Stephen Rees's blog

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

Emissions by individuals on the rise: StatsCan

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Vancouver Sun

This is another of those stories which demonstrate how we steer by staring at the wake.

The data being cited covers the period 1990 to 2004. And the reason household emissions rose in that period?

Motor fuel use increased by 29 per cent, from 55,800 kilotonnes to 71,900 kilotonnes during this 14-year period, while residential fuel usage showed no significant change, the study said.

There were two distinct trends which occurred in vehicle use in Canada at that time. Firstly, because of the way that motor vehicle manufacturers were avoiding Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards, many more trucks were sold as personal transport. And while engines were becoming more efficient – largely as a result of regulations meant to reduce emissions of common air contaminants – most of that efficiency was lost by the vehicles getting bigger and more powerful. Instead of getting fewer litres consumed per 100 kilometres travelled we got more power!

Secondly, both trip length and frequency of trips increased as suburbs sprawled. Most Canadians live in metropolitan areas that have spread out. These areas require car use for nearly every trip purpose. And most new service provision by both public and private sectors assumed that people would drive to get their services. This applies as much to schools and hospitals as it does to big box retailers, multiplexes and theme parks.

It is disingenuous to blame individuals and households for these decisions. It is deceptive to claim that all that was being provided was “what people want”. Because they actually had very little choice.  Provision of denser, walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods was the exception, and therefore newsworthy. Places with adequate transit were even rarer. Corporate and political decision making – and in our society that has increasingly been the same thing – was driven by accounting. This was the period when no-one seemed to look any further than the bottom line, even though it was becoming apparent that such a process was unsustainable.

In recent years, the automobile makers have suddenly found that people no longer want the products they have been making. And even though gas prices are now lower than they were last summer, that is not being translated into people buying gas guzzlers. The big three American automakers are being told that they have to change their ways if the US taxpayer is going to help them. The property market here has also, finally, tipped over. That means developers are stuck with condos they cannot sell.

What we need to be thinking about now is not what will happen if we can get back to business as usual, but what we can now do to make the best of the current opportunity. And the touchstone of that can be greenhouse gas emissions – which we know must be reduced to 350ppm if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Because that test also satisfies a whole range of other indicators that point to a healthier and more sustainable living arrangement.

Obviously, if we continue to widen freeways and encourage more low density sudivisions greenhouse gas emissions from the household sector will start to rise again.  And the really odd thing is that most people in positions of decision making responsibility are now recognising that things have to change. But somehow, here in Canada, the Prime Minister doesn’t get it. And in BC the Premier – who says he does – doesn’t get it either. And we have a chance to do something about both of them. Happy New Year indeed.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 9, 2008 at 9:25 am

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