The Troubling Rise in Global Automobile Ownership: An FAQ

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What is the central issue of this FAQ paper?

This FAQ paper addresses the global issue of increasing trends in personal car ownership – especially in newly developed countries – despite rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and government initiatives to curb unnecessary pollution. It is predicted by FIA researchers that the amount of cars in the world will triple by 2050 [1] if current growth rates continue, and that action is needed to prevent excessive climate change as a result of this phenomenon.

Is there any scientific research to reinforce this idea?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that carbon dioxide level from cars will double between 2000 and 2050 [2], giving reason for the FIA’s initiative. Moreover, the problem of rising GHG emissions is one that needs no introduction; our planet as a whole has reached a carbon dioxide (CO2) saturation of 390 ppm (parts per million), which is far beyond scientists’ proposed “safe upper limit” of 350 ppm [3], which is a serious issue that must be addressed immediately. While many urban areas have thoroughly upgraded their public transport infrastructure in order to entice commuters to leave their cars at home, many highly populated and newly developed countries, such as the India and China, have reported higher numbers of vehicles per capita every year [4]. This is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to properly curb GHG emissions and ensure clean air for future generations.

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Whom does this issue affect most?

Rising car ownership directly correlates to rising GHG emissions, which will cause damage to Earth’s environment by way of climate change; scientific evidence already shows that damage has been caused to certain ecosystems due to CO2 resulting from human activity [5]. While personal transport is not the only culprit, it remains to be one of the few aspects of GHG-induced climate change where the general public can make a strong difference by changing their minor habits. As a result, this issue affects literally everyone on this planet, and so must be addressed with urgency in mind.

Why is this issue significant? Why is it important to learn about?

This is important to study because it is important to find reasons for why car ownership is increasing, from both a Humanities and Sciences perspective, in order to create initiatives or programs that properly address and rectify the issue. This same study shows that “the future strong growth in the vehicle stock in developing countries will lead to significant increases in oil demand from the transport sector… [causing] annual worldwide growth in highway fuel demand to be in the range of up to 2.5-2.8%.” [6] These disturbing trends are a cause for concern, and further study must be done to determine how to sway the minds of the public away from private transport and instead on eco-friendly alternatives.

Local Significance – Case Study: Beijing, China

Why is China relevant?

China is one of the fastest-developing economies in the world and is also one of the most populous. Due to the rapid industrialization China has faced, high levels of air pollution – from both industry and private transport – have contributed to high infant mortality rates and respiratory problems for young and old alike [7].

What does this have to do with car ownership?

These pollution levels have risen in a nearly direct correlation to not only China’s industrialization, but also growth of China’s car market, where the rapidly growing economy of this industrialization has given many people not only the desire, but also the economical means to own their own automobile. In addition, it was projected in a recent peer-reviewed study that China will have nearly 20 times as many vehicles in 2030 as it did in 2002, a statistic that is highly attributed to China’s high rate of income growth and the fact that its per-capita income during this period is associated [primarily] with vehicle ownership [8].

Why is car ownership so high in China?

There are several possible reasons for this. Research from AC Nielsen shows that China ranks high on its “Aspiration Index”; that is, – that is, citizens in these countries have expressed an overwhelming desire to own their own vehicle within the next few years [9]. Likewise, the UNEP argues that “a key factor influencing the increase in private cars is the construction of new roads… the expansion of roads, express and toll ways appears to facilitate car ownership aspirations” [10], which has been a strong trait of the rapidly developed cities in China.

Are there any particular human emotions present in this “Aspiration Index”?

Yes. Another peer-reviewed study showed that the symbol of the personal automobile as one of “power, status, and wealth… [as well as] freedom and privacy” serves to cultivate the people’s desire to own their own automobile despite the availability of certain alternatives [11]. Likewise, it asserts that the “utility of the car as a technology that allows for an unprecedented amount of mobility and provides the most efficient trip-chaining” is the primary reason for the immense growth rate of personal cars; that is, people choose to drive because it is perceived to be faster and more time-efficient than public transport. For many, the public decision to buy a personal car – and the “resulting rejection of public transportation” is seen in China “as a natural consequence of a rational comparison between benefit and cost” [12].

Current Policy Initiatives

Are there any worldwide initiatives created to address this issue?

The United Nations – in the form of UNEP, the United Nations’ Environment Programme – has pledged numerous initiatives to attempt to curb the issue of rising automobile ownership and GHG emissions as a result. The UN’s recognition that this is a pressing issue serves to highlight the importance of reducing GHG emissions by way of reducing the number of cars on the road; the UNEP states that “the problems caused by the increase [in automobiles] include the road space that cars require, the emissions they generate, their consequences for human health, their share of road accidents, their impact on the safety of walkers and cyclists and the fossil fuels they consume per passenger kilometer of travel” [13].

