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The transport sector is key to a more sustainable economy. Industrialized economies have developed auto-centered systems that relegate public transportation, as well as walking and biking to a mere sideshow. Investments in automobile infrastructure such as highways and parking lots continue to outpace spending for alternative modes in most countries, and production of cars keeps expanding.

As I explain in my latest Vital Signs Online article, for a short while it looked as though the growth in car production might come to an end. The severe global economic crisis that broke into the open in 2008 led to a plunge in production of so-called light vehicles (passenger cars and light trucks) from 69 million units in 2007 to 60 million in 2009.

Highways (Photo via Flickr, by Katy SIlberger)

But since then, output has resumed with a vengeance, driven not only by recovery in Western industrialized countries, but especially by the surge in production and sales in China (which is now by far the leading manufacturer) and other so-called emerging economies, such as India and Brazil. Worldwide, the production of cars and light trucks jumped to 74.3 million in 2010 and 76.8 million in 2011—and 2012 may bring a new all-time record of more than 80 million vehicles.

Sales are similarly soaring and translate into ever-expanding fleets. An estimated 691 million passenger cars were on the world’s roads in 2011. When both light- and heavy-duty trucks are included, the number rises to 979 million vehicles. By the end of this year, the number could well top 1 billion vehicles—one for every seven people on the planet.

Automobiles are major contributors to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Greater fuel efficiency can help reduce these impacts, although increases in the numbers of cars and the distances driven threaten to overwhelm fuel economy advances.

Japan and the European Union are the global leaders in fuel efficiency, and China is seeking to improve the performance of its vehicles as well.  The United States has long lagged behind, but the new fuel economy rules issued recently by the Obama Administration will go a long way toward having the country catch up. The new rules require auto manufacturers to increase the average efficiency of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Japanese Smart Car (Photo via Flickr, by whalt)

The vast majority of cars continue to have conventional propulsion systems, either gasoline or diesel-powered combustion engines. Hybrid gas-electric vehicles and fully electric vehicles still constitute only a very small share of total production—about 2 percent.

Another dimension that will make a difference in reducing automobiles’ environmental footprint concerns the distances traveled by car. The United States accounted for slightly above 40 percent of the 10.3 trillion passenger-kilometers driven in all countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2008, even though it has just 25 percent of the total OECD population.

But there are indications that U.S. car travel, growing inexorably for decades, may have finally peaked. Vehicle miles of travel are down from 4,878 billion vehicle kilometers (pkm) in 2007 to 4,776 billion pkm in 2010.

Car travel in other OECD countries appears to have plateaued, but it is still growing strongly in emerging and developing countries. In China, driving distances have risen from 262 billion pkm in 1990 to 1,351 billion pkm in 2009, slightly more than a fivefold expansion. Car travel in non-OECD countries doubled between 1975 and 2000, but then it picked up pace by doubling again in just the decade to 2010.  Altogether, global light-duty vehicle use was nearly 2.5 times higher in 2010 than it was in 1975. Ground transportation is still far from sustainable.

(Written by Michael Renner)

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