Travel and emissions in Canada

by Milan on December 4, 2010

in Climate change, Ethics, Transportation

With the holidays coming up, it may be time to resurrect the eternal (usually unpleasant) debate about climate change, ethics, and travel options.

This data is from Canada’s latest submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC):

There are a few interesting things in there, but the most interesting to me are the figures on greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometre, for different transportation options.

According to this chart, going 1km by car produces an average of 0.14 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Taking the train is just as bad. Flying is about 18% worse per kilometre (though flying certainly encourages people to travel farther, since it is so fast). The bus is the clear winner, in this analysis, producing 0.05 kg per passenger kilometre.

It seems to me that bus travel has two significant things going for it:

  1. It seems to emit the least greenhouse gas per distance traveled
  2. Because it is slow and unpleasant, people choose to travel less by bus

That said, a case can be made for rail as well. While it may be no better than driving right now, increased use might eventually drive the development of an electrical rail network, powered using zero-carbon forms of energy like nuclear fission and renewables.

Another interesting aspect of the table is the figures on passenger activity. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of passenger kilometres traveled by light truck (pickups, SUVs, etc) went up 179%. Aviation went up 77%. Both of those are above the overall average increase of 56%.

Ultimately, all sectors of our economy will need to become carbon-neutral. Inter-city transportation may be one of the most challenging areas in which to achieve that.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 4, 2010 at 10:16 pm
Tristan December 5, 2010 at 10:16 am

There’s another thing to consider when supporting/not supporting Via Rail, especially “The Canadian”. Whether you take the train, it will run regardless – 3 trains/week are run year round. Now, you could say that by not travelling you are encouraging them to run less trains. But here, then, is the problem – do you actually want them to run less trains? Because they can’t just drop a train here and there; if they run fewer trains it means dropping down to 2 per week, making the service even less viable and less likely to help build public support for a 21st century rail network in Canada.

By taking the train and speaking about my experiences, I have literally encouraged people to take the train who might never have gotten around to it otherwise. And perhaps more importantly – encouraged them to think about supporting rail travel as a climate-smart transport method for the 21st century.

As for the relation of rail to freight – this is actually a huge potential benefit to supporting rail travel. Sure, CP and CN might never chose to electrify with their own money. But, with enough public funding, they will (and it’s only a dozen billion or so for the whole job). If carbon-free passenger rail becomes part of the way the government can sell a 10 billion subsidy to the corporate rail firms (as corrupt an idea as that may be), then it could have an impact on climate emissions monumentally greater than simply choosing to travel less.

Milan December 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Another element of that chart bears consideration: in 2008, Canadians went 301 billion kilometres by car and 43.5 billion kilometres by air. They only went 1.44 billion kilometres by rail.

As such, improving the efficiency of road travel (as long as you don’t increase use by even more) probably has much greater near- and medium-term potential than driving more people to rail.

Fuel price floors could be a good way to encourage people to travel less, and do so more efficiently.

Tristan December 6, 2010 at 9:04 am

Fuel price floors will probably never happen. What might happen is radically increased fuel prices, for instance, if radical arab nationalism takes hold and middle eastern oil is extracted in a way to maximally benefit the population, rather than US-backed elites. Perhaps the most climate-friendly thing we can do is fight the imperial forces which keep the cheap oil flowing, and give the US and allies privileged access to fossil energy markets. Sure, this could increase pressure to expand the tar sands, but because it takes so long to ramp up bitumen production the short and medium term price effects of the loss of US dominance in the middle east would still be massive. Also, opposition to the tar sands is real, and we can actively support it in a way which is much more concrete than advocating for policies which the driving public will never support – like fuel price floors.

It’s useless telling people what values they should have. What works is explaining to people why, on the basis of values they already have, they should align with your cause.

Milan February 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Set up in the right way, it’s possible that voters might accept fuel price floors. In particular, they would be more acceptable if the money collected was used to fund investments in repowering things now run on fossil fuels with sustainable forms of energy.

Doing that would probably be less fair than putting the revenues into a trust fund for future generations who will not directly benefit from fossil fuels, but it could help to drive the very necessary global transition toward carbon neutrality.

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