Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for October 12th, 2009

Why 350 is important

This blog carries a badge at top right which refers to a “350 challenge”. It has been there for about a year now.

I do not subscribe to the view that there is controversy over climate change. The people who know what they are talking about – the scientists with expertise in this field who publish in peer reviewed journals – have reached a remarkable level of consensus.  If you are interested in who the people are who are trying to argue with them, I suggest you read DeSmogBlog.   They are “Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science”. Also, since I did not write what appears “below the fold” I am closing comments to this post.

But I urge you to read it, and note the source and the references. As things stand right now, thanks in largemeasure to the actions of Canada – and the US Senate – we probably will not take the next step that is needed at the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen. If that prediction is right, the future is grim indeed.

I would like to thank Bill Henderson for circulating this document to the BC Environmental Network.



Climate change is tracking toward levels which transcend the planetary boundaries which allowed the development of humans over the last 3 million years [1]. These limits have already been crossed in terms of the rise in greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, Nitric oxide) and extensive loss of species [1]. Given lag effects, looming threats include (A) ocean acidification and phosphorous flux, collapse of coral reefs and the marine food chain; (B) availability of freshwater; (C) conversion of natural forests to cropland, i.e. the Amazon; (D) ozone depletion; (E) atmospheric aerosol loading and (F) chemical pollution by metals, plastics, radioactive nuclei etc.

The rate of climate change since the mid-1970s, at up to ~2 ppm CO2 per-year, reaching 388 ppm CO2 and ~460 ppm CO2-equivalent (including methane), is leading toward ~1.5 degrees C mean global temperature rise relative to pre-industrial time. This results in carbon cycle and ice/water feedback processes, with consequent (A) extreme rates of polar ice melting, including the Arctic Sea, Greenland, West and East Antarctica [2], which threatens accelerated sea level rise; (B) a progressive shift of climate zones toward the poles, extending the tropics as indicated by intensified cyclones and floods, and enlarging desert regions as manifested by extreme droughts and fires, including in Australia.

The consequences for human habitats include loss of arable land, fresh water supplies and extreme weather events.  The loss of Himalayan snow and thereby decreased river flow, coupled with a failure of the monsoon and sea level rise, threatens more than one billion people in south and southeast Asia.  As the polar regions warm [3], the release of methane from the many hundreds of billions of tons of carbon stored in permafrost and shallow lakes and seas, is underway.

Reports by the world’s leading climate research organizations (Hadley-Met, Tyndall, NASA/GISS, Potsdam, NSIDC, CSIRO, BOM), and in thousands of papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of climate change since the industrial revolution, accelerating since the mid-1970s, beyond reasonable doubt [4]. The Australian continent, dominated by subtropical arid zones, is in particular danger from extending tropical floods in the north and progressive desertification and fires in the south.

Humans and species can adapt to gradual changes in the environment, and our prehistoric ancestors were able to migrate over much of the world through extreme glacial-interglacial changes. This is not the case with the 6 billion members of present-day civilization, anchored as they are to coastal and valley agricultural lands. The consequences of the extreme rise rate of CO2 at 2 ppm/year will greatly complicate adaptation.

In my view an upper limit of 450 ppm CO2, proposed by a range of reports by government organizations, including the Garnaut Review [5] and the Australian Government White Paper [6], can not be sustained, for the following reasons:

A.     The atmosphere has already transcended the CO2-equivalent (including the forcing of methane) level of 460 ppm.

B.      A level of 450 ppm CO2 is a mere ~40 ppm below the upper boundary of ~500 ppm, which is the upper limit of stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, formed about 34 million years ago. In the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, a CO2 level of 400 ppm led to temperature rise of about 2–3 degrees C and sea level rise of 25+/-12 meters.

C.     There is no evidence that the climate can be “stabilized” at such high level of greenhouse-induced forcing. Due to carbon cycle feedback loops and feedbacks related to ice melt/water interaction, CO2 level of 450 ppm may lead to yet higher greenhouse levels, high temperature levels and possible tipping points.

D.     Not taken into account in many projections are looming emissions of methane, which are already taking place under atmospheric CO2 levels of 388 ppm, or CO2-e levels of 460 ppm.

In the view of leading US climate scientists there is no alternative to attempts at reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to below 350 ppm as soon as possible [8].  In my view, only a combination of (A) deep urgent cuts in carbon emissions; (B) fast-track development of clean renewable energy systems; (C) an intensive reforestation campaign; (D) application of a range of biosequestration measures, including chemical sequestration and carbon draw-down methods, may be able to prevent further carbon cycle and ice melt feedback effects from triggering dangerous tipping points [9] with tragic consequences.

1.      Schellnhuber, Oxford meeting, 28-30.10.09
2.       British Antarctic Survey, 23.9.09
3.       Polar regions have warmed by a mean of up to 4 degrees Celsius since the mid-20th century (NASA/GISS).
4.       Contrary arguments, by a handful of climate change denialists, are unreferenced or derived by deceptive alteration of scientific data.
5.       Garnaut Review.
6.       White Paper/CPRS
7.       Copenhagen Synthesis Report
8.       Hansen et al. 2008. Target CO2: Where Should humanity aim?
9.       Lenton et al., 2008. Tipping points in the Earth climate system.

