Cars and Climate
by John M. DeCicco, Ph.D.

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 seeks practical ways to progressively limit emissions. This approach stands in contrast to strategies that aim for particular future systems based on envisioned technologies. 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 embrace the promotion of alternative (non-petroleum) fuels. A popular belief is that sustainable transportation requires "getting off of oil" and rapidly shifting to alternatively fueled vehicles (AFVs). But AFV promotion has a mixed track record and, as seen in some of the research summarized here, biofuel promotion in particular has been counterproductive. 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.

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 mainly on petroleum alternatives, even promising alternatives such as electric vehicles. Much more can be done to improve the efficiency of all vehicles as well as the efficiency of the transportation system at large through urban and regional planning strategies that reduce the needed for energy-intensive vehicle use.  

AFV policy was largely premised on an energy security rationale. It was common to assume that most oil was under the control of nations that could not be trusted and even that the world would run out of oil ("peak oil" theory from a supply perspective). But words that ring true are those of former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who 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.


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 had appeared previously on other websites or had been otherwise circulated. 

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