Transportation and climate change

One of the big challenges in reducing greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation. Here in BC, for example, transportation accounts for 40% of our annual emissions. Of that more than a third (14% of the total) is from personal transportation. So any serious emissions reduction plan has to eventually come to grips with cars.

To date, the low-hanging fruit has been to push for greater fuel efficiency standards and tailpipe emissions regulations. These are positive steps, but over the medium-term the real challenge is to get people out of their cars entirely (or at least to reduce the number of trips and vehicle kms driven substantially). This (lengthy) post covers the bases very well, arguing that technical fixes are all well and good, but it is better urban design and more public transportation that is really going to get the emissions down. A few choice excerpts:

We want to drop tailpipe emissions (more on this later), but the exhaust we’re spewing is really only the beginning of the story. We can’t see most of the ecological and social impacts of our auto-dependence in our daily lives. And those impacts are so massive that arguing about fuel efficiency standards (especially in terms of gradual increases) fails to acknowledge what we’re up against with this crisis.

First, there are the other non-exhaust direct impacts of the cars themselves. Studies appear to show that between fifteen and twenty-two percent of all the energy ever consumed by a vehicle is used in its manufacture; the sources disagree, but the procurement of the materials used to make and maintain that car (and then dispose of it at the end of its life) may mean that almost half of the direct climate impact of a car never comes out of its tailpipe.

… [W]hat about the indirect climate impacts of all that road-building? A study quoted in the 9/05 issue of the Journal of Urban Planning and Development estimates that the greenhouse gasses emitted while building and maintaining roads add an additional 45% to the average car’s annual climate footprint. And we continue to build roads at a rapid rate, all across North America.

… All that driving takes some pretty big social tolls, too, of course. Car accidents are a leading cause of death and disabling injury in the U.S. Auto-dependence is a major contributor to obesity and other chronic illness. In addition, more and more people are finding themselves driving longer commutes: more than 3.5 million Americans now drive more than three hours a day to get to and from work, spending a month of their lives on the road each year. Meanwhile, people who live in the newer fringe-burbs are reportedly the least happiest of Americans, and the long commutes they endure are a major reason why

This is what economists call “the commuting paradox.” Most people travel long distances with the idea that they’ll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters. A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they’ll obtain by commuting — more money, more material goods, more prestige — and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. “Commuting is a stress that doesn’t pay off,” says Stutzer.

We’re driving farther and farther, we’re less and less happy, and we’re melting the ice caps. Yay!

… Sprawled-out land uses generate enormous amounts of automotive greenhouse gasses. A recent major study, Growing Cooler, makes the point clearly: if 60 percent of new developments were even modestly more compact, we’d emit 85 million fewer metric tons of tailpipe CO2 each year by 2030 — as much as would be saved by raising the national mileage standards to 32 mpg.

In other words, there is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

And the amount of density the study’s authors call for is extremely modest. They encourage building new projects at a density of 13 homes per acre, raising the average national density from 7.6 units per acre to 9 an acre.

To give you a sense of how gentle a goal that is, consider this: the turn-of-the-century Garden City suburbs, with their generous lawns, winding streets and tree-lined boulevards averaged 12 units an acre. New Urbanist suburbs, not particularly dense, weigh in at 15-30 units per acre. Traditional town house blocks have as many as 36 homes per acre. Parts of Manhattan, I’ve read, can reach 160 units per acre, but even without crowding together high-rises, many extremely livable parts of Vancouver have 40 homes per acre.

… In well-designed, 21st century cities, we can even breathe life into some older technologies.For instance, when it comes to tranporting yourself from one place to another, it’s pretty hard to beat the ecological efficiency of public transit. Transit in the U.S. tends be expensive to build, inefficient and often unpleasant. Good design and new ideas can change that, though.