Andrew Glikson
Earth and paleoclimate scientist
Australian National University

12 October, 2009

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

Win a trip to Seattle

In my in box every morning at ten I get an email from the Sightline Institute. It is where I got the link to the Wall Street Journal story below.

Every morning, their editors get up at 5 AM and read more than 40 newspapers – and obviously not just from the North West. They pick up the top ten sustainability stories and deliver them in a scannable email.

Between now and October 28, as an added benefit for signing up, new subscribers will be entered to win a two-night trip to Seattle including a hotel stay, meals out, and activities—all on Sightline.

The signup page is here:

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2009 at 11:10 am

Posted in Transportation

Congestion Pricing and Its Effects on the Environment

with 3 comments

The proponents of highway expansion here like to characterize traffic congestion as an environmental problem. Look at all those stalled cars, they say, pumping out pollution into the air. If that traffic was moving there would be less pollution. An article in the Wall Street Journal today takes the opposite view. “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment

What spurred the WSJ’s interest was the appointment of Jay H. Walder  as chairman and chief executive officer of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He helped design London’s congestion pricing scheme. Not that he admits to planning to introducing congestion pricing to New York – yet. But clearly in London – as in New York – there is a good alternative to driving – an extensive rapid transit network. In both cities most people get into the centre – the major employment area- on trains. The commute pattern in Greater Vancouver is not nearly so centralized. And we do not have much of a rail network. Only part of the region gets the choice of a fast ride on transit.

Induced Traffic

What is important to note is that the arithmetic used by the road promoters ignores induced traffic. The reason that road building does NOT cure congestion is that traffic expands to fill the space available. The author, David Owen, inserts the word “almost” before “always end up making the original problem worse”. I would like someone who thinks otherwise to come up with just one example where this solution worked for more than just a brief period. Gordon Price issued that challenge to the Gateway proponents, and they have never answered.

Who pays?

In 1999, the Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy concluded that “there is no guarantee that congestion pricing will simultaneously improve congestion and sustainability,” and mentioned several ways in which congestion pricing can defy the expectations of its supporters, among them by causing motorists to “drive exactly as they always have if the congestion charge is covered by their firms (e.g., a majority of London’s peak-hour commuters have company cars and perks).”

It is also important to note that the second stage of the London scheme included areas with lots of residents. Most of them are well off – these are some of the most expensive addresses in London – and are car owners. And of course, the jobs they hold also have the same perks of company cars and “free” parking at work. Either the employer pays or it can be set off against tax as a business expense.

Yes idling cars are wasting fuel, but that is much less than the increase in fuel used by increasing the number and length of car trips. Which is what has always been the consequence of highway spending.

Congestion is a more effective deterrent to driving than congestion charges where there is capacity on an attractive alternative. In London, what congestion pricing did was make drivers more aware of their route choices. Most did not need to be in Central London at all but were taking a direct, shorter route as it seemed quicker than using the ring roads. In fact, earlier efforts to persuade drivers to divert from congested areas tended to fail simply because diverted drivers were quickly replaced by others. The M25 – the major motorway around the rim of the metropolitan area – attracts so much traffic that is has been widened several times, but remains as congested as ever. Drivers actually came out of the centre, to enjoy a section of apparently faster driving, before re-entering further around the rim.

Fortunately, planners in London were much more successful in directing employment development, especially for offices, to places served by railways. Major office developments were directed to Croydon or Ealing – both on main line railways – or to the Docklands where much was spent (and is still being spent) on both the underground and the Dockland Light Railway.

It is often forgotten that other places that invest heavily in highways also invest in railways. “Residents of the New York metropolitan area are extraordinarily committed transit users—they account for almost a third of all the public-transit passenger miles traveled in the United States.” I would have liked to have seen a figure for transit mode share in New York.   We think we do well here at 11% because the Puget Sound area has only 5%. In the US as a whole it was around 1% in 2004. But then my Google search simply demonstrated to me that the whole area of mode share calculation in the US is controversial. But clearly New York and Chicago resemble London more than we do. “Seventy-two percent (4.8 million) of people who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District each workday take public transit”

It is absurd, in New York, that the East River bridges still don’t charge tolls and that curbside parking in much of the city is free.

But again if employers and businesses would pay those fees, all that tolls and parking charges would do is change who drives, not how much is driven. And indeed, congestion charges may well work the same way. I have often used the argument myself – congestion charges replace those with time to waste with those who have money to spend. Like all regressive tax measures (those that take no account of ability to pay) they hit the poor much harder than the rich. In Metro Vancouver there would be significant geographic inequity, since only a few area have anything like adequate transit. So while the theory of getting road users to pay for more transit is attractive, the process of getting there would be very painful, unless there was a very significant upfront investment in much more transit before the new charge is levied.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2009 at 11:00 am