Let’s face it. Even if you’re not on the Global Warming Boat — we assume a boat would be the best place if the sea level were rising — there aren’t many viewing angles at which burning fossil fuel looks good for us in the long term. The issue of airborne pollutants alone should be reason to take emissions reductions seriously, especially given the recent headlines regarding places such as Beijing, where air pollution routinely enters seriously hazardous levels for human health.
In light of all of this, the European Union has set a goal of achieving a 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas (CHG) emission levels by 2050. When faced with the task of actually doing it, however, the pertinent industries (energy, transportation, manufacturing) generally argue that this goal is nearly impossible to reach, while your standard-model eco-scientists fight back with: We’re going under Scotty. We don’t care how you do it, just get it fixed.
The Bicycle, the Bus, and the Car
The European Cycling Federation (ECF) released a report yesterday, giving an extremely thorough and well thought out study on transportation forms and how they will contribute to a serious reduction in emissions.
The commission’s report takes a serious look at the issue of emissions, quantifying production, operation, maintenance as well as infrastructure and disposal as part of the entire “transportation” picture. In doing so, they show a rather rough looking road to the dramatic European Union targets for lower carbon emissions, and also one where large-scale reconsideration of transportation methods is a requirement.
According to the study, about 24% of CHG emissions in the EU are from transportation (cars, airplanes, boats, trains) and 30% come from power generation (household, commercial, industrial, your electric car). The ECF figures that for every 1,000 miles driven in a car, you would need to ride approximately 13,500 miles on a bicycle to produce the same CHG emissions levels.
But what about my cool “∞ MPG” shirt, you ask?
Well, yes, bicycles are infinately better for the environment and for the personal health of the people who use them as a method of transport, but they create emissions too, however small.
These emissions are not from a tail pipe so to speak, but from the foods that riders eat, the metal and rubber that makes up their bicycles, and the transportation required to move all of that stuff. After all is accounted for, biking still results in emissions over 10 times lower than that of your average passenger car.
The Silver Buckshot
Simply evolving technology in transportation methods is not nearly enough to reach emissions goals, the study asserts. So what’s left, then?
Changing habits, changing commute lengths, and pretty much a complete restructuring on how we think of transportation.
The study calls this approach using “silver buckshot, instead of a silver bullet.” Getting folks out of cars and onto bicycles may seem like the most difficult way to reach emissions goals, but on the flip-side of that, switching to bikes is certainly one of the cheapest and most effective changes we can make.
If the general population cycled an average of just 3 miles per day, 50% of the targeted CNG emissions reductions could be achieved, the study suggests.
In general, however, the entire transportation system needs to be rethought. When used, vechicles need to be able to travel at consistent speeds, traffic needs to be reduced, public transportation and rail travel needs to be more efficient and link the correct places, and cities need to be built in concert with these modes of transportation.
The ECF model identifies three targets for change 1) Avoid — help reduce the necessity for car-trips with better city planning and land use 2) Shift — change our habits to make use of current alternative transportation methods 3) Improve– finally, engineer better mass transit and personal motorized transportation mechanisms.
If this sounds troubling for the EU, it is a problem magnitudes worse to solve in the US. This is because, for the most part, large areas of EU cities are already built to work with mass transit, walking, and bicycles. In America, the majority of cities are unfailingly incompatible with the idea of short local commutes, efficient mass transit, and trips by bicycles and walking.
This study doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the US and other countries who have built their cities around the personal motor vehicle. In doing so, however, it shows us that we need to approach the restructuring of our cities with the utmost seriousness. We need to be doing everything in our power to make this change possible.
The study focuses on CO2, understandably, since it is a popular metric and driver of the eco industry. But CO2 isn’t truly a root or reason for a restructuring of our transportation system, it is just one symptom of an imperfect system. For the Eco movement to be understood and implemented correctly, the conversation must evolve to talk not simply about measurable pollution, but about the end results in terms of health benefits to individuals, the planet, and society as a whole.
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