Fuel efficiency, climate change, and 2050


in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Travel

Bridge ribs

Recently, the United Nations Environment Program and others called for fuel efficiency in automobiles to be doubled by 2050. While more efficient transport is a necessary element in dealing with climate change, this target strikes me as profoundly lacking in vision or ambition. There are two major reasons for which I think we must do a lot better.

The first is that, by 2050, we will probably be seeing serious consequences from climate change globally. It is entirely possible that there will be no more Arctic summer sea ice, and far fewer glaciers. Droughts, fires, and heat waves are likely to have increased in frequency and severity. These kinds of changes are likely, to some extent, regardless of what sort of emissions trajectory we follow. The major differences in outcome between a scenario where we cut emissions and save ourselves and one where we doom huge numbers of future generations to enormous climatic harm will largely be felt after 2050. In spite of that, it seems probable that changes which will occur by 2050 will render the strategy of denying and ignoring climate change non-viable. As such, it is doubtful that governments would ask so little of automakers.

The second concerns peak oil. There are a lot of uncertainties involved about timing, technological development, and about how the global economy will respond to falling output. That being said, there will come a day when the global production of petroleum peaks and begins an unstoppable decline. To me, at least, it seems likely that the decline will be well underway by 2050 – making a petroleum-fuelled automobile an expensive proposition for anyone, and quite possibly unavailable to most. In an optimistic scenario, where standards of living keep rising in spite of reduced hydrocarbon output, that will mean that the reduced quantity of fuel available will have a price inflated even beyond what scarcity would dictate. It is, of course, terribly hazardous to make guesses about technology and economic developments so far off, but my gut impression is that a vehicle engineer from 2050 would be aghast to see a vehicle anywhere near as inefficient as those we are using now.

If we do take climate change seriously, and we begin to capture the opportunities for economic transition the crisis offers, by 2050 we should find ourselves moving sharply towards a far more sustainable world. To take one set of examples, it might be a world where ground transportation is overwhelmingly electric, fuelled by renewables and probably some nuclear fission. Liquid fuels produced from biomass might be employed only by aircraft and for specialty applications like vehicles in very remote areas. While that scenario is speculative, to me it seems more likely than one where we are driving around in the same old internal combustion engine, gasoline cars but burning 3.5 litres per 100km rather than 7.0.

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

. March 11, 2009 at 10:35 am

Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline

Two French photographers immortalize the remains of the motor city on film

Photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

. March 11, 2009 at 11:45 am

Today the Energy Information Administration released the December 2008 oil production numbers. Peak Oil 2005 is now history. 2008 has officially eclipsed the previous 2005 peak for the all-time annual oil production record, albeit just barely over 2005.

But due to the economic collapse, I expect 2008 will stand as the record for a while – and quite possibly forever. It all hinges on how long it takes for demand to recover. OPEC has shaved about 2 million barrels a day off of production since summer, and I suspect they will be very slow to open the taps back up if prices head higher. If we don’t eclipse the 2008 production numbers within 3 years or so, I don’t think we ever will.

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Doubling mileage by 2050 is absurd. Mileage could be almost doubled this year – most cars have engines more than twice the size and power that is necessary, and cars weigh, on average, about twice what they need to. Compact cars used to weigh about 1500lbs, and now they weigh at least 2800lbs. Full sized cars used to weigh up to 3000lbs, and now they tend to be 4500lbs.

Mandate strict maximum weights, reduce the size of engines, and reduce freeway speed limits to 50mph – and you could easily double the fleet mileage of new vehicles in one year, and of the entire fleet in 5 to 10 years.

Even better – toll the roads inversely to the number of people in a car (i.e. a car with 4 occupants pays nothing, 3 occupants pays 3$, 2 occupants pays 6$, 1 pays 9$).

Anyway, the point is, we’re not short on good ideas of how to reduce energy consumption in transportation – we’re short on political will to implement them.

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm

It’s quite possible today to build a vehicle which gets 3.5L/100km, although it is terribly difficult to buy one from a manufacturer.

In fact, the guys from TopGear are doing just that – building a car for 7000$US which will get 70mpg (3.36L/100km), have a stylish Italian body, and accelerate from zero to a hundred kilometers per hour in 7 seconds (in other words, considerably faster than Nick’s parents car). Imagine what kind of mileage they could aim for if they didn’t insist on it being so fast?


Milan March 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm

The 1926 Chrysler Economy Car got 30 miles per gallon. It certainly didn’t have the power of modern vehicles, but that still suggests considerable scope for improvement.

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

The 500 horsepower, four wheel drive, 200 mile per hour 911 Turbo gets an EPA score of 23mpg – which is almost certainly higher than the 1926 car would receive if it were put through the modern EPA mileage testing cycle.

There is no shortage of technology to make cars efficient, but there is a lack of market demand. This is easy to see in move away from the slippery body styles of the early 1990’s towards edgier, boxy ‘aggressive’ looking cars with brawny engines.

Another problem with the car market that no one admits is the underpricing of systemic risk in the purchasing of heavy vehicles – when you choose to buy a heavy 4wd vehicle because you perceive it as safe, well first, you are mostly an idiot – many SUV’s are not subject to the same crash testing as cars and minivans and thus you might be heavier but not safer. But also, there is a free rider problem – because you are not paying for the increased risk to everyone else of having a heavier vehicle on the road.

There is something paradoxical about making cars heavier so they can have more safety gear onboard so you’ll be safe when you run into another heavy car, made so weighty by its safety gear.

