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  • Are local "climate crisis" decision-makers making things better? Or worse?

    David Broadland

    Focus Magazine is undertaking a multi-year project to determine whether local government initiatives to get passenger cars off the streets, like bicycle lanes, are having any effect.


    As the politics of “climate crisis” in Victoria becomes increasingly shouty and stressed, it strikes me that my community could benefit from something similar to the Keeling Curve to help guide it through the coming years of fractious debate about initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

    What’s the Keeling Curve? According to Wikipedia it’s “a graph of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere based on continuous measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii from 1958 to the present day.”

    Scientist David Keeling’s first year of measurements averaged out to 318 parts per million (PPM). In early February 2019, the observatory was measuring 411 PPM.

    Because of its elevation and location far out in the Pacific, measurements of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa are considered representative of global concentration.

    Thanks to the measurements Keeling started, we now know that the current rate of annual increase in carbon dioxide is about 2.75 PPM. We also know that increase is accelerating at the rate of about 0.5 PPM per decade. The arithmetic suggests that by 2060 it will have reached 550 parts per million, double that of the pre-industrial era. At that point, scientists tell us, the planet will be committed to a temperature rise of between 1.5° and 4.5° Celsius. The time frame over which that full temperature increase would occur could take hundreds of years to play out—perhaps more than a thousand—according to scientists. But they also say that by the time CO2 has doubled, average temperature will have increased between 1° and 2.5° Celsius.

    This increase will disrupt climate, diminish biodiversity, and raise sea level. That’s the “climate crisis” in a nutshell. Another effect of all that additional carbon is ocean acidification.

    So my idea is to create something like the Keeling Curve: a series of measurements made four times each year that, over a period of years, graphically indicate how well we are doing as a community at reducing our emissions. Globally, we’re not doing so well. After nearly 30 years of international talks and endless expression of good intentions about reducing emissions, the global account of emissions, itself likely a carefully massaged undercount of actual annual emissions, shows they rose to a record level in 2018.

    While many elected officials in Western democracies say they want to do something about reducing emissions, they’re all riding on the same global economic machine that runs almost entirely on fossil fuels and requires positive annual growth to remain “healthy.” That means higher emissions.

    The Keeling Curve tells us, at a glance, where carbon dioxide is at and where it’s going. Like a map, it’s simple and verifiable. Indirectly, it tells us whether humanity is succeeding or failing at reducing emissions. It serves as a measure of the effectiveness of the steps the global family has undertaken in response to the climate crisis.

    I’m not suggesting we need to measure carbon dioxide concentration in Victoria. What Focus is undertaking to measure is the change, from season to season and from year to year, in the use of automobiles on the streets of downtown Victoria and immediately adjacent neighbourhoods. The project Focus has begun will provide an annual measure of the number of cars, buses, pedestrians, cyclists and other forms of mobility passing through 14 City of Victoria intersections. Over time, these measurements will allow us to guage the effectiveness of the steps the City of Victoria and the CRD have undertaken to avert what they are now both calling a “climate crisis.” Our measurements will produce what we’re calling the City Auto Reduction Effectiveness Index—or the CARE Index. If we find enough funding—can media apply to the Gas Tax Fund?—we will extend this project to the region and call it the RARE Index (no pun intended).



    During January, Focus video-recorded everything that moved through 14 different Downtown intersections during "rush hour."


    Later, I’ll describe the project in a little more detail. But first, to illustrate why such an index would be useful, let’s consider a slice of the current state of local politics around the “climate crisis.”

    In February, City of Victoria council voted to explore taking legal action against fossil fuel companies for costs the City might incur as a result of impacts like sea level rise and climate change caused by increased carbon in the atmosphere. The motion was presented by Councillor Ben Isitt and follows up on a campaign started last year by West Coast Environmental Law. The only councillor to vote against the motion was Geoff Young. Young has called the initiative “ridiculous.” (Judith Lavoie has a story on page 20 that’s focussed on the proposed lawsuit.)

    If Isitt’s motion was intended to generate hostile media attention, he was successful. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley quickly issued a statement (covered by media across Canada) that noted: “The hypocrisy of this proposed lawsuit is astounding.” While Notley attacked Victoria for its ocean-based sewage treatment system—a system long endorsed by local marine scientists and public health officials—she could have chosen a more obvious target to demonstrate Victoria council’s “hypocrisy”: the City’s reliance on fossil fuels to conduct its own operations. While councillors were condemning fossil fuel companies, fossil fuel was keeping the councillors from freezing to death—City Hall is heated by a gas-fired boiler. Twenty-five major City-owned buildings and operational facilities are heated with natural gas, including: The Arcade Building, VicPD headquaters, Crystal Pool, the Victoria Conference Centre, Crystal Gardens, all three fire stations, four community centres, the City’s asphalt plant, Royal Athletic Park, the public works yard and several other facilities. As well, the City depends on a fleet of 125 fossil-fuelled cars and light trucks to conduct its operations.

