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Gas Prices Are Down and a Nation's Love for SUVs Soars

Worldwide vehicle fuel economy needs vast improvement to stave off catastophic warming.

Andrea Germanos

For the United States to meet its climate goals, cars and trucks need to be made with improved fuel efficiency. But a trio of obstacles—low gasoline prices feeding consumer demand for SUVs, industry attacks, and a slow rate of technological advances—is thwarting those objectives.

The standards known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laid out by the Obama administration set the average new vehicle fuel economy for model year (MY) 2025 as 54.5 miles per gallon. Those standards apply to passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty passenger vehicles. A government fact sheet states: "Over the lifetimes of the vehicles sold in MYs 2017-2025 standards, this program is projected to save approximately 4 billion barrels of oil and reduce GHG emissions by 2 billion metric tons."

What kind of vehicles consumers are buying is key. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "CAFE standards set the average new vehicle fuel economy, as weighted by sales [emphasis mine], that a manufacturer's fleet must achieve."

And, according to reporting by Reuters on Wednesday,

Surging demand for trucks and SUVs fueled by cheap gasoline is holding back improvements in U.S. fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions, a government report due out on Wednesday is expected to show.


Consumers are responding to signals from gas pumps, where a combination of relatively low taxes - federal gasoline taxes have not gone up since 1993 - and oil unleashed by hydraulic fracturing or fracking have pushed U.S. gasoline prices to an average of just over $2 a gallon - the lowest level in six years.

Reuters also cited industry data showing that sales of SUVs, pickup trucks, and other larger vehicles in 2015 are up since last year. They now stand at almost 59 percent, up about five percent since 2014.

"Wednesday's report from the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to show that trucks are becoming more efficient, but those gains are largely being offset by the shift in some buyers from cars to trucks," Reuters adds.

In addition, to meet the efficiency standards set by CAFE, automakers can't continue business-as-usual, new research shows. The findings by University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers show that technological advances by automakers from 1990 to 2009 were quite slow compared to those of the 70's and 80's.

"It's within the realm of what we've done before, just not recently," stated lead author Don MacKenzie, a UW assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. "These standards through 2025 are not asking the auto industry to keep doing what they're doing but focus a little more on fuel economy. But it's clearly within the range of what's been done before."

Despite that capability, the industry is attempting to thwart the new goals, the New York Times has reported.

"The automakers are attacking these standards as we speak, both in Congress and through a review of the program they demanded from the Obama administration," Daniel F. Becker, director of the Washington-based Safe Climate Campaign, told the Times.

"The U.S. auto industry was successful between 1975 and 2007 in preventing any improvement for mileage standards for CO2 emissions," Becker said. "They exploit every loophole in the standards, making more SUVs, pickups and other light duty trucks than cars because trucks have weaker standards than cars, and more large vehicles because large vehicles have weaker standards than smaller vehicles."

The issue of fuel efficiency is hardly limited to the United States.

The Times' reporting adds: "The number of automobiles on the world’s roads is on pace to double—to more than two billion—by 2030. And more likely than not, most of those cars will be burning carbon-emitting gasoline or diesel fuels."

And: "If the number of cars doubles, and the average mileage improves by only 50 percent, all of the fuel-economy gains would be offset by the emissions from the new vehicles."

But the problem isn't technology, according to the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), whose partners include the International Energy Agency (IEA) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Rather, "it’s the policy commitment that is failing us," said GFEI executive secretary Sheila Watson at the UN climate conference in Paris.

"We need to see vastly improved progress on vehicle fuel economy worldwide if we are to get anywhere near reaching both the 2-degree global climate targets, and the new Sustainable Development Goal objective of doubling improvement in energy efficiency," Watson said. "Halving fuel consumption in passenger light duty vehicles by 2030 is entirely possible using widely available technologies."

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