On May 6, Canada joined the growing global movement for a Green New Deal. The Pact for a Green New Deal is endorsed by dozens of high-profile groups across Canada, and aims to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in half in 11 short years. If done well, a Green New Deal could make Canada a healthier and happier place to live.
The Pact notes that “Canada’s emissions are stuck at historic highs,” but leaves out the story of how this came to be. The Pembina Institute notes that Canadian GHG “reductions from electricity have been entirely offset by growth in our top two emitting sectors: transportation and oil and gas.”
The role of government subsidies and direct investment in increasing climate pollution in the oil and gas sector has rightly gotten a lot of attention. But transportation, the second largest source of GHG pollution in Canada, must not be ignored.
Government subsidies make climate emergency worse and chokes cities with traffic
Like the oil and gas sector, direct and indirect government subsidies have driven up transportation GHG pollution levels. The Canadian government reports a 43 per cent increase in GHG pollution from transportation between 1990 and 2017.
The biggest driver of increased GHG pollution in transportation has been government spending on road and highway expansion in and near urban areas. Governments understand full well that expanding highways results in more traffic and climate pollution. The 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (the federal-provincial climate agreement) already commits the federal and provincial governments to shift spending away from things that increase carbon pollution, such as urban highways and airport expansion, to low-carbon transportation including public transit, walking and cycling. However, both federal and provincial governments are largely ignoring this commitment.
Spending public funds on urban highway expansion also makes people’s lives less satisfying and shorter. Long commutes driving alone lead to lack of exercise, exposure to high levels of air pollution, and social isolation.
Electric trains and buses must serve small towns
Travel on Canadian air carriers more than doubled and climate pollution increased by 65 per cent between 2005 and 2017. While the fuel efficiency of air travel has slowly improved, the massive increase in air travel means climate pollution is soaring. At the same time, rural Canadians are being left behind by cuts to highway bus and passenger train service.
Airports in Canada are almost all government owned, even when the boards controlling them as supposedly ‘independent.’
Every dollar now going to airport expansion could be re-allocated to low-carbon transportation, including electric passenger rail and long distance bus service, as part of a Green New Deal. Vancouver Airport alone is planning to spend $9 billion over the next 20 years to facilitate more flights, many of which cover short and medium distances that could easily be accommodated with electric passenger trains or buses.
A Canadian Green New Deal must avoid the temptation to focus too much on rail megaprojects connecting only major cities. True high speed rail, with expensive new tracks allowing speeds over 250 kilometres per hour, is not going to stop at most smaller cities and towns. The Green New Deal needs to include good quality passenger train service and highway bus service interconnecting the whole country, especially small towns and First Nations communities.
Upgrading existing train tracks for fast, comfortable and affordable passenger rail service across the country should be high on the action list. Sweden is planning to create new overnight sleeper train services to major European destinations to meet the demand for low-carbon transportation – and Canada should follow this good example. Converting the main rail lines across Canada to electric power, as most of the world has already done, could employ thousands of tradespeople who have been laid off from the oil and gas sector.
Much better highway bus service is a crucial complement for passenger rail service, since many smaller communities are not on train tracks. Transportation inequality is a huge issue in rural areas, and the Green New Deal must address the transportation needs of seniors who often can’t drive long distances to medical appointments, youth who are often unable to access education, low income people, and Indigenous people who are now often forced to risk hitchhiking to travel.
If we want fewer cars choking our cities, and healthier rural communities, people need convenient and affordable ways to travel to and from smaller communities as well as between cities without driving.
Transform transportation for health, prosperity and justice
A report I co-authored, Transportation Transformation: Building complete communities and a zero-emission transportation system in BC, estimates that a billion dollars a year could be re-allocated from projects that increase GHG to climate solutions just in B.C. The national total would be much larger. This report concludes that “we can transform our transportation system in a way that vastly improves mobility, health, communities and social justice.”
The Pact for a Green New Deal paints a stark choice. We can "either descend into division and disaster or come together with a far-reaching plan to avoid it and build a safe, just and prosperous future for all of us.” Efforts to reduce climate pollution from transportation have the potential to make our communities safer, more just, and more prosperous. These improvements can largely be paid for by re-allocating funds from destructive projects and fossil fuel subsidies.
The changes needed will benefit every demographic, but young people, who are also pushing the climate agenda forward, are the most ready to leave the age of the automobiles behind. For example, vehicle ownership by 16 to 20-year-olds men in Quebec decreased by 20 per cent in just five years. And if government spending goes to wider roads instead of better public transit, sidewalks and protected bike lanes, then even young people will be forced to drive cars — making the climate emergency worse.
Automobile domination also leaves many seniors isolated once they can no longer drive. The Green New Deal should aim to create communities where a car is not a necessity.
Streets for people – Disappearing traffic
Reducing GHG pollution from transportation in half in only 11 years may sound like a nearly impossible task. But the effective policies needed to reduce driving, and the resulting fossil fuel consumption, are well understood. If there is less space available to drive and park cars, people will choose to drive less (and will take public transit, walk, or ride bicycles more).
Car traffic quickly expands to fill expanded road space in urban areas, but traffic contracts just as quickly when road space is no longer available to motor vehicles. When you make a car lane into a bus lane, a protected bike lane or more space for pedestrians, car traffic disappears.
The 2004 European Commission report, Reclaiming city streets for people, notes that:
“It is typically assumed that reducing the capacity available for cars will result in increased traffic congestion in the surrounding streets. However . . . the experience in a number of European cities is that. . . some of the traffic that was previously found in the vicinity of the scheme ‘disappears’ or ‘evaporates’, due to drivers changing their travel behaviour.”
The City of Vancouver’s recent draft Climate Emergency Response plan aims to make a lot of traffic disappear, very quickly. The plan aims for an “allocation of public space [that] supports walking, cycling and transit [to] greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuels through a reduction in vehicle ownership and kilometres travelled by vehicle.” The goal is for two thirds of trips in Vancouver to be by active transportation and transit by 2030, up from about half now.
Before you jump to the classic excuse for delay – improved fuel efficiency and potential of electric cars – consider that Canada’s vehicles guzzle more gas and spew out more carbon dioxide pollution per kilometre driven than any other country (Between 2013 and 2017 fuel economy got worse, not better). Many of the vehicles that will be on the road in 11 years have already been purchased.
While the City of Vancouver is planning for a future with much fewer motor vehicles, and has already significantly reduced traffic volumes in some areas, the provincial and federal governments are spending big to get more polluting cars on the road. In April, the federal and B.C. provincial governments announced spending of about $100 million each to widen the Trans-Canada Highway in Metro Vancouver. Highway widening, including high occupancy vehicle lanes, induces increased traffic volumes and results in increased GHG pollution.
Having national and provincial governments undermine municipal climate action is not at all unusual. The Government of France unsuccessfully sued Paris to get a well-loved park on the River Seine turned back into a noisy, congested national highway. The government of Sweden is also trying to build a massive freeway project into and around Stockholm, over Stockholm City Hall’s objections. The mobilization around a Green New Deal will have to push hard to overcome the entrenched power of big oil in setting transportation policy.
As noted above, the federal and most provincial governments have committed to shift spending away from urban highway expansion to reduce climate pollution but are routinely violating their commitments.
If governments are forced to stop spending money on urban highway expansion, there will be billions of dollars a year available to create great public transit, walking and bike riding facilities. This won’t be enough funding, but the Pact for a Green New Deal notes that the billionaire class are ripe for some big tax increases to pay for climate action initiatives.
The Green New Deal can make our cities and towns healthier, more just and prosperous, and happier places to live. The other choice is to stay on the expressway to extinction we are on.