In any case, it would make a lot of sense to tax cars based on how much they weigh, preferably with an exponential curve to make owning vehicles over 3500lbs prohibitively expensive, and ones under 2500lbs very cheap.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 3:49 pm

A fuel price floor could also be an equitable and effective mechanism for encouraging efficient vehicles. Of course, it would take considerable political courage for a government to impose one.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Apparently, just adding stop-start capability to cars can increase their efficiency by 20%, at least for city driving.

. March 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Major climate change issues >> Technology >> Ground transportation

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I’d advocate a fuel price floor, or even fixing fuel prices – raising the price of fuel, and then perhaps giving consumers credits they could use back against the high cost of fuel after it rose above a ceiling. So, for example, set the price floor at 1.50$ a liter, and then if the price goes above 3$ a liter allow people to use credits, i.e. the amount extra they paid when the market cost was under 1.50$ a liter, against the amount that fuel exceeds over 3$ a liter. I don’t know if such a system would be feasible, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be with intelligent smart cards, etc.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Why does it make sense to help people when prices are high? I can see why it would be politically popular, but what would the actual benefits be?

Magictofu March 11, 2009 at 4:54 pm

I think the number of vehicle on the road should be a major part of that equation. With the development of many regions and with the expected population increases that we are facing, improving drastically fuel efficiency might not be sufficient to reduce emissions.

There is also an important distinction to make between improving the fuel efficiency of new vehicles and improving the fuel efficiency of a fleet of vehicles. The former can be done much faster than the later since people normally keep their vehicles for extended periods.

. March 11, 2009 at 5:04 pm

I despair

I have just tumbled, through weird rabbit hole links, into the madness that is the New York Times automobile section. It contains phrases like “Ford has given its die-hard fans reason for hope…” and “Best-looking G.M. interior in a blue-collar model since the Harley Earl era” and “my vote for the 2002 Car of the Year… goes to the 2009 Pontiac G8. Yes, General Motors is late to the party again, but consider buying one of these anachronistic V-8 gas guzzlers, because if the company needs more bailout money, your tax dollars will be paying for one anyway” and “Ford Taurus … the 2010 model, to be unveiled in January, incites lust” and “Cars didn’t cause the crisis” and “Yet even in this slumping, truck-averse market, the F-150 remained America’s best-selling car or truck, as it’s been for 27 years. Calling it quits would make as much sense as Apple pulling the plug on the iPod” and “Only a Hooveresque economy is keeping this Bimmer from being a smash with the style-first, cost-who-cares crowd” and “The car is most notable for the fact that if hydrogen should suddenly become widely available at reasonable prices, Honda is ready to roll” and … I could go on.

It’s like Clarkson with neither wit nor irony. It is still, though, grimly informative. I learn that: there are people who consider themselves fans of Fords; people who write about these things can have wildly divergent ideas about the impressiveness of the BMW 1 series; American cars are basically very good things; there are no French cars; there is no need to mention carbon dioxide in the discussion of internal combustion engines; there are people who think there will be iPods in 2028; that 35 miles to the gallon (6.72 liters per 100 km) is something noteworthy; that Detroit is of non-pathological interest to many.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 5:17 pm


I agree that fleet efficiency is important, though I am a bit wary of policies that offer people incentives to get rid of old cars. While there may well be cases where the improved efficiency of the new car is sufficiently large to offset the environmental costs associated with building the car, this cannot be assumed. Someone might trade in a small, reasonably efficient can from 1990 for an SUV monstrosity made this year. If you only care about the profits of car companies, this is probably exactly what you want them to do.

Personally, if I were designing a policy to encourage efficiency, I would give people credits that can only be redeemed for a vehicle that beats the efficiency of their old one by a certain margin. It could even be tiered: say, $100 for a 10% improvement, $250 for a 25% improvement, etc.

R.K. March 11, 2009 at 7:49 pm

The 2050 target definitely lacks ambition.

It’s a good think nobody has ever really paid attention to the UN Environment Programme.

Magictofu March 11, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Milan, we certainly do not disagree on this point.

mek March 11, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I remember in detail a program on cars made of advanced plastics – these things weighed less than 500 pounds, and as a result were absurdly efficient – well under 2L/100km. The issue? If you crash into an SUV you crumple like a paper cup.

All we have to blame is a total lack of regulation. Japan is a great example here – they have very strict laws when it comes to car safety and economy, and yet have one of the, if not the, most successful automobile industries.

Tristan March 12, 2009 at 12:38 am

“Why does it make sense to help people when prices are high? I can see why it would be politically popular, but what would the actual benefits be?”

A lot of poor people depend on cars for their transient jobs. If your fuel bill is a significant part of your monthly income, say 20%, then if it doubles you will be broke.

So, the actual benefits would be, maybe some people won’t starve? Some families won’t lose their homes? I don’t know, maybe I’ve had a lot more experience than the average person working in industries where people really need their cars for their jobs, and if they couldn’t drive them anymore, they’d lose their livelihood. And even the people that appear better off, are really just living on the edge – usually just a month or two from bankruptcy. The film industry is a scary place that way – that’s why job security is a good thing.

Tristan March 12, 2009 at 12:39 am

Nick’s example is excellent – if we priced systemic risk, and included it in the market price of cars, we could force everyone to buy extremely light cars, which would then be safe, because all the other cars would be light as well.

Tristan March 12, 2009 at 12:58 am

“there are no French cars”

Is this suppose to be a joke? There are plenty of French cars here. Here they are called “Nissan”. Nissan is owned by Renault – basically, a bunch of French Communists. And there are plenty of other French cars which aren’t imported, but they still exist. North America is not the most important nor most interesting car market in the world.