Does the UNEP’s research recognize the specific need to curb car ownership?

According to UNEP research, the focus of their initiative remains on private automobiles due to the transportation sector’s dependence on fossil fuels; oil alone counts for 81% of transportation energy use, and moreover, the personal automobile is the second largest contributor to global warming emissions from the transport sector [14]. Additionally, data from the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that “transportation sources accounted for approximately 29 per cent of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2006”, as well as the fact that “transportation is the fastest-growing source of U.S. GHGs, accounting for 47 per cent of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990” (EPA via Amin, 2009). These figures show that GHG emissions are only increasing, and that action must be taken to reduce or mitigate the emissions of private automobiles.

What is significant about the UNEP’s initiative?

Rather than outlining a set of policy changes that member states of the UN are compelled to employ in their own states, the UNEP serves to assist states in creating their own, tailored policies to decrease GHG emissions from private automobiles by way of outlining distinct methods that other states have employed to successfully decrease the number of private automobiles used on public roads.

What are some examples of these “tailored policies”?

Examples of these include Korea’s implementation of a “Weekly No-Driving Day” which incorporates incentives for those who participate and use public transit instead of private transport, Mexico’s shift to using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) by deliberately increasing the price per liter of traditional gasoline and decreasing the latter, and Beijing’s combination of increasing incentives for driving fuel-efficient vehicles with strict tailpipe emissions standards as well as a shift to unleaded gasoline [15]. Many of these methods include government intervention to make automobile commuting difficult and eco-friendly methods easier, such as Vancouver, BC’s implementation of extensive bikeway and lane-sharing programs, as well as London’s “congestion charge” that tolls commuters for driving within the city [16].

What about private organizations?

Yes. The “50 by ‘50” initiative – named due to its goal of reducing automobile carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 50% by the year 2050 – was created by a non-governmental organization called the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) under the sponsorship of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in response to the global increase of GHG emissions due to automobile use. Quoted from its own website, the “50 by 50” initiative is meant to “promote further research, discussion and action to promote cleaner and more efficient vehicles worldwide” by way of “making a real difference – from working with governments and their partners in developing policies to encourage fuel economy improvement for vehicles produced or sold in their countries, to supporting regional awareness initiatives that provide consumers and decision makers with the information they need to make informed choices” [17].

Why is the “50 by 50” initiative significant?

The “50 by 50” initiative is especially significant because it pushes for people to look towards other means of transport – such as public rapid transit, cycling, carpooling, and car-sharing – to complement driving, not replace it altogether. It recognizes the inherent need for many people to own vehicles, but balances these needs out with those of the environment. It also represents a widespread attention from NGOs to help reduce the GHG emissions of cars by directing their initiatives at not only the consumers, but also the manufacturers who share equal responsibility to make eco-friendly vehicles.

The Projected Rise in Global Car Ownership | Infographics



Are the previously described initiatives adequate to prevent the problem of increased ownership?

No. None of the described initiatives address the problems put forth in our previous Case Study of China; that is, the problem of “aspiration” as a factor in why car ownership remains on the rise. While the two aforementioned global programs certainly help states to form policies in order to reduce the total amount of GHG emissions by way of mitigating car ownership and giving initiatives for citizens to use eco-friendly transport, the proliferation of alternative methods of transport is meaningless if the private automobile is at the forefront of the minds of citizens. Despite co-operation from auto manufacturers and state governments in addressing the issue of GHG emissions, the most important factor is arguably excluded from the pollution-reducing initiatives: the consumers.

How can knowledge from the Humanities help address this issue?

Knowledge from the Humanities is needed in order to address psychological and/or sociological reasons for why people choose to cling to their automobiles despite rising costs and/or awareness regarding the realities of climate change. Moreover, knowledge from the field of economics is needed to properly illustrate how much money is being spent when people choose to use their car instead of cheaper, more environmentally friendly methods.

How can knowledge from the Sciences help address this issue?

Knowledge from the Sciences is needed to observe how the environment is reacting to this increase in car ownership – and the correlated rise in GHG emissions as a result. The Sciences can also be used to help engineer more efficient public transportation methods that can dissuade people from using their cars. On the manufacturing side, the Sciences can also help to design more efficient engines for cars, in order to keep GHG emissions down for people who may not have an alternative mode of transport.

What kinds of changes are recommended, then, for reducing public reliance on cars in these newly developed nations?

