Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Send A Colleague to Copenhagen

I won't be attending the Copenhagen climate conference but my colleague David Kroodsma still has a shot to do so if he wins the Huffington Post contest to send a citizen journalist (You can vote for him here). David is a writer, climate-energy expert, and bicycle adventurer with degrees in physics and climate science. He and I met last year on the Climate Ride while we were traveling to Washington to lobby for clean energy. Prior to that, David bicycled across North and South America to raise awareness of global warming and he has since documented his journey in a forthcoming book.

I spoke with David recently about the city of Copenhagen and how one-third of commuters there use bicycles. Below is an excerpt from his book where he talks about the choice world cities face: They can either copy Copenhagen, or they can copy American cities such as Los Angeles. The excerpt is from his chapter on Colombia. David visited Bogota and saw how investments in public transportation and bicycle infrastructure have helped to reduce carbon pollution and make the city a more pleasant place to live.
Something else remarkable has happened in Colombia over the past decade: the country has reduced its carbon dioxide pollution. Some of this reduction has been because of an increase in hydroelectric power—eighty percent of the country's electricity comes from dams—and a decrease in coal-fired power. But the Transmilenio [the public transit system] and bikeways have also had a serious effect, perhaps decreasing Bogotá's pollution by over half a million tons of carbon dioxide a year and cutting Bogotá's total pollution by a few percent. Car use in Bogotá has dropped significantly, and nearly twenty percent of daily trips are via the Transmilenio, an efficient service that didn't even exist a decade earlier. Bogotá shows that reducing pollution often has ancillary benefits. The city didn't set out to reduce pollution. The city set out to make itself more livable, and consequently reduced fossil fuel use.

If cities in the developing world decide to copy Bogotá, how big of a difference would it make? In the next thirty years, almost all growth in greenhouse gas pollution is expected to come from developing nations such as Colombia—nations where living standards are rising rapidly. Cities in these countries are growing rapidly, and decisions made today will decide the transportation infrastructure for decades to come.

A city like Bogotá could look to U.S. cities like Los Angeles where the majority of commuters drive, or they could look to European cities such as Copenhagen where transit is evenly divided between personal automobiles, public transportation, and bicycles. Whereas the average citizen of Los Angeles produces about five tons of carbon dioxide per person through transportation, the average citizen of Copenhagen is responsible for less than one and a half tons per person from transportation.

Half of the world's population now lives in urban areas, and the difference between these cities copying the transit system of Los Angeles versus copying the transit system of Copenhagen is thus a difference of about 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Given that global carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels is roughly 30 billion tons today, the difference between a world of Los Angeleses and Copenhagens is dramatic.

Here is David's video for the HuffPo Hopenhagen contest. Don't forget to vote:


Kun said...

I agree that cities should reduce car drives, and promote the use of public transportation and bike rides. It is undoubted that the increasing number of cars running along the urban streets is one of the contributors to the climate change. It might be reasonable for governments in different countries to collect more taxes on car purchase, which could be used for improving the public transportation. Also, some cities may consider copying Beijing’s model to impose restriction in which cars are banned on alternate days depending on whether their number plates end in odd or even numbers. Additionally, urban cities should build friendly bicycle lanes. Actually, many people said it’s more convenient to ride bike especially during rush hour to go to work. But it’s sort of adventure to ride bike because of lack of bikeways. Finally, public transportation and the bikeways should be taken into consideration when it comes to city planning in the future.

Usi Omondiagbe said...

I have always had serious questions about lowering CO2 emissions. A transfer from Los Angeles to Copenhagen is not just about urban dwellers changing their mode of transportation, it also signals a loss of economic opportunities for many whose survival is dependent on the energy sector. I am not only speaking of monolithic oil-exporting countries (many of which are in the third-world), many corporations in the West are highly dependent on a carbon-based energy industry. This also includes financial institutions. For instance, commodity traders in the energy derivatives sector bring the most profits to American and European banks, and this is very true. The stock markets are also major beneficiaries of a carbon-based energy industry. To simplify my point, I would like to ask every reader to picture New York City, a global financial center. What are the possibilities of having most residents, cycle to and from work, as opposed to driving cars? Not just possibilities, but let's also speak of relevance: would this be beneficial to the free flow of business in such a busy city? Speaking of Columbia's conversion to dams, it would be important to reveal that such projects have led to the displacement of centuries-old means of livelihood for many riverside community dwellers.

The greening lobby seems to be gaining a really powerful voice today, mostly due to its moralistic appeal: saving the earth. This is a noble goal I must say. Lately, alternative energy investments have even ranked as one of the most lucrative emerging investments in the U.S. Lowering CO2 emissions carry a very passionate appeal, but as a policy-maker, I cannot be blinded to think that it would not have any adverse economic effects on international development. We must always be careful in making constructive critiques, meant not for a complete demolition of existing systems, but for their amendment. It is important that we reduce global pollution levels, but a reversal of transportation modes cannot be the best means. This would be likened to throwing the baby off with the bath water, like we say in Africa. Calling on cities all over the world to copy Bogotá seems quite interesting, but is a rather naïve thought.

Evan O'Neil said...

Kun and Usi, thanks for your comments. You may be happy to learn that David won the contest and will be headed to Copenhagen with the Huffington Post.

Kun, "adventure" is putting it mildly, but there have been improvements here in New York. Groups like Transportation Alternatives campaign tirelessly for safer streets and better infrastructure.

Usi, I'm not sure I follow all your arguments. The energy sector isn't going anywhere, and in fact I predict that it will become more vibrant and resilient as people search for alternatives.

Bikes are not a complete mobility solution by any means, especially for long-distance or high-speed travel, but they are an integral part of the urban transportation mix, often representing the most efficient mode of getting about and producing other positive externalities at the same time: health, quiet, clean air, aesthetics. In fact, the free flow of business as you put it depends daily on the legs of cycle couriers.

You are right to point out, though, that all policy choices come with a mix of intended and unintended consequences. I would add that too often even the intended consequences disenfranchise people, like the river example you mentioned. But I don't quite follow how you relate all this to a drop in international development.

Kerol said...

I notice that everyone is talking about greenhouse gas emission by taking as example big city in the first world to show how mismanagement and waste of resources led to the catastrophe that we are in today. However, no one never really questions the fact that developing countries are following the first world development schema and lifestyle, because this is what they showcase as a model of success and good governance. The danger is looming for these developing countries; do not have the western style structure to keep things in order. For instance, using bicycle in Copenhagen is seen as curbing greenhouse gas emission, where as if let's say Timbuktu (Mali) take the same measure, it would be seen as people that cannot afford a car and paraded as a typical poor country. I think at this point it is imperative to undertake global initiative to educate people on the danger of climate change and have all governments participate in elaborating policy to that effect.

Usi Omondiagbe said...

My argument is based on the fact that the Copenhagen Conference on climate change is taking place barely one year after the latest energy price crises. This gives many the impressions that the climate change negotiations are not genuinely aimed at lowering greenhouse gases, but maintaining energy security. However, I do believe that developing alternative energy sources is a positive step, because despite rising global energy demands, crude oil price curves maintained relative calm this year. Since conventional sources would not be able to meet up with rising demands, which is on a sharp rise, mostly as a result of increased industrialization, the relevance of renewable energy becomes inestimable.