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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Prius Fallacy - Rex Weyler

A FrogBlog exclusive! Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International, on why your best ride down the Energy Decline Curve is the car you already own:

The Prius Fallacy
Rex Weyler


This chart shows gasoline consumption per capita declining in Cascadia – Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Such graphs are sometimes used to support the idea that we are gaining transportation efficiency with new cars such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid. People point out that “switching to a Prius” could cut gas use by 70% and so forth, which would certainly be a good thing.

However, to analyse this correctly, one must make a full accounting both of energy use in general and the specific “solution” proposed. Will buying a Prius or other hybrid help stop global warming and save the planet? Let’s have a look. Here are some of the factors:

1. The above graph shows oil consumption per capita declining in a particular region (Cascadia) since the mid-1970s. This may simply reflect the fact that per capita oil consumption has declined globally since 1979, the peak year of global per capita oil use. This has been known for some time. Lester Brown mentions this in his 1981 book, Building a Sustainable Society. I have done my own calculations, confirming that 1979 stands as the year of peak petroleum use per capita. Total oil consumption increased, however, since we have added some 3 billion people to the planet since the mid-1970s.

2. Note the sharpest decline here is approximately 1976 - 82, which correlates with the OPEC oil embargo and the ensuing global recession. The decline in this particular graph also correlates with a severe Washington State recession in the early 1980s.

3. The recent decline on this chart reflects the fact that global oil production has been flat since 2005, so global per capita use is declining faster than ever, since population continues to grow at about 1.1% per year. The most recent steep decline in oil consumption per person correlates with recent oil price increases and now a global recession.

4. Global oil production has peaked, so this decline in petroleum use per capita will continue independent of all technical efficiencies gained in car design.

Thus, there remains considerable doubt that this chart's shape (or future shape) can be correlated to Priuses and other automobile designs. But there is more.

Full energy accounting

To determine if buying a new Prius (or any other mechanical efficiency) reduces global petroleum consumption or carbon emissions (and if so, by how much), one must perform a full life-cycle energy and carbon accounting for the Prius.

There are three classes of energy that a vehicle consumes in its lifetime: 1. “Embodied energy,” required by material mining, manufacture, shipping, and automobile infrastructure; 2. vehicle operation, and 3. disposal & recycling.

Depending on the model, 10-40% of the energy an automobile uses in its lifetime is “embodied energy” consumed before it is purchased to build the car alone. For a Prius, the manufactured embodied energy is about 25% of the vehicle’s lifetime energy use. On top of this, one must consider automobile infrastructure. No studies that I know of have yet allocated the embodied material and energy of the highway, service, and parking infrastructure to individual vehicles, but for a full accounting, this must be considered. Our highway system is not just a financial subsidy to the automobile industry, it is also an energy cost subsidy, the energy to mine, move, and assemble the resources to build the highways.

The actual energy cost of a new vehicle – hybrid or pure gasoline style – depends on the vehicle lifetime and the full materials and energy costs. New high-tech steels and alloys used in a Prius require more embodied energy to produce and to recycle than conventional steel. Other factors include high-energy-use products such as batteries and electric motors.

The point is, basing a car purchase decision solely on fuel economy will not tell you the full energy cost of that vehicle.

The critical factor is total throughput of material and energy. A new car of any kind requires mining, shipping, manufacture of exotic alloys, batteries, plastic, shipping of parts, assembly, and finally, shipping the vehicle. A new Prius equals more demand on the planet, less perhaps than a Hummer, but orders of magnitude more than a bicycle or even a reasonable public transport system shared among millions of commuters.

Here are some other significant factors

5. Exported emissions: A Prius is not likely manufactured in the region it is purchased (even if some part of it is). Most of the Prius' embodied energy is accounted for around the world in mining, manufacture, and shipping of the materials, parts, and the finished car. On a global scale, North America has exported a large portion of its carbon emissions. So, for example, to accurately compare “China's” emissions to US or Canadian emissions, we must consider the portion of China (or India, or Mexico) emissions that are actually exported North American emissions, because we are consuming the products associated with the energy use that created the emissions. A product's total energy cost is global.

6. More cars. Any new car – Prius, Hummer, Smart Car, whatever – is one more car that the biosphere has to supply with materials, energy, and waste sinks. The old car is now a cheap option for someone down the economic line. Now there are two cars instead of one. The more ecological car is the one you already have. The most ecological car is no car. Get a bicycle, or walk. But buying a Prius is a little like recycling on the Titanic.

