Passenger cars – the inconvenient truth

The Sankey diagram below covers Sweden but could probably apply to most of Europe and the US. It shows the total energy input into the country and what it is used on. It tells us an inconvenient truth that no-one seems to be talking about: domestic CO2 emissions come largely from use of passenger cars. If we are serious about killing CO2 we have to look at killing the car as we know it. We have hardly started to even dare have that conversation. The other inconvenient corollary is that our transport system is oil-dependent. And oil is finite. We need to redesign from the ground up the way we arrange things. It is high time. Let me explain.

Diagram: Stephen Hinton Consulting from public statistics from Statistics Sweden and the Swedish Energy Agency. Energy in TWh

When you study it closely you see that the total energy produced is 536 TWh. Of that, losses amount to 155 TWh. The major uses of energy are in:

  • Industry ( 140 TWh whereof 47TWh of fossil origin)
  • Housing and premises (45 TWh)
  • Food provision field to table (37 TWh)
  • Transport (84 TWh)

The major sources of energy can be divided between carbon-dioxide emitting and other:

  • Fossil fuels (finite and carbon dioxide emitting) ( 138 TWh)
  • Other (398 TWh)

If Sweden or any other country is going to limit its CO2 emissions and create a fossil-independent future, then what better place to start than looking at major sources? From the diagram you can see that most fossil fuels coming into the country go to transport. And of those, most go to automobiles.

Car transport represents 52% of all fossil fuel use in Sweden and a whopping 85% of all transport use.

Graph: Stephen Hinton Consulting data from

Indeed, when you look at the graph above of the number of person-kilometers and type of transport you see the following:

  • Use of the automobile to solve transport needs has increased dramatically from the 1950s onwards.
  • Other forms of transport have hardly grown at all in comparison.
  • The population increase and increased travel demand have been taken up by the automobile.
Graph: Stephen Hinton Consulting data from

At this point in the analysis I can only speculate as to what has driven automobile demand over train, bus etc. One underlying factor is probably public investment in infrastructure. By building cities that offer car access, motorways, ordinary roads, improving speed and safety, etc. the car becomes a viable alternative to other forms of public transport.

It is high time to make the change. The world’s carbon budget will be used up in six years according to the latest research from the COP25. Peak of oil production may well come within the lifetime of a car bought today. If the useful life time of a car is up to 25 years, it stands to reason that a majority of cars on the road today will be scrapped or worthless before their useful life is up. That represents a huge economic loss. And just now I do not see any alternative but to take that loss.

One key to understanding how we got here is just public investment. You could look at it another way. Public investment builds “shortages” into the system. By encouraging the car-based society you force out proximity. There is then a shortage of proximity and that creates a demand for transport.

Instead of investing in a society where everything is far away from everything else, it sounds reasonable that the design paradigm should be to make everything as close as possible. That does not have to mean physically close, rather close in practical terms. (My nearest city is 43 minutes from my local train station, which is round the corner. The nearest Supermarket is 39 minutes by walking.)

If any modern society is serious about rapidly reducing emissions it needs to look beyond simply replacing the current fleet with electric cars. It needs to consider pulling out public investment in remoteness-creating infrastructure in favour of solutions that are more energy effective, less polluting and more proximity-creating.

Simple rule of thumb transition from fossil-powered transportation

The diagram above gives a simplified model of how the transition can take place. The upper dashed line shows the projected growth in demand of vehicle-kilometers per year with no measures. The orange wedge shows the effects of a 30% drop in demand over time for personal transport. This can be achieved with various government measures including increasing public transport.

The second wedge shows the effect of vehicle sharing. About 20 reduction is envisaged here although in future more automated vehicles might mean more sharing. 20 % reduction is not that much – for someone who drives alone 100% of the time it means one in five journeys with someone else.

Finally, electrification. With all the other measure reducing vehicle km travelled we can replace vehicles with electric ones. Indeed, if would require only 40% of vehicle journeys compared to today, and that might mean replacing the vehicle park with four electric vehicles for every 10 fossil one.

If everyone shared cars (via some kind of very smart app) and they were self-driving (came and picked you up when needed) and took more passengers (they are after all going where you are) then we would need only one vehicle for today’s 15. Electric vehicles use one eighth of the energy of an electric car. So by rethinking and redesigning we could de-fossilize private cars so they use a fraction of the energy used today – and emit very little pollution.

In other words, we have to dare to imagine the death of the car as we know it. We need bold solutions – people will always need to travel – we need totally new thinking. And we need a way to do it that harnesses the power of industrial capitalism which has so heavily invested in this branch, that pulling the plug will most likely damage the economy for a good while to come.


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