The perspective given in this article leads right into one of the major themes of this blog. Things aren't simple, can't be considered as isolated effects, and attention has to be paid to their contingent nature. In this particular case that contingency is the fact that more effective measures such as a gas tax are made cheaper by increases in energy efficiency. It could be true that:
While there’s no doubt that fuel-efficient cars burn less gasoline per mile, the lower cost at the pump tends to encourage extra driving. There’s also an indirect rebound effect as drivers use the money they save on gasoline to buy other things that produce greenhouse emissions, like new electronic gadgets or vacation trips on fuel-burning planes.However, it's also true that people have very real concerns about how a gas tax might impact the economy and the poor. Increased fuel efficiency reduces these costs. This changes people's cost calculations and can make possible political alignments that weren't possible before.* Technological advances change the underlying systemic pressures and can impact policy outcomes in meaningful ways. Analyzing things in isolation misses this, and while I think most well informed people realize there's more to it, this doesn't describe everyone engaged in political debate.
I believe it's important to recognize, and be explicit about, these second order effects so that we don't have as many tiresome arguments about topics such as efficiency vs. a gas tax (not that I recall seeing this specific frame), as if these are separate strategies rather than complementary ones. Probably too much to ask from a newspaper article with wordcount, as opposed to a blog where I can freely ramble on to my heart's content, but I see things presented so often in this basic oppositional structure that I couldn't help commenting on it.
Though I do feel that perhaps rather than ending
Perhaps something could have been added that spoke of the complementary nature of the preferred solution of a gas tax along with the inability of efficiency to achieve large economy wide energy savings on its own (though I'm agnostic about the washers mentioned in the last paragraph, gas taxes are more interesting to me).
No matter what laws are enacted, people are going to find ways to use energy more efficiently — that’s the story of civilization. But don’t count on them using less energy, no matter how dirty their clothes get.
*I will admit this doesn't seem to be happening in the US. We seem to use the technical advances involved in making more efficient cars to simply make them bigger instead (which I think may be part of the explanation for the increased fatalities for small cars, it's not irrelevant the big ones are growing in size and number as well. Part of this issue is timing, efficiency increases may create a window where a gas tax could be imposed without harm since people haven't adjusted their habits yet. Given them time, and this will become more difficult. This is purely theoretical in the case of the US auto industry where we haven't seen a move to more efficient vehicles since a good portion of the efficiency increases are wiped out by size.