A decision by the German state of Bremen to install a speed limit on a portion of the famed Autobahn, has turned the spotlight on an international carbon emissions debate. It’s long been known that driving above the speed limit can decrease fuel efficiency—going 75 mph in a 60 mph zone can increase your fuel use by as much as 20 percent —but only now are we beginning to see a push in some areas to use lower speed limits to curb carbon emissions. Bremen, which is governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, adopted a speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour, which translates to about 75 mph.
The European Commission has been considering a continental speed limit that could drastically cut emissions from driving, especially on roads like the Autobahn, where many stretches of road have no speed limit whatsoever. Such a move would almost certainly spark an outcry in Germany, which is notorious for its fast roads and high performance vehicles.
In the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Nixon administration lowered the speed limit to 55 mph, a move that was very unpopular. Jimmy Carter’s plea for Americans to “obey the speed limits, and (set their) thermostats to save fuel,” in the famous nationally televised “malaise” speech, was met with similar derision. Whether the climate change crisis has motivated enough citizens to change their thinking on these issues remains to be seen, and will likely determine whether or not policies like the one instituted in Bremen find their way across the Atlantic.