So if they get subsidies, then the price of gas is reduced. If it wasn’t, the value of the company would rise by the amount of the subsidy, and that cash infusion would simply leak out to the stockholders. It’s like injecting $50B into a bankrupt company–the next day the shares will rise by $50B divided by the number of outstanding shares.

  34. 134
    Guy says:

    Just to clarify re #109 and response on #112, I am not advocating banning cars! I am advocating (indeed, saying it is essential) that over the long term fossil fuel-based cars are banned. That leaves hydrogen (very unlikely technologically) or electric (already available, continually improving). It’s pretty clear that with only 10 years of further development, we should have electric family cars with ranges of hundreds of miles, and should be also a long way down the road (!) towards three-phase supplies in what were once gas stations that can recharge in minutes for very long journeys (or alternatively a simple battery changeover). There is nothing technologically difficult about any of this – as usual, it is political will (and basic engineering graft). No new technological breakthroughs required.

    But what of the supposed increase in coal power from power stations if we all went electric? If James Hansen’s genius carbon tax and 100% dividend proposal were implemented (where all money generated gets returned directly to the bank accounts of the public – http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/20080604_TaxAndDividend.pdf), the issue of electricty generation to fire the cars would more or less sort itself out on its own – and shouldn’t even face an otherwise-predicable public backlash. Fossil fuels would eventually become so expensive to use, that clean electricity investments would become both relatively cheap and compelling (I include nuclear in this).

    Electricity generation projects would need to be colossol in scale, and are already on the drawing board – here in Europe plans are afoot for offshore wind arrays thousands of miles long, connected by low-loss EHT cables to a European super-grid. Tidal power plugs right in (a new, cheap and efficent tidal small-scale pilot began this week in Portuagal). Across the Med and northern Africa, vast solar arrays make best geographical use of the sun’s power. Summed over thousands of miles and projects, the maths means that the supply becomes basically even, eliminating the intermittency of an individual wind or solar array. Add in nuclear for some more gigawatts and to handle the surges, and job done – secure and clean, without a lump of coal or drop of oil to rely on. And hey, we even all still drive cars!

    Sure the investements are huge (which is why the economics must change first), but only this kind of thinking and action will provide anything like an effective response to reducing overall carbon emissions. Making 30% efficiency improvements – or even 70% – may make us feel a little better and help with rising fuel costs, but it is fiddling while Rome – and the planet – burns. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground (http://columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/Tokyo_20080704.pdf). David Benson is right in #111…

  35. 135
    matt says:

    #126: My main fear is that the person buying the 18 mpg hybrid SUV will rest on their laurels and will be oblivious that 18 mpg is still very poor fuel economy. Also, by having another large hulking vehicle on the road, it’ll produce more of the ‘keep up with the Joneses’ effect that is behind much of the demand for SUVs.

    Do you think the outcome is significantly different if everyone had a 45 MPG car? It’s not. Whatever bad event might have happened in 2100 due to 18 MPG cars will instead happen in 2110. The 45 MPG car doesn’t change anything. It delays what will already happen by a few years.

    Here’s an interesting pub exercise you can do on a cocktail napkin. When someone starts going on and on and on about what dire straights we’re in environmentally, draw a quick facsimile of a map of the US, and ask each person at the table to draw a circle on the map representing the amount of waste the US will produce over the next 100 years. My friends that are most worried about the environment all draw circles that are 25% or 50% of the total US landmass.

    My friends that aren’t worried about the environment draw very small circles.

    The correct answer is that the amount of waste the US will produce in the next 100 years is less that 0.005% of our landmass when piled 200 feet high. It’s an insignificant area of the cocktail napkin map.

    This is important because it demonstrates how little most grasp the scale of the problems (or non problems) we’re dealing with. Where it gets scary is when comments such as yours begin to reveal a thought process that says it’s OK to lie to people to get them to do what you want, even if what you want doesn’t change the outcome.

  36. 136

    “The new driving style” in Holland (a.k.a. ecodriving) outlines a few fuel saving tips for driving. It also mentions the large effects of driving speed: At 120 km/h, average fuel use per km is 42% more than at the optimal driving speed of 70-90 km/h, and at 140 km/h fuel use is up by 74% (this is mainly due to the air drag increasing with the squared of the velocity, as BPL noted above).