“these anachronistic V-8 gas guzzlers,”

You can call them gas guzzlers if you want, but actually their economy is pretty respectable. The Pontiac G8 with a V8 engine gets 25mpg on the highway – that’s the same as a lot of american V6 family cars. Even the absurd 505 horsepower Corvette Z06 gets 24mpg.

Compare that with another GM product, the Saturn “Aura” V6 – pretty similar size to the G8, with an engine half the size – manages 26mpg. Oh ya, 1mpg worse, the V8’s are going to destroy the world. Did I mention, the standard corvette, with “only” something like 430horsepower, gets 27mpg?

In the real world, the size of the engine has less to do with economy than the gearing, the weight, and the aerodynamics (at least above 90km/h). Consider this – if a 4 liter engine is turning at 1500rpm, it’s combusting the same volume of air/fuel mixture as a 2 liter engine is at 3000rpm. Now, if you check in the real world, you’ll notice that cars with bigger engines have taller gearing. This is important because if an engine is sucking in too much air-fuel mixture and you have to back off on the throttle, at least in a gasoline car this creates a partial vaccuum and reduces the effective compression, thereby reducing combustion efficiency. (Diesels get around this problem by not having throttles – the throttle in a diesel simply changes the amount of fuel being injected into the cylinder – effectively a diesel is always running at ‘full throttle’). (This is why diesels get more better efficiency in city driving than at highway driving). (Of course, it’s actually incorrect to assume a diesel engine has better efficiency simply because it gets more MPG – since the fuel has more energy in it to start with).

Now, sure you can say that a bigger engine is more complex and has more moving parts – more dead losses, but, if those parts are moving slower, there is at least intuitive reasons to think that an engine twice the size moving at half the speed might have lower friction losses than an engine half the size moving at twice the speed. But, I don’t know this, I’ll have to look it up. It would be quite easy to check, incidentally, one can simply hook up an engine to an electric motor and determine how much power it takes to spin it when it is not firing to find out how much of an engines power is being immediately lost in frictional losses.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 9:01 am

I don’t know, maybe I’ve had a lot more experience than the average person working in industries where people really need their cars for their jobs, and if they couldn’t drive them anymore, they’d lose their livelihood.

So it’s something that might be justified despite its negative climatic consequences, rather than a means of mitigation. I have a few problems with this:

1) We should probably encouraging people to make choices that leave them less dependent on personal vehicles.

2) In a long period of sustained high prices, the subsidy scheme might collapse, leaving people worse off than they would have been without it.

3) Other mechanisms to encourage higher levels of economic resilience exist: for instance, creating incentives to keep cash available for emergencies.

While it’s possible that new technologies will permit individual vehicles to be a sustainable option, we can’t be certain about that at this stage. In the long run, then, policies to discourage dependence on them seem more sensible than those that facilitate continued dependence.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 9:09 am

83 years ago, Chrysler had a car that had a top speed of 93 km/h and which used 7.8 L/100km. Is it unreasonable to expect a car that is 50% faster (149km/h so as to pass on highways), laden with contemporary safety features, and twice as fuel efficient?

Furthermore, if we cap the speed and safety features at those levels (allowing further improvements in things like air bags), and devote our innovative capacity towards efficiency, it seems like doubling efficiency again should be possible well before 2050.

Given the spinelessness of governments in the face of car companies, however, my guess is that the efficiency push will be driven more by progressively escalating gas prices than by long-thinking policies.

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 9:28 am

In an ideal world, the decline of cars could also be the decline of faceless suburbs. Instead, places could develop into real neighbourhoods again, with people managing most of the necessities of life within a few kilometres of their homes. This could include not just working and shopping, but a fair bit of food and energy production as well.

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 9:32 am

Given the spinelessness of governments in the face of car companies, however, my guess is that the efficiency push will be driven more by progressively escalating gas prices than by long-thinking policies.

The American auto bailouts are pathetic evidence of this. Even though these companies are entirely dependent on the taxpayer to avoid bankruptcy, they aren’t even being pressured to meet California’s emissions standards.

Magictofu March 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

“83 years ago, Chrysler had a car that had a top speed of 93 km/h and which used 7.8 L/100km. Is it unreasonable to expect a car that is 50% faster (149km/h so as to pass on highways), laden with contemporary safety features, and twice as fuel efficient?”

I am not an engineer but past rates of improvements are not necessarily good indicators of future improvements . That being said, the combustion engine is probably a technology in need of replacement. If the next generation of electric cars are less energy efficient but are poluting less, we would still benefit (unless electricity is produced by coal power plants of course).

Milan March 12, 2009 at 11:44 am

Actually, from what I have read, electric vehicles produce fewer GHGs per kilometre of travel than oil-fuelled internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, even if coal is the source of power for the electric cars.

That is because the efficiency of a large coal plant is so much higher than that of an ICE, it can do better even while using a much dirtier fuel.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Apparently, on CBC’s The National, they discussed a massive increase in credits for trading in cars. The segment was called “Automakers have an idea to hotwire their industry” and included a proposal that the federal government offer $3500 for ‘old clunkers.’ At present, the credit is apparently $500.

Of course, any industry would be delighted to have the federal government pad their bottom line in this way. In the name of the financial crisis, I certainly wouldn’t mind if the federal government paid 10% of the cost of some new photo gear for me. That being said, it seems like an inapporpriate action for goverment to take. To me, this is a misallocation of taxpayer money, especially if there is no requirement that the new vehicles be much more efficient. Given Canada’s new budget deficit, it seems especially inappropriate to be subsidizing auto firms and car-buyers.