More work must be done – by both international organizations and consumers – to change the attitudes of the individual in order to properly facilitate a decline in GHG emissions and possibly mitigate the rising growth rate of personal car ownership. The methods of the two organizations discussed in this FAQ are well-meaning, but do not address the core, psychological and/or sociological issues behind individuals’ desire and will to own a personal automobile, despite the readily available alternatives. This FAQ recommends that more work be done (see below) on behalf of individuals and governments in order to tackle the issues – specifically, the psychological and social reasons – of rising car ownership in order to curb GHG emissions.

How Do We Make a Change?

How can these “core issues” be addressed?

They can be addressed firstly in newly developed countries by illustrating – through marketing campaigns and the like – the costs of owning your own vehicle relative to public transportation. Local governments can also promote car-sharing companies and programs, which will bring about economic growth and business while also giving individuals the option of using a car only when it is really necessary. Greater awareness regarding climate change and its dangerous effects must also be propagated in schools and universities in order to give the individual a greater idea of how their actions and transportation choices can impact the environment around them.

What can I do – as an individual – to help address this issue?

For many people, it is unavoidable to need a car for daily use, but for others – such as those who live and work in the city – it may be a cheaper and more eco-friendly choice to rely on cycling, walking, or public transport, with supplementation by a car-sharing program (such as ZipCar or Car2Go in Vancouver) when needed. Use public transit when it is feasible, and walk or cycle when the weather is nice. Avoid relying on your car as your main mode of transport, and if you must, choose a car that is fuel-efficient and/or runs on alternative fuels.
How can local/national governments help address this issue?

Governments can help by increasing funding into public transit programs in order to provide a reasonably efficient alternative to private automobile use. Likewise, they can help by creating campaigns that reward those who only drive when it is needed and use alternative transport when it is not, as well as awareness campaigns that properly illustrate the problem posed by rising GHG emissions. Moreover, because of their power, governments can create legislations that can push auto manufacturers to innovate with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, as well as create more realistic fuel-emissions testing procedures that accurately reflect the damage done to the environment.

But if I need to drive?

Obviously, there are people who view their cars as a necessity rather than a luxury. But if you must drive, go easy on the gas pedal. Coast more, and don’t speed or drive aggressively; this results in a waste of fuel and also wears down your car’s parts faster!


1. The FIA Foundation. “50 by 50: Global Fuel Economy Initiative.” The FIA Foundation.

2. The FIA Foundation. “50 by 50: Global Fuel Economy Initiative.” The FIA Foundation.

3. “Understanding 350 |” (accessed March 15, 2013).

4. Dargay, Joyce, Dermot Gately, and Martin Sommer. “Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, Worldwide: 1960-2030 .” XESC 1 (2007). (accessed September 29, 2012).

5. Dargay, Joyce, Dermot Gately, and Martin Sommer. “Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, Worldwide: 1960-2030 .” XESC 1 (2007).

6. Dargay, Joyce, Dermot Gately, and Martin Sommer. “Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, Worldwide: 1960-2030 .” XESC 1 (2007).

7. Chamon, Marcos, Paulo Mauro, and Yohei Okawa. “Mass car ownership in the emerging market giants .” Economic Policy 23, no. 54 (2008): 243-296. (accessed November 5, 2012).

8. Dargay, Joyce, Dermot Gately, and Martin Sommer. “Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, Worldwide: 1960-2030 .” XESC 1 (2007).

9. “Nielsen Trends & Insights – Asia Leads Global Car Ownership Aspirations.” ACNielsen.

10. Amin, Nurul. “Reducing Emissions from Private Cars: Incentive measures for behavioural change.” UNEP. link

11. Vasconcellos, Eduardo. “The demand for cars in developing countries.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 31, no. 3 (1997): 245-258. link.

12. Vasconcellos, Eduardo. “The demand for cars in developing countries.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 31, no. 3 (1997): 245-258. link.

13. Amin, Nurul. “Reducing Emissions from Private Cars: Incentive measures for behavioural change*.” UNEP. link

14. Amin, Nurul. “Reducing Emissions from Private Cars: Incentive measures for behavioural change*.” UNEP. link

15. Amin, Nurul. “Reducing Emissions from Private Cars: Incentive measures for behavioural change*.” UNEP. link

16. Amin, Nurul. “Reducing Emissions from Private Cars: Incentive measures for behavioural change*.” UNEP. link

17. The FIA Foundation. “50 by 50: Global Fuel Economy Initiative.” The FIA Foundation.

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Casey Medina is a 3rd-year UBC student who was inspired to create this FAQ whilst driving in the carpool lane on Highway 1 at rush hour. She was stunned to see the high amounts of people stuck in traffic – people who were driving alone in their cars. She couldn’t help but think that there is a better way to do this whole “commuting” thing and in a manner that is both good for the environment and eases congestion. Hopefully after reading this FAQ you will be persuaded to think the same.