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Analysis | The future of our climate can be decided in a traffic jam

Is there a point where you’ve ridden so much that you can’t stand it anymore? The answer could be crucial to our ability to stop climate change.

The electrification of road transport is continuing at breakneck speed. In China, nearly a third of cars sold last month were new energy vehicles(1). In Europe, the June quarter equivalent figure was 19%, rising to 41% if conventional hybrid cars are included.

That’s proof that the global fleet’s shift to electric powertrains is happening faster than some of the most optimistic mainstream forecasts. According to the International Energy Agency, sales of gasoline, which consumes about a quarter of the world’s oil, have already peaked. Road fuel in general – which includes a roughly similar amount of diesel mainly used in trucks, motorcycles and tricycles, as well as a significant proportion of European cars – will peak before the end of this year, many analysts believe. decade.

Still, with new car sales adding only about 5% each year to the global fleet of about 1.5 billion cars, for some time the biggest factor behind this change will be the massive increase in conventional fuel efficiency seen in recent years. 15 years has been reached. The average pickup truck currently sold in the U.S. gets more miles per gallon than the average sedan sold in 2014, and the average sedan goes nearly twice as far as it did in 2010. Those standards aren’t just a luxury of rich countries: they are replicated from the US and Europe to China and India.

Most of these efficiency criteria were introduced about a decade ago in the wake of the 2008 oil price spike, meaning they will take an increasing bite out of consumption in the coming years as older, more gas-guzzling vehicles are scrapped. the end of a typical 12-year life. As a result, even if people in low-income countries buy their first scooter and then trade it in for heavier and larger vehicles, the drop in fuel consumption in wealthier countries will reduce aggregate demand for crude oil.

There is only one problem with this photo. What if, instead of getting people to use less gas, energy efficiency drives them to drive more?

We’ve seen this scenario play out before. When US gasoline prices rose in 2008, traffic—as measured by vehicle miles traveled, or VMT—collapsed. The initial weakness was not too surprising in a measure often viewed as a measure of economic growth. His persistence, however, was shocking. The seasonally adjusted measure did not rise above January 2006 levels until nearly nine years later, in December 2014.

That protracted slump broke an “iron law” of 20th-century transportation, Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame, wrote at the time. He was not shy about making hypotheses to explain human behavior, but he stated that he was stunned. Maybe it was fuel costs, or government policies, or congestion, or millennials moving downtown, or the growth of women in the workforce, or a saturated auto market? Or maybe we had all just reached a point where we ran out of minutes to drive?

Steven Polzin, a transportation expert at the University of South Florida, concluded that there had been a “critical moment” and that VMT would never grow like it did in the past.

The next shift in the data was even less expected. After nearly a decade in the doldrums, VMT started to rise again in 2015 at about the same rate as in the early 2000s. Only the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath managed to stop it.

The best explanation for this is probably that fuel consumption and the drop in oil prices in 2014 conspired to make driving cheaper than ever before. As anyone who has seen a car commercial will recognize, people would much rather get behind the wheel for fun than to work, shop, or pick up the kids from football. Data from Europe seems to confirm this, with richer countries taking more leisure trips, while people in poorer countries mainly drive for work.

That is a strangely disturbing prospect. If the 2006-2015 peak in the US VMT was an illusion – as it clearly appears to be now – then perhaps the more recent slowdown is another. UK data, which followed the same dip-and-revival pattern as the US, certainly points to fuel efficiency cannibalizing itself as the best explanation.

Ultimately, the rapid rise of electric vehicles will decouple VMT from the demand for oil. According to energy analyst Philip Verleger, the fall in labor participation after Covid, which means that fewer people drive to work, is an additional headwind. Still, we shouldn’t ignore the risk that a 2015-style surge in motoring, once the current $4 a gallon gasoline era is over, could provide a final boost to petroleum. That’s especially likely if those miles are driven in pickups and SUVs, whose rising popularity likely also owes much to falling operating costs as their efficiency improves.

The world cannot afford such a shift at a time when it is desperately needed to curb the roughly 12% of road transport emissions. Let’s hope Dubner’s last guess was correct, and that this time there’s just not enough room on the road or hours in the day to continue driving. We’ve been addicted to driving since the days of Henry Ford. Breaking the addiction may be harder than we hope.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Empty train cars in San Francisco create problems for public transport: Justin Fox

Peak oil has finally arrived. No, really: David Fickling

$3-a-gallon gasoline isn’t as painful as it used to be: Liam Denning

(1) That category includes battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. Most are battery powered.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on energy and commodities. He previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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