. March 17, 2009 at 11:07 pm

EVI debuts road-ready commercial transport electric vehicles
by Darren Murph

Tired of being hit upside the noggin’ with tiny electric car after tiny electric car? Yeah, so are the burly men and women running the show at Electric Vehicles International. Said outfit has just announced that it will soon be showcasing the industry’s first “road-ready” commercial electric vehicles at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky. The company currently has two commercial truck models (the eviLightTruck and the eviRoute 1500), both of which are “customizable” and can be ordered in electric vehicle (EV) or hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) form. Don’t lie — you just thought about how awesome it’d be to roll up to the office in one of these bad boys.

Milan March 20, 2009 at 1:32 pm
Matt March 20, 2009 at 6:52 pm

When I was doing my materials engineering degree, I took a course taught by a guy who did contract work for Rolls Royce in the aircraft engines division. There was a big push to develop alloys that could withstand higher temperatures, because the ability to run the engines hotter allows for greater efficiency. The downside was that the higher temperatures worsened NOx emissions. Also, there aren’t as many gains to be made in that area as there once was. Single crystal nickel turbine blades (currently used) were probably the last big gain in that area.

There is another technology that may turn out to be promising in aircraft engines, which is the geared turbofan. If you look into the engine of an airplane, the rotating blades that are visible makeup the fan. A large portion of the air the fan moves bypass the engine core, through the bypass duct. There are other compressor stages behind the fan that aren’t visible that compress and direct air into the core. These stages are much smaller in diameter than the fan and spin faster. One hurdle to efficiency is that the fan, and the smaller in diameter turbine at the very rear of the engine that spins the fan have significantly different optimal RPMs, the turbine would be more efficient if spun faster, and the fan would be more efficient if spun slower. In current engines, a compromise is struck with neither components turning at their optimal speed. With a gearbox, both parts could spin optimally, and a significant efficiency boost could be seen. The first planes that might use this design would maybe be a 737/A320 replacement.

Tristan March 21, 2009 at 10:43 am

From my conversations with a Pilot at Marc’s party, I gleaned that while simply reducing the speed of planes in half might not have fantastic benefits – if planes were redesigned to be optimal at 250mh rather than 500mph, consumption could be decreased drastically.

Matt March 21, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Well, in some cases a slower plane might be more beneficial, especially on short trips. Using turboprop airplanes in place of a regional jet of similar size is definitely more efficient (and supports Canadian industry, for those who care, because the Canadian Dash-8 is one of the most popular turboprops). However on long trips you have to take account winds aloft:

For a plane flying at typical cruising altitudes between 29,000 and 41,000 feet the jet stream can be very fast moving. If a plane flying from Toronto to Vancouver is exposed to a 100kt headwind, it makes sense to minimize the time exposed to this headwind, ie. you want to fly faster. Conversely, you want to maximize your time flying with a tailwind, so you can ride it longer and get ‘free’ groundspeed. That being said, a plane that flies east equally as much as it flies west will spend more of its life flying into a headwind (take a second to think about the logic) and so to a degree and with many variables unmentioned, fast planes are often beneficial.

As an interesting aside Singapore Airlines flies the worlds longest nonstop flight, a grueling 18 hrs from Singapore to Newark (and back) using the A340-500 (complete with corpse fridges should someone die along the way). Because the distance flown approaches (but falls 5000kms shy of) halfway around the world , the route flown is either almost directly over the North Pole, or alternatively much more southerly. The winds are the deciding factor for which route is flown, but it is possible to enjoy a strong tailwind one way and only a modest headwind going back.

Tristan March 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I don’t think any planes should be flying as high as we do today. A plane optimised for 250mph would not fly enough for headwind issues to be relevant.

Matt March 22, 2009 at 7:38 pm

“I don’t think any planes should be flying as high as we do today.”

A considerable amount of science is involved in aeronautics in which the current altitudes at which airliners fly is unlikely to change due to them being the most efficient. At higher altitudes the air is both colder and less dense than at lower altitudes. It’s desirable to operate the engines with a big temperature difference between the core and the outside air (which is why they’re always looking for higher temperature alloys which I mentioned in a post above).

As for air density: A plane flying at sea level with 250 kts showing on the airspeed indicator is actually moving through the air at 250kts. At 10,000 feet (the altitude above which oxygen is required by law for the occupants) a plane indicating 250 kts airspeed is actually flying 300 kts through the air due to decreased air density. At 39,000 feet a plane indicating 250 kts is actually flying through the air at 445 kts, on less fuel than at 250kts at sea level. A modern airliner will display both indicated airspeed (what the airplane “feels”) and true airspeed on its displays. It’s important to display both because airframe speed limits and stall speeds reference the indicated airspeed, not the true airspeed.

You may ask “well why shouldn’t planes fly even higher, then, if it’s advantageous.” The reason is because the speed of sound starts to become a factor. As you climb higher the indicated airspeed goes down and you start to approach the stall speed of the airplane all the while the plane is approaching its maximum operating mach speed (called Vmmo, ~0.85mach or less for an average airliner). The convergence of maximum operating mach and stall speed is ominously called “coffin corner.” Concorde, not limited by the sound barrier cruised much higher than a subsonic airliner, maxing out at 60,000′. This is high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. Of course, Concorde was not an efficient plane, but this is due to the fact that flying faster than sound is enormously draggy, and the technology was from the 60s.