    It also mentions the savings from shifting gears asap, at a maximum of 2500 RPM. For automatic transmission, you can improve the timing of gear shifting by not using the “sports-setting” and by avoiding the “kick-down” (whatever that may be). It is recommended to let go slightly of the gas pedal when you reached your desired speed, so the transmission will shift to the highest gear earlier.

    Btw, I agree with the call for SI units.

  37. 137
    CL says:

    Is any of this thread really relevant anymore ? From the Independent, Sept. 25th.

    Hundreds of methane plumes are now coming up from the hydrates on the sea bed, quite deep water, and not under permafrost…

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/hundreds-of-methane-plumes-discovered-941456.html

  38. 138
    Mark says:

    Matt #133.

    Uh, the “point” your compatriots made was “It’s not billions”.

    When it’s proven it is hundreds of billions, saying “Yeah, but that’s a small fraction of the turnover” is not gainsaying it.

    All it means is that not only do they get 300billion a year from government, they make tens of trillions a year doing it.

    This is supposed to be helping???

    PS if the trash produced in 100 years is so small and insignificant to the North American landmass, why do you send so many shiploads out to sea and dump it there? Just use your 0.0005% of landmass.

    Heck, use Washington state.

  39. 139
    Rod B says:

    A quicky for Hank. Sorry, but you can not google to determine what Mr. X meant by some phrase unless Mr. X has his own explanatory site. The phrase I was questioning was “billions in credit guarantees..”, which commonly means something more specific, not “billions”; though when you’re whipping the devil precise syntax is not very important, is it?

  40. 140
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re: 124
    “Wars in the middle east.
    for the benefit of oil.”

    If we really want to drive home the idea of ending our dependence on imported oil we might to consider measuring our transportation fuel use in lives per gallon.

  41. 141
    Marcus says:

    Mark, I wash my hands because I get something in return for my time. I get clean hands and I don’t get sick. Those are both worth time (or money). If in some weird society (Urinetown, perhaps) I was required to spend money in order to wash my hands, I probably would pony up.

    The point is that I don’t get anything in return for driving slower except money (well, and the knowledge I’m helping the environment) so therefore it is logical to ask how much money I am saving in exchange for the time I am losing.

  42. 142
    matt says:

    Mark #138: When it’s proven it is hundreds of billions, saying “Yeah, but that’s a small fraction of the turnover” is not gainsaying it.

    “It’s proven” is a far stretch. I know some like to count the military as part of the subsidy package. But that’s BS accounting used to simply amplify an unsound point. If we moved to solar tomorrow, we’d still have a large military in 20 years. And if a Batman-esque evil super genius deployed a large sheet to block our solar panels, then the military would intervene then too to stop this evil super genius. Thus we could say the military would be subsidizing solar too?? It’s a moronic argument both ways.

    Yes, every state should take care of their own trash. I don’t think dumping it at sea is a good plan. By keeping it on land, in a landfill, we can reclaim aspects of the waste (starting with methane, and perhaps in 100 years have robotic sorters that can reclaim various metals if the price is justified). If you dump it into the sea, you really don’t have a chance to do any of that. Plus, the ecosystem of the ocean is much more sensitive than the plains of Eastern Washington. Finally, the ocean tends to distribute the waste, while a landfill keeps it contained.

  43. 143
    Mark says:

    Marcus 141.

    Well, driving slower gets you a cleaner world, less urgency in national energy problems and less money spent on petrol. These are as worthwhile (or moreso) as “having clean hands”.

    Your hands, even after washing are not all that clean. They don’t stay even that clean for long. So you’re washing your hands for nothing. Not even money.

  44. 144
    Mark says:

    matt, so where’s the counter that proves the 300Bn wrong?

    Or was that not important?

