August 2016

Peter Boag
President & CEO, Canadian Fuels Association


Whose car? What road?

If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.
                                                                                                                     —George Bernard Shaw

The language of equivalencies is something we all use to entertain, visualize and express ideas in novel ways that help audiences grasp complex concepts. They are rhetorical shorthand. Used well, they are effective, easy to understand, even compelling.

         The entire global supply of gold would fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The problem is that this shorthand is short on other things—like specifics. In that way, these equivalencies often do a better job of obfuscating.

          The length of uncoiled DNA from all the cells in your body would be about twice the diameter of the
          solar system. 

Beyond confirming that an individual’s DNA is long, this comparison only boggles the mind. What’s the value in that?

The ubiquitous “cars off the road” equivalency often has a similar effect. It has become the rhetorical comparison of choice for measuring the impact of air contaminants and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction activities in Canada, even when those reduction actions have absolutely nothing to do with transportation. We’ve all seen this comparison used:

         This regulation would deliver the equivalent GHG reduction of taking 126,000 cars off the road.

“Cars off the road” certainly resonates in heavy traffic, when the idea of 10 or 20 thousand cars suddenly popping out of existence around you is downright blissful—as long as yours is not among them. 

But are these comparisons accurate and effective? Do they make sense? And are they beginning to fall on deaf ears? Overworked comparisons often lose their resonance and relevance.

As Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations website demonstrates, correlations do not always make for logical equivalency. Consider some of his examples, which range from the strange to the absurd in correlating:

•    New passenger car sales in U.S. with physical copies of video games sold in UK
•    Per capita consumption of chicken with total U.S. crude oil imports
•    Number of people who drown in pools with number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in

While not as outlandish as Vigen’s examples, comparing cars and trucks off the road with air quality and GHG reduction often begs for specifics. Whose cars would come off the road? How long would they be off the road? What type of cars? What roads?

Overall, I think we are ready for more direct, meaningful comparisons. Messages to promote legitimate environmental initiatives and encourage support or participation need to resonate for their clarity and creativity and respect Canadians’ increased awareness of climate change and its mitigation.

Let’s stick to the facts, avoid tired, irrelevant correlations and call a spade a spade.