Reducing US oil demand remains unthinkable
It seemed unthinkable for Russia to invade Ukraine, until it happened. It seemed unthinkable that the world’s largest economies could isolate Russia so completely, until it happened.
We are repeatedly reminded that the unthinkable is not impossible, but it always has a way of clouding our minds.
Inevitably, climate change changes us. Yet our policies resist change. Debates on the transition to renewable energies suggest that the usual levels of consumption must be maintained. Fuel emission standards are hotly contested. military budgets keep growingas if the war had no ecological impact.
More of us accept that climate change is a real emergency; yet, when it comes to changing our way of life, reducing consumption remains largely unthinkable.
With little fanfare or media coverage, the International Energy Agency proposed a 10 point plan last month to find out how countries could dramatically reduce oil demand – by millions of barrels a day – in just a few months. His goal was to sketch a few ways “use less oil to transport people and goods from A to B.”
The presentation was largely geared towards Europe and ignored by most US news outlets, its possibilities drowned out by the roar of engines, rockets and politicians applauding economic growth.
Proposals like lower speed limits, more working from home, cutting business air travel where possible seem unthinkable in the American conversation. Nevertheless, they are worth considering not just as tangible reductions in oil dependence, but as improvements in everyday life.
Driving slower improves fuel economy, but speed limits are routinely ignored and unpopular. Our application for trucks and SUVs with luxurious interiors, cupholders and stereo systems didn’t entice us to let off the gas and enjoy the ride; yet we could.
The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded what seemed possible when it came to working from home. It also demonstrated potential reductions in air pollution and improved air quality. NASA has measured large reductions of nitrogen dioxide – produced by burning fossil fuels – in 2020, during some of the most widespread public health restrictions.
What could be gained for health and beauty if more workers drove less?
Even our talk of electric cars assumes that most of us should have private automobiles. We can consider battery-powered vehicles much easier than one imagines by sharing them or by building affordable and user-friendly electric bus and train systems.
I have two sons who have recently learned to ride a bike and their joy at this new mobility is contagious. (When they’re home, that is. We don’t see them much anymore. They only show up to eat before they go back on their bikes.) The city you experience on foot or by bike is remarkably different from what you see driving from location to location.
IEA suggestions such as “car-free Sundays” in some cities, reducing or eliminating public transport fares, limiting privileges for private cars and air travel, would potentially change the way we live where we live and our work and play habits.
Reducing consumption – the demand side of the equation – remains largely unthinkable in the country that consumes the most oil. There’s a whiff of tragedy in there when you consider the potential payoffs for wisdom, beauty, and happiness.
Washington focuses on increasing supply, as President Joe Biden promises to release up to 180 million barrels of the American strategic reserve more than six months and his administration insists on more national production.
Higher prices at the pump did not change consumer behavior many, either, despite more pain at the pump.
Rethinking our demand for energy involves changes to our social patterns – our “way of life”, something politicians solemnly pledge to uphold in one election cycle after another. As long as the next election matters more than the changes we have brought to our planet, changes to our way of life remain unthinkable.
The silver lining is this: things sometimes become “thinkable” quite suddenly.
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