- Whatever you may think about the extent to which human activity is generating greenhouse gases that are warming the earth, the political reality is that curbs on carbon emissions are coming. The question before us in transportation is how to deal with this challenge in the most cost-effective ways.
One of the worst things we could do is to single out transportation as the villain of the piece, focusing controls disproportionately on this sector that is so vital to economic activity. That's the perspective of ridiculous books like last year's Lives per Gallon, which attributes most of the world's evils to the use of petroleum products as transportation fuel. Petroleum fuels are still critically important, since we don't yet have anything with the same energy density, a crucial component for a vehicle that must carry its energy source around with it (especially aircraft, where weight-minimization is essential). Petroleum accounts for 42% of total US energy usage, and two-thirds of that is used for transportation. Thus, we use 28% of our energy on transportation.
Electricity is one of the other major uses of energy, with the largest sources being coal and natural gas, not oil. So any sensible policy for reducing carbon emissions has to look carefully at all energy use, not just transportation. Coal is by far the largest source of carbon emissions, and there are ready substitutes for coal as power plant fuel. An article on coal mining, in the Wall Street Journal this week, noted the worldwide problem of uncontrolled fires in coal mines. According to the article, " . . . more than 100 million tons of coal are consumed by fires annually in China, contributing as much to worldwide carbon dioxide emissions as all the cars and light trucks in the U.S." If that number is valid, it may well be more cost-effective to go after that problem (sheer waste) before taking draconian measures to curtail vehicle fuel use.
One-square toilet paper limit? Demonize cars?
So many people have proposed so many ways of dealing with global warming (btw, Sheryl Crow now says her toilet paper plan was a joke). Our Bob Poole just tossed a little perspective into the debate. From his most recent Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter (which will be archived here soon):