Will Technology Save Us?

A cut away shot of Lexus’ new hybrid. Photo by Mike Babcock of Flickr.

To date, much of the debate swirling around global warming has focused on how new and improved technologies will save us from the dire consequences of a warming planet. In the context of transportation, this means that a lot of our time, energy, and discussion centers on the idea of fuel efficiency, or alternative fuels and vehicles. Among politicians and talking heads, hybrids, fuel cells, and ethanol are all the rage. But are they right to place so much emphasis on these technologies? Or is it misguided to depend so heavily on new automotive developments to fight global warming?

In the last few days I’ve done some number crunching – back of the envelope type calculations – to see what effect past automotive innovations had on our carbon footprint. The results are quite interesting and provocative. The initial numbers need a lot of review and improvement but I still thought they would be interesting to share.

According to the International Energy Agency, from 1971 to 2005 CO2 emissions from road transport increased from 1.8 billion tons per year to 4.6 billion tons per year. My estimate shows that if there were no technological improvements and per capita oil consumption remained the same, emissions of CO2 from road transport would have been 5.6 billion tons per year in 2005. That is, technology, mostly in the form of vehicle enhancements and alternative fuel use, reduced CO2 emissions by roughly 1.0 billion tons per year.

The point that I want to drive home is that changes in activity patterns – how much we drove, how much cargo we moved around in trucks – greatly overwhelmed the benefits of innovation. What does this mean? While technology has played and will continue to play an important role in reducing global warming, it would be shortsighted to think that it alone will be our saving grace.

So in addition to improving technology we must all reduce vehicle activity, a proposition that politicians would rather ignore. How can we do this? This can be accomplished by creating walkable, bikeable, and mixed-use communities that minimize the necessity of driving. Boosting the quality and availability of mass transit and discouraging the use of cars in central cities – using tools like congestion pricing, licensing, and parking charges – will also be essential. London and Paris have shown that this can be done and New York, under the leadership of Michael Bloomberg, is trying to follow their extraordinary example. In road cargo, we might need to rely less on trucking and use more efficient types of transport like those that use rail and waterways. And for those of you who like reading blogs, telecommuting is another solution for reducing vehicle use.

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