Oy. I used to think that the introduction of hybrid SUVs was generally a good thing—with even greater potential for saving fuel than hybrid cars. But this New York Times article brings up a point I simply hadn’t considered: buying a fuel-efficient SUV makes it possible for car companies to sell big gas guzzlers without incurring any penalties under federal CAFE (i.e., corporate average fuel economy) standards. From the article:
[E]very Toyota Highlander hybrid S.U.V. begets a hulking Lexus S.U.V., and every Ford Escape—the hybrid S.U.V. that Kermit the Frog hawked during the Super Bowl—makes room for a Lincoln Navigator, which gets all of 12 miles a gallon. Instead of simply saving gas when you buy a hybrid, you’re giving somebody else the right to use it.
This is vexing, to say the least. And it underscores a point that’s hard to overstress: when it comes to saving energy, a broken system can trump individual virtue. That is, any time a conscientious and enlightened consumer decides to do something selfless, our energy system pushes back a bit. Use a little less gas, and the oil market responds by letting someone else tank up a little more cheaply. Buy an efficient vehicle, and you make room under CAFE standards for someone else to buy a wheeled behemoth. And so it goes.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s completely futile to make efficient buys—not by a long shot. But particularly when it comes to energy, the collective good done by environmentally conscious consumers is typically less than one might hope. To me, this underscores a simple point: changing your own behavior is a good idea, but changing the system is far, far more important.