Environmental externalities of transportation

Statistics Canada’s Human Activity and the Environment 2006 report (summary from the Daily here and full report here) looks at transportation. The term “externality” is not stated but economists will see it between the lines.

An interesting finding in the report is that while transportation has been contributing to higher greenhouse gas emissions, regular air pollution from transportation has declined somewhat. So the Harper government made a decision in its “clean air” act to address a problem (air pollution) that is already showing improvement, but to not address the bigger problem (climate change) that is a much bigger threat.

Transportation activities generated more than one-quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2004 and accounted for 28% of their growth from 1990 to 2004. … Besides greenhouse gases, transportation is a major emitter of pollutants that contribute to poor air quality in and around urban areas. More than one-half of all nitrogen oxides, a quarter of volatile organic compounds and upwards of 17% of fine particulate matter came from transportation activities in 2004.

The nation’s transportation activities are emitting less and less of these smog-forming pollutants as time goes on, thanks in large part to catalytic converters and cleaner burning fuels. But these emissions continue to be a concern because of their potential impact on human health and the environment.

The report points to the growing use of heavy-duty trucks to move goods and a shift towards greater use of light trucks (vans, sports utility vehicles and pickups) for transporting people. These two trends have put upward pressure on GHG emissions and limited the decline of smog-forming pollutants.

A contributing factor to increasing truck traffic on roads is the concept of “just-in-time” delivery of freight, whereby companies require delivery that is tightly synchronized with manufacturing processes.

Just-in-time delivery helps companies compete by reducing the expense of carrying large inventories. However, it means that trucks are making more trips.

Growth in cross-border trade has also pushed up demand for trucking. Between 1990 and 2003, truck traffic across the Canada-US border grew five times faster than domestic traffic.

… Canadians have come to rely more and more on their cars and trucks. … Between 1990 and 2004, the volume of fuel purchased at the pump by road vehicles grew by more than 20%.

… Transportation consumed nearly one-third (31%) of all energy used in Canada in 2004, the second largest user after industry. Greenhouse gases emitted by transportation include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

Between 1990 and 2004, GHG emissions from transportation increased 30%, the equivalent of almost 45 million tonnes. The main contributor to this increase was Canada’s growing dependence on road vehicles to move people and goods.

… In 2005, the average fuel efficiency for gasoline-powered cars in the fleet of private vehicles in Canada was 9.1 litres for every 100 kilometres. For pickups, however, it was 14 litres, and for vans, 11.5 litres.While transportation’s GHG emissions have been on the rise, its output of major air pollutants has declined over time. The introduction of catalytic converters and cleaner burning fuels have contributed to the decrease. For example, emissions of nitrogen oxides from transportation were 19% lower in 2004 than they were in 1990. During the same period, emissions of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds each dropped 37%.

Transportation has implications for the environment beyond emissions of air pollutants. … A recent study by Transport Canada, which examined costs of traffic congestion for Canada’s nine largest urban areas, estimated that about half a billion litres of fuel are wasted annually because of congestion. This amounts to between 1.2 million tonnes and 1.4 million tonnes of GHG emissions.

Each year, Canadian companies ship millions of tonnes of salt, much of it used to de-ice roads. One study has estimated that road crews spread nearly five million tonnes of road salt in Canada each year, increasing the salinity of soils, damaging vegetation and contaminating ground water.

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