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.


2 responses to “Transportation”

  1. Olivia writes:

    Hello, My name is Olivia and I am a grade 9 student at Etobicoke School of the Arts. This semester for our science project, we are asked to pick a topic regarding the environment that is very important to us. I chose bike lanes in Toronto, since I think they are valuable to many citizens. Based on my research, I think you are someone who’s opinion on this topic would be very important for my project. Please complete the questions below with your honest opinion. You effort is greatly appreciated. Please keep in mind the deadline is November 7th.

    1. How are you involved in the Toronto bike lanes? This includes politically, emotionally, etc.

    2. Are you a user of these lanes? Why or why not?

    3. In your opinion should Toronto add more bike lanes throughout the city? Or, do you feel that Mayor Ford should go ahead and continue to try to take lanes away from our city? Why do you feel this way?

    4. Cars and light trucks are the single largest users of petroleum, consuming about 43% of the total. Urban runoff is the leading source of river pollutants. Over a million animals are killed by cars each day. Cars are major noise polluters. After reading just a few of the thousands of statistics about how terrible cars are for the environment, does this change your answer for the previous question?

    5. Do you think it is possible for resources to last indefinitely if we only used cars to travel?

    6. Do you think switching half the drivers on the road to bikes could really have an impact on the health of ecosystems? Why or why not?

    7. In addition to killing animals and ecosystems, gasses created by cars could begin to kill humans. It is the leading cause of Premature deaths of up to 16,000 Canadians each year. Riding a bike is good for the human heart and reduces carbon emissions. Why then, do you think mayor Ford still opposes the issue when it could affect human population?

    8. As you know, bike lanes can help us save ecosystems and human life. However, the lack of bike lanes is steering people toward choosing to take gas-guzzling cars. As a leader, do you have any plans to take action and solve this crisis that is destroying so many habitats?

    9. After reflecting on your answers, has your position about the bike lane crisis changed? Please remember to take into account the fact that the less bike lanes there are, the more humans, ecosystems and animals are impacted negatively by the pollution created by cars.

    Thank you or your time. Your answers are greatly appreciated.

  2. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Thanks, Olivia. Here are my answers:

    1. It’s critical to have travel options that get beyond oil dependence, so I strongly support infrastructure that helps. That includes public transit, bike lanes, electric vehicle plug-in stations and so on.

    2. I am personally more of a walker than a cyclist. I do ride my bike for pleasure, mainly off-road through the ravine system.

    3. I remember the deep pleasure I had in my youth when I travelled through Europe and rode a rented bike in Amsterdam and Stockholm. Cities that have a lot of bike riders are safer for cyclists, because car drivers expect them and drive accordingly. Bike riding in Toronto is still far more dangerous than it should be, precisely because too many people have the mentality expressed by Mayor Ford, that roads are for cars. The truth is that the whole city, including the roads, are for people, not cars. Roads help people get places, including by car, but if that endangers other people, then our priorities have gotten mixed up.

    Bike lanes are one way of helping more people get on bikes to move around, so they should be encouraged. Using precious money to tear up existing infrastructure is hypocritical from a mayor who claims to be worried about city spending.

    Please note, Olivia, that it is not absolutely necessary to have special bike infrastructure in a city to have a lot of cyclists. In many ways, bike lanes are there to keep cyclists from annoying car drivers. In many Asian cities, cars and bikes share the road and there are a lot of bikes. Some small European cities have taken out all road signage, stoplights and lanes and created a traffic free-for-all. Studies show that because drivers do not know what to expect, they actually drive more carefully. The rate of car accidents does not go up. To encourage people to get on their bikes, it’s most important to create a bike-friendly atmosphere. Bike lanes are one way to do it, there may be others.

    The problem with Rob Ford’s way of talking is not so much that he’s removing bike lanes, but that he speaks with annoyance about cyclists, encouraging “road rage” – animosity between people who have to share the road. That’s a bad idea.

    4. Cars and trucks with internal combustion engines are also responsible for terrible air quality and urban asthma rates, as well as some cancers. There are a lot of very good reasons to figure out how to eliminate our need for these vehicles.

    5. Not even oil companies believe that oil will last indefinitely. Petroleum geologists all pretty much agree that we’ve already found all the easy oil, and pumped out a lot of it. From now on, oil will get more expensive to find and extract and more energy-intensive to refine. The International Energy Agency has admitted that oil production has been pretty much stagnant since 2006 or so and is likely to start declining soon (within this decade), and the IEA has been historically very optimistic about the resources to be found in the future.

    Please note though, that electric cars are emerging, and will probably replace the cars we now know in the next couple of decades. I believe that energy prices will mean that people will travel less, so I suspect there may be fewer cars on the road in the future, but that’s just a guess.

    6. Of course. As you and I have pointed out above, internal combustion engines (which account for pretty much all the cars on the road today) have a tremendous impact on climate change, air quality, water quality, asthma rates, cancers and road kill. Clearly halving the rate of all these things would have some tremendous benefits. Decreasing the demand for gasoline could also stop enormously destructive extraction operations like the tar sands, which are tearing up an area of pristine boreal forest the size of France and turning it into a toxic waste dump.

    7. I cannot presume to enter Mr. Ford’s brain. We all focus on specific things we like and oppose things we dislike. Mr. Ford clearly dislikes bicycles and likes cars. The reasons I cannot know. Perhaps Mr. Ford simply wants not to have to worry about cyclists when he is in his car and hasn’t given much thought to other points of view. He has expressed very little interest in environmental, health and safety issues, and seems completely impervious to research studies that show benefits to policies which he doesn’t support.

    8. As climate change critic for the Green Party of Canada, I’m mostly working on policies at a national and international level that could help us find a way out of this crisis, but a lot of the policies I promote would help here.

    For one thing, the price of fossil fuels needs to rise a lot to reflect the damage that it does. Right now, municipal, provincial and federal governments subsidize fossil fuels in a huge number of ways – for example, roads are maintained by governments whereas rail corridors are maintained by rail companies and get few subsidies. Fossil fuel companies get subsidies for exploration to find more fuel and to develop extraction. The tar sands alone gobble up 1.4 billion dollars a year in federal subsidies. There are tax benefits to companies that provide company cars, employee parking or mileage allowances for car travel. We also subsidize fossil fuels more indirectly with our health, air quality, water quality and so on. And from now on, the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels are going to get increasingly serious and costly to deal with. If the cost of a gallon of gasoline included all the subsidies and the cost of cleaning up the mess it makes, people would be using a lot less gasoline. And that would force cities to deal with moving people around in smarter ways.

    I also support working with local communities to build safe and healthy environments that respect everyone who shares the road. While different communities might end up with different strategies, I suspect bike lanes would be a popular choice.

    9. Thanks, Olivia. I support your direction and wish you luck in promoting bike lanes. They would be a big help.

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