Carbon Pricing is Not Primarily About Car Ownership

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Ezra Klein posts this chart and observes that people are “overestimating the importance of appliances, and the centrality of cars doesn’t bode well for pricing carbon.”


This is a very widespread mistake. For reasons I don’t quite understand, but that I have possibly contributed to by writing lots of blog posts about walkable urbanism because I’m interested in it personally, people have gotten in it their heads that automobiles are the primary issue in carbon emissions. In reality, oil is not that carbon-intensive compared to coal-fired electricity and transportation is not that big a consumer of energy:

energy-use 1

What’s more, a fair share of “transportation” is the transportation of goods rather than the transportation of people. If you look at per capita carbon emissions you’ll see that California is one of the very lowest-emission states in the union, notwithstanding its famous automobile orientation. That’s because mild weather plus relatively clean electricity equals low emissions. Heating and cooling poorly insulated single-family homes is extremely energy intensive. Indeed, in some ways the biggest contribution of walkable urbanism to low emissions is probably that urban homes tend to be smaller and multi-family homes are better insulated. What’s more, from a technical standpoint it’d be very straightforward for the current US vehicle fleet to become more fuel efficient, whereas it’s not at all straightforward to overhaul the whole electricity-generation system.

I think there are a lot of problems with the central role automobile ownership plays in American life, but it really shouldn’t be a major impediment to reasonable carbon pricing.