When it comes to scarcity of resources, one of the most publicly discussed topics is the impending shortage of fossil fuels. As we have known for a while now, global oil reserves are limited. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 2035 will be the decisive year in which the maximum amount of oil production will be achieved. Thereafter, less oil will be available on the market year after year and eventually, reserves will be exhausted. This knowledge implies that people have to change their consumer behavior sooner or later. One major field in which consumers will be, and are already, affected directly is transportation and particularly the use of cars. Since high gas prices, car mileage, and associated CO2 emissions are already much debated issues, one would think that consumers should have enough incentives to reduce their gas consumption and buy more efficient cars or even ones that run on alternative energy sources. However, when we take a pragmatic perspective, it appears that consumers’ decisions are a little more complicated.
For example, my father is thinking about buying a smaller and more energy efficient car for practical, ecological and economical reasons. So far, he has been driving a ten-year-old Volvo V70, which consumes on average about 9.6 litre gas per 100 km. One of my father’s considered alternatives is the newest Smart car, a small Swiss car with two seats and a tiny trunk, which is available with gasoline engines of varying strengths, a diesel engine or as an electric alternative. The electric Smart car can, of course, completely eliminate the gas consumption, and additionally the CO2 emissions, and therefore seems the most ecological option at first sight. However, at a price of about $25,800.-, it is also by far the most expensive version. In addition to the retail price and the electricity rate, the driver also has to pay a monthly rent of $ 105.- for the car battery. Furthermore, it is questionable if it is really more ecological to replace gas with electricity. Whether electricity really is a more sustainable energy source depends on the way it was produced. In Switzerland, for example, 39% (up to 45% in winter) of the electricity is still generated with nuclear power. To purchase or generate one’s own green electricity – for example with solar panels on one’s rooftop – would, however, multiply the costs again considerably.
Another option would be to buy the diesel version. With a consumption of 3.3 litre per 100 km, this would be the most energy efficient Smart after the electric version. At a price ranging from about $ 22,920.- to $ 26,540.-, it is also significantly cheaper than its electric counterpart. Even disregarding the costs of renting the electric battery and the electricity rate, it would take more than five years of saving on gas expenses to compensate the additional costs of the electric car.
The same reasoning, though, can be applied when we compare the more efficient diesel to the cheapest gas version, which is at least $ 5,180.- cheaper, but has a higher gas consumption of at least 4.3 litre per 100 km. According to my father’s calculations, from a purely economic point of view, it would even make most sense to keep and drive the Volvo for another five or more years, because the additional costs of a new car cannot be compensated by the smaller fuel consumption in this time.
This example shows how difficult consumers’ decisions and the rethinking of consumption are in reality. To ascertain which suitable car is the most energy efficient, having the least CO2 emissions, and is still affordable requires extensive research, time and interest, and infinite amounts of patience. Additionally, to buy a more energy efficient car still doesn’t necessarily translate into savings economically. Despite existing tax incentives, consumer decisions in favor of energy efficiency and especially green energy alternatives remain a question of ecological awareness and mostly cannot be justified economically. In Switzerland, recent polls have shown that people look at cars mostly as objects of utility rather than an environmental problem. When purchasing a car, aspects of convenience and costs are therefore valued as more important than eco-political reasons. Thus, if we want consumers to rethink their behavior, we must give them not only ideological, but also the practical and economical reasons to do so.