Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation is a critical part of any climate change and energy strategy. It is also the toughest problem to tackle, since in all countries, big or small, rich or poor, personal mobility and the movement of goods are essential for economic efficiency and quality of life.
Without transport, national - let alone international - trade would be impossible and we would have to work within walking distance of our homes. This might appeal to eco-idealists, but most of us don’t want to return to the Middle Ages.
Transport is not only essential in modern life, it’s also highly complex. The comedy classic, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, one man’s (Steve Martin) epic struggle to get home in time for Thanksgiving, with loveable lout shower ring salesman (John Candy) as his companion, is a metaphor for the way most people in industrialized countries get around.
With plane, train and car trips easier to make than ever, a significant portion of developed countries’ GHG emissions come from transportation. Vast distances between population centres mean that almost 28 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions come from transportation, according to Environment Canada.
For politicians, telling people to travel less is not a strategy likely to win re-election (although American year-over-year gasoline consumption was down five percent in May 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Energy). That’s why governments are looking to less painful strategies.
One strategy, adopted by California and the European Union, is to reduce the climate impact or so-called “carbon intensity” of what actually goes into the tank. This approach looks to limit or exclude fuels refined from “high carbon” feedstock like oil sands-derived crude. As discussed in a previous OSQAR, oil sands, while not actually exported to Europe, is indeed responsible for more GHG emissions than Europe’s other supply sources (see slide 19 in CAPP’s Canada’s Role in the Global Energy Market presentation).
But while curbing the carbon intensity of fuel sources is something definitely worth pursuing (and we are), policies focused on fuel properties alone cannot tackle the problem effectively.
This is why we advocate something we call a Low Carbon Transportation Framework (LCTF). This takes a transportation sector-wide approach to GHG emissions and sets out absolute GHG emission reductions objectives, using a three-pronged strategy embracing:
- reducing carbon intensity of fuel sources;
- reducing vehicle kilometres traveled (for example, through public transport investment and better urban planning);
- high-efficiency engine manufacturing (Europe, for example, now requires auto manufacturers to constantly improve net kilometres per litre of new models).
We suspect our take on planes, trains and automobiles hasn’t generated laughs like the movie did, but we do hope our LCTF and similar thinking gets considered by jurisdictions serious about making big cuts to transportation sector GHG emissions.