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Canadian drivers burning more fuel than ever

Despite improved fuel-efficiency and environmental awareness, Canadians own more cars per capita and are driving farther than in 1990.

Published November 15, 2012

How green are Canada’s drivers?

Compared to a few decades ago, in the era of oversized gas-guzzlers, they resemble fresh leaves on spring trees. But that’s like saying kids are better off since child labour was abolished — a very low bar.

Current evidence is mixed.

Canadians own more cars than ever, in total and per capita, and these vehicles are carrying more people greater distances. So they’re burning more gasoline, and spewing more carbon dioxide.

But cars have changed.

Spurred by increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards and rising gasoline prices, carmakers are producing vehicles that consume less fuel and emit 99 per cent fewer pollutants than those of earlier generations.

That’s partly because, on average, today’s vehicles are smaller and lighter. They’re also, no matter their size, better engineered and more efficient.

Most manufacturers also offer diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric models, which are all considered better for the environment than gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engines.

Consumers have little choice but to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles: The old barge-class Fords and Chevrolets are no longer available. But some are going further green by opting for smaller vehicles and a few are switching to alternative power trains.

However, all this isn’t producing an environmental triumph. Although things are better than they would have been had cars not improved, the ultimate effect is to merely slow the rise in fuel consumption and emissions. It would take a remarkable transformation to reverse that trend, especially with the global rise in car ownership.

Figures from Natural Resources Canada, comparing 2009 with 1990, reveal some of our national picture.

On the negative side:

Overall gasoline consumption rose 25 per cent, with half the rise attributed to passenger vehicles.

Minivans and SUVs grew to 41 per cent of passenger vehicle sales, from 26. “This … shift away from the use of cars to light trucks brought about a large increase in passenger transportation energy use,” NRC says.

Canadians owned a total of 19.2 million vehicles, up from 14.2 million, and 0.71 vehicles per capita, compared with 0.68 two decades ago.

Vehicle use, measured by total passengers and kilometres, increased by 2 per cent each year.

On the positive side, the energy intensity of cars and light trucks — the energy required to move each passenger 1 km — improved by nearly 20 per cent.

There is other evidence of change.

Most of the people recently polled by the Canadian Automobile Association say they will likely buy, or at least consider, a highly efficient gas burner when shopping for their next vehicle. Half will take a good look at hybrids, and more than 10 per cent will consider an electric vehicle.

Nearly half say they’ve taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of their driving. Popular measures include avoiding jackrabbit starts and abrupt stops, keeping tires properly inflated, and removing excess weight from the vehicle. About two-thirds are reducing their driving.

A U.S. survey sponsored by Ford found similar results. About 70 per cent of respondents claim more fuel-efficient habits, while 21 per cent say they’ve bought a more-efficient vehicle.

Mazda Canada reports that vehicles equipped with its fuel-saving SkyActiv technology account for 43 per cent of its total sales this year, and 57 per cent for past month. The SkyActiv CX-5 has taken over the mid-SUV category from the conventional CX-7. And half of Mazda3 buyers have opted for the new technology.

GM Canada says its small and mini car sales are up 34 per cent this year. Compact cars, as well as small and compact SUVs, are up by 8 per cent.

Conventional hybrids now sell well. Plug-ins, such as GM’s Volt (with Canadian sales of 920 this year) and Toyota’s Prius, are catching on.

But the green trend’s future is uncertain.

A new oil glut — from supplies embedded in shale and deep offshore — is taking pressure off gasoline prices and fears about energy security. These sources are environmentally questionable, but undermine support for fuel-efficiency.

And sales of electric cars are lagging, particularly in Canada and the United States, while battery makers struggle to improve performance and lower costs.

Sales of pure EVs total less than 1,000 per month. Ontario, which along with Quebec and British Columbia offers incentives on all plug-ins, has paid out only 500, worth up to $8,500, since 2010.

And none of this touches the impact of roads on farmland, natural areas and wildlife — a key concern for environmentalists.

So while Canadians are driving greener, they are not yet green.

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