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close this bookClimate Protection and the National Interest (WRI, 1997, 56 pages)
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View the documentElectric Power Production
View the documentTransportation
View the documentZero Emission Vehicles: - Electric and Hydrogen Cars
View the documentHydrogen-Powered Fuel-Cell Vehicles
View the documentNext Steps


The problems of greenhouse warming, air pollution, and oil security are intimately linked through the gases, pollutants, and technologies associated with fossil fuel combustion. If these linkages are not respected, haphazardly adopted strategies developed to deal with the problems individually might alleviate one only to exacerbate another.

Measures to cope with these problems will affect all energy-consuming sectors of the economy (buildings, industry, transportation, and utilities). Buildings and factories will have to become more energy efficient, reducing their on-site fuel use for heating, cooling, refrigeration, and lighting. Especially Significant will be the changes in power generation and transportation. These two sectors account for almost two thirds of U.S. energy consumption and are the two largest sources of CO2 emissions.52

Figure 2 shows that direct CO2 emissions from buildings and factories have remained fairly steady while those from power plants and transportation have been growing. Electric power plants account for about 36 percent of CO2 emissions,53 and for the most part the utilities believe they have little choice but to burn fossil fuels. The growth in utility CO2 emissions reflects the long-term trend toward electrification of the economy. Consumers are increasingly buying their energy in the form of electricity rather than as coal, oil, or natural gas.

To be absolutely clear - we must now focus on what can and what should be done, not because we can be certain climate change is happening, but because the possibility can't be ignored.

John Browne, CEO, BP
at Stanford University
May 19, 1997

Transportation currently accounts for 30 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 80 percent of carbon monoxide releases, 49 percent of nitrogen oxides, and 37 percent of organic compound emissions.54


· Motor vehicles are major sources of air pollution and are the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. Vehicles also account for about half of U.S. oil consumption, equivalent in volume to all imports. Sensible domestic policies to address climate change, air pollution, and energy security would prescribe a long-term strategy to introduce emissionless vehicles ultimately powered by non-fossil energy sources. This is far from the case. Both the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy Act broadly encourage the use of virtually any alternative fuel that has some potential clean air benefit including methanol, ethanol, compressed natural gas, and even synfuels made from coal.a These fuels have only marginal clean air benefits and little or no climate benefit. Their widespread use would frustrate attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Policies on federal fleet purchases are only compounding the problem. In 1995, the federal government purchased almost 19,000 alternative fuel vehicles of which less than 0.3 percent were emission-less; the rest bum fossil fuels or ethanol made from corn and offer little climate benefit. In short, federal policies on alternative fuels fail to recognize the links between motor vehicle fuels and the problems they give rise to.

a "Comparative Alternative /Clean Fuel Provisions of the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy Act," Alternative Fuel Information, US Department of Energy.

· The United States is a major factor in the climate problem: with less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States accounts for about 22 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Despite the need to curtail CO2 releases, U.S. emissions continue to rise (almost 9 percent between 1990 and 1996), paced by transportation and electric-power production. Given the critical need to begin the transition to renewable energy sources, federal research, development, and demonstration resources should be focussed on beginning the move to renewables. Instead, the budget heavily emphasizes the burning of fossil fuels. In Fiscal Year 1997, the Congress appropriated $267 million dollars for solar energy technologies but $365 million dollars for fossil fuel research and development. Federal priorities seem out of sync with the urgent challenge to begin the transition from fossil to sustainable energy sources.

· In 1991, the United States went to war to ensure continued access, on favorable terms, to Persian Gulf oil. Yet, neither the Congress nor the Administration will support the kinds of domestic measures that would help cut U.S. oil dependence and enhance national security.

- In constant dollars, fuel prices are near an all-time low. Yet, there is no support for a revenue-neutral increase in the fuel tax (offset by reductions in taxes on income and investment) that would reduce the growth rate in oil consumption and increase the economic attractiveness of non-petroleum technologies such as electric-drive vehicles.

- With federal approval, speed limits on interstate highways have been greatly increased despite the fact that higher speeds lead to significant drops in vehicle fuel efficiency. Tests by DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory show that cars consume 33 percent more fuel to drive a mile at 75 mph than at 55 mpg.b
Hence, federally sanctioned higher speed limits encourage greater fuel consumption and higher CO2 emissions.

b Stacy C. Davis and David N. McFarlin, "Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 16," USDOE, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, ORNL-6898, pp. 3-47.

- The average fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks (including minivans and sport utility vehicles) has been dropping since 1987, largely the result of all-time lows in fuel prices. Despite the clear security and environmental threats engendered by this trend, the federal government has done little beyond sponsoring a long-term "Big Three" research program (PNGV - the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles) that will have little discernible effect on U.S. oil consumption for many years.

- Federal legislation to encourage the use of alternative fuels - such as ethanol - actually encourages the sale of less fuel-efficient new vehicles.c This is so because the federal fuel-efficiency standard (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency, CAFE) for multi-fuel vehicles permits automakers to take an effective efficiency credit much higher than the vehicle's measured value running on gasoline. Ford and Chrysler, unable to meet their gasoline CAFE standard, will build new vehicles capable of running on 85 percent ethanol even though these vehicles are almost certain never to operate on the fuel. Up to 40 percent of Chrysler s future minivan fleet will come under this provision. As a result, Chrysler's minivans will be rated at about 133 mpg rather than the actual 20 mpg, regardless of what fuel is used in the vehicles.
In short, by sins of both omission and commission, federal policies are exacerbating the linked energy problems of climate, pollution, and oil security.

c Dale Jewett, "Makers' Ethanol Plan Provides Federal Fuel-Economy Bonus," Automotive News. June 23, 1997; Southeastern Regional Biomass Energy Program, "Update," July 1997.

Emissions of air pollutants from transportation are projected to grow in the future. Transportation also accounts for nearly two thirds of oil consumption and so is a major factor in the nation's increasing reliance on imported oil. The continued growth in transportation emissions reflects, in part, the decline in the real cost of driving. In real terms, a gallon of gasoline costs a third less in 1995 than it did in 1950 - and less than a gallon of bottled spring water.

It is clear that if we are to come to grips with our three-pronged energy problem, fundamental long-term changes will have to occur in the way electric power is generated and motor vehicles are powered. In the near term, the various pollution and climate risks that we have outlined can be reduced through improved energy efficiency and fuel substitution. Energy efficiency is the most effective means available for dealing with these intertwined problems and it must be the cornerstone of long-term change. Moreover, improved efficiency will also increase U.S. competitiveness in world markets.


In terms of their carbon and pollution emissions, the fossil fuels differ significantly. Natural gas combustion emits the least amount of CO2 and air pollution per unit of energy. Oil emits between 38 and 43 percent more CO2 than natural gas, and coal, between 72 and 95 percent more.55 (See Figure 13.) Synthetic oil made from coal (produced, for example, to reduce oil imports) emits much more CO2 than conventional oil. From both climate and air pollution perspectives, natural gas is the most attractive fossil fuel and synthetic fuels are the least. Over the long run, the use of more sustainable, non-fossil energy technologies will have to be greatly expanded if fossil fuel CO2 emissions are to be controlled. How this might happen and what their effects would be on our economy are outlined next.