Can we accelerate energy efficiency by using less fuel?

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Many of us drive cars on a regular basis, particularly in developed countries, but perhaps rarely think about how we could reduce the impact of our driving on the environment.  In other words, what are some of the policies and specific actions that could facilitate greater improvements in energy efficiency in the vehicles sector?

Questions like these were at the center of discussions at the Fuel Economy Accelerator Symposium held in Paris last week. The event, organized by the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), was hosted by the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.  I represented the World Bank at this event, which took place on the heels of the UN Secretary General’s upcoming Climate Conference in New York, scheduled for late September. As a result, the topic of the fuel economy and energy efficiency is especially timely and relevant.

Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030 is one of the three major objectives of Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL), an initiative led by the UN Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank Group. The other two goals by 2030 are to provide universal access to electricity and modern cooking solutions, and to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. 

The Global Fuel Economy Initiative is one of five energy efficiency projects within the Global Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform, which was established to help drive action and commitments by leaders at the national and sectorial levels. The Accelerator Platform will provide governments with policy options and technical support that leverages best-in-class toolkits, databases and subject-matter experts. And Sustainable Energy for All will promote, through its network of public and private financial institutions and donors, funding to support policy development and project implementation.

The GFEI event in Paris made it clear that the impact of massive increases in vehicle numbers and energy demand around the world is not sustainable. Specifically, it is unsustainable in terms of CO2 emissions and overall health impact on the world’s populations; unsustainable in terms of energy supply costs as resources become increasingly scarce; and unsustainable in terms of its impact on overall climate change.

To get a concrete picture of the situation, consider this fact: the global fleet of light vehicles (cars and vans) is due to triple by 2050, with more than 80 percent of new vehicles in emerging economies and less developed countries.

The good news is that the fuel economy in vehicles could be improved right away. It could be doubled in new vehicles by 2030 and in all vehicles by 2050 – using cost-effective fuel economy technologies such as stop-start and smaller, more efficient engines, which are already in many cars today.

This represents a transformative change in the cars we are driving today, and could mean savings of $2 trillion in un-used fuel by 2030 alone. These are resources that are desperately needed elsewhere; for schools and hospitals, or to support new technologies such as electric vehicles.  Furthermore, billions of barrels of oil could be saved as a result of increased efficiency, along with up to 1 gigatonne of CO2 per year from 2030, and up to 2 gigatonnes from 2050.

The Global Fuel Economy Initiative -- a partnership of various organizations including the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Transport Forum (ITF), the FIA Foundation and others -- is working to secure the maximum deployment of existing fuel economy technologies in vehicles across the world. These are important efforts that need to be scaled up through more in-country policy support, research and advocacy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is challenging heads of state and government along with business, civil society and local leaders attending the Climate Summit in New York to be bold, innovate and scale up action to close the emissions gap.  Working on accelerating energy efficiency by using less fuel is no doubt an important focus area to achieve cleaner transport around the world.

Today, the push to curtail emissions from the transport sector is actually a three-legged stool.  More energy efficient combustion engines are one leg, while development of electric vehicles is another. But the third and most critical leg to ensure a long-term sustainable decrease in emissions is a systemic modal shift away from individual car use toward more collective modes of transport, including non-motorized modes wherever possible.

The Global Fuel Economy Initiative has emphasized change in engine technologies for reducing fuel demand and emissions in transport. This is particularly important for countries with a mature infrastructure system that is geared towards individual motorized transport.  It is still unclear, however, whether regulatory policies are the least-cost policies to reduce fossil fuel dependency and emissions.

On the other hand, countries whose infrastructure is yet to develop might be able to reduce fossil fuel dependency in a less-costly way by aiming for different modal patterns of mobility than in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, as well as by emphasizing low-emission modes of transport and avoiding the lock-in that more advanced economies have to live with.

It is clear that different policy approaches may be appropriate for countries at different levels of their transport infrastructure development. 

In the meantime, what are your thoughts about the role car-sharing and electric bikes could play in both developed and developing economies?

Keep moving!


Marc Juhel

Sector Manager, Transport

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