What’s wrong with (green) cars?

Optical illusion slows traffic in Vancouver

Earlier in the week I argued that public policy needs to recognise that climate change and peak oil are the least compelling reasons for investing in public transport (Public transport: time for a new paradigm?). There are far more convincing reasons, I argued, such as providing universal mobility and an alternative in congested conditions.

One of my key points was that cars will almost certainly be the dominant mode for many decades to come. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that there are potential substitutes for oil and that travellers will not easily give up the advantages of on-demand mobility.

It will also take considerable time to move our cities to a more transit-friendly urban form and improving public transport to the point where it can “take over” from the car will be enormously expensive. Of course there are also alternative uses competing for investment and attention, like education and health.

I argued that we should therefore give high priority to making cars green i.e. work toward vehicles powered by renewable energy sources with low carbon and pollution. Some people say that even cars powered by zero carbon electricity will nevertheless have enormous negative impacts. Whether that’s right or not, we don’t realistically have a choice – at least in the medium term – because the transformation from car-dependent cities to transit-dependent cities will be long and arduous.

However it is true that green cars will still present serious challenges. Read the rest of this entry »

Which portfolio should the Greens take?

Climateworks - click to enlarge

It’s a commonplace in politics, as it is in most things, that it’s better to focus limited resources on a few objectives than to spread them thin over a broad front.

So I’m therefore more than a little surprised that the Greens in Victoria, fresh from winning the Federal seat of Melbourne, are reportedly going to demand the Transport portfolio if they control the balance of power at the next State election (here and here).

If true that strikes me as a curious demand. There are doubtless complex political issues around why the Greens would even want a Ministry, but in terms of the scope for improving the environment it seems to me that Energy would be a more logical choice than the Transport portfolio.

There are a number of reasons for this view.

First, as this report prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climatechange Summit shows, electricity is a far larger generator of CO2 emissions than the transport sector. In Victoria, 64% of all carbon emissions are generated by the residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors. Almost all of this carbon is emitted from coal-fired power stations.

In comparison, all passenger transport in the State – by both car and public transport – generates 14% of Victoria’s total carbon emissions. The transport of freight is responsible for another 5%. Comparable figures are also published in The Victorian Transport Plan.

So on the face of it there’re potentially much bigger gains for the environment from clean energy production than there are from clean transport. Read the rest of this entry »

Why are these students studying under streetlights?

This photograph, via Paul Romer, shows students in Guinea who go to the airport to study for exams because they don’t have electricity at home.

The BBC reports that petrol stations, airports and even spaces under security lamps outside upmarket homes have become pockets of learning, where determined students are to be found in large numbers.

Access to light is a serious problem due to the “deterioration of power supplies, which started in 2003 when the country’s economy went into freefall:

The national power company, Electricite de Guinee, provides light to consumers on a rotational basis of 12 hours a day – but even so, these schedules often prove erratic, with dozens of outages before dawn…..

Between 1999 and 2002, schools in Guinea had a modest pass rate of 30-35%. Since 2003, that has dropped to between 20 and 25%”. Read the rest of this entry »

Are smart meters always a smart idea?

You need to be careful with incentive programs that aim to change behaviour by providing consumers with feedback on, for example, their level of electricity consumption.

Husband and wife academics at UCLA, Matthew Kahn and Dora Costa, gave households information about their own consumption of energy and that of their peers (the paper is here – may be gated for some). They found that providing  feedback to green-minded households encourages them to reduce consumption, but it encourages conservative households to increase consumption. They conjecture that when conservatives see that their consumption is less than average, they respond by increasing it in order to be closer to the average.

We need to be more strategic about how we tackle greenhouse gases

Do we need to tackle climate change and peak oil on all fronts or would it be more strategic to focus on priority areas?

This question is prompted by reading Victoria’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990-2005, prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climate Change Summit by George Wickenfield & Assocs. This report calculates that 64.4% of all carbon emissions in Victoria are generated by the residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors. Almost all of these emissions are in the form of electricity generated by brown coal.

In contrast, all passenger transport in Victoria – by both car and public transport – generates only 13.9% of the State’s total carbon emissions. That’s less than a quarter of what the electricity sector generates. Read the rest of this entry »