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Toyota IQ electric car. But the world is filled with more than 700 million cars and that number will soon grow to a billion or more. (Christian Hartmann/REUTERS)
Toyota IQ electric car. But the world is filled with more than 700 million cars and that number will soon grow to a billion or more. (Christian Hartmann/REUTERS)

Driving It Home

Conserving energy not enough for a greener planet Add to ...

We’ve all watched the horror of Hurricane Sandy unfold and among its many lessons is this: climate change is real, its effects are devastating in both blood and treasure, and it is high time we all took this matter seriously.

So yes, we need “greener” cars. And no, we are not all going to start riding bicycles, or horses or taking mass transit. A caveat: When I say “we,” I am including those of us in developed countries like Canada and France, as well as developing countries such as China, India and Brazil.

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We really should be honest in this conversation about the planet and its future. Many of us are happy to drive more fuel-efficient cars, while riding bikes and transit wherever and whenever possible and practicable. But the world is filled with more than 700 million cars and that number will soon grow to a billion or more. Cars, motorcycles and light trucks are not going away. People in developing countries want to enjoy the sort of personal transportation we’ve taken for granted since Henry Ford made an affordable Model T for the masses.

So I want honesty in this “green” conversation. This brings me to the day I spent a decade ago with the late Geoffrey Ballard, the geophysicist who in 1999 was named a Time magazine Hero of the Planet, and later in 2002 a Scientific American Business Leader of the Year. Ballard, founder of what became the hydrogen fuel cell company Ballard Power Systems, believed in the hydrogen economy, that it must replace the gasoline economy for the health and well being of the planet. A hydrogen economy would do much to deal with the effects of man-made climate change and horrific events like Sandy.

What matters most here is that Ballard was a realist. My day with him included a sit-down in his study, where he argued in a quiet voice against the dishonesty of “green” advocates who put conservation at the heart of any environmental plan – conservation above all else. Of course we should encourage conservation, he told me, but the reality is that social and economic progress in any society is correlated with energy consumption. That is, societies where there are steady quality-of-life improvements use increasing amounts of energy.

Here’s how he put it at the World Hydrogen Congress in Montreal in June of 2001: “For society to continue its progress in medicine, social responsibility, science, education and quality of life we must assure that there is an ever-increasing supply of energy per capita.”

Moving forward requires energy. So we’re going to use more and more energy if we wish to live in a society, in a world, that progresses both socially and economically. The debate over climate change and what to do about it is honest only if we accept that fact.

Such a fact also places an extra burden on developed countries to lead the world out of a carbon-based economy into what Ballard envisioned as a hydrogen-based one.

“It is also paramount that Europe and North America develop and export economically sound, clean technologies to emerging nations,” he said in Montreal. “Carbon-based economies, supplying energy in the quantities necessary to assure progress in developing nations would completely destroy Earth’s fragile atmosphere.”

President Barack Obama has successfully led a movement to put in place extremely tough fuel standards through 2025, and the Canadian Government has said it will follow suit. Good on him. Washington, with Ottawa’s consent here, wants the average fuel consumption of vehicles in the United States to almost double to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up dramatically from 35.5 mpg by 2016.

As www.just-auto.com reports, the White House said the new rules would reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels over the eight years of the program from 2017 and cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2025. That’s progress.

The fuel standards are driving all sorts of creativity and innovation in the auto industry. In the short term, car makers are squeezing out efficiencies in vehicles powered by old-fashioned internal combustion engines. We’re seeing more gasoline-electric hybrids and pure battery-powered cars, too. Car companies are stripping weight out of cars, reducing friction that robs fuel economy from engines and streamlining designs to reduce wind drag. All of this is terrific if you care about the planet.

Unfortunately, the assumption here is that for the foreseeable future the vast, vast majority of cars will be powered by carbon-based fuels. By using less fuel, we’ll be doing more for the planet, but we’ll still be using plenty of oil – carbon – to power hundreds of millions of cars.

So with visions of Hurricane Sandy dancing in my head, and with a nod to the late Geoffrey Ballard, I’d like to suggest an honest conversation about our energy future – one based on the idea that socioeconomic progress is correlated to energy consumption. Less has never meant more for this entire history of this planet. Unless we turn backwards, we need to plan for greater energy consumption.

Ballard’s vision for how to deal with this fact revolved around a hydrogen-based economy, with much of that hydrogen created using electricity generated by nuclear power plants. Who has a better idea and what are the implications for the auto industry?

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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