Stephen Rees's blog

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

Avoiding urban sprawl could reduce pollution, boost economy

with 3 comments

How do stories like this get noticed? After all, they are not actually saying anything new. In this case I heard about it from a daily alert put out by the Sightline Institute to a story in the Vancouver Sun. From another outfit called “Postmedia News” who essentially copied out a press release from Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST). The sub editor at the Sun of course had to distance his organisation from the report’s conclusion by the simple device of using a colon and the word report at the end of the headline.   Note too the careful use of “could” not “will”. Should that not realistically read “even more sprawl”? And, being old media, they do not provide links like I have in this paragraph so you can go read the report and find out more about the organisation in their own words.

To make it news they have Mike Harcourt to quote. And they make the point early on that they are “a coalition of industry and government stakeholders” – not some bunch of environmentalists.

The study demonstrates that it is possible to save money, create jobs, grow the economy and reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously through integrated community energy solutions.

Note that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the last benefit to be mentioned – saving money and creating jobs are both more important than survival. The elite are having a hard time coping with the reality that “business as usual” really is to blame for climate change – which is now very obviously having really serious deleterious effects. For a long while they have tried to convey the idea that human beings may or may not have been responsible for the increase of GHG in our atmosphere – and that there was probably not very much we could do about it. Or, if there was, it would somehow require everyone to see a reduction in their standard of living. Which is not really what they care about so much as a possible decline in the profitability of corporate enterprises.

Marc Jaccard, of course, has long been associated with the school of thought that said there is more to be gained by engaging business than confronting them. The classic problem for the green movement has always been how far do we go to affect change? The battle between the realists and the fundamentalists. Indeed Quest does include environmentalists

As a network of citizens from the energy industry, environmental groups, governments, academia and consulting communities, we believe an integrated, community-based approach is the best way to address energy end-use and reduce green house gas emissions.

Or, in other words, these are not the people who are chaining themselves to coal fired power stations. Which, as even Al Gore recognized, is a justifiable and understandable response to a problem that industry on the whole would rather we ignore.

many of these policies and actions can be enacted effectively and independently by local (municipal) governments, provided that they are empowered to do so.  This allows our communities to make a substantial contribution to GHG emission and energy use reductions, even in the absence of significant federal action.”

Which is a message that has been around for a while. That was what I was telling municipalities across BC as Chair of what was then called the BC Energy Aware Committee but is now the Community Energy Association – another coalition of the energy industry, the BC government and UBCM. Not that we did not then do good work – nor that that CEA does not do useful things now. And I will be teaching the same stuff to Sustainable Building Advisers this month.

My point is that while Jaccard’s study shows that if Toronto, Winnipeg, Dawson Creek and Fort McMurray would reduce greenhouse gas emissions if they followed his advice, does that actually make enough difference? In this region, the Premier of BC has decided that even though he claims to be a proponent of the need to reduce ghg emissions – and introduced a carbon tax to show leadership in that field – he has done nothing to examine what the impacts of the current freeway expansion will do to land use. He and his minions say that growth here will happen anyway – as though transportation infrastructure provision does not shape growth. Which they also promote when it suits them – for example when talking about the need for more transit  – as Campbell was last week at UBCM.

Campbell is not unpopular because he is widening Highway 1, building a new wider Port Mann Bridge and a new South Fraser Perimeter Road (that sounds so much better than “freeway” don’t you think?). He is not even unpopular because of the carbon tax. He is unpopular because of the HST – or rather, in his view, the way it was introduced. And it is only his unpopularity that concerns him.

He knew when he introduced the HST that he was taking a risk. He simply got his risk assessment wrong. That is pretty much the same metric he used on his transport policy. He knew was taking a risk but that there were economic and political paybacks from his choice. His friends and allies would benefit personally, and his party would too.

I am not arguing about anything in Jaccard’s report. The man knows whereof he speaks – and energy was always worth saving if you used the right evaluation techniques. I just don’t think that the people who make decisions about land use – developers, business in general and the local politicians they effectively control – are ready to abandon “business as usual”. And the politicians at all levels who aid and abet them have plenty of experience and political savvy – and seem to be able to persuade enough of the voters when that is needed, that they are a “safe pair of hands”.

