energy transport

Britain’s falling oil use

I was doing the paper review on local radio this weekend, and one of the stories I picked up was this one from the Independent, as I’d not seen reported elsewhere: oil consumption has fallen by almost a fifth since the financial crisis.

Petrol and diesel use has dropped by 18% in the last five years, and it’s not just because cars are more efficient. 69% of drivers are making fewer journeys, so there is a behaviour change behind the statistics too. The main reason is the oil price. The cost of filling up has risen by 85% over the last decade.

The fall in oil consumption is good news – it also represents a fall in CO2 emissions, in car dependency, and in the trade deficit, since we have to import an increasing percentage of our oil. What we do with this news is quite important however, and there are different interpretations. Some groups, such as the Automobile Association, insist that the fall in driving is because of the recession. Once the economy picks up, people will start driving more. Demand will increase, and more roads must be built. The government also appears to hold this view, and is committed to a new programme of road building, supposedly to stimulate the economy.

rail travelOn the other hand, the price of oil is never going to come down to what it was during Britain’s golden age of road travel in the 80s and 90s. It will remain high and volatile, and reducing our dependency on oil is eminently sensible. If the AA won’t see the limits of car travel (and their jobs depend on them not seeing it, to be fair), most ordinary people do. Car travel peaked in the mid nineties, and the number of journeys taken by car has declined by 7% since. It’s a gentle decline, but it predates the recession and hints at a cultural readjustment to a new normal. Another sign is the fall in young people learning to drive, or the 12% rise in cycling over the last decade. After declining steadily for forty years, rail travel turned a corner around 2000 and is now back to 1920s levels.

If we chose to, we could build on that second interpretation rather than the first. Instead of more roads and shackling ourselves to an ever-pricier finite commodity, we could be stimulating local economies and communities with 21st century urban transit systems. We could be building attractive and safe cycle routes, like London has done, that make bikes the fastest way to travel through the city. We could be developing the integrated transport systems that other countries in Europe have built, but that somehow elude us in Britain. Ultimately, the era of cheap oil is over and our travel patterns are changing.


  1. Good news from the islands, similar news from the continent: In Germany total oil consumption has flattened out since the early 80s, with a slight downward tendency, despite ever growing numbers in registered cars and trucks. Reasons are more efficient car engines, increase in car sharing among commuters, but also drastically reduced oil consumption for space heating (nation wide programs for better building insulation, high insulation standards for new buildings, sweeping modernization of heating systems, wide spread use of gas condensing heating systems, wood pellet systems heat pumps and solar thermal systems etc.). Bad news: the number of cars is still on the rise, and the SUV fashion crossed the Atlantic.

    1. The number of new car registrations in Britain peaked in 2003, another sign of change. The SUV thing has happened here too though. Apparently the smaller Japanese SUVs like the Qashqai or the Nissan Juke are very popular.

      1. Over here the most successful seems to be the Toyota RAV4, but it’s not only the small to mid size ones – the preposterous VW Touareg, Mercedes ML and their Audi, Volvo Lexus etc. counterparts also clog the roads. They are literally useless except for real or imagined status purposes or to quench the thirst of that squirming little inner voice that keeps shouting “I wanna have that!” They cost more and use more gas than limousines or minivans and offer less space than the latter. One argument I heard is “safety”. In 2011 405,717 SUVs were newly registered in Germany – a tenfold increase since 2001, and rising. Most of them find their habitat on paved town roads only.

      2. The Qashqai and Juke are designed and built in Britain, by company based in Japan, though owned by a French one. Is that British, Japanese or French?

        1. Hmm, a typically convoluted chain of interests behind them. Even Volvo is Chinese these days. I say ‘Japanese’ out of tradition, I’ll admit it.

  2. It is hard for oil prices to be both high AND volatile. A volatile price moves up and down a lot. A high one remains high, so isn’t volatile. More sloppy English?

    1. If it moves up and down 2% a day on average you already get an annual volatility of more than 30%. There is no contradiction between high price and high volatility – a price can be “volatile” on a high level. Complex dynamic systems tend to behave erratic and flip states when they become unstable.

    2. The supply chain is volatile though, needing the military industrial complex to strong arm its flow out of any unsubserviant states.

  3. I believe all European countries are much further in reducing their dependence on the automobile than we in the USA are. While I gave up my car this past spring (first time since 1980 that I have been without a car) and see more people taking walks and riding bikes locally, there is a mindset that vacations and long trips are a given right. Yes, we have seen a decrease in the amount of oil being used, but it needs to be reduced further.

    1. That’s true, and most European countries never embraced the car to the same degree. It’s a lot easier to go without a car in Europe, generally speaking. Public transport is better, travel distances are shorter, walking is a more viable option. The challenge is so much greater in the US, so kudos for leading the way on a car-free lifestyle.

      1. As you said most… I am afraid for quite a few of my fellow countrymen (generally men) the car is an essential part of their life, if not their self definition. The car industry is tremendously influential in Germany, second – if at all – only to the finance sector. That is a bit changing for many younger people, also for cost reasons, but in general this is still a car country, despite generally well developed public transportation. With more than 60 million registered motor vehicles (mopeds and mini cars with max. speed 40 kmh not counted) we are approaching a 1:1 ratio of cars and adult residents. Like in the US the car is a holy cow here. It’s also estimated that about 25 percent of the German economy directly or indirectly depend on the car industry.

        1. The emotional attachment in not just a German phenomenon, it is pretty universal. For many many people the car is a piece of home, a piece of themselves they can take with them. It allows them to block out the world. You don’t have to sit next smelly people you don’t know or leave at set times. You go when you want, where you want, with who you want, in comfort. They show their affection by lovingly washing those cars every week. Those who love their cars will make sacrifices to keep them.

          In the UK cycling has become cool. It has some of the advantages of the car over public transport (go when you want, the only one who smells is you). But you have to be reasonably fit and not mind being wet and cold so fails on the comfort level. I use to cycle pretty much everywhere but with children the car sees more use.

          Young people don’t need a metal box to keep out the world, they do so with smart-phones and ipods. But as they age and have families and move to suburbs, the attractions of the car will come for them too.

          Of course the love affair with the car isn’t with the i/c engine. We could easily keep the car and lose the petrol, which is what I expect to happen.

          1. I’m glad anti social people like you lock yourselves in isolation. The rest of us smelly people can coexist without having to cater for your discomfort at sharing the planet.

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