Tristan March 22, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Planes that flew slower at lower altitudes would be less convenient, which means less popular, causing less total air traffic. We don’t need to increase efficiency, we need to decrease consumption!

Also, pollution at lower altitudes has less scary effects on cloud structures.

Matt March 23, 2009 at 12:42 am

I haven’t read anything on cloud structures and pollution so I’ll refrain from comment on that point. Certainly there is good evidence, though, that contrails from the water portion of jet exhaust reflects a measurable and significant amount of sunlight back into space: global dimming.

The previous posts I’ve made in this thread have been more concerned with the science aspect of aviation. But I’d like to comment on the idea that we should make aviation slower or in other ways unattractive for the purpose of cutting down on the numbers traveling. I don’t personally think this is going to work. I think that for people to become concerned with climate change they need to be educated in a better way than they currently are about the problems, but more importantly perhaps, they need to be presented with livable alternatives. One alternative I think is necessary is to cut down on frequency. For instance if 3 Air Canada A320s leave Vancouver for Toronto at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30, get rid of those 3 A320 flights and replace it with one 777 flight at 8:30. Right there you’ve significantly lowered your carbon output and you’re flying the same number of people. Another way to would be to get rid of regional jets. When fuel costs were high, regional jets (ie jets with <100 seats) were being parked by the dozens because they weren’t efficient enough to be profitable. Now that oil is cheap again we’re unfortunately seeing their return to service. On short routes high speed trains (for which the infrastructure needs to be built) are so much vastly superior to them from almost every standpoint. On routes where trains aren’t feasible (island or mountain hopping), turboprops are definitely better than a regional jet for efficiency. I hope that in the future we’ll also see a return to hub based flying, as this too is more efficient. However with the introduction of the 787 and A350, I think point to point is going to be with us for awhile.

Tristan March 23, 2009 at 1:20 am

I think we need a shift in primary values from “efficiency” to “decreasing impact” – although they are sometimes the same, it’s important that we increase efficiency for the sake of decreasing our impact, and not for its own sake. Efficiency has no value for its own sake, although, we constantly seem to think and act if it did.

R.K. March 23, 2009 at 10:21 am

What would be really helpful would be a change in attitudes towards travel. People who want to see their family and friends all the time should not move to the other side of a continent. In fact, they should probably never leave their home region.

Likewise, it should seem mad to fly around the world for a business meeting or week-long vacation.

Tristan March 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm

“Likewise, it should seem mad to fly around the world for a business meeting or week-long vacation.”

This is exactly the kind of attitudes we’d have if the primary value changed from “efficiency” to “reduced consumption”. We think we want to reduce consumption, but really, we just want to increase efficiency.

Reduced consumption, by the way, means a contraction in world economic production. Contraction and redistribution can both solve world poverty, and cut overall carbon emissions.

Matt March 24, 2009 at 1:53 am

“Reduced consumption, by the way, means a contraction in world economic production. Contraction and redistribution can both solve world poverty, and cut overall carbon emissions.”

Okay, very good. But how do you convince people?

Milan March 24, 2009 at 9:32 am

It is admittedly not very useful to concentrate on ‘solutions’ that cannot be implemented.

Tristan March 24, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I think it’s extremely useful to concentrate on solutions that cannot be implemented.

For a solution to be “implemented” means for it cohere with our existing values. You can only “implement” means, not ends.

It seems quite possible that our existing values do not allow for solutions. If this is the case, no solution can be “implemented”, it can only be thought.

It’s not accidental that there is no “means” to “implement” new values. Revaluation is not a task you carry out like building a concrete structure, or completing an essay. Revaluation happens in thinking.

Thinking is required to bring about the evaluation of values in thinking. Currently, we take value to be outside of thinking. We make assertions like “my desire for vanilla ice cream is not rational or irrational, it just is”. In other words, we ascribe value a place outside thinking. This is a presupposition that needs to be thought to be overcome.

Encouraging people to think is exactly the opposite of what we do when we present all the “solutions” to global warming as technical, and dismiss the question of God as not a serious question. These two argumentative tricks have a deep relation which can not be immediately expressed in logic.

What I suggest is that we take seriously the allegation that there is no “technical” solution to global warming, not because the technical solution is scientifically flawed, but because as a political problem, the technical solution will remain impossible insofar as value remains outside the realm of thinking.

Milan March 24, 2009 at 4:29 pm

If you are going to convince anyone of anything, you need to present your ideas in a way they can comprehend. In most cases, you also need to make it clear how your ideas can help them to meet the needs of themselves as individuals or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Tristan March 24, 2009 at 6:05 pm

“In most cases, you also need to make it clear how your ideas can help them to meet the needs of themselves as individuals or the organizations with which they are affiliated.”

This presupposes that needs cannot be thought, or at least “in most cases” that they must be taken for granted. So, excluding your qualifying remark,either you are right, or this following statement is unintelligible:

“Thinking is required to bring about the evaluation of values in thinking. Currently, we take value to be outside of thinking. We make assertions like “my desire for vanilla ice cream is not rational or irrational, it just is”. In other words, we ascribe value a place outside thinking. This is a presupposition that needs to be thought to be overcome.”

Milan March 24, 2009 at 7:21 pm

The bit about expressing yourself in terms others can understand was also important.

It becomes more and more important, the less the other side wants to hear what you’re saying. When you have an interested audience, you can afford to be a bit opaque. When you are reaching out to those who disagree, they will reject poorly expressed ideas rather than give you the benefit of the doubt.

