The U.S. ranks in the top spot for energy use tied to passenger transport among the International Energy Agency’s member countries, according to a recent report on energy efficiency from the global research and analysis group.

While energy used to transport a passenger one kilometer decreased in most countries between 2000 and 2016, that's not the case in the United States, according to IEA. The results indicate the U.S. still has much work ahead to shake its car addiction and that policy moves like fuel economy standards can have a big impact looking into the future.

International Energy Agency 

Though the U.S. is a top electric vehicle market, countries that rely more on energy efficient transit methods like rail still beat the U.S. in transit-related energy intensity. 

IEA reports that the United States does not have the lowest passenger occupancy per car. But according to the Department of Energy, the U.S. had about 816 vehicles per 1,000 people in 2014 while similarly industrialized areas like Canada and Western Europe had about 655 and 590, respectively. 

In 2016, transport accounted for the largest portion of global energy use, at 36 percent.

Road transit makes up 89 percent of all transport, according to the IEA, with passenger cars accounting for 60 percent and freight road accounting for 26 percent. 

Based on those figures it makes sense that passenger cars represented a huge portion of total energy use in 2016, using more energy than all residential energy consumption in the same year. According to IEA, much of the growth in passenger transport-related energy use comes from increasing activity in growing economies like China. But the U.S. still lays claim to the globe’s second largest car market. 

In terms of carbon dioxide emitting end-uses in 2016, passenger cars accounted for 20 percent of emissions. Freight road transit came in a distant second, with 9 percent of emissions. 

Globally, passenger cars and busses increased in energy intensity between 2000 and 2016.

International Energy Agency 

But in the U.S., energy intensity increased in passenger transport, passenger cars and buses between 2000 and 2016. What’s more, the country was starting from a higher baseline than the global average.

Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. residents travel relatively high distances per person. The country also has an affinity for big vehicles that consume more gas. 

“Passenger transport intensity is particularly high in countries like the United States, due to the large use of passenger cars (with a high share of sport utility vehicles or SUVs) and domestic flights, compared to more efficient transportation like buses and trains,” reads the report. “Conversely, it is lower in countries like France, where rail transport is quite common.” 

Julia Pyper of Greentech Media has written about the U.S.’ continued reliance on SUVs, even as more drivers look to all-electric options. The clearest recent example is General Motors’ announcement last month that it would restructure its operations to focus on SUVs and electric cars, a response to reduced demand for conventional sedan models.

Research from IHS Markit also notes that, last year, loyalty to SUVs reached new heights in the U.S. Utility vehicles, including SUVs and crossovers, accounted for 43 percent share of the market in 2017. 

The IEA’s findings grow more salient within the context of recent moves by the federal government. This spring the Trump administration moved to weaken corporate average fuel economy standards set out by the Obama administration before the executive transition.   

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that includes automakers such as General Motors, encouraged the administration to loosen standards. But car manufacturers are now concerned about navigating a possible split market between states like California with stricter standards and the rest of the U.S. The Obama standards also put U.S. regulations in line with international markets. That policy battle will spill into 2019. 

Though the U.S. lags behind many countries on environmental policies, it’s not the only IEA member struggling with vehicle emissions regulations. IEA notes that while fuel economy standards implemented since 2000 reduced oil use in transport in 2017 by about 1.2 million barrels of oil per day, that figure could have been higher by about 2.2 million barrels per day with more stringent rules. And improvements in transport sector efficiency have shown poor progress compared to other sectors, in part because few member countries have set truck fuel economy standards.