Of course they are not. We know that. We have seen how business behaves when it is not regulated effectively – is behaving in many energy and related fields now. We know they are highly influential – GM fought off energy efficiency for many years. And when that strategy proved disastrous in the market place, government did not even let them go bust. The market – if it were working as the invisible hand – would have delivered salutary judgement. Of course, as a limited liability company, individuals at the corporate senior levels would not have suffered very much. Shareholders who know what they are doing have diversified portfolios to absorb such risks. The people who would have paid are those who always pay: the workers who would lose their jobs and pensions, the customers stuck with worthless warranties, the communities left to pick up the pieces – as they are now already in places like Detroit. The vultures would descend on the carcase – and would leave behind the mess. And to some extent we would have been a bit better off. The widespread failures of the companies that installed far too much fibre optic cable being the reason we now have such cheap long distance telephone calls.

Actually, there is really a “hidden hand” – and it is not the market, or collective wisdom of any kind. It is physics. The world will actually survive. We won’t. If we keep on going the way we are, our civilization will collapse just as surely as so many others have done. The process will be painful for us, but quite a short term phenomenon in geological terms. Life on the planet will adjust too. A lot of other species won’t make it – but then they aren’t now. We are doing a pretty good job of that already – have been for years. We have not changed our policies though. Or our minds about the primacy of the economy and the need to get re-elected.

That is what the buzz word “sustainability” really means. Survival of our species with not too much collateral damage.

There are those who doubt that the amount of change that is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a point where there is not run away global warming can be accomplished now in time to avert catastrophe. They argue we have to come up with better ways of coping with the impacts which are now inevitable and, in the meantime, do something really drastic to cut consumption of fossil fuels. They point out that simply changing technologies uses resources too – and it is not just fossil fuel that is going to suffer from supply shortages. There are plenty of other natural resources we are exploiting and wasting – and many other consequences becoming apparent of our rather casual attitudes to waste disposal. This is the other shoe – as though the ones that have dropped up to now weren’t loud enough. Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet.

The Green Party of BC – who I ran for at the last election and of whom I am still the land use and transportation spokesperson – has espoused stability rather than growth as its objective. There is a conference in town this week on that very subject. I ought, I suppose, to be going. I know they wanted me to. But my own personal conviction is that we in North America do have to cut our consumption. Two years of recession has done wonders for reducing energy use in the US.

I do not think we can persuade the Indians or the Chinese to abandon their chosen paths of economic growth – and they simply point to the huge disparity of our consumptions of resources per capita to support our lifestyle as good enough reason for them to press on. Actually, they are both aware of our mistakes – and their own – but at least they seem to be doing something. Like the Chinese effort to build transit in their cities and high speed rail between them. The Green Party in BC (and in Canada for that matter) has a tough time, thanks to our electoral system – which the people of BC have decided will not change.  But we still shy away from saying things that would make us unelectable. Since you cannot do anything from the sidelines except hope that the people who do get elected will steal your policies. I cannot see any other party wanting to steal “no growth” let alone economic contraction.

I happen to think that we could have a very much better outcome than no growth. But it simply does not get measured in GDP: so yes, the things we pay for in cash would decline but then there are so many other things that we need and don’t get which don’t cost money.  We spend so much time now rushing around trying to get enough money to support an unsustainable lifestyle it is making us sick – and yes, shortens our lives. We have lost the very things that we ought to be valuing that have no price.

Canada in general, and this bit of it in particular, also has to cope with inevitable increases in our population.   More people will want to come here – not least because of the impacts of the climate change that we cannot now stop. The effects we are seeing now are not due to our fossil fuel burning today but of two centuries of steadily increasing emissions. We have passed quite a few tipping points, and the way things look Canada is going to have to absorb a lot of climate refugees. A lot of people are going to see Winnipeg as a much nicer place than where they live now – indeed, many already do. And Vancouver even more so. As long as we get on with raising the dykes, maybe Richmond as well. We need to take that sort of growth very seriously indeed. It is not just a philosophical or diplomatic problem. They are coming. Where will they go and how will they live?