Matt March 24, 2009 at 7:29 pm

I suspect most people would not agree that focusing on impossible to implement solutions is a good use of time. People have very real needs, physical needs, that drive our behaviour. Food & water, shelter, reproduction and recreation. Our lives revolve around meeting those needs, and therefore individuals need to see how the big picture (in this case climate change) affects them and their families, and what practical things they can do to continue meeting their needs while also reducing their carbon footprint. This is why I mentioned previously that you have to present people with alternatives to what they already have. Milan mentioned somewhere else that it may not be possible to sustain the current global population and/or standard of living. I happen to think this is also likely; having said that I think it’s well worth while to improve efficiency, reduce oil consumption and try to provide livable alternatives to the things we currently enjoy.

“This presupposes that needs cannot be thought, or at least “in most cases” that they must be taken for granted.” I’ll remember this next time I’m hungry and I’ll try to think myself up a sandwich.

Tristan March 24, 2009 at 8:42 pm


“People have very real needs, physical needs, that drive our behaviour. Food & water, shelter, reproduction and recreation. Our lives revolve around meeting those needs, and therefore individuals need to see how the big picture (in this case climate change) affects them and their families, and what practical things they can do to continue meeting their needs while also reducing their carbon footprint.”

Come on, you don’t seriously believe this, do you? Consumer needs since the 20s have been mostly produced through Freudian advertising. The idea that what we count as “need” today is intelligible outside of the psycho-analytically informed manufacture of desire we call “advertising” is, I think, not a serious position.

Can you please explain how my cited paragraph is unclear?

Matt March 24, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Well, yes, I do seriously believe that people need the listed things. Please give an example of how you don’t need food, shelter and recreation. The latter I suppose you could physically live without, but the first two you could not. I wasn’t aware that prior to the 20s people didn’t eat or have homes, but if you could provide a link to that information or cite a source stating otherwise, I would read it with great interest.

Furthermore, although I didn’t comment on it directly before I would like to now. You said “I think it’s extremely useful to concentrate on solutions that cannot be implemented. ” I firmly believe you actually stand behind what you said, which amazes me. Let’s suppose your house is burning (maybe this is a poor example because I take it from what you wrote above that you do not need shelter). Would you at this point be concentrating, ie. focusing a majority of your attention, on solutions that cannot be implemented?

Tristan March 24, 2009 at 9:39 pm


I didn’t say its never useful to concentrate on solutions that can be implemented. So your burning house example has no relevance whatsoever. If you want to know what I mean by “solutions that cannot be implemented”, read above where I explained.

Food shelter and recreation are so vague that whatever humans real needs are, they will fall under those categories. However, how much of what we actually consume is not a strange derivation of one of those categories? What proportion of consumer spending could seriously be considered fullfilling “needs” in a sense that they are not simply manufactured by advertising? Do you honestly think it would be more than perhaps 25%, and a lot smaller for those well off?

Peter March 25, 2009 at 7:01 am

The last few posts have been very uncharitable. I doubt that Tristan was trying to deny the concept of fundamental biological necessities. It seems more likely that he was pointing to the sizable gap between our current lifestyles and our bare necessities, as well as noting that the term “need” most commonly evoked in environmental debate is the product of interpretation and is likely to expand with increases in efficiency if our mindset doesn’t also change.

If Matt would still like an example, I am willing to go far beyond the extremely narrow biological necessities proposed and entertain transportation as a need. The specific application of the term is subject to cultural interpretation and debate. It doesn’t follow that a Hummer is needed, or even car. The quality of the transport, food, shelter, etc, that fall under “need” or “want” tends to vary with societies’ expectations and expand upwards with increases in efficiency. Thusly, I have interpreted Tristan’s rather confusing statement that we should primarily focus on solutions that cannot be implemented only as a repeated assertion that climate change is about attitudes rather than a technological problem. I think it is pretty clear that he is talking about politically unfeasible solutions, rather than logically impossible one. The reason for appealing to political unfeasible solutions (the confusion comes from the fact that this is a terrible way to point out that the solution itself is the change in attitudes and behaviors) is to avoid the inaction and denial of moral culpability that results from mislabeling a political problem a technological problem. Extreme poverty and famine are often mischaracterized in the same manner, and it does real harm to classify this as a lack of ability to generate food (the problem is the world is harsh), rather than a lack of will (the problem is caused, sustained or exacerbated by us).

I think the tough sell in the case of reduction comes in the form of a confrontation with reality. So whether people like it or not, they may ultimately have to accept reductions and when this occurs, Tristan’s unfeasible solutions become feasible as they are realized. However, while Tristan raises valid concerns, he seems to adopt a very extreme position. I don’t understand why Tristan is taking Matt to task for promoting efficiency, because Matt’s use of the term “efficiency” in his examples corresponds to attitudinal changes in Tristan’s dichotomy. Examples – A return to hub flying, larger but less frequent flights. Clearly these are changes in behavior rather than technical capacity. Matt is using the term efficiency because he has already adopted carbon reduction as the goal, over speed or convince. If you want to browbeat each other to synchronize your terminology so you can all read The Question Concerning Technology together, be my guest, but I think you are fundamentally missing the reasonable ground in which you agree.

