Cars and Climate  John DeCicco, University of Michigan Energy Institute

The reflections and research summaries collected here examine solutions to the large and globally growing part of the climate problem posed by automobiles and other energy-intensive forms of transportation. 

This topic is well-trod ground, of course. Two things distinguish the approach taken here. One is that it works from first-principles scientific analyses of transportation-related CO2
emissions without presuming any particular technology or policy solutions. Such an approach is open to many options, but does not constrain the solutions examined based on untested assumptions about what will or will not work. Another is that it anchors itself in the realities of transportation systems as they exist today and then looks for concrete ways to progressively limit emissions. This approach stands in contrast to strategies that aim for particular future systems based on technologies as envisioned today. Such visions can inform choices about what policies to pursue, but they shouldn't define the options and certainly shouldn't limit the solution set. 

What's not to like about this approach? Well, for one thing, it does not rule out a continued domination of petroleum fuels for the foreseeable future. Some may view any use of petroleum as inherently unsustainable; they believe that sustainable transportation requires "getting off of oil" and rapidly shifting to alternative fuels. Perhaps one or more alternatives will succeed over the next few decades in ways they have not over the past four. But maybe they won't, and so the investigations described here are not tied to what has been an unsuccessful paradigm to date.

Even while embracing a role for alternative fuels, the approach is resolutely technology neutral. Reducing the use of fuels that contain carbon is clearly crucial; nevertheless, it should not be presumed that efforts to progressively and greatly limit transportation's climate impact hinge only on efforts to replace petroleum.

Former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani was famously quoted as saying, "The Stone Age did not come to an end because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will not come to an end because we have a lack of oil." Those deeply concerned about climate cannot afford to wait for the end of the oil age to begin reducing the adverse climatic impact of the way we use oil, which now involves sending its carbon on a one-way trip into the atmosphere without any offsetting removal of CO2 from the air.

One need not look far around the web, or in the academic and popular literature, to find technology and policy prescriptions for one particular solution to the car-climate problem or another. This blog takes a non-presumptive look at the options based on both reviews of the literature and the original research summarized here.


Although this blog was established in 2013 it contains posts with older dates as well. It is also being used to consolidate posts, essays and links to presentations and talks that previously appeared on other websites or had been circulated via e-mail. 

John M. DeCicco, Ph.D., is a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute (UMEI). 

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author alone and do not represent views of the University of Michigan or any current and past sponsors of the research discussed here. 

Updated Sept. 8, 2014.