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Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away

Vaclav Smil

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

2011-05SmilF3.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAfter 1985 the United States froze any further improvements in its corporate automobile fuel efficiency (CAFE), encouraged a massive diffusion of exceptionally inefficient SUVs and, at the same time, failed to follow the rest of modernizing world in building fast train links. For 40 years the average performance of the U.S. car fleet ran against the universal trend of improving efficiencies: By 1974 it was lower (at 13.4 miles per gallon [mpg]) than during the mid-1930s! Then the CAFE standards had doubled the efficiency of new passenger cars by 1985, but with those standards subsequently frozen and with the influx of SUVs, vans and light trucks, the average performance of the entire (two-axle, four-wheel) car fleet was less than 26 mpg in 2006 or no better than in 1986—while a combination of continued CAFE upgrades, diffusion of new ultra low-emission diesels (inherently at least 25–30 percent more efficient than gasoline-powered cars) and an early introduction of hybrid drives could have raised it easily to more than 35 or even 40 mpg, massively cutting the U.S. crude oil imports for which the country paid $1.5 trillion during the first decade of the 21st century.

And the argument that its large territory and low population density prevents the United States from joining a growing list of countries with rapid trains (traveling 250–300 kilometers per hour or more) is wrong. The northeastern megalopolis (Boston-Washington) contains more than 50 million people with average population density of about 360 per square kilometer and with nearly a dozen major cities arrayed along a relatively narrow and less than 700-kilometer long coastal corridor. Why is that region less suited to a rapid rail link than France, the pioneer of European rapid rail transport, with a population of 65 million and nationwide density of only about 120 people per square kilometer whose trains à grande vitesse must radiate from its capital in order to reach the farthest domestic destinations more than 900 kilometers away? Apparently, Americans prefer painful trips to airports, TSA searches and delayed shuttle flights to going from downtown to downtown at 300 kilometers per hour.

In a rational world animated by rewarding long-term policies, not only the United States and Canada but also the European Union should be boasting about gradual reductions in per capita energy use. In contrast, modernizing countries of Asia, Latin America and, most of all, Africa lag so far behind that even if they were to rely on the most advanced conversions they would still need to at least quadruple (in India’s case, starting from about 20 GJ per capita in 2010) their per capita supply of primary energy or increase their use by more than an order of magnitude—Ethiopia now consumes modern energies at a rate of less than 2 GJ per capita—before getting to the threshold of a decent living standard for most of their people and before reducing their huge internal economic disparities.

China has traveled further, and faster, along this road than any other modernizing nation. In 1976 (the year of Mao Zedong’s death) its average per capita energy consumption was less than 20 GJ per capita, in 1990 (after the first decade of Deng Xiaoping’s modernization) it was still below 25 GJ, and a decade later it had just surpassed 30 GJ per capita. By 2005 the rate had approached 55 GJ and in 2010 it reached 70 or as much as some poorer E.U. countries were consuming during the 1970s. Although China has become a major importer of crude oil (now the world’s second largest, surpassed only by the United States) and it will soon be importing large volumes of liquefied natural gas and has pursued a large-scale program of developing its huge hydrogenation potential, most of its consumption gains have come from an unprecedented expansion of coal extraction. While the U.S. annual coal output is yet to reach one billion tonnes, China’s raw coal extraction rose by one billion tonnes in just four years between 2001 and 2005 and by nearly another billion tonnes by 2010 to reach the annual output of 3 billion tonnes.

China’s (and, to a lesser degree, India’s) coal surge and a strong overall energy demand in Asia and the Middle East have been the main reason for recent rises of CO2 emissions: China became the world’s largest emitter in 2006, and (after a small, economic crisis-induced, decline of 1.3 percent in 2009) the global total of fossil fuel-derived CO2 emissions set another record in 2010, surpassing 32 billion tonnes a year (with China responsible for about 24 percent). When potential energy consumption increases needed by low-income countries are considered together with an obvious lack of any meaningful progress in reducing the emissions through internationally binding agreements (see the sequential failures of Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen and Cancún gatherings), it is hardly surprising that technical fixes appear to be, more than ever, the best solution to minimize future rise of tropospheric temperatures.

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