  45. 145
    Rod B says:

    This “subsidy” business gets arcane fast which of course makes for easy spinning and misleading. First off, the $300B/yr UN estimate is unaudited and is likely the normal UN fluff; plus it’s worldwide (mostly Russia and Iran it seems), not U.S. The Friends of Earth link from Craig seems at odds with its own referenced CRS report which details mainly the 2005 Energy Act incentives from the JCT (Joint Committee on Taxation), and only alludes to the 2007 bill that eliminated most of them. In any case, one reading of the CRS report has a net tax incentive increase of maybe $200M a year, compared to Craig’s reading of $6B a year (though he may have been referring to more than just the increase), or FoE’s graph of about $1+B/year. There are numerous other discrepancies. Though I will also admit that discerning truth in spun financial reports is a daunting task and does not leave one (me included) with high confidence.

    A couple of interesting points. A big portion of the “subsidies” in the 2005 Act are given to alternative fuels but often included in that given to big oil. Second, normal new speak applies. Tax “subsidy” is a term applied, and commonly accepted, to any income that the government doesn’t tax. So if the gov’t can tax income that was spent to buy stuff (labor, equipment, resources, etc.) by saying you can only deduct part of it in the year actually spent, but then later says they’ll tax you a little less that year, somehow that becomes a subsidy to you. The preponderance of most of the 2005 Act “subsidies” are here, as are most (but not all) historical oil/gas incentives. How do you guys feel about the 70-80% of your stated income that Uncle Sam provides you as a subsidy? ;-)

    Mark wants to throw in WWI as a big oil subsidy; I’m sure the two Gulf wars, too; probably WWII; hell, maybe even Korea and Viet Nam. I can’t beat that!

    Ray, you’re looking at only the direct RD that DOE spends by and for itself. You’re leaving out the $10B or so in operating and production (actual) subsidies for alternative fuels, and the upwards of $20B (I think) in lo_an guarantees — while not an expenditure certain in any one year, pretty supportive non-the-less.

    I don’t disagree that fossil fuel industries get tax breaks, and probably more than they rightly should, though as Matt says it is relatively miniscule. I also agree that more support for alternative energy sources can and should be made, though simply throwing money at something never fixed anything. I would just like a little more accuracy and less hyperbole, spin, and huffing and puffing. Besides, all I really wanted to know is what Waxman meant, if anything, by “synthetic” in his attempt to hurt oil from shale, etc., imports. :-)

  46. 146
    David B. Benson says:

    Mark (138 & 142) — Re: using Wasington State.
    Two part round:

    Salt and pepper, vinegar, vinegar.
    Salt and pepper, vinegar, vinegar.
    Pepper, pepper, salt!

    Don’t dump your trash in my back yard, my back yead.
    Don’t dump your trash in my back yard, my back yead.
    My back yard’s full!

  47. 147
    Robert Edele says:

    Re #135: Do you think the outcome is significantly different if everyone had a 45 MPG car? It’s not. Whatever bad event might have happened in 2100 due to 18 MPG cars will instead happen in 2110. The 45 MPG car doesn’t change anything. It delays what will already happen by a few years.

    Transportation is about 25% of energy usage. Reducing that by 60% (18 mpg to 45 mpg with no change in usage) should reduce overall emissions by 15%. If cars are also used half as often, then reductions are 20% (out of a total 25% possible from transportation). Similar reductions can be made in the other sectors (residential, commercial, and industrial). Decreasing carbon intensity by 60% and reducing consumption by 50% over all sectors gives an 80% total reduction, which would lead to CO2 levels starting to drop immediately and temperatures following suit after a few decades.

  48. 148
    RichardC says:

    112 Jim. I agree, but even more. Plug in vehicles are good mostly for powering the grid, as opposed to charging the vehicle. Charging HEAVY batteries for a few measly kilometres of travel only means lugging HEAVY batteries around. Batteries are only 75% efficient or so, the grid is perhaps 30% efficient, and batteries lose another 20% or so in degradation costs. Even if all these numbers are tweaked upwards (as they can be), a Stirling or diesel engine tuned for efficiency will get 50-60%, and so blow them away. No battery, no grid, no nothing can come close. Batteries or flywheels are good for peaking power, but absolutely nothing beats a Stirling or diesel (or even Atkinson cycle gas) engine for efficiency. 2-5 HP for around town, 20-40 HP for highway, and whatever electrics one wants to buy for blowing folks away with your studly acceleration.