Right now, thanks to the things we are currently building, and the decisions already made, they will go to the places where they can be absorbed. There will also be quite a bit of shifting around within the region too. Especially of the people who dislike the impacts of more people and who see their efforts to preserve their local area as it is now fail. As has been said many times here, population growth is going to happen: the question is how do we accommodate that.The Gateway Program pretended to be about transport but it is not. It is about land use. The hope was always that land that was then relatively cheap would rise dramatically in price as its accessibility was increased. Governments chose to ignore that this was actually illusory when done by “business as usual”. Since congestion due to induced traffic is inevitable as long as there is no effective control over road use.

The Gateway also means that greenhouse gas production will rise more than if we had built rapid transit and transit oriented development instead. Even the government’s own – stilted, conservative – predictions acknowledged that. The politicians of course continued to say that reducing congestion would reduce emissions when even their own data said something else.  So what can QUEST and Dr Jaccard achieve with this report? Not very much I suspect.   Toronto has at least committed to start catching up on transit provision. Though they still do not have a sustainable funding package for the TTC  to operate their bits of it. And there has already been plenty of sprawl in what is now rather awkwardly known as GTHA. Fort McMurray I think is past praying for. Until we get different governments in Edmonton and Ottawa.

Yes local governments here, like the City of Vancouver, must still try harder – and many are. But while our media shifts rightwards – and we still think that we need business like political leaders – it is going to being small amounts of mitigation that we will see, not prevention. Palliative care at best. Lets hope they make a better job of that than they have done with the threats that they actually acknowledge.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 5, 2010 at 11:52 am

3 Responses

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  1. Mike Harcourt’s green credentials are thinner than mine. He openly supported the Millennium and Canada Lines over lower cost rail and more buses.

    I know we tend to blame TransLink for a lot of things, but I think they’ve shown some real ‘balls’ by building a frequent bus network against the wishes of the Premier and without the money to do so.

    Until the HST backlash Campbell was a Teflon Premier. It didn’t matter what he said, no matter how disturbing or untrue. Getting arrested as a drunk driver probably increased his popularity by making him look more like an ordinary bloke from a working class neighbourhood than the micromanaging, development obsessed dictator he really is.


    October 5, 2010 at 4:17 pm

  2. Thanks for this insightful post, Stephen.

    I have some issues with Marc Jaccard. He spends his time “trying to prevent climate change” (his words), but his views seem to be limited to technology and resource extraction.

    In his book ‘Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge’ (2007, co-authored with columnist Jeffrey Simpson) he studiously avoided urban design and land use planning and the need to shift to public transport in our cities. Instead, he focused on ways to make cars become more efficient, and to stretch out petroleum resources. He put a lot of faith in things like carbon capture and sequestration, something that in practise is horribly expensive and unproven at the scales required to make a difference, and in unconventional oil extraction. There was no realistic examination of the cost implications of these priorities.

    He penned a sarcastic and contrarian essay in ‘Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future’ (2009, edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon) where he called those who warn us about peak oil “catastrophists.” Apparently, he may be unaware that, judging from fairly recent reports based on cold hard research, he would have lumped both the US and German militaries into that catagory.

    For someone with a background in economics he seems to not want to acknowledge that oil depletion will have profound effects on the world economy and cause us to consider redesigning our cities to become more resilient and efficient while also reducing emissions.

    Economists must come to grips with physics, and must eventually conclude that spending on sustainable energy, urban design and transport solutions now will save a bundle in future.


    October 6, 2010 at 9:59 am

  3. Wouldn’t you know it. Jeff Rubin (who also penned an essay in Carbon Shift) just released his latest blog post on oil depletion.

    The way the ducks are lining up it’s won’t be long before the people with the highest rates of car-dependency (i.e. in the farthest flung suburbs who live kilometres from a the closest loaf of bread and litre of milk, let alone from work and schools) start to suffer.

    I would also say that Gateway toll revenue will suffer too when people on the margins cannot afford to drive anymore.


    October 6, 2010 at 12:51 pm

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