    The apparently low level of emissions awareness demonstrated by the councillors who voted for the motion was highlighted by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps’ subsequent announcement that she would be flying off to Calgary and then on to the oil sands projects in northern Alberta. Why? She told the Times Colonist: “I am really curious to know what are the innovative approaches that they are taking. What are the sustainability measures that they are putting in place? I think it’s important I know these things.”

    Helps might want to weigh the value of enlightenment at the hands of Alberta fossil-fuel-PR specialists against the emissions associated with her own air travel.

    Her round trip by fossil-fuelled airplanes will be at least 3,000 kilometres long. The emissions per passenger per kilometre for a commercial aircraft are similar to the emissions of the average passenger car. A Honda Fit with just a driver emits 168 grams per kilometre. A domestic long-distance flight (Calgary qualifies) averages 177 grams per kilometre per passenger. But because passenger flights emit climate-warming gases at high altitude, the impact associated with aviation emissions is, scientists say, about 2.7 times higher per kilometre per passenger than for those emitted at ground level by cars. So Helps’ flight to the oil sands will produce the equivalent emissions of a Honda Fit and its driver travelling 8,100 kilometres.

    The mayor’s desire to broaden her mind, as she put it, will result in more transportation-related emissions over a couple of days than many of us more careful, narrow-minded car drivers will produce in a couple of years.

    Meanwhile, back on the ground in Victoria, numerous council-approved developments over the past few years, including highrise housing, street-widening, sewage treatment and bicycle lanes, are all significant sources of new emissions and, controversially, the cause of a loss of hundreds of trees that store carbon and remove pollutants from the air.

    There is apprehension amongst the citizenry that the slow-progress, sylvan character of the City is under assault by green-washed construction projects even while politically-ambitious councillors spend their efforts attacking imaginary enemies and fast-tracking theoretical solutions to rising emissions. To many of us, councillors’ solutions feel more like another problem than a solution.

    That’s why we need the CARE Index for Victoria.

    On January 1, we began video recording traffic through the 14 selected intersections mentioned above. We made 22 recordings, all shot in 4K high-resolution format on a waterproof GoPro camera, covering the period between 3:45 and 5:30 pm—the so-called “rush hour” in Victoria.

    Our analysts then played the videos at normal speed on a large screen and counted every pedestrian, cyclist and automobile that transited the intersections. We are still processing the data obtained during our first round of counting.

    For the sake of transparency we have uploaded full length versions of each video to YouTube. YouTube’s 15-minute limit on video length meant we had to create, in effect, time lapse videos. Run at eight times normal speed, the videos visually demonstrate the enormous amount of energy being expended to transport people and goods through the city. You can view these videos here.

    In April, we will repeat this process at the same intersections and same time of day. We’ll do it all again in July and October. In 2020, we’ll do it all over again. And in 2021 and 2022.

    How will this help us measure the effectiveness of local government initiatives to reduce emissions?

    We will be able to report, with a high degree of certainty, whether, from year to year, there are more cars or less cars on the road in the Downtown core and surrounding neighbourhoods; more pedestrians or less pedestrians; more cyclists or less cyclists.

    Unless there’s a significant reduction in the number of cars on the road—and quickly, since there’s a “crisis”—the City’s and CRD’s efforts to accomplish that won’t have been effective.

    We’ll also be able to assess local governments’ claims about mode share. The CRD’s 2017 Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey, conducted once every five years, does not use direct observation to establish mode share. It uses voluntary surveys conducted in the fall of the survey year to project mode share, rather than measure it with on-the-ground observations. So it’s a guesstimate, and misses a large chunk of commercial traffic. As well, there’s virtually no public transparency with regards to who actually completes the surveys.

    The last study failed to acknowledge that a director of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, a special interest group that lobbies local governments for increased spending of public money for cycling infrastructure, had direct access to the survey’s data and provided analysis. Does anyone think a director of the New Car Dealers Association of British Columbia would be given access to the inner workings of the CRD’s survey?

    Thus we will be able to report whether any initiative that the City of Victoria or CRD dream up that’s intended to reduce transportation emissions is actually having the intended effect. Unfortunately, governments occasionally make blunders and produce unintended consequences. For example, the City of Victoria’s well-intentioned ban on plastic bags appears to have created an unintended consequence. A survey of garbage bins in my neighbourhood shows that many households are simply replacing the no-longer-available thin plastic bags their groceries were packed in with heavier, brand-new plastic garbage bags. In trying to eliminate single-use bags, the City appears to have eliminated two-use bags and replaced them with heavier, single-use bags.

