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

Energy Realism and the Green New Deal

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Richard Heinberg has written a memo to President elect Obama and published it at Global Public Media

I am reproducing here the executive summary and the section on transportation, but I strongly recommend you read the whole thing. While it is specifically addressed to the United States new leader, it also should be front and centre in the debate here about who is going to form our next government. Stephane Dion did not get these points across forcefully enough in the last election. That does not mean he was wrong. If anything he was too timid and afraid to get ahead of the pack. And given his allegiance  to the Alberta tar sands I cannot see Stephen Harper even understanding what is being said here, let alone implementing it.

Executive Summary

Our continued national dependence on fossil fuels is creating a crippling vulnerability to both long-term fuel scarcity and catastrophic climate change.

The current economic crisis requires substantial national policy shifts and enormous new government injections of capital into the economy. This provides an opportunity for a project whose scope would otherwise be inconceivable: a large-scale, coordinated energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

This project must happen immediately; indeed, it may already be too late. We have already left behind the era of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, with a permanent decline of global oil production likely underway within three years. Moreover, the latest research tells us we have less than eight years to bring carbon emissions under control if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. Lacking this larger frame of understanding and action, a mere shift away from foreign oil dependence will fail to meet the challenge at hand.

The energy transition must not be limited to building wind turbines and solar panels. It must include the thorough redesign of our economic and societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. It must address not only our transportation system and our electricity grid, but also our food system and our building stock.

Our 21st century nation’s dependence on 20th century fossil fuels is the greatest threat we face, far more so than the current financial crisis. A coordinated, comprehensive transition to an economy that is no longer dependent on hydrocarbon fuels and no longer emits climate-changing levels of carbon—a Post Carbon Energy Transition—will be the Obama Administration’s greatest opportunity to lead the nation on a path toward sustainable prosperity.

And in section headed The Solution he writes

2. Electrify the transportation system

America’s sunk investment in highways, airports, cars, buses, trucks, and aircraft is enormous. However, this is a transport system that is completely dependent on oil. It will be significantly handicapped by higher fuel prices, and devastated by actual fuel shortages.

The electrification of road-based vehicles will help; however, this strategy will require about two decades to fully deploy, given that the average passenger vehicle has a useful lifetime of 15 years. Meanwhile, road repair and tire manufacturing will continue to depend upon petroleum products, unless alternative materials can be found.

Even if it is electrified, a ground transport system consisting of trucks and private automobiles is inherently energy intensive compared to public transit alternatives like bus and rail, and non-motorized alternatives like bicycling and walking. The building and widening of highways must come to a halt, [my emphasis] and the bulk of federal transportation funding must be transferred to support for electrified and non-motorized infrastructure and services. This overall shift of transport investments and priorities will require comprehensive planning and coordination at all levels of government.

There are few if any good options for maintaining the airline and air freight industries without cheap fossil fuels. While some amount of air travel is likely to persist throughout the transition, its cost will inevitably and persistently rise, and the airline industry will contract accordingly. Increasingly, high-speed electric rail connections between major cities will become the lower-cost option, but the national high speed rail network is still in its infancy. Meanwhile, the existing fleet of private automobiles must be put to use more efficiently through carpooling, car-sharing, and ride-sharing networks coordinated primarily at the local level, but supported by federal policy and funding.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 7, 2008 at 4:04 pm

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