Drive little less; live lot more
It is a no-brainer that the more we drive, the more we dump Greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. But there is more to it than meets the eye. In 2018, there were around 276.1 million vehicles on the roads in the United States of which the personal vehicles sector alone was responsible for 60% of transportation related emissions. Personal cars and light-duty trucks in 2018 were responsible for roughly 772 million metric tons CO2e and 334 million metric tons CO2e, respectively of U.S. transportation emissions and 17% of total U.S. emissions. Transportation which accounts for around 29% of CO2 emissions is the second leading source of GHG emissions in the U.S. just behind electricity generation. In most other countries high in per capita emissions too, the situations are similar. We know that barring some metros in the U.S. which are good in public transportation, it is difficult to survive without a car. There is another aspect to this problem too. A survey done in UK in 2015 showed that 79% of those who surveyed admitted to driving on journeys that could be made on foot, bicycle or by public transport. So what can we do about it?
A 2017 analysis says that living car free can avoid up to 5.3 metric tons of emissions per person per year. That is too much to ask for to a society which is too dependent on cars. But we can always do more to reduce our emission footprints. Choosing the right car with good fuel economy can help a lot in reducing one’s carbon footprint. Each gallon of gasoline burnt creates 20 pounds of CO2 which is roughly equivalent to 6 to 9 tons of GHG each year for a typical vehicle in the U.S. According to United States Environmental Protection Agency, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The calculation is based on average fuel economy of about 22.0 mpg with about 11,500 miles driven per year. Just keep in mind that by switching from 20 mpg car to a 25 mpg car has the potential to reduce your GHGs emissions by 1.0 ton per year. Electro mobility might hold the future for less emission, but there is a controversy going on about its credentials. Electric cars are costly too. So research more about the production and transportation related carbon footprints of EVs before choosing to buy one. Also if the electricity used in the car is not from a renewable source, there is no use in switching your car for one of those.
Reducing usage of cars can bring other benefits too, like the need for lesser infrastructure and overall less pollution. In a country like the U.S., which is falling far behind when it comes to its infrastructure, lesser number of personal vehicles can bring some reprieve. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the U.S. is in need of $4.5 trillion by 2025 to improve the state of the country’s roads, bridges, dams, airports, schools, and more. We can pitch in by reducing car ownership if possible or by reducing car usage. It will help the country in a big way to meet its infrastructure goals. The same is applicable in India, China, Europe or anywhere else. 150 million Americans, nearly half of all Americans live in areas that don’t meet federal air quality standards. And guess what, passenger cars and trucks cause most of this pollution. What happened to China which prioritized industrialization over human development index should serve as a lesson to everyone. With thick black smog covering many of its cities imperiling the lives of its citizens, the government has come under intense pressure to control air pollution. Last year, the government there suspended the production of more than 500 car models which did not meet the fuel economy standards. It is a bold move which is easy to make in a country like China, but not in the U.S. or any other countries. So the onus is on us to respond to the dangerous pollution levels and act to reduce it. All indicators suggest that a future with less private cars is the best thing to happen to this climate bitten age.
Even though this article is meant for anyone who drives a vehicle anywhere, sometimes I am compelled to use data from the U.S. to support the facts. This is because of two reasons, first, the availability of suitable data and second, the U.S. has more cars than any other country. But the suggestions hold true for anyone anywhere. Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan (2018), “Personal Transportation Fact sheet”, Pub. No. CSS01–07 is a very valuable source of information on how we can save on fuel and save environment while driving.
Here are some interesting and important facts from that fact sheet:
- Total U.S. passenger miles traveled in 2016 was 4.58 trillion. Americans who used public transit saved 865 million hours of travel time and 450 million gallons of gasoline in 2011 by reducing traffic congestion according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
- Consider working from home if it is an option. Average American travel roughly12.2 miles per day to work. This is 10 years old data, but not much might have changed since then.
- Nearly 77% of the population of U.S. have driven alone while going for work in 2016. Only 9.0% of workers carpooled in that year which is a huge drop from 19.7% in 1980. The advantages of carpooling are well-known but carpooling is reducing. Is it because of dwindling social interactions in this mobile age? Perhaps we all should introspect on that aspect too. Not to mention that carpooling can reduce GHG emissions and reduce traffic congestion.
- SUVs and pickups accounted for 50% of new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2017. Perhaps it has more to do with the reduction in fuel prices, but it is hurting the nature more. While choosing the vehicle, being considerate towards nature would do a lot more good. Let the motive not be to buy what we can, but to buy what we really need.
When it comes to fuel usage, we should stretch the gallon to as much as possible. More miles per gallon should be the maxim and to attain that we should maximize fuel efficiency as well as vehicle efficiency. The government agency which help Californians to reduce their environmental impacts and to find solutions for climate change, CoolCalifornia.org has some valuable and easy to follow suggestions to keep our fuel bills and carbon emissions in check. Keeping correct tire pressure in the tires, maintaining a correctly tuned engine, avoiding idling the vehicles, cleaning and changing (if needed) air filter regularly, changing oil at correct intervals and performing regular maintenance of our vehicles are some of the precautions we should take and which can save us a lot in fuel cost and as reduced emissions. Avoiding aggressive driving is another way to reduce emissions.
The blog, State of the Planet of Columbia University also has some very useful suggestions to reduce our carbon footprint while driving. Combine our drives to do errands to reduce our driving and to use traffic apps like Waze to help avoid getting stuck in traffic jams. Turning on the cruise control during long rides can save more fuel. Likewise, keeping the air-conditioning to optimal temperature can also save valuable fuel and lessen the emissions. There were 47.5 million cyclists in the U.S.in 2017 and their numbers are increasing year by year. Let us join force with them. If we drive 1000 miles less per year, we will emit 400 kg less of CO2 in a year. If 50 million of us do the same, we can reduce the CO2 emission by 20 million tonnes per year. And it’s a great start to a great journey to save us and save our world.
There are more compelling reasons to drive less. How many of us who commute daily on cars can escape from frequent or occasional road rage, depending on how calm a person you or I are? Stress arising from driving can lead to higher blood sugar, cholesterol and other complications. It is estimated that even a one-second distraction causes 42,000 deaths in accidents on the road each year. Think of the gains in fitness if we occasionally skip the car and opt to walk? If majority of us decide to ditch the car for bus or walk or bike or for carpooling with friends, it will be the best ever thing that can happen to our world. If that happens all over the world, it can mitigate the harmful effects of climate change than what can be achieved through all the positive policies of all the governments put together. After all, it is us who create the demand for fossil fuels. If we use it less, who will dig for more? We have the power to change, but we should be willing to go for the change. Hope the suggestions in this article can provoke thoughts in that direction.
PS: One another way, though unrelated to the topic here, to lessen our transport related emissions is to fly less as much as possible. Other modes of transport like buses and trains are less CO2 intensive. And who knows, it might even bring back romance to our travels which is missing from our jet lagged lifestyles. At work, if possible, try to avoid meeting clients in person as we have plenty of ways to e-meet and discuss. Traveling economy class if we are not very particular about the business class can also help since the footprint will be three times less.