Push to Improve Vehicle Fuel Economy: Key Near-Term Strategy to Reduce Global CO2 Emissions


We at ITS-Davis put a fair bit of effort into studying the transition to new types of fuels and vehicles. A shift to low-carbon fuels such as electricity, hydrogen and biofuels will be necessary to decarbonize transportation over the next several decades. However there is another important near-term strategy that can also produce enormous benefits: improving conventional vehicle fuel economy.

On September 23 the United Nations (UN) will hold a Climate Summit in New York City; this gathering is an excellent opportunity to embrace fuel economy policies and fast-track fuel efficiency as a key strategy during climate negotiations that will culminate in the Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris in December 2015.

The Obama administration has set in place a powerful U.S. policy to double the fuel economy of cars and SUVs between 2016 and 2025. Average new light-duty vehicle fuel economy is now on track to achieve nearly 50 miles per gallon in that year (about 4.7 L/100km). Meanwhile, although the European Union, China, Japan and a few other countries also have fuel economy standards in place, along with labelling systems and fiscal measures to encourage purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles, many more countries around the world currently have no fuel economy policy of any kind.

The Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), a partnership of six organizations including ITS-Davis, has worked steadily on this issue over the past few years. GFEI hosted a conference in Paris last week inviting countries and other stakeholders including major automotive firms from around the world to talk about this issue and explore a broader global program to realize rapid efficiency gains. The meeting achieved a broad consensus; there was not a single negative voice among the 70 representatives of countries and of companies such as Renault and BMW. Importantly, a diverse range of countries from Chile to Kenya to Vietnam expressed their commitment to adopt an array of new fuel economy policies. The GFEI global target—50 percent reduction in L/100km (and in g/km of CO2 emissions) for new cars between 2005 and 2030, with each country setting its own targets under this broad guideline—also was broadly supported, with no significant challenges during the discussions.

The success of the GFEI conference sends a powerful message to the upcoming UN gathering in NYC: let’s clinch this one. The UN meetings on climate need to embrace commitments across all member countries to adopt fuel economy policies within the next one to two years. By my estimates, this will cut CO2 between 2015 and 2050 by more than 60 cumulative gigatonnes, at a net savings to consumers on the order of $15 trillion—since the value of fuel savings over this period will far exceed the additional cost of producing more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The technologies and strategies to make today’s vehicles more efficient are well known, including but not limited to hybridization, lightweighting, air conditioning improvements and low-rolling resistance tires. All the technologies needed to double the fuel economy of vehicles worldwide exist and are readily available in the marketplace. Eventually, electric vehicles and other alternatives will likely become dominant. But even with increasing clean energy vehicle sales, their numbers—as a percent of sales and as a percent of cars on the road—will pale in comparison to conventional vehicles for at least  another decade or two. Thus, fuel economy improvement will have by far the largest potential to provide CO2 emissions reductions between now and 2030.

So my message to the UN is this: We have the technology, now help us achieve the policy.

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