    So far, in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the only significant target of CRD and City of Victoria initiatives has been the private passenger car. The governors want car drivers to move to either walking, biking or busing.

    While this policy is considered to be one of the low-hanging fruits in any jurisdiction’s broader plan to reduce carbon emissions, it seems doomed to be inconsequential in Canada.

    Passenger cars, according to Environment Canada, are responsible for only five percent of Canada’s total emissions.

    So local governments’ long-term plans for encouraging car drivers to move to walking, biking and busing will only address a tiny fraction of Canada’s total emissions. Yet these initiatives involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new infrastructure, all of which will itself have a significant carbon emissions burden associated with it. If the City and CRD build the infrastructure but few people use it, they will have made matters worse, not better.

    Why wouldn’t Victoria’s passenger car drivers get out of their vehicles and find a less carbon-intensive way to get from point A to point B? Besides all of the reasons that made private passenger cars such a successful form of transport in the first place, there’s the fact that the federal government has made it abundantly clear it has no credible plan for reducing national emissions.

    When Prime Minister Trudeau gave a green light to the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project in 2016, he agreed to allow Alberta’s annual emissions to rise from 68 to 100 megatonnes. That 32-megatonne increase is roughly equivalent to the 36 megatonnes emitted annually by all passenger cars in our country, according to Environment Canada.

    So even if you and all other Canadians give up your fossil-fuelled passenger cars, the resulting emissions reduction will be cancelled out by Alberta bitumen producers exporting dilbit to the US and Asia so that drivers in those countries can put cheaper gas in their cars. Are Canadian car drivers really going to be that, uh…generous?

    By the way, the latest numbers from Alberta bitumen producers show their output will increase by 50 percent above 2016’s production level by 2027. The mining, transporting and refining of oil and gas already accounted for 26 percent of Canada’s emissions in 2015, but that share is rising rapidly.

    1423540081_ARBitumenforecast.thumb.jpg.f3600ec1781bdb9d51d7408ef1b5092e.jpgSource: https://www.aer.ca/providing-information/data-and-reports/statistical-reports/crude-bitumen-production


    So while Focus is going to great lengths to use a transparent and verifiable process for determining whether Victorians are actually reducing their use of passenger cars, we’re not kidding ourselves about what we’re likely to find. But we’re open to surprise.

    For those people who object to our recording their passage through a public intersection, objection noted. However, the act of an individual making a video recording in a public place is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It applies equally to recording police officers at work and recording vehicles and people moving through an intersection. We exercise this right respectfully, believing it to be in the public interest to do so.

    What we have found so far is not surprising, but it is only the first reading of a moving number. We will provide a full analysis of our first year of counting cars, bicycles, buses and pedestrians in our January 2020 edition. At that point we will have established one point on the CARE Index. Unless our photographer gets run over by a car.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.

    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    Dear Editor,

    I am glad that Focus will be focusing on reducing traffic volumes. A recent California Air Resources Board climate report says California needs to reduce per capita car travel by 25 percent in just 11 years to meet their climate targets, even with a 10-fold increase in electric car sales. We need to achieve at least as great a reduction, just to meet BC’s inadequate targets.

    However, it is important to understand how the carbon footprint of transportation can be reduced in cities. Automobile traffic, and the resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution expands and contracts with the amount of available road capacity and parking. Therefore projects like the McKenzie Interchange make congestion and the climate emergency worse. Conversely, anything that reduces road capacity for cars makes traffic disappear – and the climate pollution disappears with the traffic. This does not depend on generosity, just common sense decisions by people.

    Numerous experiences of disappearing traffic have been documented. In the latest installment the Seattle Times reported “The cars just disappeared” after Seattle’s Alaska Way elevated freeway, which carried 90,000 cars per day, was closed in January and the predicted traffic chaos didn’t happen.

    Making Government Street a pedestrian priority zone would be an effective climate action, as would replacing parking with trees. Measures like bus lanes and protected bicycle lanes both make traffic disappear, and provide low-carbon mobility.

    The carbon footprint of construction is also an important issue. Reducing the amount of concrete and steel used to build underground parking garages, by replacing parking minimums with parking maximums as Mexico City recently did, is one way our municipal governments can make a big difference.

    Cities cooperate globally on climate action. If we stand out from the crowd (as Mexico City just did in parking policy) the power of Greater Victoria’s good example will be felt around the world.

    Eric Doherty, Registered Professional Planner, Victoria

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