More efficient transportation choices are key to reducing emissions

Published Tuesday, October 24, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Sometimes I long for bygone days when fundamental truths didn’t need to be so couched in political correctness, lest everyone become so upset they miss the message.  

A perfect example is a newspaper ad campaign I remember from my youth.  

Politically incorrect?

I’m reaching deep and may be off on a few details, but here’s the gist of the campaign, which, if I recall correctly, was a federal initiative.  It was launched after the 1970s oil crisis with the aim of creating awareness about energy conservation and vehicle fuel efficiency.

The ads were frank.  They explained why conserving oil was in our national interest.  Then, under the heading, “These vehicles are part of the solution,” they listed, by manufacturer and model, the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.

Under the heading, “These vehicles are average,” they listed all models with medium fuel efficiency.  

And, under the heading, “These vehicles are part of the problem,” they listed, by manufacturer and model, the most fuel-inefficient vehicles on the market.  I remember that part well, because the vehicle in our (large) family’s driveway was on that list.

A direct approach, to be sure, but who could argue with blunt facts?

The ad campaign was all about conserving oil – but it could just as well have been about reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the two are inextricably linked; plain and simple, more fuel burned means more emissions generated.  

Those ads, today?

If anyone dared launch a similar ad campaign today, what models would appear on the solution and problem lists?  

Based on Natural Resources Canada’s 2017 official vehicle fuel efficiency ratings, I’m guessing the solution list would feature electric vehicles with names like Bolt, Focus and Leaf (average fuel economy equivalent to 2.1 litres/100KM or 135 miles per gallon – incredible!); plug-in hybrids with names like Volt and Prius Prime (average fuel economy about 3.5 litres/100 KM or 80 MPG); and hybrid vehicles with names like Ioniq, Prius, Niro, Accord, Malibu and Fusion (average fuel economy 4.9 litres/100 KM or 57 MPG).  

I’m guessing the problem list would feature vehicles with names like Tundra, Navigator, Expedition, Titan, Yukon, Suburban, Tahoe, Sierra, Silverado, Ram and F-150 (plus many other trucks and SUVs).  According to NRCan, these models average 13.1 litres / 100 KM (21.5 MPG), or over six times the fuel consumption (and emissions) of the most efficient models on the solutions list.  

Furthermore, over a 250,000 kilometre vehicle lifetime, that equates to each vehicle on the problem list consuming 27,500 MORE litres of fuel (over $30,000 at today’s prices) and generating 63 tonnes MORE emissions than an efficient vehicle at the top of the solutions list.  

That latter fact bites especially hard in view of a recent analysis by UK-based Carbon Brief that concludes our opportunity to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C – a target whispered with guarded hope at the 2015 Paris Climate conference – may slip beyond our reach in as little as four years of emissions at today’s levels.  It would seem we are ‘running out of runway’.

If ever I seem overly disapproving of trucks and SUVs, I hope this helps explain why.  If we are ‘running out of runway’ when it comes to emissions, it seems unconscionable to fritter away our remaining emissions ‘budget’ through inefficient transportation.

What to do

Fortunately, there’s much each of us can do.

First, strive to drive less.  Walk, bike, carpool or take public transit whenever possible.  When driving is unavoidable, plan to do everything in one trip.  Avoid drive-throughs, and don’t idle for more than 10 seconds.  A bonus: saving fuel is saving money!

And, importantly, when it’s time to choose a new vehicle, forego the temptation of ‘problem’ vehicles, and invest instead in a ‘solution’ vehicle that meets your needs.  By saving on fuel and hedging yourself against future fuel price increases, you’ll be doing a good thing for your wallet.  

And, of course, it’s one of the very best things you can do for the planet.