Making cars more fuel-efficient is great for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but beyond that, policymakers should turn their gaze to emissions in energy sectors — from oil wells and power plants to farms and forests affected by biofuels production — rather than promoting sales of electric and other alternatively fueled vehicles. That’s the eye-opener in a new paper by University of Michigan researcher John DeCicco.
“While the rush to get alternative fuels on the road has become dogma in many policy circles, such haste cannot be justified by careful analysis,” says DeCicco, a research professor at the university’s Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Alternative fuel vehicles have been promoted for decades. This category includes plug-in electric cars as well as those powered by ethanol, natural gas, hydrogen or other non-petroleum fuels. Federal tax credits for electric vehicles range up to $7500 per car and many other alternative fuels are also subsidized.
DeCicco’s paper affirms that research and development (R&D) are important to create better options for the future. But at least for reasons of climate protection, moving beyond R&D into public subsidies, mandates and other costly programs to prop up alternative fuel sales “is not warranted on the basis of current data,” he concludes.
The study examines expected increases in driving for both the United States and China. It compares those projections to data on the carbon emissions associated with different fuels and the efficiency gains in vehicles that still burn liquid fuels (including hybrids that don’t plug in).
“Gasoline vehicle efficiency is already improving by nearly four percent per year, while emissions from U.S. electric power generation are not even declining by one percent per year,” DeCicco notes. Electric power emissions are even higher in China.
“If you think that electric cars will be needed someday, you first have to greatly cut carbon emissions from power generation. If you think that biofuels are going to be important, then you need to remove more carbon from the air at farms or forests than we’re already doing today,” he explains.
DeCicco’s research finds that as long as carbon emissions in those other locations remain poorly controlled, there are no compelling climate advantages to alternative fuels and cars that use them. The most effective approaches, he says, are steadily improving vehicle efficiency and limiting travel demand.
“Higher fuel economy — that’s one good track the country is already on, and we should stay the course on that,” says DeCicco. “Reducing the demand for car travel makes sense in urban areas, where policymakers can do more to encourage efficient land use, better mass transit and making it easier to walk and bike or otherwise minimize traffic congestion.”
The analysis shows that, beyond transportation efficiency, the next priorities lie outside the transportation sector. “The missing link for really cleaning up cars is not about the car at all,” DeCicco notes. “It’s about limiting net carbon impacts in the energy and natural resource sectors that supply motor fuel, whatever form that fuel may take.”
According to DeCicco, his analysis affirms the longstanding admonition that policymakers should not be trying to pick winners. Moreover, he concludes, “progress in cutting carbon need not be held hostage to wishful thinking about alternative fuels and their legacy of high costs and market shortcomings.”
Professor DeCicco’s paper, “Factoring the Car-Climate Challenge: Insights and Implications,” is published online at Energy Policy (subscription required). A University of Michigan Energy Institute working paper version is available for free download via the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).