    113 Sontaran, the Japanese solved the traditional pollution issue well enough. The only significant pollutant a well-tuned new vehicle will produce is CO2, especially since all other pollutants will drop with reduced CO2 anyway.

    114 Craig, electric vehicles are environmental nightmares. That won’t change until ultracapacitors or flywheels get big and cheap enough to substitute for chemical fuel. Batteries suck.

    116 Rod, all-electric locomotives have been in service for decades, especially in cities (the subways are 100% electric) As long as the energy is supplied by a third rail, as opposed to on-board storage, electric vehicles are grand.

    123 Rod, the US military has no use for defensive purposes. Like, who’s gonna invade the USA? Naw, one country spending over 1/2 the world’s military cost is useful for only one thing: grabbing oil. The Iraq war is legitimately called a subsidy for the oil companies- it keeps Iraq oil out of the hands of competitors, and so keeps prices and profit high. That subsidy alone is hundreds of billions a year, PLUS the hundreds of billions in excess profits! That’s about a 66% subsidy for oil. A trillion a year in the USA alone.

    135 Matt, you miss the point. You are assuming that the first step is the last. But tripling mileage gives us three times as long to find the next step. Your post fails, as it boils down to, “progress is stupid, unless it is the final solution.” Well, the final solution is preventing the end of the universe, so your post says we should do nothing until we solve that one.

    137 CL, see the sea level rise thread for more on that subject.

    141 Marcus, you can only say you get nothing in return for not spewing CO2 through ignorance. We’ve just released the Methane Dragon (see the sea level rise thread). Washing your hands is irrelevant to your well-being as compared to driving more efficiently.

    142 – sorry Matt, you’d have to give a single use for the US military other than grabbing oil to say it isn’t an oil subsidy. A REAL use. You can’t as there is none. Remember? 911 was done by Saudi Arabians who were pissed at the USA’s support of the oil kleptomocracy that enslaves them. So the US invaded Iraq because Iraq was going to Euros and letting French and Russian companies develop Iraqi oil. Iraq is ALL about keeping the oil in US/British control. (First law passed after “Mission accomplished: making it illegal for French and Russian companies to develop Iraq oil)

    143 – Mark, you’re right. And if folks use anti-bacterial soap, they just wasted time making themselves sick. The bacteria on your skin protect you from disease-causing organisms. Killing it is counter-productive.

    144 Mark, if spent outside the USA, it doesn’t count. The subsidies in the USA are trillionesque, so your point holds, but bringing up “foreigners” just makes USAians tune your argument out as irrelevant.

    And this thread is devolving into politics. I think I’ve had my last word. (but then I’m not too good at shutting up….)

  49. 149
    matt says:

    #144 Mark: Matt, so where’s the counter that proves the 300Bn wrong?

    I didn’t say the $300B was wrong. It’s about right for the entire world. Without subsidies, many couldn’t afford enough fuel to keep warm, so countries like China subsidize it. Heavily.

    I pointed out that subsidies for the US were very, very low–about 1% of the total sales. And that that amount was trivial and had no impact on the true price of gasoline. So, to those that argued above that the subsidies were significant, they are right for places where there’s a lot of poverty OR where they oil producing nations decide to give it away like water. But in the US and much of the rest of the world, any subsidies are dwarfed by taxes and are too small to factor into the equation. In other words, eliminating subsidies won’t impact consumption without impacting human well being.

  50. 150
    matt says:

    #134 Guy: There is nothing technologically difficult about any of this – as usual, it is political will (and basic engineering graft). No new technological breakthroughs required.

    It has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with volumetric and gravimetric battery efficiency, and battery cost. All the pieces (motors, multi-KW drive electronics, computers) are ready except that ONE thing. Solve that, and electric cars will displace ICE cars overnight. Literally.

    The good news is that you are welcome to throw your hat in the ring and try to invent a new battery or supercap. It’s primarily a materials problems. Venture cap firms are throwing 100′s of millions to small groups of physicists and electrical engineers to solve this problem–billions at this stage doesn’t help because there are only so many “big heads” that can work on this problem right now. And when the solution is ready, industry and wall street will come up with the billions needed to take it to market.


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