Second, I don’t understand why Tristan has adopted this extreme position regarding efficiency. I can understand the danger of inaction that stems from labeling this a technological problem, but there is no reason to avoid applying already existing technologies to increase efficiency. It would be risky to wait for an increase in efficiency so large that a reduction in our standard of living isn’t required, because that technological breakthrough might never occur, but Tristan seems to adopt puritanical attitude towards reduction. Don’t confuse the fact that our current high standard of living emits too much carbon dioxide, with the notion that a high standard of living is inherently undesirable. While people might eventually have to face the harsh reality of reduction, we should be looking into improving efficiency, or applying new technologies, so we retain a high standard of living and have less of a challenge selling policies on climate change. As long as technological solutions aren’t used as an excuse for inaction, or we pretend that there aren’t any available solutions, then there isn’t any problem with trying to preserve faculties we find valuable. The goal of reducing carbon emissions might require an economic contraction, but it is foolish to assume the goal is economic contraction. Also, this isn’t making efficiency an object of itself. Tristan’s involvement with Heidegger might explain the desire for a technological reduction, but I think that is an entirely separate topic from approaches to carbon reduction.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 9:30 am

My position keeps being mis-interpreted as far more complicated and extreme than it is.

My position is that “usefulness to others” presumes existent ends, existent values. Therefore, if values, ends, are to be thought, we cannot presume that our solutions will be “useful” to others, at least initially. To say our solutions can be “implemented” is the same as saying they are “potentially useful to others” – one can only immediately implement that which is in accord with an existent end. To think, re-evaluate, ends, values, one cannot be held to the noose of “usefulness” and “implementability”.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 9:33 am

“The goal of reducing carbon emissions might require an economic contraction, but it is foolish to assume the goal is economic contraction. Also, this isn’t making efficiency an object of itself. Tristan’s involvement with Heidegger might explain the desire for a technological reduction, but I think that is an entirely separate topic from approaches to carbon reduction.”

You don’t know this, necessarily. For Kant, we don’t know the ground of our own will – do you have good reason for thinking otherwise? In other words, we do not necessarily know as subjects the ends we pursue. If there is any force in Heidegger’s technological reductionism, it is that we are pursuing efficiency, orderability, when we subjectively believe we are pursuing other ends.

This is deeply, potentially, related to carbon reduction. If we try to act on the value of reduction, but we are actually acting on the value of efficiency, our solutions may not have the consequences we think we desire.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Here is an earlier post on vehicle efficiency, including aircraft:

Vehicle efficiency
May 10, 2008

Milan March 25, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Incidentally, this post claims that intercity buses have a fuel efficiency of about 7.3 miles per gallon, or 32.22 litres per hundred kilometres. It also claims that they carry 21 passengers on average.

To get comparable per-passenger efficiency from a car that gets 7.0 L/100km, you would need to put an average of 4.56 people in them. For a 3.0 L/100km car, the break-even number would be just 1.96 passengers.

Of course, it would also be possible to increase the mean number of passengers in busses, as well as bus efficiency.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 6:59 pm

The planet doesn’t care what efficiency we get from our intercity buses. It cares that overall consumption is reduced, somehow.

Matt March 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Tristan, what you wrote directly above was well phrased and I agree. The planet only cares that consumption is reduced. I think the following is where you and I differ:

I expect that generally an increase in efficiency is desirable because it leads to decreased consumption. You argue that this is not necessary so (and I’m not clear on why, but maybe because you expect that an increase in efficiency invites other uses for the now ‘surplus’ energy).

The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I don’t think trying to make things energy efficient is a wasted excersize, because it’s at least part of the solution to the current problem. The value shift you’ve talked of is also important, but I think we can see people’s values changing. Possibly not rapidly enough to save the planet, and maybe not in ways you would like to see, I think it’s attainable. I really believe, though that to win people over you have to do it in steps. And if you could give someone an electric car as an interim to them not having a car at all, that would be a beneficial step.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:45 pm

The planet doesn’t care what efficiency we get from our intercity buses. It cares that overall consumption is reduced, somehow.


An economy-wide, rising carbon tax would be an ideal way to achieve this. It would produce prices for various forms of transport that increasingly include related carbon externalities.

That said, since our Conservative government is implacably opposed to such a tax, we need to centrally plan reductions like Soviets.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 8:29 pm

The Soviets which democratically opposed the Bolshevik leadership were disbanded in 1917. I don’t think they centrally planned anything. This should have been expected – it was a repetition of Lenin’s policy vis a vis the workers council in 1905 as well.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 8:35 pm

This comment misses the irony I am describing. The Regulatory Framework for Air Emissions is a document that shows a great deal of faith in the planning potential of governments, and rather little faith in the free market.

Also, the people who wrote it would be deeply offended at being compared to Soviet central planners.

Tristan March 26, 2009 at 1:08 am

It’s unclear why increased efficiency could result in decreased consumption because we have an energy economy that is market driven.

If we increase efficiency, that means the price of oil goes down, and there is less incentive to increase efficiency, or, there is an incentive to consume more. What am I going to do if the price of gas goes down by half? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to drive more – no matter what kind of car I drive. Even the most efficient cars still use quite a bit of fuel (a Prius only uses half what my Taurus consumes. It’s an improvement, but not so much as you wouldn’t be sensitive to the price of fuel any longer).

Also, the price of fuel, even if it goes up, is still low enough that we can afford to consume an awful lot of it. Just look at how much Europeans consume, despite it costing as much as 3$ a liter.

If advertising is any indication, efficiency saves you money.,

Tristan March 26, 2009 at 1:15 am

As I said, it’s unclear as to whether any soviets centrally planned anything. If you are talking about USSR’s central planners, under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, etc, then I think it’s reasonable to use the precise terms – either we’re talking about central planners in the Russian soviet socialist democratic republic, or the central planners in other soviet socialist democratic republics, or ones in the Russian one which are controlling alotments in the other ones.

