We need to get moving without fossil fuels.


More than ten years ago now, my husband rented an electric car at Los Angeles’ airport and we drove over with our children to visit his grandparents.  It was a wonderful, silent ride.  It was nice to know that soon all cars would be electric.

Had we grabbed the opportunity then and run with it, by now every car on the road would have been electric, and today’s models would be more efficient, faster and cheaper, and we would have solved any issues with the charge a battery could hold.  Instead, California caved into relentless pressure from the auto industry, the oil industry and the George W. Bush administration and the EV1s were mothballed.  Now, almost two decades later, not only do we not have affordable fully electric cars, we’re actually driving cars that have lower efficiency than gasoline powered cars then.  Many cars sold for household use today are technically listed as light trucks and are not required to meet emissions controls requirements.

We can still make that change this decade.

The reason electric cars have such a high price tag is the cost of the battery.  That’s why the EV1s were leased rather than sold.  The cost for leasing was not only competitive, it was good.  The car we rented was economical.  The reason it was economical was two-fold; electric cars require few tune-ups or repairs, and there is no fuel to purchase.  We didn’t charge the car up at all.  But even charges are relatively economical, because an electric car is far more efficient than one that runs on gasoline, using less than a quarter of the energy input.

Better Place has a different model.  Rather than lease the vehicle, they suggest leasing the battery.  If the infrastructure exists to quickly change batteries, there is no need to own a battery at all, and two concerns are addressed simultaneously – the up-front cost of the vehicle and the limitations of the battery charge for longer distances.

The future can be a whole lot better, if we just have the will to embrace it.

Public transit

In an energy-constrained world, it is likely that fewer people will be driving alone in their own personal vehicle.  But we are a very mobile society.  So in addition to electrifying our car fleet, we also need to move people efficiently, economically, and without fossil fuels.

So we also need to invest in public transit.

As gas prices rise through resource constraints, hopefully coupled with a carbon tax, public transit will become more and more attractive.  Some European nations have high taxes on gas which make the price at the pump 5 or more times as high as what we pay.  The result is a more compact urban structure, greater protection for undeveloped land, smaller, more efficient vehicles and less reliance on them.  This in turn reduces air pollution from car exhaust and smog.  Most families want to live near public transit and rely on it for at least part of their transport needs.

The comparatively high prices for gasoline also shield consumers from the price shocks of oil commodity prices on the international market.

During the run-up to the 2008 economic downturn, gas prices hit Americans hardest of all, partly because the United States has among the lowest taxes on gasoline among developed countries, and partly because as a result of low prices, they are so dependent on gasoline.  Vehicle costs take up an average of 17% of family income in the United States, and much of that is for fuel costs.  That was a huge contributing factor to the difficulty families had with paying their bills, and defaulting on their mortgages.

By contrast, German drivers found the price increase an inconvenience rather than a disaster, because it formed only a small part of the cost they were used to paying.  German industry suffered in the downturn, but that is because it was shielded from taxes in order to remain competitive in the global market.

So fuel or carbon taxes can help get us navigate more gracefully through a world where conventional fuels are ending and prices can rise very suddenly when demand exceeds supply.

The Green Party would invest in urban infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions, like public transit, subject to community input and grassroots decision-making.  That’s why I can’t say exactly what improvements to public transit will look like for Toronto-Danforth and Toronto in general.  But I hope to get more commuters moving on comfortable and efficient public transit as quickly as possible.  This would not only make Canada more resilient to the price swings of oil as the resource declines, it would also improve community health, particularly in places like Toronto-Danforth.  Our community has disproportionately high rates of respiratory disease even by Toronto standards, and a significant contributing factor is the smog carried to this side of the Don Valley Parkway by the prevailing winds which blow from the west.

For our health and for our security, we need to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Rail transportation

We also need to invest in renewing our rail system, which was once a source of great national pride.  National passenger rail service is now sporadic, perpetually late, expensive and deteriorating.  Other countries are investing in high-speed rail as airlines are threatened by unstable fuel prices.  With our huge spaces, we should be at the forefront of this direction.

The challenge

Over 190 countries, including Canada, have agreed that global temperatures must be kept from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  Kyoto nations as a group, including Canada, have agreed that to achieve this, developed countries as a group must reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80% by 2050.  192 nations, including Canada, have also agreed that a much tougher target of no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels may be required to prevent catastrophic climate change.  Furthermore, recent science indicates that the targeted emissions reductions are too timid, and 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 targets are unlikely to keep temperatures from rising even 2 degrees.

The bottom line is that in order to have any hope at all of preventing catastrophic climate change, we must expect at a bare minimum to reduce our emissions by 25% below 1990 levels this decade, and by 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century.  It is likely that we will have to do more.

We have been so negligent so far in Canada that a 25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 would require eliminating about a third of our emissions today.  So in the short term, we should be figuring out how to do with 1/3 less home heating fuels, 1/3 less transportation fuel, 1/3 less emissions from generation and 1/3 less emissions from industry, all within a decade.  And all of this must be done within a framework where we recognize that the long term targets will be much tougher.  We need to figure out how to get off fossil fuels altogether.

Think it can’t be done?  The alternatives are unthinkable.

If unrestrained, climate change could easily wipe out most of humanity even this century.  The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that on our current trajectory, the Earth will only be able to sustain 1 billion people at the end of this century.  A new study by Anderson and Bows suggests it might be even lower – perhaps just half a billion and as early as 2060.  Today’s population is over 7 billion, and it is still growing.

And even if we were not to worry about climate change at all, we would still have to phase out of fossil fuels only a little later.  Conventional oil is running out.  Conventional North American natural gas is already in decline and the alternatives are nasty.  We’re even reaching the end of the best coal supplies.

So it’s time to get to work, with dedication, creativity and courage.


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