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See Inside September 2006

Fueling Our Transportation Future

New technologies, lighter vehicles and alternative fuels can lower greenhouse gas releases from cars and trucks

If we are honest, most of us in the world's richer countries would concede that we like our transportation systems. They allow us to travel when we want to, usually door-to-door, alone or with family and friends, and with our baggage. The mostly unseen freight distribution network delivers our goods and supports our lifestyle. So why worry about the future and especially about how the energy that drives our transportation might be affecting our environment?

The reason is the size of these systems and their seemingly inexorable growth. They use petroleum-based fuels (gasoline and diesel) on an unimaginable scale. The carbon in these fuels is oxidized to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide during combustion, and their massive use means that the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere is likewise immense. Transportation accounts for 25 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. As the countries in the developing world rapidly motorize, the increasing global demand for fuel will pose one of the biggest challenges to controlling the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet (automobiles, pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and small trucks) currently consumes 150 billion gallons (550 billion liters) of gasoline a year, or 1.3 gallons of gasoline per person a day. If other nations burned gasoline at the same rate, world consumption would rise by a factor of almost 10.

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