7. Rebound effect: Historically, mechanical efficiencies gained by industries have not translated into less throughput of material and energy, but more. Why? Because when we gain efficiencies, consumer items become cheaper, so more people consume them. This well-known phenomenon in economics is known as the efficiency “rebound effect.” It may appear counter-intuitive, but industrial efficiency results in more consumption, not less. The “gain” is not given back to the earth, but rather it goes to (a) corporate profits and (b) consumer savings, rarely, or never, to less consumption.

A modern example is the fact that computers never saved paper as we once believed they might. Computers led to greater paper consumption. In 1950, humanity used about 50 million tons of paper per year. Now, in the computer age, we use 250 million tons per year. Computers made it cheaper launch more activities that consumed more paper. Typical rebound phenomenon.

And then, there is still more to consider:

8. Substitute consumption .. The profits and savings earned by efficiency are used for other material and energy consumption. The corporate managers get bigger bonuses that go into private jets, yachts, summer homes, cars (Priuses!) for their kids, and so forth, all costing energy. Consumer savings go into the same types of things. Saved money from the more efficient car, is spent on holidays, a second car .. more consumption.

Historically, all efficiency gains translate into greater aggregate consumption. Why? because our economics is dependent upon consumption, not restraint. When the economy discovers an efficiency, it takes the gain as profit. We don’t return the gain to our abused planet.

And since humanity is in aggregate overshoot, all these efficiency gains that yielded greater consumption have increased human overshoot, not reduced it.

There is much more to fully accounting for our so-called global warming “solutions,” but the above outline describes the critical point: To analyse a “solution” one must do the full accounting. If we account for only a part of the process, we are easily misled into false solutions.

For example, science has known for over a century that industrial CO2 in the atmosphere would cause global warming. Svante Arrhenius wrote about it in the 19th century. James Lovelock had the data in the 1960s. Nevertheless, after decades of science, protest, innovation, international negotiations, speeches, handshakes, and treaties, human CO2 emissions continue to increase at about 3% per year. Our emissions have showed not a waver of slowing down (except by recession, barely). Our “solutions” so far haven't added up to anything remotely promising. The entire Kyoto process was probably a net carbon emitter just in the airplane travel. Will the Prius, or windmill, or next technical solution do the trick? Not without a full ecosystem accounting.

This full accounting appeared as one of the main points from Herman Daly's work, as well as the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Howard Odum, Hazel Henderson, Donella Meadows, Robert Costanza, Charles Hall, and other biophysical economists, who pioneered this common sense approach. The critical factors were worked out long ago, and the accounting is not particularly complex, it is just inconvenient for our industrial producers to face, and few consumers want to pay full cost if they can avoid it.

Consumption drives our economic system, so until we convert this system to something biophysically accountable, a system that rewards restraint, human enterprise will likely keep making these sorts of miscalculations about solutions to climate change and ecological destruction.

A good solution

In 1980, farmer/author Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “Solving for Pattern,” that outlined the features of “a good solution.” I consider this essay on the A-list for the 21st century. He showed that many problems we face today are the consequences of previous “solutions” that focused on an isolated, short-term gain. Toxic pollution, dying rivers, and nuclear waste provide examples.

Using farming examples, Berry demonstrated how a good solution preserves the “integrity of pattern,” improves balance and symmetry, and addresses the health of the whole system. A false solution treats symptoms and only in a narrow focus. All problems are parts of a whole, and all systems are contained in larger systems. A good solution maintains the integrity of the larger systems.

In this way, a good solution solves multiple problems, and avoids “magic bullet” solutions that fail to account for their full impact. For example, a nuclear “solution” to an energy need creates new problems: radioactive fuel transport, public health, waste, security, decommissioning, accidents, insurance costs, evacuation plans, radiation exposure, and so forth. “In a biological pattern,” Berry writes, “the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.” A genuine solution does not pollute or destroy a watershed, for example, to mine gold or generate power.

Real, integrated solutions tend to localize, accept limits, and use resources at hand. However, genuine solutions exist only in actual proof and cannot to be expected from absentee owners and absentee experts. People who will benefit from success or suffer the consequences of failure should guide local solutions with real work that fits the scale of their communities. Genuine solutions appear in harmony with a specific place, maintained with local knowledge. A solution, says Berry, “should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another.” The scale of a solution proves critical. Solutions that require massive, expensive, imported infrastructure often cause more problems than they solve.

