New Fuel Economy Standards are Not Counterproductive


Listening to NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, there was a segment in which some environmentalists lamented Obama’s new fuel economy standards as being a small drop in the bucket for what needs to be done to solve our climate problems.

While this is true, two comments made by Harvard University Professor, Robert Stavins, during that segment struck me as weird and based in something less than reality — a kind of academic fantasy if you will. At the time, I was driving and the comments slid out of my mind. But last night an old friend from college brought it up again in a Facebook thread and it got me thinking more in depth about it.

Firstly, Stavins suggested that the fact that these new fuel efficient cars will cost an extra $1,300 over and above current less fuel efficient cars means that people will hold on to their older less fuel efficient cars for longer. In Stavins’ mind this is bad thing because, “Those older cars tend to be of lower fuel efficiency and significantly more polluting, so there’s a counterproductive effect.”

Secondly, Stavins went so far as to claim that the new standards will lead to more driving because, “by increasing fuel efficiency, it actually provides an incentive to use the car more because it lowers the operating cost.”

Okay. Wait, what? These two statements represent the kind of academic eggheadedness that drives me nuts. Just because some economist makes a model and generates predictions based on that model doesn’t make him or her an expert worth listening to. Based on our current economic predicament, we all know how good economists are at predicting how things are going to turn out.

So I call BS.

Holding on to your old car longer is good for the environment

Saying that holding on to your old car longer is counterproductive is exactly the kind of uber-consumerist attitude that’s gotten us into our predicament in the first place. While it’s true that your old car may have a lower fuel efficiency, the longer you drive it before buying a new one the more time you have to pay back the initial carbon cost of building that car in the first place.

In terms of total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, buying less stuff and holding onto your old stuff longer is about the best thing you can do, even if it emits a bit more. The act of building something like a car involves an incredible amount of energy and materials shipped from all over the world — all of which equals a large amount of emissions that new car is responsible for even before you start driving it.

Sure, a car with lower tailpipe emissions will take a shorter amount of time to payback those emissions costs, but if increased initial purchase costs mean people will buy fewer new cars then GREAT! That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Hold on to your old shit people and use it ’till it falls apart.

People will not drive more just because they have higher fuel economy

Stavins’ weakness here is that he assumes people have more miles to drive but don’t simply because of their fuel efficiency. This is patently false and even without supporting data just doesn’t make any sense. Nonetheless, we do have supporting data.

According to recent reports, the amount of miles that people drive as a whole in the U.S. has leveled out in the last 10 years and has remained steady regardless of fuel prices (a surrogate for fuel efficiency). This is due to several factors including:

  1. The number of women entering the workforce has plateaued (so the amount of new commuters has plateaued), and;
  2. People have a maximum number of miles they’re willing to drive in any given timespan before they go crazy and that number has been reached.

There are other factors, but those are the two most important. So regardless of some egghead economist’s calculations, people will not be driving more just ’cause their fuel efficiency goes up. Sure, people will drive less when fuel prices go up because that’s an actual option. But if fuel prices go down (or fuel efficiency goes up) there is no corresponding increase in driving.

Image Credit: Striatic‘s Flickr photostream used under a Creative Commons License

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.