Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“Report shows feasibility of 80 per cent emissions reductions”

with 3 comments

VANCOUVER – Canada can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to a fraction of current levels while maintaining or improving living standards and quality of life, according to Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios, an international review released today by the Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP).

The headline is attention grabbing. Unfortunately, the report it points to is a lot less exciting. It is an important message to get across – that we can indeed reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and we don’t need to wreck the economy or reduce our standard of living to do that. The apparent choice between the economy and the environment is simply a diversionary tactic dreamed up by the “business as usual” crowd. Who can readily be identified as the present governments of Canada and British Columbia and their paymasters in the fossil fuel and automotive industries. And who, in recent years have been busily pushing us in the wrong direction.

I suggest that you download the report – it is a 40 odd page pdf – a give it a once over, and hang on to it if you need some quick reference material. But do not expect anything especially new or earth shattering. It is simply a review of reports produced on eight countries and what they could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Only three have actually reduced their emissions in recent years

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Sweden, Germany and the UK all managed (small) reductions in GHG while growing GDP.

But most of the report is summarizing studies which looked at what could be done – and is based on one study in each country, some of which are not exactly new.

What did strike me is the lack of emphasis on land use – admittedly one of the hardest things to do and one of the slowest in producing results, but I would argue one of the most important in bringing about structural change. These are all overwhelmingly urban countries – that’s where most of us live and will continue to live. Unfortunately because it is tough to change, it is not happening very much here. All the stuff about transportation is focussed on better energy efficiency for cars – and electrifying them. Not on reducing the need  for motorized transportation. There is the usual focus on energy efficiency for buildings, but hardly anything on the location of those buildings.

Research shows, for example, that Americans generally consume more energy – and emit more carbon dioxide – getting to and from a typical building than does the building itself.  Research also shows that location and neighborhood factors can create a dramatic difference in how much energy is consumed and emissions are generated in the getting to and fro.”

“Additional research also shows that even ordinary households in transit-oriented locations save more energy and emissions than “green” households in sprawl, across several housing types.  In other words, a home with no green technology, if in the right place, is actually greener than a house with every bell and whistle imaginable, even if the latter gets a platinum rating.”

That comes from a recent article in The Atlantic on the shortcomings of LEED. And while it was about Americans it applies equally to Canadians.

The Energy Revolution report that covers the Canadian issues does have this acknowledgement of the importance of transportation

The report recommends transportation demand management through government investment in public and non-motorized transport, better urban planning and limits to urban sprawl, and freight transport management. Proposed behavioural changes are confined to the transportation sector, including greater dependence on public transit, more active transport, a shift to smaller vehicles, and “teleworking.”

which does cover the ground but fails to indicate which ones are likely – or actually important. Nothing at all of course on the current trend of a reduction is car use, even though there has been no real shift in transit provision, or better urban planning and most of the investment – especially in BC – has been lavished on highways. And while teleworking reduces commuting it can increase travel.

My biggest beef with the studies cited is that none appears to have identified the potential for rebound demand in energy efficiency programs. This has been observed – when energy efficiency produces cost savings for consumers they tend to consume more. Your fridge and furnace cost less to run so now you can buy an wine cooler – or a much bigger tv.   Your car mileage is better, so now you can drive more.

It is important to have good news stories about greenhouse gas emissions – that all is not lost and there is a point in trying to do much better. We can certainly do far better than we have done  – Canada in general and BC in particular. Canada is the only country in the comparison that is a net exporter of petroleum (there is no mention of coal) – and in BC whatever we might have achieved through our carbon tax or run of the river hydro has been vastly overshadowed by our ramping up of extraction of fossil fuels. Coal and natural gas are keys to the present government’s “jobs strategy” even though neither are very significant employers. And we are also very much on the radar to increase exports of bitumen (from Alberta) and coal from BC and the US. There is not much gain for the planet if we reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions but vastly increase the ability of other places to more than replace what we have cut.

3 Responses

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  1. Great piece, Stephen. I agree that the part about rebound demand is very important, and usually overlooked in local discussions.

    Adam Fitch

    January 23, 2013 at 9:22 am

  2. [...] Thanks to Sightline again for the link to an AP article in the Seattle Times. It is a very useful, non-technical review of the lack of progress in battery technology. “It’s why electric cars aren’t clogging the roads” which is a useful bit of reality check against the optimism expressed by the report I looked at yesterday. [...]

  3. Thanks for bringing up reductions of emission through land use, Stephen.

    Whereas Canada and BC are not even on the charts for reductions, the City of Vancouver reduced its emission s by 17% since 1998. This was achieved not by a sudden rise in hybrid car use, or by significant increases in transit service (though the lowly electric trolley gets lots of kudos as the low emission workhorse along with SkyTrain), but by almost doubling the high density residential development downtown and by fostering greater densities along transit corridors and in the inner city.

    http://vancouver.ca/search.aspx?q=vancouver%27s+record+of+greenhouse+gas+reductions

    This has also resulted concurrent with a doubling of population in a remarkable reduction in traffic entering the downtown peninsula where thousands of people now prefer to walk, cycle or take transit to work, to shop and to procure services.

    Think of the potential should land use policies be accompanied by policies from multiple layers of government to increase transit expenditures to achieve links between more compact and humane neighbourhoods, and greater energy efficiency in buildings.

    MB

    January 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm


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