Healthy, integrated solutions distinguish biophysical order from mechanical order. A mechanistic plan often works “on paper” by ignoring related systems. In crafting solutions, consider wisdom, not just calculation. Well-designed solutions maintain natural, organic pattern. Human communities exist only within large-scale layers of organic systems, with natural cycles and laws of material and energy exchange.

Systemic solutions satisfy multiple criteria. They consider form as well as function; they are healthy and pleasant to live around. On the other hand, large scale industrial solutions often create toxic waste, degraded environments, depressing work, designed obsolescence, and so forth, all in the pursuit of solving one single criteria: wealth for the owners of the firm. The service or product provided is a secondary purpose. The stated and actual primary purpose of modern corporations is the consolidation of cash wealth.

Avoid “going for broke” with single plan that could have large-scale negative impacts, but rather, design many small-scale solutions that can scale up and down, prove out, adjust for those that don’t work well, and augment those that do. Berry writes: “to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use only a little.”

A good solution does not assume “More is better.” The growth solutions that do make this assumption destroy communities, families, cultures, and environments. Large-scale, centralized solutions allow wealth to be concentrated, but do not necessarily achieve optimum, systemic health. “The illusion can be maintained,” Berry points out, “only so long as the consequences can be ignored.” Thus, a series of village scale power systems that can be operated by village skills is more stable and more sustainable than a massive corporate industrial power system with invasive environmental disruption and long transmission lines that cut through wilderness ecosystems.

Human solutions do not endure without human input, energy, organization, maintenance, and so forth. Wendell Barry points out that the integrity of human artifacts depends on human virtues: accurate memory, rigorous observation, insight, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, and restraint. Here Berry emphasized “restraint above all.” We must learn to resist the temptation to “solve” problems by accepting “trade-offs” and bequeathing those to posterity. A good solution, Barry wrote three decades ago, is “in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.”

All proposed “solutions” to our ecological challenges should be assessed using criteria such as these.

The Action Plan for reversing overshoot in a biophysical system is fairly simple: Shrink and restore:

1. reduce consumption ( in nature this is done by limiting population, and learning to manage on limited nutrient, material, energy throughput). Growth is not a solution for this.

2. Restore the ecosystem, or at least don't destroy the natural ecosystem. (In nature, this is done through symbiosis). We need to reduce our ecological impact, not grow it.

Bonus comment from Dr. Albert Bartlett:

"Smart growth is better than dumb growth, but they both destroy the environment."

More growth equals more well-to-do people, more homeless people, more employed people, more unemployed people, higher average salaries, more people living below the poverty line, more traffic congestion, higher parking fees, more school crowding, more crime, more unhappy neighborhoods, more expensive government, more tax revenue, higher taxes, more fiscal problems for state and local governments, more tax limitation measures, more air and water pollution, higher utility costs, less reliable utility service, less democracy, more congestion on busy city streets and crowded highways, more unmanageable costs of maintaining public infrastructures, higher food costs and more destruction of the environment.

These problems can’t be solved by a nickel’s worth of “Smart Growth” tacked onto to billions of dollars worth of urban sprawl.

After maturity, continued growth is either obesity or cancer."


Rex Weyler lives in Vancouver. His ecological essays appear on his website “Ecolog
and the Greenpeace International site, Deep Green.


Addendum from David Shipway on the hidden costs of cars in general:

Ecology teaches us to look at a species not in isolation but in context. The personal automobile needs a very special environment to operate in. The embodied energy in road systems catering to the hundreds of millions of private automobiles is gargantuan. Here for one example is a new pre-stressed concrete bridge in the SF Bay area, being built with gravel mined by Orca in Port McNeil:

Even when not being used, cars often occupy a special habitat niche constructed especially for them:

and in suburbia they occupy a substantial amount of personal housing that is better than that used by 3 billion of the world's humans:

I'll leave it to mathematicians to allocate a portion of this embodied energy in road infrastructure and special habitats to each automobile.



Note from the lily pad: the HTBAF point of view is that Used is the New New: if you must buy something at this late stage of civilization, take from the waste stream and buy used whenever possible. But much better than deciding between your existing car, a used car, and a hybrid or plug-in (assuming you have the money after shifting to part-time, going underwater on your house, taking a bath on your mutual fund, and paying interest-only on your credit cards) is to choose between your existing car and a bus, bike or pair of feet (webbed preferably). The real point is to get ready for what's coming, and the New Normal isn't going to include driving, unless you're Donald Trump's chauffeur.


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