Stephen Rees's blog

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

‘High carbon’ economic recovery is no recovery at all

with 3 comments

Alex Budden, Special to the Sun February 6, 2009

(Alex Budden is consul-general for the United Kingdom in Vancouver.)

The challenge we face in the current economic crisis is not just to restore confidence and prosperity, but to ensure that future growth is resilient.

And that means addressing the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. A high carbon recovery would be no recovery at all.

Last week, political and business leaders from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland. My prime minister, Gordon Brown, was very clear: “If we do not reduce our emissions from their present path — by at least half, globally, by 2050 — we will bring upon ourselves a human and economic catastrophe that will make today’s crisis look small.”

This reminds us that moving to a low carbon economy is an urgent political imperative.

Tackling climate change is not an issue which we can treat as pending — it is an issue which is impacting on us now and will do so increasingly in the future.

You would think that the Premier of BC who was not so long ago so proud of the leadership his government showed in bringing int he first carbon tax in Canada would be thinking along the same lines – but the announcement this week of the Port Mann superbridge shows that he is not.

the form of a genuinely sustainable recovery is becoming clear — and its shape is low carbon. That means a massive investment in energy efficiency; a fundamental shift towards renewables and nuclear power; the re-engineering of electricity grids to permit dynamic demand and supply; the accelerated development and deployment of low carbon transport; and a renewed emphasis on research and development into new energy technologies.

I added the emphasis on transport. Expanding freeways is the opposite of low carbon. It means much more use of cars and trucks and those on the whole will continue to run on fossil fuels for a long time to come. Firstly because the rate of turnover in the existing vehicle fleet is quite slow. Secondly because low carbon options are expensive and not widely available. More fuel efficient vehicles will continue to be demanded – or rather their appeal will increase once oil prices recover. But the industry in North America will have to move very much faster than it is at present to bring better vehicles to market. Anyway more fuel efficient vehicles do not cut oil consumption

Low carbon transport can be provided now. It is mostly electric powered – and there are all sorts of ways electricity can be generated. Fortunately in BC we have a surplus of it as we continue to export more than we generate every year. It is only for the quick buck that we bring in coal generated power off peak so we can sell our clean existing hydro for much better rates at peak periods to California. Public transport (transit) is much more energy efficient than single occupant vehicles – provided that it is well used. One great incentive to switch to transit is when the travel times and convenience are better than cars. At present our transit system offers a very low service level across much of the region, but transit priority measures on street would rapidly change that balance. Investing in modern electric streetcars and trains would also help significantly. There is not a one size fits all solution. But an “integrated” transit system does not need to pick one mode – it has many, all of which work together and which makes changing between modes as easy and wait free as possible.And we made the right, long term decision to replace our trolleybuses with more trolleybuses – something few other transit systems in North America have done. Of course, trolleybuses rarely venture beyond the City of Vancouver boundaries – and small increases in wired streets have been offset by the decision to dewire one major route (Cambie Street) – something that cost as much as restoration would have.

Transforming our transit system from what we have now to a low carbon model does not come cheap. And we are having difficulty in paying for the largely ineffective system we have now let alone a better one. It is not just underfunded it is also being required to expand the road system – and its first priority for resources is not better transit region wide but a few huge investments in bridges across the Fraser (the Golden Ears and the new Patullo). This just reflects the same priorities adopted by the Province. And the only justifications in terms of “low carbon” are, at best, afterthoughts.

But transit also helps to reduce the carbon footprint of urban development. Becuase transit oriented development is still the best way to reduce the carbon output of our homes and workplaces. It really does not matter if your new home or office is LEED Platinum certified if the only way to get between the two is an hour’s drive in your car. But that is exactly the type of separation that widening freeways encourages and is what has been happenning for the last fifty years. This is the main reason that North American energy consumption leapt in that time.

Gordon Campbell is a butterfly. His interests in policy questions flits around – and he does not stay interested in any one issue for very long. Sadly, the pressing issue of carbon reduction has not been remotely dealt with – but he is now no longer nearly as interested as he once was. He is now even willing to abandon one of his forner legislated commitments – the balanced budget, a keystone of previous election campaigns – in the interests of being seen to care about the economy, which is flavour of the month at present.

Kevin Falcon is the other kind of politician. He has one policy – build roads and bridges – no matter what the cost or the damage – and this “solution” is applied to every problem. His favourite solution has been applied to traffic congestion, air pollution, economic growth and probably he also thinks it will cure the common cold. Or he will certainly say that, no matter what he really thinks. Becuase he is working to a different agenda. He is pushing for resources for a favoured few who do very well out of provincial road building. And in that he is one of a long line of BC politicians who have practiced black top politics for exactly the same reason. Small matters such as the impact of climate change are not going to deter him. He has, after all, already the scalps of the province’s environmental protection angencies on his belt.

It would be nice to think that we have a real choice in the upcoming election, but sadly the NDP has decided that calling the carbon tax a “gas tax” and pushing for the ineffective “cap and trade” system for carbon emissions is their chosen path on the environment. They also are stuck with thinking that sees the economy and the environment as being at odds. So one can hardly endorse that strategy either. But so far voting Green has just been a feeble protest. If the voters chose STV again – which is also on the upcoming ballot – but in slightly largely numbers than last time – we may see this choice between bad and worse change. But right now in BC our prospects for having a government that understands the meaning of a low carbon recovery strategy are not very bright at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 7, 2009 at 8:15 am

Posted in Economics, Environment

3 Responses

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  1. How the British Prime minister can go and say that with a straight face after agreeing to Heathrow Runway three is beyond me.

    Andy in Germany

    February 7, 2009 at 9:00 am

  2. Sounds like he’s taking his cues from Gordo.


    February 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm

  3. High carbon “solutions” will generate more carbon tax revenue for Victoria. Everything they do is motivated by the bottom line. What we need is for one of Gordo’s “trusted advisers” to show him the studies that prove investment in public transit generates more economic benefits, aka tax dollars, than road building does.


    February 9, 2009 at 2:09 pm

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