Originally published in It’s Getting Hot In Here.
So we all want the world to be climate neutral, right? Yea, some people spit out numbers like 50% and 80%, but in the end we just want to get rid of fossil fuels for good. Those that claim that fossil fuels are going to be an important part of the energy mix for the world in the future are either ignorant, are not aware of what global warming is already doing, or are simply obsessed with fossil fuels. Sorry if it annoys anybody, but this is true. So, assuming we want a climate neutral world (with no net greenhouse gases coming from humans) or perhaps a climate positive world, we need to address sectors like electricity and transportation, among others. In the transportation sector, there has been a huge push for different fuels (biofuels) and for increased fuel mileage. Unfortunately, proponents of these seem to also be obsessed with fossil fuels and, particularly, cars.
Let’s start with biofuels. Ethanol and biodiesel are the big ones today. Ethanol from corn, sugar cane, and cellulose (which is far away into the future anyways), and biodiesel from vegetable oil from any source. Ethanol from corn is simply an extremely bad choice. First of all, there isn’t even consensus on whether corn ethanol is energy positive. The numbers range from slightly energy positive to slightly energy negative. The energy positive folks are simply supported more widely because people want to jump into the lucrative corn ethanol bandwagon. If positive, the small gains are extremely small and are largely outweighed by the fact that we’re depleting more farmland to do this. At the same time, it’s taking a huge amount of corn agriculture and shooting up prices like crazy, which may be good for the big food companies, but bad for people in Mexico and elsewhere. So those people investing in corn ethanol are investing in something that will come to an end. At best, they’ll cash out of the boom, but many will be left severely hurt.
Sugarcane ethanol is a different deal. It is clearly energy positive. It is helping create lots of jobs in Brazil (though it enslaves and removes others). Brazil is vying to become the Middle East for ethanol. The country requires that all gasoline is blended with 25% ethanol, and 40% of the gasoline-type fuel is ethanol. They are also exporting a lot of ethanol. The businesses doing this are making returns on their investments of up to 40%. And now, they’re looking into how to get into the U.S. market without the 50 cent tax that is currently imposed on ethanol imports. The Caribbean, of course, is a key player.
But what folks don’t say is that ethanol only meets about 8% of all fuels in Brazil. That’s right, only 8%. Diesel use is huge in Brazil. Regardless of this, it is a great thing to export for Brazil. It is also better than fossil-derived fuel. And the claim that it is taking away rainforest is not well founded, as sugarcane is only about 4-6% of total agricultural land in Brazil. Before blaming sugarcane, soybeans have to be blamed. But ethanol does not deal with the real problem, and that is mobility. We don’t just want to get rid of fossil fuels. We want to end the car obsession that is sprawling cities everywhere. Brazil, for example, continues to sprawl because of cars. Regardless of what fuel we use, the solution at hand should be ending high car use and making sustainable mobility mainstream. Sustainable city development is therefore a key to reducing emissions. Sprawled out cities increase emissions, regardless of whether people use an electric car or not.
Biodiesel is another one of those stories. First of all, biodiesel reduces emissions by about 70% in combustion. In the European Union, a lot of it comes from palm oil in Indonesia. The recent stories have all been the same. Palm oil is destroying Indonesian rainforests at the expense of “being green”. No biofuel that promotes car use can be called “green”, just like no car that is more efficient should be called “green”. Norway was right on making sure this was the case. Biodiesel is converting large tracts of rainforest into palm oil monocultures, sending countless species into threatened or extinct status. All of this to meet less than 5% of the EU’s fuel use. Biodiesel may be a good thing for some poor countries with depleted soils where drought-resistant plants like Jatropha can grow, but it’s only temporary because high car use cannot continue under a climate neutral world.
Leaving biofuels behind, we enter the Prius world. Toyota came out with its very “successful” Prius, a hybrid vehicle that achieves very high fuel efficiency compared to other vehicles in the U.S. market. What nobody talks about is how much congestion or road costs increase when these new vehicles (any vehicle, really) is sold in the market. In New Jersey, where I’m from, congestion is an endless problem. We keep building more and more roads, and the cars just keep coming. Because of that, we are one of the most sprawled out states in the country, and soon enough, by 2015, we are set to have no more developable land. All because of cars!
If you go to any car-obsessed city, you’ll see something weird. Cars taking up more space in the city than people (outside of homes). It’s incredible; there are more parking spaces and parking lots than what you can imagine, and more are on the way. And all of this is because of cars. We are wasting so much city space that could be used for open space or business all because we can’t think of anything else to move ourselves other than cars. So, those of you who gave a “yes” vote to the piece in the Energy Bill that boosts CAFE standards are supporting congestion. If you support more fuel efficient cars as a solution (the hybridists and such), you are supporting unsustainable development, costly congestion, and high individualism. Bill McKibben and others have emphasized the fact that global warming will not be solved without a comeback of “community”. Cars don’t promote “community”. They promote sprawl and more sprawl and the waste of space and money. The U.S. bill for congestion is more than $200 billion a year! That’s enough money a year to change the world’s transportation system to one of new mobility!
New mobility! That’s what we need. Instead of cars, why not spend on light rail and personal rapid transit (an overhead, modernized, on-demand rail system). Personal rapid transit (PRT), in particular, has the huge potential of eliminating congestion and making our cities way more livable. These systems are automated and on-demand, taking you from location to location within a large city at the fastest mobility rate possible. Theoretically, studies have confirmed that it saves time, money, and it is cheaper. The plus is that it uses electricity, not fuels! It can thus be electrified with solar, wind, whatever renewables we use to electrify the world. I say theoretically because PRTs have not been deployed, though a lot of R&D has gone on since the 80’s. The theoretical cost is about $10 million per mile, with prospects of much lower costs as economies of scale take effect. These systems need right of ways, and with a car- and road-obsessed society, right of ways are not easy to get. A couple of examples will come around in Europe, and there is work to hopefully get one for Ithaca, NY, Seattle, the Mall of America in MN, and other places. Nevertheless, PRT-type systems will need to be larger to accomodate people in a community setting and will need to deal with any of the real issues the theoretical models don’t take into account. In any case, on-demand mobility is promising.
A climate neutral world can’t keep counting on cars. Cities without cars have so much more space for walking, biking, green space, more businesses, and a higher quality of life, not to mention the elimination of smog (one of the types of pollution recently blamed for 40% of all world deaths). People in the climate movement cannot keep talking about CAFE standards without talking as seriously and as much about light rail and PRTs. People need to start attacking cars and promoting the true, sustainable solutions to sprawl- and congestion-causing transportation. I don’t care if you’re from some lowly densely populated state and congestion is not a problem for you. It is a problem for the 50%+ people who live in cities. So don’t promote higher CAFE standards. Promote NEW MOBILITY!