Trends in private car use, fuel efficiency, related GHG emissions and GDP

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-325-en
Created 26 Jan 2012 Published 13 Apr 2012 Last modified 04 Sep 2015
9 min read

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Steady improvements in the fuel efficiency of average cars have been more than offset by an increase in total distance travelled by car. As a result total fuel consumption of cars and resulting CO2 emissions have increased by ~20% in the period 1990-2009. The increase in total distance travelled by car is not a result of increasing distances travelled by individual cars but rather from an increase in the stock of private cars in Europe. The stock of cars remains closely coupled to GDP. Thus, changing behaviour characterised by a desire for ownership and use of private cars, made possible by increasing income, has offset rather than complemented gains from eco-efficient technology transfer.

Key messages

Steady improvements in the fuel efficiency of average cars have been more than offset by an increase in total distance travelled by car. As a result total fuel consumption of cars and resulting CO2 emissions have increased by ~20% in the period 1990-2009. The increase in total distance travelled by car is not a result of increasing distances travelled by individual cars but rather from an increase in the stock of private cars in Europe. The stock of cars remains closely coupled to GDP. Thus, changing behaviour characterised by a desire for ownership and use of private cars, made possible by increasing income, has offset rather than complemented gains from eco-efficient technology transfer.

Is eco-efficiency technology being incorporated into vehicles and are resulting gains being complimented or offset by changing behaviour?

Developments in fuel efficiency of an average car alongside trends in private car ownership and GHG emissions

Note: Time series of the indexed values of GDP, stocks of cars in the EU27, total CO2 emissions of cars, total car kilometres travelled, total fuel consumption of private cars and average specific fuel consumption of cars.

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The fuel efficiency of an average European car (including both diesel and gasoline) increased by 17% between 1990 and 2009 or approximately 1% per year. This takes into account both improvements in fuel efficiency of new cars compared to older models of the same size, but also changes in average car size. However, the total distance travelled by private car in the EU-27 grew by 42% over the same period. This increase is not due to an increase in the distance travelled by each car which in fact dropped by 5% from 1990-2009 despite a slight increase peaking in 1999. Rather it is closely correlated to increases in car ownership, which is itself tightly coupled to economic growth. The number of cars owned in the EU rose by 50%, while GDP rose by 40% during this period. 

The net result of technological and behavioural developments is an increase in total fuel consumption of cars and resulting CO2 emissions by 19% and 18% respectively.

In other words, changing behaviour characterised by a desire for ownership and use of private cars, made possible by increasing income, has offset rather than complemented gains from eco-efficient technology transfer.

Whether trends in the size of car purchased is also offsetting or complementing the transfer of eco-efficient technology into car design cannot be ascertained from the data shown in this indicator. According to a statement made by the European Automobile Association in response to the 2007 EU strategy to reduce emissions from cars (COM (2007) 19), ‘cars have become heavier and larger within their own different model segments, due to regulations on safety and air quality, and to consumer preferences’ (EAA, 007). If this trend is still continuing such preferences will work against developments in eco-efficient technology.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

This indicator shows developments in a range of factors related to private car use, which are presented alongside GDP to enable an assessment of decoupling. Average energy efficiency of private cars (both diesel and gasoline) in the EU car stock is defined as the inverse of specific energy used per km travelled. Car ownership is the stock of private cars. The annual distance travelled per car, overall fuel consumption and COemissions from the EU car stock are shown.

Units

The following are indexed to 1990  for presentation.
  • Specific fuel consumption of average private cars - l/100km
  • Total distance travelled - km
  • Total fuel consumption of private cars - litres,
  • Stock of private cars - cars
  • Total CO2 emissions from private cars - tonnes CO2
  • GDP – Euro (fixed prices)

Policy context and targets

Context description

The international policy framework for SCP was recently agreed at Rio+20 with the adoption of the ten year framework for action on sustainable consumption and production. The declaration ‘The future we want’ recognised the need to change unsustainable and promotes sustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Eco-efficient technologies and innovation for sustainable mobility are key elements of the Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050 as mobility is one of the key sectors for reducing GHG emissions and reaching a low carbon economy. The Roadmap identifies the potential for a 60% cut in GHG emissions from transport by 2050.

The white paper Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area – Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system also identifies technology as being the key to lower emissions from transport in Europe.

The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (2011) includes a specific sectoral theme on Ensuring Efficient Mobility that can contribute significantly to competitiveness and sustainability. The Roadmap includes the milestone that “by 2020 overall efficiency in the transport sector will deliver greater value ….. Transport will use less and cleaner energy, better exploit a modern infrastructure and reduce its negative impact ….. There will be on average a 1% yearly reduction, beginning in 2012 in transport GHG emissions.”

Based on the interim review Results of the review of the Community Strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from passenger cars and light-commercial vehicles, more concrete targets are laid out in Regulation (EC) No 443/200 (2009) setting emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the Community’s integrated approach to reduce CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles, which legislates the earlier voluntary agreements between the European Commission and vehicle manufacturers  to reduce average CO2 emissions of new cars to 120g CO2/km by 2012.

However, the policy question investigates the possibility that gains made through eco-efficient technologies in vehicles can be offset by behavioural trends for example, a growth in passenger-km travelled by car in Europe due to increasing car ownership and use and a switch to larger cars as the average car becomes more fuel efficient. This potential for behavioural changes to offset efficiency gains from technology are partially recognised by the Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area which states that‘More resource-efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels are unlikely to achieve on their own the necessary cuts in emissions and they would not solve the problem of congestion. They need to be accompanied by …..greater use of buses and coaches, rail and air transport…..better modal choices will result from greater integration of the modal networks…..Demand management and land-use planning can lower traffic volumes [in urban areas]. Facilitating walking and cycling should become an integral part of urban mobility and infrastructure design.’

Targets

Regulation (EC) No 443/200 (2009) sets emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the Community’s integrated approach to reduce CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles:

  • The overall objective is to reduce the CO2 emissions from new cars to an average of 120g CO2/km
  • The average CO2 emissions of new cars registered must be no more than 130g CO2/ km by 2012, with a further 10% to be achieved through additional measures, such as the use of biofuels
  • A long term target of 95g CO2/km by 2020

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

The total distance travelled by cars in the EU-27 was calculated by multiplying the value of the EU-27 stock of cars by the value of the annual distance travelled per car in km for each year. The total CO2 emissions of cars in the EU-27 was calculated by multiplying the total kilometres travelled by car by the average CO2 emissions of cars per km in the EU-27 for each year. To index values to the base year 1990, the raw values for each year (1990-2011) were divided by the value for 1990 and multiplied by 100. For the GDP values, data from the Odyssee database were used rather than corresponding data from Eurostat as a longer time series span was available. The GDP values in the ODYSSEE database are identical to Eurostat data available for EU-27 for the years where both datasets are available (1995 onwards).   

Methodology for gap filling

No gap filling was necessary.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified.

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty information has been provided by the publishers of the source data 

Rationale uncertainty

The indicator only includes  fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions rather than a wider range of eco-efficiency measures or other emissions from cars such as particulates or NOx. It also only includes passenger cars and does not address changes in eco-efficiency in other forms of personal or public transport.

Data sources

  • No datasets have been specified.

Metadata

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information.png Tags:
DPSIR: Driving force
Typology: Efficiency indicator (Type C - Are we improving?)
Indicator codes
  • SCP 027
Temporal coverage:

Dates

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Almut Reichel
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