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Painting the town white: technology and greenhouse gas emissions

By Wendell Cox - posted Tuesday, 16 June 2009


“Paint the world white to fight global warming” was the astonishing headline from The Times of London. The paper was referring to a presentation made by United States Secretary of Energy, Dr Stephen Chu at the St James Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium recently. Chu was reported as saying that this approach could have a vast impact. By lightening paved surfaces and roofs to the colour of cement, it would be possible to cut carbon emissions by as much as taking all the world’s cars off the roads for 11 years. That would be no small accomplishment.

Chu makes considerable sense and his underlying approach is wise: emphasising inexpensive, simple and unobtrusive ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is at the same time that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has suggested “coercing” people out of cars and a bill by Senators Jay Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg would require annual reductions in per capita driving. Strategies such as these are not inexpensive, they are not simple and they are not unobtrusive. Indeed, given the close association between personal mobility, employment and economic growth, such policies could have serious negative effects (PDF 27KB).

The biggest problem with coercive strategies is that they are simply unnecessary. As Secretary Chu has indicated, huge reductions can be achieved in GHG emissions, without interfering in people’s lives or threatening the economy. There’s more to this story than paint.

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The cascade of technology

There is a virtual cascade of technological advances that have been spurred by the widely accepted public policy imperative to reduce GHG emissions. Here are just a few.

Vehicle technology

Some of the most impressive advances are in vehicle technology. GHG emissions from cars are directly related to fuel consumption. Thus, as cars require less fuel, GHG emissions go down at the same rate.

By now, everyone is aware that the US Administration has advanced the 2020 vehicle fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards to 2016, matching the California requirements. These requirements apply to the overall fleet, both cars and light trucks (which are predominantly sport-utility vehicles). Recently published research (PDF 5MB) by Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution finds that per capita automobile use had fallen off even before gasoline prices exploded, so it seems reasonable to suggest that future vehicle travel will rise at approximately the population growth rate, rather than the robust growth rates previously forecast. At the new 6.62 litres per 100km (l/100km), the nation could be on a course to reduce GHG emissions from cars and light trucks by more than 20 per cent by 2030, despite the increase in driving as population increases.

This is just the beginning. There are advances well beyond the 6.62l/100km (35.5 miles per gallon - MPG) standard. The most efficient hybrid cars now achieve 4.7l/100km (50MPG). The European parliament has adopted a nearly 3.36l/100km (70MPG) standard for 2020. The President has often spoke (PDF 152KB) of his commitment for the nation to develop 1.56l/100km (150MPG) cars, while Volkswagen has already developed a 1l/100km (235MPG) car.

A French company plans to market a car powered by compressed air at city traffic speeds, producing almost no GHG emissions, while at higher speeds it uses gasoline to get more than 2.35l/100km (100MPG).

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Fuel technology

Progress is also being made on alternative fuels and on making present fuels cleaner.

Technologies are being developed to produce gasoline from carbon dioxide.

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First published in New Geography on June 6, 2009.



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About the Author

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Wendell Cox

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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