Most roads in the U.S. don’t pay their way: drivers are subsidized to a much larger tune than public transit riders (especially when externalized costs are counted). But it doesn’t have to be that way.Road tolls, parking taxes and congestion pricing can serve a double purpose — disincentivizing driving while generating enough funds to pay for new, comfortable and effective transit services. We can afford a serious shift towards transit, especially since oil production is peaking, and a turn to both dirtier and more expensive fossil fuel sources (coal, tar sands, etc.) seems to be the future of automotive fuels (biofuels not being much of a sustainable option in the near-medium term, for reasons we’ve discussed here before). Given full-cost accounting, transit actually already pays off in a great many urban settings.

Alas, a popular policy idea these days, the carbon tax, is not a fix for our transportation woes. Carbon taxes work better over time in changing the incentives as they relate to capital stock turnover, based on what I am reading of the Jaccard et al modeling. Regulating for higher fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions play a complementary role in here, too, as the press for a set of more energy efficient options for consumers that may not exist in their absence. But carbon taxes are not the best option for reducing driving because demand is so inelastic.

To get the type of reduction we need to see through carbon taxes alone would make for a very high tax. And this runs square into the terrain of politics. Here is a good example of the populist backlash that may ensue, as delivered by Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth:

Consider: Governments already tax the heck out of gas, the price of which has nearly doubled in just five years. Despite the rising cost, more people are choosing to drive every year. And they’re driving longer distances, too, as suburban sprawl and traffic gridlock take their toll. If drivers won’t give up the comfort and convenience of their cars when gas prices double, then what good will a 3.5-cents-a-litre gas tax do?

I can see it now: “Oh my God! The price of gas just jumped from $1.07 to $1.10 a litre! I’m selling my SUV and buying a mountain bike tomorrow!” Face it: It just isn’t going to happen. The fact is many drivers wouldn’t give up their cars if you tripled the price at the pump. And a lot of people don’t have the choice not to drive anyway. Many people are required to drive as part of their jobs. Others don’t have a decent transit option. Still others would probably pay five bucks a litre if it meant they didn’t have to cram into a smelly, crowded bus.


  • First rate posting!!! Lots of information here. I will keep coming back to it for sure.

  • Hi Marc quite an interesting piece. I have been researching some sources of alternative fuels and ran across a few research areas that are looking into using biomass scraps from the forestry sector to produce ethanol. It is a bit of a complicated process, but apparently a variety of products can be output from biomass originating in the forestry sector ranging from ethanol, to wood based fuel pellets for home heating, to soaps and even environmentally biodegradable wood based plastic bags. Yes you can substitute much from oil based production with wood based. I mean think about it, petroleum oil is just really old biomass.
    Unlike corn and other food oriented biomass, forest based biomass comes from waste within the industry., which typically is burned and the stored CO2 is set free into the atmosphere. There are a few production problems that exist and it was on these points that I started to realize how environmentally upside down our economic accounting system is based. One of the issues with forestry biomass is the raw material collection. When collecting biomass waste from the forest industry, the waste contains a large percentage of water. This added weight and bulk to the shipping dynamic produces traditional market based resource costs that makes the entire process cost inefficient. There are some ideas that would allow significant water extraction of the green biomass at source and collection and compacting strategies to improve the traditional cost efficiency factor. There are also developments in the R&D process which would design for some portable processing machinery that would basically be brought directly to source and conduct stage one processing. A proto type processing machine is currently being tested just outside of Sudbury, Ontario. With innovation we may see enough lowering of costs to bring this technology into the limelight.
    If we combine this with appropriate forest management practices that are a must with this technology, you could see some new alternatives come online. The thing I like about this tech and development is it leaves the whole notion of food-basket based alternatives alone. I also like the fact that forest management used in a sustainable manner can produce a more efficient carbon sink. New growth can absorb carbon faster. However I do confess that turning the entire boreal forest into some kind of futuristic oil field is not what I imagine is a productive space. However in a managed fashion we could see the current stock of wood farm more efficient in it production outputs.
    This is just a preliminary look into this area, but from what I have read it does sound optimistic and deserves more of a look.


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