Curbing Euro-Envy

Times are tough in the newspaper business. For example, The New York Times used to have a robust fact-checking department. Either the staff has been laid off or maybe they can't keep up with the errors, either of which could explain the op-ed piece "Europe Energized."

Hill's piece is classic cheerleading. He would have us believe that Europe has significantly reduced its reliance on oil, as its governments have enticed the citizenry out of cars and into mass transit and planes. Starting with the contention that Europe has the same standard of living as the United States, he indicates that Europe has made much greater progress in reducing energy use and carbon emissions.

In fact, Europe does not enjoy the same standard of living as the United States. In 2009, the gross domestic product (purchasing power parity) was approximately one-third less ($14,000 less). For most households in Europe and the United States, that is a not an inconsequential amount of money. One reason for Europe's lower rates of energy consumption is its historically lower income levels.

Hill claims substantial reductions in oil consumption relative to the United States. However, Europe has not sworn off oil. Indeed, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, Europe's oil consumption per capita dropped only marginally more than that of the United States between 1980 and 2006. Nor has Europe done a better job of becoming more energy efficient. Measured in tons of oil equivalence, the United States has reduced its per capita energy consumption more than Europe since 1980, again based upon IEA data. It is, of course, easier to reduce oil consumption with near static population growth.

EU data indicates that mass transit's market share in Europe has been declining for decades (like in the United States). Further, despite all the new high speed rail lines, cars and airplanes have accounted for the greatest travel increases. In 1995, airplanes carried a slightly smaller volume (passenger kilometers) than passenger railways, including high speed rail. By 2008, airlines were carrying 37% more passenger kilometers than rail, despite a huge expansion of high speed rail. Since 1995, at least 15 passenger kilometers have been traveled by car for every additional passenger kilometer traveled by rail, high speed or not. Meanwhile, Europe's truck dependent freight system is less fuel efficient than America's, which relies to a greater degree on freight railroads.

None of this is to suggest that Europe does not lead the United States in some fields. There is no question that cars get much better mileage in Europe. By 2020, new cars are scheduled to achieve more than 60 miles per gallon, which is near double the US expectation. Europe is leading the way in automobile fuel efficiency and is demonstrating the massive extent to which improved fuel efficiency can accomplish tough environmental goals.

Yet, curiously, no interest has been expressed by the Euro-Envious to implement European highway speed limits. Recently, Italy raised maximum speeds on some roads to 93 miles per hour, France, Austria, Denmark, Slovenia and others have 81 mile per hour limits and there are no speed limits on much of the German autobahn system. No US speed limits are this high.

Having happily lived both within the pre-1200 (AD) boundaries of Paris and the urban fringes of four major US urban areas, it seems that both sides of the Atlantic have their strengths and weaknesses. Detailing them requires getting the facts right.

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"Italy raised maximum speeds on some roads to 93 miles per hour, France, Austria, Denmark, Slovenia and others have 81 mile per hour limits"

More likely that Italy raised speed limits to 150kph and the others to 130kph.

Dave Barnes

Fact Checking and Europe

Yeah, I don't know what's going on with the Times. In a recent story they claimed Prince William County was in Maryland, seems like the fact checkers have been all outsourced to Bangalore.

Agree completely with what you're saying. U.S. consumption of oil per $ of GDP is way down since 1980, and the real issue for the future isn't transit, which depends on density, but electric cars.