A Word or Two on CO2 – Why Reducing Emissions in the US Won’t Be Easy

By Alex Ricciuti


The Ford Focus TDCi Sport will sprint to 62mph in 10.8seconds and reach a top speed of 120mph, while still returning an impressive 51.4mpg (Imperial gallon) on the combined highway/city cycle.

In earlier postings, I have written about the differences between the US and European car markets. I have recently, for example, praised Ford of Europe’s product line up and touted it as a successful brand strategy on the part of the US automaker’s European operations. That is not to say that all of Ford’s (or even Opel’s (GM Europe’s main brand here), much improved product offering, which we haven’t yet covered) don’t have products that are easily outdone by the competition, but this blog is focused on the industry, with a special interest in marketing and brand performance, rather than coming from a pure consumer’s point of view alone. And Ford of Europe has a successful product strategy in place as opposed to its domestic operations in the US. So hence, the praise, and the main reason for that praise or lack thereof, on both sides of the Atlantic, is consumer tastes and expectations.

To be curt, European consumers demand (and have always done so) small, efficient and sporty/performance oriented cars in ways that US consumers simply do not. US automakers spent the 90s chasing the booming SUV market, investing little in passenger car development, which has now left them at a loss vis-à-vis the competition in these gloomier days of 100 dollar a barrel oil and the dire prognosis of global warming. But, as you’ve probably heard many people say, you sell cars in the US by the cubic feet. And it seems US consumers still value size highly and that doesn’t bode well for any efforts to reduce emissions in the United States (and Canada too).

I don’t like to tout myself as any sort of expert, because I definitely am not, but I do have a particularly unique experience having lived and traveled widely on both sides of the Atlantic and I like to think I know as much as anyone about the cultural differences between the US and the major Western European countries. I spend 5 years in the 1990’s on the road in the US and Canada, working as a camping adventure guide doing cross country tours for European backpackers. I have also lived for the last 10 years in Switzerland, while traveling around the continent in several capacities, from work-related trips to personal trips that happened in order to accommodate family holidays, etc.

So why is a pressing issue like global warming going to be a tough problem to tackle in the US? Besides the simplistic and inaccurate assumption of a regulation-averse America vs. rule-happy Europe, there are a couple of main reasons why; which I will cover here:

1. Topography and Sense of Space

Anyone who’s ever crossed the Atlantic has seen plainly how far more densely populated Western Europe is compared to the US. America’s got space, lots of it, and that is what those aforementioned European backpackers came to see when touring the United States. This is particularly the case in the American West, and much more so in the Canadian West, where you could fit most of Switzerland just one in our two main National Parks – Banff and Jasper.

Western Europe is even more densely populated than the US Atlantic Seaboard, where you have about 80 million Americans living in the region roughly from DC up to Boston. The entire EU, which includes much of Eastern Europe now, has a population of about 450 million and a land mass smaller than the lower 48 states with a population of about 300 million.

European towns and cities all predate the age of the automobile, and most, even the age of the railway. They are more densely developed and closer to each other. We don’t have to get into too many details here to conjecture that such a population concentration gives you an efficiency with public transport such as buses, trams and trains that you simply cannot replicate in the US, no matter how much track you lay or how much you invest in mass transit in major American cities. The rest of America is not like Manhattan in New York City whereas much of urban Europe is.

And Americans are not only used to having large amounts of space – they demand it. It’s thought of almost as a right. Average living space in the US is much larger than in Europe, and much of the world for that matter, and Americans have become accustomed to a luxury of space that would be difficult to give up were it possible to do so through urban planning, but, in fact, isn’t possible since there will be no forced relocations of populations in the U.S. anytime in the foreseeable future.

Notwithstanding American attitudes towards space, the US has simply built much of its housing and communities in the age of the automobile and you’re just not going to force people to live closer to each other and share more space. So, with urban sprawl, distant suburbs and exurbs even further out and small towns with lush spaces, Americans need to cover longer distances for work and travel and other commutes than Europeans do. It is similar in Canada, my native land, although our cities are smaller and have better mass transit and much of the population is concentrated around them and less dispersed than the US.

And along with those massive swaths of land comes a North American recreational culture centered around automotive mobility. This is represented by the RV and recreational sub-culture in the US that is based on large vehicles (pickup trucks) that can haul trailers or boats. It also includes off-road and all-terrain vehicles whose use has skyrocketed in recent years. There is no real such equivalent in Europe, where there are few national parks or public recreation areas and travel outside of cities consists mostly of visits to the countryside or stays in small towns for such things as local festivals or simply enjoying the local culture.

