Carbon Consciousness & Action

What Plug-in Hybrid Sales Say About Our CO2 Emissions

What do the sales numbers of the Chevy Volt and the Ford Fusion Energi tell us about carbon reduction efforts in the United States?

In June, 2014, Chevrolet sold 1,777 of the 98 MPG Volts, compared to 26,008 for the comparably-sized 30 MPG Cruze.   Ford sold a record 1939 of the 88 MPG Ford Fusion Energis in June 2014, compared to 25,665 of the other 25 MPG Ford Fusion models.

Why are the sales figures for the Volt and Fusion Energi less than 10% of their conventional analogues, despite their vastly superior fuel economy?  To be sure, both the Volt and Cmax Energi are a few thousand dollars more expensive than their conventional competitors after tax credits, although that outlay is recouped in fuel savings over 4-5 years.  The Volt offers space for only four passengers compared to five for the Cruze, and the Fusion Energi’s trunk is slightly smaller than the conventional Fusion’s.   Still, those differences in cost and convenience explain only a small part of the sales differential.

The fundamental reason for the anemic plug-in hybrid sales is that American consumers still consider massive reductions of their personal carbon emissions to be a consumer preference rather than a moral imperative.    While Americans would have to make a major sacrifice to give up the convenience of their car for a bus and bicycle, giving up a little trunk room or fronting a few thousand dollars to reduce their emissions by 70% would seem to require only minimal sacrifice.   But Americans are not ready to make even that sacrifice at this point.

The electric vehicle sales figures indicate that Americans are still a long way from feeling compelled to purge carbon emissions from their lifestyle, even when doing so requires little or no sacrifice.  At this point, most of us are satisfied to own a conventional gas-powered car offering 25-30 MPG—not bad, but still a car which spews 8,000 pounds of carbon into the air every year on average.

Looking on the bright side, the ultra-high mileage vehicles are slowly gaining traction.  The Fusion Energi’s sales were at an all-time high in June, 2014, and the Volt’s were the best this year, although behind last June’s totals.

What will it take to motivate Americans to drive our emissions threshold down to a sustainable level, to a level 80% below the one we are at now?  Our experience with plug-in hybrids indicates that technological fixes alone are not sufficient to create major changes in carbon consumption.  We must also foster a sense of personal, moral commitment to do our part to reduce our CO2 emissions, and to insist that our major purchases reflect that commitment.


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