Photo: On the road to reduced fuel use

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Cars and trucks are among the biggest contributors to the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming. About 12 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions come from private automobiles, and up to a quarter come from road transportation in general. That makes driving a good place to start in confronting one of the most serious challenges humans face.

Canada and the U.S. just announced plans to enact fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks manufactured in the two countries. Canada is expected to match the U.S. standards, which will require all cars and trucks built by a company to get an average of about 35 miles per gallon, or six litres per 100 kilometres, by 2016. Canada's government estimates that will lead to a 25 per cent reduction in vehicle emissions in 2016 compared to 2008. The government's next step should be to require more zero-emission vehicles powered by clean-energy sources.

The new-vehicle regulations are good for the environment and the economy — but people who don't plan to buy new cars can also reduce their driving-related impact on the environment. Maintaining and driving a vehicle efficiently can make a big difference. Of course, the best way to reduce fuel consumption is to get out of your car. Walking, cycling, or using public transit mean fewer cars spewing emissions and less gridlock, which causes pollution as cars waste fuel while idling.

Getting out of the car isn't always possible, though, especially in rural areas not served by public transit, where travel distances and weather often make walking and cycling impractical. Designing communities around people instead of cars by investing more in public transit and less on roads and freeways is important in the long term, but for now drivers can reduce their current gas consumption by as much as 20 per cent with a few eco-driving tips — something the David Suzuki Foundation's Quebec office learned with its Drive Smart or Roulez Mieux campaign.

As with the new government fuel standards, adopting better driving habits demonstrates that doing what's right for the environment also makes good economic sense. Beyond saving money on gas, drivers can reduce wear on their cars, saving on maintenance and car-replacement costs.

One of the first things you can do is make your transportation more efficient through planning. Instead of making separate trips to get to work and the store, combine the journeys. Joining a car pool is also a great idea.

Keeping your vehicle properly maintained, with regular tune-ups, including air-filter and oil changes, and tires in good shape and properly inflated will allow you to go further on less gas.

Driving habits also help. Avoiding rush hour and driving defensively can help ensure that the fuel you burn will get you to your destination more quickly and efficiently. Shutting off the engine if your car is stopped for more than a minute makes sense too. Slowing down also helps. Going over the speed limit won't get you to your destination much faster, but it will burn more fuel.

Other good habits include keeping your trunk clean — as less weight requires less fuel to transport — and using the car's accessories sparingly.

It's up to all of us to do what we can to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change. That's especially true because governments are often slow to act and don't always go far enough. Sometimes they need a bit of a push, from individuals, communities, businesses, or even other levels of government. For example, the U.S. emissions standards were developed in response to tough standards enacted by the state of California and adopted by other states. (In Canada, Quebec was the first province to implement tougher fuel standards.)

As fossil fuels become scarce, and as our knowledge of the impacts of pollution and global warming increases, the benefits of doing all we can to use less gas just keep adding up. For the new fuel standards, savings at the gas pump will even offset the higher costs of the new fuel-efficient vehicles. The new standards will also lead to more jobs, as new technologies are developed.

We have a long way to go in resolving the issues around our love affair with the car and environmental destruction, but at least we're getting started.

April 9, 2010

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