In no cases are the “soviets” doing anything. There are no soviets in the Soviet Union – they were disbanded long before the USSR was formed.

Peter March 26, 2009 at 8:08 am


You seem to have misinterpreted my main critique of your strong drive for technological reduction. I did mention that societies expectations tend to increase with new improvements in technology so I was not claiming that an increase in efficiency would automatically lead to a reduction in emission, since it might have the unintended consequence of increasing demand, establishing a higher standard of living, etc. I did say that we might as well apply increases in efficiency provided that we do not use the promise of technological to deter reduction, or obfuscate our moral responsibly, because retaining capacities well reducing is desirable.

Please note that not everyone accepts the notion of a transcendental ego. But even if I want to respect a significant portion of the continental stream, your claims go considerably further, since for Kant, we don’t know the grounding of our own will because God and freewill exist prior and separate from the faculties of understanding and perception. It is a tenuous proposition and by far the worst part about Kant. ‘Hey, boys and girls, it’s time to backdoor God into the picture – warning, do not try this at home.’

You have two very serious points, which don’t need to be linked to Kant. Our actions sometimes have unintended consequences and in cases where there is logical necessity between a specific instantiation and a larger, more abstract goal, it becomes questionable to claim one effect was intended and the other was not. If we care about reducing emission levels to X, and maintaining a certain standard of living, and logical necessity exists between these goals and increasing the fuel efficiency of inner-city buses, than we do in fact care about increasing the fuel efficiency of buses. I do not subscribe to the doctrine of double effect, but my claim wasn’t about necessity conditions. A simple case of modal logical can differentiate whether the goal is the reduction of emission or the contraction of the economy; most would prefer world I, where emission reduction only requires a snap of my finger, to world II, where emission reduction requires a significant contraction of the global economy. I haven’t commented on the logical necessity in this world, but there is a compelling case that economic contraction will be required to reduce emissions to acceptable levels, although with the birth of the eco-economy, even this proposition is still open to question. Rather than speculating on necessity, my relatively simple point was that the undesirable effect of economic contraction should be avoided if possible, because contraction is one possible means rather than an end.

Our actions do have unintended consequences, but when wielding this claim and evoking Kant, you seem to reduce it to an asinine belief that we can never know what we are doing. Ultimately, we might never know the full, cosmic effects of our actions, but we do have aims, and research and experience can navigate the potential consequences actions are likely to have. I’m not asking policy to enter into a realm of infallibility. I think most people would be happy if reasoned, considered and thoroughly researched policies were enacted.

For Heidegger we are improving efficiency when we develop technology for any purpose, because technology is understood as closing the gap the ancients held between thought and action. This process is inherent to all technology, however its problematic nature has to do with the scale. Large-scale implementation leads to the conversion of the natural world to standing reserve and fundamentally alters our interpretation and way of being in the world, because we fall into a technological framework. While the same process is inherent in even the smallest application of technology, there is still an apprehension or knowledge of the materials involved with the craft. (Metallurgy example from QCT) The loss of this knowledge as well as our relation to other objects gives rise to the profound world alienation we feel. The concept of standing reserve is phenomenon whereby efficiency becomes its own object. We no longer alter the natural world because it is immediately useful to us, where efficiency is a measure of our prowess, but instead seek to convert it into reserve for later consumption. This is the largest scale of technological conversion possible, because it is the reification of the process itself since we lack a specific end while engaging in the activity, and it necessarily requires interpreting the world as a measure of efficiency. The goal is to increase the store not for an immediate use, but to bolster future efficiency. It is this move that allows the double measure of efficiency – how to efficiently gain more efficiency.

It should be clear that this is not a case of efficiency becoming its own object; it is merely an increase in technological efficiency. I originally made this distinction because your statement, “it’s important that we increase efficiency for the sake of decreasing our impact, and not for its own sake.” lead me to believe that you were addressing this particular aspect of Heidegger. Subsequent statements suggest you were only appealing to Heidegger in the most general way possible. You are correct that efficiency is the problematic aspect in Heidegger, but my point is that it is inherent to the concept of technology. I’ve suggested that this is a topic separate from emission reduction because your problem is with treating the world as standing reserve and potentially all technology and this complaint is prior to any position on emission reduction. Clearly emission reduction through technological means is problematic, if you consider all technology to be problematic, but presenting this as a carbon issue obscures the root cause of your objection, which doesn’t necessarily have to do with reduction.

I apologize to the others for the off-topic philosophical interpretations. I think you have made excellent points on emission reduction, but those tend to be the points that aren’t linked to complex interpretations of philosophers. Appealing to Heidegger’s concern about technology writ large is really relocating to a far more complex philosophical issue about technology, that doesn’t really need to be connected to the pro-reduction over increased efficiency argument, because it is talking about the problem with all technology, rather than whether emission reduction is a technological problem.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 8:39 am

If advertising is any indication, efficiency saves you money.

See: The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate

Milan April 7, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Based on this Economist article, the tiny new Tato Nano only gets 3.51 L/100km, despite taking 30 seconds to accelerate to 100 km/h.

Milan April 7, 2009 at 3:58 pm

The Wikipedia numbers differ a bit:

“According to Tata Group’s Chairman Ratan Tata, the Nano is a 33 PS (33 hp/24 kW) car with a 623 cc rear engine and rear wheel drive, and has a fuel economy of 4.55 L/100 km (21.97 km/L, 51.7 mpg (US), 62 mpg (UK)) under city road conditions, and 3.85 L/100 km on highways ( 25.974 km/L, 61.1 mpg (US), 73.3 mpg (UK)).”

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