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Gas prices too high? Try Europe.

$7 a gallon? That's what drivers in Amsterdam pay. But Europeans have long adapted to high prices.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2005


When Guy Colombier pulls his economy car up to a Paris pump, he allows himself just 15 Euros ($18) worth of gas - barely enough for three gallons. Since prices started rising rapidly earlier this year, says Mr. Colombier, a printing press worker, "I drive a lot more slowly ... and I'm looking for a place to live closer to where I work."

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Colombier's pain is shared by drivers all over Europe, where fuel prices are the highest in the world: a gallon of gas in Amsterdam now costs $7.13, compared with just $2.61 in America. The contrast in prices and environmental policies - and the dramatically different behaviors they inspire - signals a widening transatlantic energy gap. And it raises the question: Does Europe offer America a glimpse of its future?

Indeed, while Europeans have learned to cope with expensive fuel (mostly due to taxes), there's scant evidence yet that US drivers are adopting their conservation tactics.

"Societies adjust over decades to higher fuel prices," says Jos Dings, head of Transport and Energy, a coalition of European environmental NGOs. "They find many mechanisms."

Chief among them, say experts, is the habit of driving smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. While the average light duty vehicle on US highways gets 21.6 miles per gallon (m.p.g.), according to a study by the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA), in Paris, its European counterpart manages 32.1 m.p.g.

"European consumers are very sensitive to fuel economy and sophisticated about engine options," says Lew Fulton, a transport analyst with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). "European car magazines are full of comparisons of fuel costs over the life of a vehicle."

Europe's cars: 40 percent are diesel

That approach has given a special boost to diesel cars, which make up more than 40 percent of European car sales, compared with just 4 percent in the US.

Just ahead of Colombier in the line at the gas station Thursday was Nicole Marie, a high school teacher, who was using her husband's diesel Audi, rather than her own gasoline-powered car, to take her daughter to Normandy for a final week of vacation by the sea.

"I only use my car in town," she says. "We bought a diesel car deliberately because it is cheaper to run."

That is partly because the French government encourages the use of more- efficient diesel fuel by taxing it less heavily. Only in four European countries is diesel more expensive than gasoline, the way it is in America.

But efficiency alone does not explain the huge disparity between fuel-use figures on either side of the Atlantic: European per capita consumption of gas and diesel stood at 286 liters a year in 2001, compared to 1,624 in the US, according to IEA figures.

The nature of cities plays a role, too. "America has built its entire society around the car, which enabled suburbs," points out Mr. Dings. "European cities have denser centers where cars are often not practical."

In Paris, for example, about half the trips people make are by foot, by bicycle, or on public transport, says UNEP's Mr. Fulton. In America, that figure is more like 20 percent.

Impact of fuel tax

"The single most effective measure" that has brought down motorists' fuel use in Europe, however, is taxation, says Dings.

On average, 60 percent of the price European drivers pay at the pump goes to their governments in taxes.

In Britain, the government takes 75 percent, and raises taxes by 5 percent above inflation every year (though it has forgone this year's rise in view of rocketing oil prices, and the French government has promised tax rebates this year to taxi drivers, truckers, fishermen, and others who depend heavily on gasoline.) On August 8, for example, the price of gas in the US, without taxes, would be $2.17, instead of $2.56; in Britain, it would be $1.97, instead of $6.06.

"There is really good evidence that higher prices reduce traffic," says Stephen Glaister, a professor of transportation at London's Imperial College. "If fuel prices go up 10 percent ... fuel consumed goes down by about 7 percent, as people start to use fuel more efficiently, not accelerating so aggressively and switching to more fuel-efficient cars. It does change people's behavior."