Yesterday, I attended a lecture hosted by SFU Dialogues on climate change by Tim Flannery. Tim is someone worth listening to, he has published over 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers, has published 32 books including the award-winning The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers. In 2007 he co-founded and was appointed Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council. In 2011 he became Australia’s Chief Climate Commissioner, and in 2013 he founded and currently heads the Australian Climate Council. His most recent book is Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, released at the event and will set the stage for the upcoming climate change talks to be held in Paris in December this year. Read on for they key things I took from this lecture and a transportation perspective on what needs to be done to combat climate change from a transportation planning perspective.
The evening was hosted by Shauna Sylvester, Director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue, and ended with a panel discussion with Ross Beaty, Chairman and Founder of Pan American Silver and Alterra Power Corp and general investor in renewable energy and Andrea Reimer, City of Vancouver Councillor. Closing remarks were provided by Tom Pederson, Executive Director, Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
Tim started with the bad news, trying to put the scale of the problem into terms we could understand. Essentially we require a revolution if we are to stay within the 2 degrees of warming this century. The level of change required is at the gigatonne level of reduction in CO2. For reference humans released approximately 40 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2014.
For my own benefit, I have looked at this in transportation terms, and these are my own calculations, the average SUV that does 20,000km per year, will produce approximately 5 tonnes of CO2e per annum, we would have to remove 200 Million vehicles from the earth (or at least stop driving them) to remove 1 Gigatonne. A quick web search shows that there are about 1.2 Billion vehicles on the road today, so we would have to stop approximately 17% of the world vehicles from driving for ever and build no more. A similar percentage reduction in emissions could also achieve a similar result, could we make cars 17% more efficient?
The good news at least, is that in the last year, CO2 levels did not increase, remaining approximately the same as the previous year, but that is not enough to limit warming, we must be reducing our CO2 emissions buy a significant amount. Interestingly the economy still grew during this period putting the myth that emissions must increase in line with growth to bed. the reasons believed to be responsible for this stall are the growth in wind and solar power and energy efficiency in all of our products, from light bulbs to appliances to vehicles.
Tim believes that while measures to reduce our energy use are still a vital part of the solution, a new tool in the toolkit are technologies to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere.
This is not geo-engineering whereby chemicals are used to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but other means primarily biological which all use the earths energy and can absorb CO2, these include reforestation, biochar, and seaweed farms. There are also chemical methods but these require energy input to produce, these include carbon negative concrete and the use of bentonite rocks in roof paint for example. Other methods can draw the CO2 out of the air and actually produce products or fuels. Many of these technologies are all in the very early stages of development and the general message from the lecture and subsequent discussion was that society as a whole has to get really aggressive in trialing these products and developing them on a larger scale.
Following Tim's presentation there was a panel discussion on some of the topics covered. Some thoughts from this include:
Some closing remarks included the initial paragraphs of Tim's book, although of particular relevance, was the phrase "we must first accept reality". Some leaders still refuse to do this, but it is no longer an option! We must embrace new opportunities and technologies. One example was given of a new carbon extraction facility that has just started in Squamish, BC. I believe the company is Carbon Engineering. Its great that we have this technology being trialed on our doorstep.
What does this mean for Transportation?
There are a lot of very intelligent people taking climate change very seriously. For cities to continue developing in unsustainable ways is basically sticking our head in the sand.
Transportation emissions are a huge part of the the problem and the tailpipe emissions are similarly a big part of transportation emissions. Big changes are coming in the form of electric and autonomous vehicles, but it will take time to convert the majority and build the charging infrastructure required to support mass adoption, let alone change public perception and make shared vehicles preferable to private vehicles. In 20 to 30 years we may see a reasonable number of people move across to electric.
In the short to medium term, perhaps technologies to capture carbon directly from vehicle exhausts is the most promising and likely way of reducing emissions for traditionally fueled vehicles. Indeed some fuel based vehicles are incorporating such technologies to meet California's strict emissions regulations and are now rated as PZEV or Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles. They have special technologies to reduce their emissions beyond traditional levels, albeit from my comparison of various vehicle types these PZEV vehicles focus on reducing smog causing pollutants rather than GHG's. It seems like the technology is getting there though, it just needs stricter government requirements to improve adoption.
Carbon Negative Concrete, a concrete that absorbs more carbon than was used to produce it is being developed but again is a long way off from commercial availability and unfortunately only appears to absorb during the curing process, but still it has implications for any type of construction project. Who knows how the technology may develop.
In the meantime we are expanding our cities in ways that are counter productive to achieving the goal of reduced emissions. In a growing city it is difficult to reduce transportation emissions. Even if the population grows by 100 new people and they make all their trips by bus, maybe we have to put on an additional bus. It is in theory, sustainable transportation, but it is also an increase in emissions over the 'no growth' scenario. Every new single family home that is built in an area with poor transit is counter productive to the goals of reducing our vehicle emissions. Even densifying within the existing urban boundary only makes sense if we densify in areas where transit is present.
Growth in many cities is inevitable, and as a city does grow, it should be doing so in a way that enables its residents to get around without the need for a car. By getting people out of their cars and choosing another way we can indeed reduce transportation emissions.
Better city planning can help reduce emissions, but only if we take the need seriously. It must be used as one of the evaluation metrics when prioritizing long term planning options, and council members responsible for adopting such plans must be made aware of its importance, and have the courage to select what may not be the publicly preferred solutions. In simple terms, to truly be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must focus new development in locations with access to sustainable modes, and we must must prioritize infrastructure and service related options that provide sustainable options to those that currently do not have them.
Finally on a personal level we can all do whatever we can to reduce our emission from transportation, whether that be using a more efficient car, driving your existing car less, choosing an other mode, living closer to you place of work, even taking it a little easier on the accelerator pedal, every little counts.