Canadians have built a society that is the envy of the world, but in the process, we've developed a serious problem. Canada uses more energy per capita than almost any other country in the world. One of the reasons for this is our reliance on the automobile. Canadians own about 19 million light-duty vehicles including cars, vans and light-duty trucks, and typically drive more than 300 billion kilometres (km) per year. With close to one vehicle for every two Canadians, we have one of the highest ratios of car ownership in the world.
To a degree, our energy consumption in the transportation sector can be explained by our climate, the vast size of the country and the locations of our population. A great deal of fuel is also wasted in Canada. This happens when we make uninformed purchasing decisions (such as buying larger or less fuel-efficient vehicles than we need), practice inefficient driving behaviours (such as unnecessarily idling of our vehicles and speeding) and fail to properly maintain our vehicles (for example, neglecting to measure and inflate our tires on a regular basis to the vehicle specification).
It's not just a waste of energy – it's a huge waste of money, too. Your money! By some estimates, Canadian motorists could save hundreds of dollars per year in fuel and maintenance costs by adopting fuel-efficient practices.
As shown in the following pie chart, the transportation sector is responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Light-duty vehicles – the cars, vans and light-duty trucks we drive – are responsible for almost half of that total.
There are other compelling arguments to reduce our fuel use. An operating vehicle emits a wide range of emissions into the atmosphere from its tailpipe. Some emissions, principally carbon dioxide (CO2), are classified as greenhouse gases (GHGs) because they increase the earth's natural “greenhouse effect” and, in doing so, are contributing to the changing of the world's climate. Research in recent years suggests that increasing temperatures due to climate change also have a variety of impacts on the environment and health. The main greenhouse gas – CO2 – is an unavoidable by-product of burning fuel. For every litre of gasoline used, a vehicle produces about 2.3 kilograms of CO2. As a result of the fuel combustion process, the average car produces about three times its own weight in CO2 every year.
Automakers have taken steps to improve their engines and make vehicles more lightweight and aerodynamic. Consequently, today's vehicles have the potential to be much more fuel-efficient than those built in the 1970's (a vehicle that burns less fuel emits less CO2). Unfortunately, much of the improvement in vehicle technology has been focused on increasing horsepower and performance. However, some of the gains in fuel efficiency have been offset by the greater number of vehicles on the road and the greater distances travelled.
In April 2005, the Government of Canada and the Canadian automotive industry signed a major agreement on climate change. Under this Memorandum of Understanding, the industry is taking actions to voluntarily reduce GHG emissions in Canada so that by 2010, annual GHG emission reductions will reach 5.3 megatonnes.
But climate change is a global problem, and a big part of the solution lies in our hands. The millions of Canadians who drive vehicles every day can take steps to help reduce fuel use, CO2 emissions and slow down the rate of climate change. The solutions include actions such as carefully planning trips by combining errands, driving at the posted speed limits, avoiding jack rabbit starts and stops, maintaining proper tire pressure, or even walking or taking a bus instead of the car. But one of the easiest actions that motorists can take is avoiding unnecessary idling. Clearly, reducing idling alone won't solve the climate change problem but it's a start and it's simple to do.
Reducing unnecessary idling is also one way that we can do our part to conserve a non-renewable resource, contribute to a healthier environment and also help Canada reach its target of reducing its total greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 (relative to 2006 levels)Footnote 5.