In 1974, 17 countries mostly from Europe—but also including the United States and Japan—realized they were ill-prepared to confront a global energy crisis. While major oil-producing nations had Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, major oil-consuming nations had no formal organization with which to strategize during times of energy shortfalls. So they founded the International Energy Agency, or IEA. It now has 31 members with the goal of “cooperation on a variety of issues” relating to energy supply, including a “collective emergency response mechanism” that ensures a “stabilizing influence” during times of energy crises.
We are in one of those times now thanks in large part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the IEA has released a 10-point plan to cut oil use. “These efforts would reduce the price pain being felt by consumers around the world, lessen the economic damage, shrink Russia’s hydrocarbon revenues, and help move oil demand towards a more sustainable pathway,” the agency said in a press release. If done, the IEA estimated it would lower oil demand by 2.7 million barrels per day within four months, “equivalent to the oil demand of all the cars in China.”
For European and East Asian member countries, the 10-point plan sounds pretty doable. But the U.S. is not only doing none of it, it is difficult to imagine the U.S., or any city within the U.S., doing any of it.
The plan calls for the following measures:
- Reduce speed limits on highways by at least 10 km/h (6 mph)
- Work from home up to three days a week where possible
- Car-free Sundays in large cities
- Make public transport cheaper; incentivize micro-mobility, walking and cycling
- Alternate private car use in large cities (as in, bring back the odd/even license plate system for getting gas in the 1970s but for driving a car into a large city)
- Urge carpooling
- Promote efficient use of freight trucks and goods delivery
- Prefer high-speed and night trains to planes where possible
- Avoid business travel when alternatives exist
- Hasten adoption of electric and more fuel efficient vehicles
From the U.S.'s perspective, these policies range from the unlikely (reducing speed limits, incentivizing non-car modes of transport) to the impossible (we don’t have any high-speed trains to encourage people to take). In between are a number of policies that are certainly doable but difficult to imagine any U.S. city undertaking, such as car-free Sundays, because of the political blowback from people who like driving their cars on Sundays. Odd/even private car use in large cities is also a great policy used in several Latin American cities but would be among the more controversial proposals any U.S. public official could make. More typically, U.S. cities will designate specific streets as car-free on Sundays for street fairs or, since the pandemic began, open street initiatives.
But no U.S. city, much less state or federal leader, is proposing anything like the IEA’s plan to cut consumer demand. Instead, the far more common—and in some cases implemented—initiatives have been to increase consumer demand instead by way of gas tax holidays. This reflects the fact that the U.S. has spent the better part of the last 70 years ensuring nearly every American family needs multiple vehicles in order to live productive, fruitful lives, and underfunding any and all alternatives to that lifestyle. For the vast majority of U.S. residents, there is no Plan B, no matter how high gas prices get.