America’s diffusement of living space and recreational culture is why the Ford F-150 continues to be the country’s largest selling vehicle, selling about 900,000 units a year. I could drive a fully outfitted Chevy Silverado with a V8 engine in Zurich and still consume less gasoline and pump less CO2 into the atmosphere than someone driving a Prius in suburban California simply because I would have smaller distances to cover and could make use of a top-notch public transport system.

If Europeans, per capita, consume about 50 percent of the energy that Americans do, it’s not because they are more frugal or more virtuous. It’s mostly because the place they live (that is, Europe) is made in a way that allows less consumption of energy.

2. Climate

Air conditioning and heating require massive amounts of energy and the North American climate is far more extreme than the mild, temperate climate of most of Western Europe. Temperatures vary greatly, from the cold in Canada to the suffocating heat in Florida. The eastern third of the continent is very humid, which is why you always have a fat, sweaty, evil sheriff in those melodramas about civil rights in the American South. The mid-West and mountain states are more exposed to the elements given the plains, the deserts and the mountains which provide for hot days and very cold nights.

3. Social Philosophy

You simply cannot solve a problem like global warming by merely asking individuals to do their part or by even having policies that encourage people to drive more efficient vehicles. You need to mandate emissions cuts and restrict the use of fossil fuels through either regulation or severe taxation. This will be a tough sell in a country where politicians like to sell hopeful solutions that require little sacrifice but are utterly ineffective.

As an auto journalist, I know that there is still no easier and more comfortable way to get around than in your own private car. You can go to any address you like, at your own pace, listening to the music you like and taking whatever route you please. And Europeans love their cars as much as Americans do. But if you base your CO2 emissions reduction strategy on the premise that Americans will have to drive smaller cars it just might not be enough and getting them to do it in the first place might prove impossible.

There is a strong ideological strain in American society where people value their individual prerogatives to buy and consume and not lead lives with restrictions or too much social accommodation. “Hey, our forefathers left Europe for a better life in America where they could, literally, live large. Living small, with constant compromises, that’s for crowded old Europe.” There’s a psychological dimension to this ideology that there is no rational response for.

I hate to sound so simplistic or crass but I don’t think the US is willing to legislate the kind of stringent regulations necessary to reduce emissions enough to affect the outcome of global warming. As I mentioned earlier, some politician will always try to sell the easy solution, which will inevitably be that alternative energy sources and propulsion systems (magic beans, more or less) will negate the need to tighten our fossil fuel burning belts. And that becomes self-fulfilling in terms of what people believe.

The solution has to be a two-track exercise; reduce consumption considerably while simultaneously developing new technology. And the good news is that there are plenty of alternatives around; from solar, to geo-thermal, to hydrogen. We just have to pick one.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe and others. He also writes on all things automotive on his own blog at eurocarguy.blogspot.com.

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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  1. Can’t understand all this attraction to a “euro” lifestyle. I think the way of life in Europe sucks except for the beer. The American way of life is the best in the world, so why change it?

  2. Perhaps Australia is the model for North America meeting Europe halfway? Our country is as big as North America (but with only 20 million people), similarly climactically variable (although more temperate) and our cities and towns are much further apart…..yet we are amongst the most urbanised culture on the planet. And what do we drive? A melange of European, Asian and US influenced cars. Our most popular vehicle is the Holden Commodore (soon to be known in the US as the Pontiac G8) with a V6 petrol engine but with Euro tuned suspension (Most Aussies hate US style soft suspension tunings). Second most popular is the Toyota Corolla while third is occupied by Toyota’s Hilux (a small truck that would fit in the back of a Tundra!). And one of the most popular engine options in the Hilux is a 3.0TDi…

    But mostly we drive cars that are half the size of the average US fleet and have far more in common with the Euro fleet. Especially in fuel economy…and it’s getting better all the time.

    What will bring US carbon production in autos down faster than anything else is the rising cost of fuel…..North Americans are as price sensitive as the rest of the human race!!

  3. plinky4 – just guessing here, but I’m betting you have lived only in the U.S.

  4. Nice article. Sometimes I watch “House Hunters International” on HGTV, and I’m always amazed when watching episodes shot in European cities. The living spaces are SO much smaller than in the US and, just as they are with cars and transportation in general, Europeans are compelled to be more creative when it comes to using space. It’s not because they are inherently more efficient, they are simply forced to do it by their environment.

  5. Plonky5,

    Plinky4 just made my point perfectly.


  6. Insightful article and brings out a lot of good points. Getting Americans to change their consumption habits is going to be very difficult.

  7. An interesting piece by Alex, but I think he is underestimating the willingness to change in the U.S. Most people I know understand clearly that dependence on $100/bbl oil from the Middle East is bad and they are willing to drive hybrids and diesels and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles if the system supports them satisfactorily. I was in Spain for 9 days in October and drove a very good Fiat Croma with a diesel engine. We’ll move to those cars when we see that they offer acceptable performance and comparable quality.

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