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Short-Term Memory: The Consequences of Temporarily Low Gas Prices | Trending Topics

It has been said those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If this adage is true, Americans would be wise to brush up on their history lessons. In the early 1970’s, when gasoline prices were low, fuel-efficiency was an afterthought and Americans bought gas guzzlers in droves. Prior to the first OPEC embargo, American roads were littered with large, gas guzzling vehicles and the average vehicle achieved less than 12 MPG. When gas prices spiked, these vehicles became unwanted and very costly to own. Only when Americans were hurting at the pump did fuel-efficiency become a priority.

When the national average for a gallon of gas is around $2, consumers across the country will rejoice at the savings. Cheap gasoline, however, comes with unintended consequences in several different areas. With lower gas prices, Americans are returning to their old habits and buying more trucks and SUVs. According to CNN Money, sales of gas guzzling trucks and SUVs increased 10% in 2015, about twice the increase in overall vehicle sales. As trucks and SUVS are traditionally more expensive than economy-minded vehicles, Americans are also spending more on their new vehicles. CNN Money believes “Low fuel prices are also leaving more room in their budgets to buy more expensive vehicles than they would otherwise, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Autotrader. That’s also helping boost sales of SUVs and pickups, which are often more expensive than sedans.”

The increased sales of gas guzzlers may be a boon for some automakers, but it has an immediate, damaging effect on the environment. Not only are consumers buying less efficient vehicles because of low gas prices, they are also driving more miles than ever before. In 2007, when gas prices were nearing historic highs, Americans drastically cut back on their fuel consumption. They did so in two major ways: they started purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles and also started logging fewer miles. Americans were able to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles and driving them less.

Today, due to low gas prices, Americans are reverting back to their old ways and adding more pollution to the atmosphere. According to Ecomento, “After falling for five straight years, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline consumption rose 1.4 percent in 2013, followed by an almost 1 percent increase in 2014 to 1.07 billion metric tons, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).” If Americans continue to purchase gas guzzlers, carbon emissions will accordingly continue to grow.

While there is not a consensus on the timing of the return of higher gas prices, there is little doubt that prices will rise again. An inefficient SUV, truck, or luxury vehicle may seem like a good investment today, but will be perceived very differently when gas prices inevitably rise. For the benefits of their wallets and the environment, Americans would be wise to learn from the past and consider the perpetual importance of fuel-efficiency, even during brief periods of cheap gasoline.

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