Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who bears the responsibility for climate change?

Last week, San Francisco District Judge Martin Jenkins ruled that it is impossible to determine to what extent automakers are responsible for climate change damages in California.

It might shock those of you who know me that I'm saying this. I agree with this decision.

Cars and automobility are a symptom and a symbol. They are not the cause of emissions; they're just where they are most concentrated (well, them and our houses). Energy use, for the large part, is the source of emissions. And I'll look here, very briefly, at personal uses of energy, because it affects industrial emissions; industrial emissions are largely the result of producing materials that either make up the goods that we purchase, or at least go towards making those products.

The problem is that many neighbourhoods and urban areas are just not designed for people to get around by any means other than a car. I mention urban areas because that's where the majority of us live. The services that people utilize in their day-to-day life are just too far to depend on foot or bicycle transportation, or even public transportation in some cases(e.g. doctors, grocery stores, other shopping). Since this is a case that was brought forth in California, I'll use an example from out there. If you live in the circuitous labyrinthine neighbourhoods of, say, Irvine or Mission Viejo, then, really, can you imagine not having a car? You'd be stranded. This is a major issue throughout much of the U.S., and to a lesser extent throughout Canada as well - Mississauga comes to mind. A couple of years ago, I stayed with a friend who lived very close to Square One mall in Mississauga. This showed me that distance isn't necessarily the sole problem. The proximity to the mall almost didn't matter, even though it was walking distance (about 1 km). It just wasn't a safe walk, because of the lack of sidewalks.

It's easy to scapegoat the production industries, such as the auto industry and the oil and gas industry. But really, they only provide the means; if the demand for their products were curbed, then this would be a non-issue (or course, then we could get into the discussion of how they create demand through marketing, which may be as much of the source of the problem as anything; it's probably worthy of another post. However, if people (or that other word we use for people these days, consumers) were thoughtful about their purchases, this would be a non-issue). That's an important issue - how to curb demands for industrial products without curbing quality of life.

Let's keep in mind, also, that quality of life is different from standard of living. Just because someone has a higher standard of living and is able to acquire more, doesn't mean they have a great quality of life.

I believe that urban spaces have a lot to do with this. In Canada, we're a very urbanized country; 64% of us live in urban areas of more than 100,000 people. These spaces can be designed such that they require less use of resources and demand of us less purchase of goods. They're not, however; housing and mixed-use developments such as Dockside Green are still the exception to the rule.

Bringing this back to Ottawa, there are many parts of town where it is impossible to live without a car. Lamentably, the cost of living in those parts where it may be possible to do car free living is higher (particularly for property ownership, even for condos) - though if one can do it without the $700/month average car ownership costs, it does bring down the price.

I was at a conference on energy efficiency earlier this year. There, Nils Larsson of The International Institute for a Sustainable Built Environment brought up the four types of energy required - construction (or embodied) energy, operational energy, maintenance energy and commuting energy. He also mentioned that while we are able to use less energy per unit of floorspace to maintain comfort, the benefits of this have been lost through an increase in the size of the average new build house in Canada (by 50% over the past 10 years). Given that there were ministers of energy and environment from several countries in attendance, I was very impressed to see someone speak like this in a forum, about how choices that we make in lifestyle link to energy. Too bad the person making the final statement at the conference didn't have it in him to incorporate Mr. Larsson's statements.

I'll finish this off on a final thought. I don't know if this is a chicken or an egg case. I really don't know if this is because people want bigger homes with bigger lots, or if it's because developers want to build cookie-cutter homes and developments on big lots. I do believe that at least some of those that run urban planning departments in many cities are, on this point at least, either intellectually lazy or simply incapable of winning these fights against the developers.

And worse, I don't know if we really have the interest to tackle climate change as a population. If people decide that it's worthwhile to commute 45 minutes each way to work in a car by themselves so that they can have their 3000 sq.ft. house in the suburbs and drive everywhere they want to go, and if this is simply considered a normal, desirable life goal... what hope do we really have? I'm not asking for us to return to hunting and gathering and foraging; the planet can't feed 6.5 billion people now, or 9 billion people by 2050, if they do that. I ask us to look at the best practices out there for urban development, and for lifestyles, and to mimic those. I may, in a later post, try to list what, to me, are the top options for people to reduce their impact on the climate.



We could look to Europe as a model -- though they don't face the same vast distance issues we do in North America, much of their infrastructure can translate here. They have made it more difficult and more expensive to drive and own a car; they have excellent public transportation systems; they have pedestrian friendly and bicyle friendly urban and rural areas; their homes are smaller and they have less room for crap. Our worship of the automobile has led to a need for a whole, huge car-centered infrastructure from roads, to parking places, to suburbs, to drive-thru culture, to mega malls all the way out to the wars we fight to keep our gas-guzzlers fed. I'm all about car-free living. It's difficult. Ottawa, is an especially sprawling city, I find. We need to create more communities were most of the resident's needs are met within the community rather than having to drive to one end of the city for groceries and another for a doctor's appointment and yet another to go to work.

tOM Trottier said...

You can do more than complain to the ether. The City of Ottawa has a lot of public consultation on roadworks and new development. Go to to keep an eye on what's coming up. Then you can complain, as I do, about spaghetti pile developments. It is getting better. They now spec sidewalks and, with enough comment, might even assure a straightforward bike/pedestrian route to nearby conveniences like schools, churches, stores.


joncormier said...

I'm just happy to see that all this development that leads to more cars on the road is resulting in much safer drivers. We're on track to reaching a 5 year high in road accident accidents, injuries and fatalities.

Because that soul crushing existence you lead can only be held at bay by driving like you're important, that's why.

Jan Triska said...

Good points, all around.
I've been noticing that my life quality has improved without a car and living in a way that I don't need a car about 95% of the time. In the city, that is.
However, it is difficult to take holidays in Canada without one...I was just very recently in BC, touring the Okanagan valley. It was the kind of a trip when one rents a car at the airport and drives it for five, six days, to go hiking, wine-tasting and whatever else. In most instances, there is no (or no reliable, frequent) bus or other mass transportation between Kelowna, Penticton, Oliver and the other towns. Having a car there equals limitless possibility; not having one means you'll be stuck hitchiking and seeing only limited stretches of the area.