Friday, May 25, 2007

Cars, Planes and Snake Oil

George Monbiot wants us to believe the science of global warming, not the politics. He wants you to understand that the atmosphere does not care about our politics or our needs; it responds without malice or mercy to the gases we put into it.

George Monbiot also wants you to believe that aviation, which produces roughly 3% of the world's greenhouse gases, poses such a threat that we must stop airport construction at once and ground as many of the world's airplanes as possible, but that we can continue driving our cars, which produce (in Canada) six times as much greenhouse gas in tonnes (you can find the relevant figures for Canadian emissions here) without worrying. Seems that we can keep driving with just a few minor technological changes, including the risibly Rube Goldberg vision of crane-equipped filling stations lifting out spent batteries from electric cars and dropping fresh ones in.

George Monbiot's claims in this regard involve three specific problems:

  1. Claims that electric cars and high-mileage engines will solve the problems posed by the automobile ignore all of the side effects of a culture designed to cater to the needs of the car. Road construction produces tonnes of greenhouse gases, and once constructed, these roads trap sunlight and radiate terawatts of heat. A road, as a friend of mine observed, constitutes an extraordinary act of violence against the landscape. Electric cars will not change any of this; they will, no less than the gasoline cars they may or may not replace, keep huge areas smothered under heat-absorbing asphalt. Nor will electric cars require less manufacturing, metal smelting, or maintenance than gas cars, all of which requires energy.
  2. Electric cars will not "run on" batteries; the batteries will merely store the energy to drive them. And cars require a lot of energy: powering the traffic of a medium-sized city will require tens of thousands of wind turbines. The hunger of these thousands of batteries for power will lead to the very conflict Monbiot and those who agree with him cite in relation to biofuels: between the mobility desires of the well to do, and the basic needs of the poor. Charging thousands of batteries will push up the price of the power everyone will need to heat their homes and water, and to cook.
  3. Most of us, at least the majority of those of us who live in cities in the developed world, can do without the car. We could accomplish most if not all of what we do with car travel, for most Canadians, with improved public transit and human-powered personal transport. To a certain extent, we can replace aviation as well, with trains and ships. But to provide essential services for isolated communities, for trips (such as trips to the sick bed of a friend or relative overseas) we cannot do without aviation.

I claim no particular expertise on global warming; I can't tell you whether the doubters have it right, or the people who claim we have already passed the point of no return, and without high technology solutions, we have already plunged into disaster, or those, like Monbiot, who claim we can avoid the worst of global warming if we make sacrifices. I can, however, say this: if we indeed must cut our emissions by 90%, we will almost certainly need to reduce private car ownership very substantially. I do not think those in the environmental movement who gloss over this reality do the world any real favours.

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