Tag Archives: climate change

Free public transit one step towards better cities

Free public transit could combat both economic inequality and climate disturbances. And, if paid for by fees on automotive junkies, fare-less transit could be part of a serious challenge to private-car-centred transit/urban planning.

At Toronto’s first mayoral debate Saron Gebresellassi called for fare-free transit. By detailing a bold proposal the left-wing candidate steered  the other candidates to bemoan ballooning fare costs and suggest eliminating some of them.

Gebresellassi’s plan also garnered significant media attention. In “Making Toronto  transit free isn’t realistic now. But it’s a terrific idea” Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan offered an informative rundown of the argument. But, as is wont in the dominant media, Keenan (implicitly) downplays the climate crisis and importance of ditching the private automobile. Rather than a long-term objective, free public transit should be viewed as a short-to-medium term tool for shifting away from our dependence on ecologically, socially and health damaging cars. Of instant benefit to those with the least, free transit would immediately drive price-conscious individuals towards less environmentally and socially damaging buses and trains.

While Keenan downplays the need for urgent, bold action on countering the automotive/climate crisis, he correctly states that making the Toronto subway (and some streetcars) free would exacerbate the rush hour crush. Making it free outside rush hour, however, would spread the ridership crunch out until new subway and streetcar lines are built. For their part, buses can be added quickly and eliminating fares will speed them up. Expanding ridership should also grow support for giving buses the right of way.

Eliminating transit fares is not radical. During times of high pollution Paris and some other large European cities have removed fares. The mayor of the French capital, Anne Hidalgo, recently expressed interest  in making transit free permanently and she launched a study into its feasibility. The book Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators details dozens  of cities that have expanded transit ridership by eliminating fares.

While not radical, fare-less transit is not free. It would be an enormous failure if it only cost what the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) currently raises from fares ($1.2 billion  minus the not insignificant cost of gathering and enforcing fare payment). As the TTC expands to displace ever-greater numbers of private cars, free transit would certainly cost magnitudes more.

But there are many ways to finance it. Greenpeace Germany has suggested placing a levy on car manufacturers to pay  for eliminating transit fares. In France employers with 11 or more employees pay a small tax devoted to transit.

Some of the billions of dollars currently spent on roadways – $3.6 billion  for example on rebuilding a Gardiner Expressway that should be torn down and the land used for  co-op/social/rental housing – could be directed towards free transit. Toronto could also repurpose  some of the 27.4%  of the city presently devoted to free roadway to moneymaking ventures (another 13 per cent of Toronto is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled roadway). A more straightforward way to incentivize public transit while deterring private car travel is to earmark congestion fees to the TTC.

A more novel option would be to replace requirements for businesses/public institutions/developers to offer parking with an equivalent contribution to a free transit fund. Toronto  currently prescribes a specific number of parking spaces for every new residence as well as for a “bowling alley”, “bus station”, “adult entertainment” site, etc. The cost of complying with these bylaws could fund significant mass transit.

Unlike education, healthcare, housing, etc., transit shouldn’t be promoted as a (at least broadly defined) social right. While less damaging than a private automobile ride, a 30 km oil powered bus journey emits substantial greenhouse gases and there are various social downsides to long commutes/sprawl. (Making Go Transit free, for instance, would encourage exurban dispersal and even daily commutes to Hamilton or Kitchener.) For environmental, health, safety, noise and cost reasons walking and cycling should be prioritized wherever possible.

But free transit should be promoted as an equality-based, short to medium-term solution for mitigating the climate crisis. Kudos to Gebresellassi for pushing the issue to the forefront.

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We have an addiction problem — cars

I often read troubling reports about the world’s unfolding climate catastrophe while working at McGill, but, ironically, steps from the university library I am reminded of Montréal’s unwillingness to make the changes required to avoid civilizational collapse.

During recent construction on Sherbrooke Street police have been stationed on corners near the university to direct traffic. Since three of the streets don’t continue north most of what the police do is hold up pedestrians seeking to cross Sherbrooke while cars roll slowly by. Why not close the street to vehicle traffic? It would save on police costs while speeding construction and pedestrian travel. But of course, closing part of Sherbrooke to cars during construction would further inconvenience the drivers of private automobiles, who seem to believe they have a “right” to travel around the city spewing greenhouse gases, damn the planetary consequences.

The reality is our municipal, provincial and federal governments remain enthralled to private automobility regardless of the climate consequences.

The evidence, large and small, is so ubiquitous we no longer notice:

  • Across from Complexe Guy-Favreau a metal barrier was recently installed over two blocks on René Lévesque. The presumed objective of this “highway-ization” of downtown is to stop pesky pedestrians from crossing halfway down the street.
  • In 2014 the various levels of government coughed up over 150 million dollars to host 10 years of Grand Prix car celebrations.
  • A recent directive from the Health Ministry substantially expands free parking at Quebec hospitals.
  • Last month Premier Philippe Couillard announced plans to extend Highway 19 north of the city and to widen Highway 50 from Gatineau to Montreal.
  • Last month’s provincial budget included $5 billion over two years in road repairs.
  • The provincial government is also ploughing over $3 billion into the Turcot Interchange.

Last year the Trudeau government axed the planned toll on the Champlain Bridge, which the federal government is rebuilding at a projected cost of over $4 billion. According to a government supposedly concerned about climate change, people have a “God-given right” to take their 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day (often solo) into the city without paying any direct road costs.

As climate science warns us of impending disaster, the Montréal region gained 200,000 new cars over the past five years. With 3.4 million people of driving age, greater Montreal’s car stock is on pace to reach 3 million next year.

The truth is automobiles are a major source of Canada’s extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents 40 percent of Montréal’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and it is growing while emissions from other sectors decline. Between 1990 and 2013 GHG’s from the city’s road network increased 16-per-cent while emissions from homes dropped 45 per cent.

Our city is a microcosm of the continent and increasingly much of the world. Last year North American gasoline consumption reached its highest level ever and countries around the world are adopting North-American-style auto infrastructure.

Montréal’s unwillingness to save money, while speeding construction and pedestrian travel near McGill may be a relatively insignificant matter, but it reflects the continued dominance of automobility. In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system based on private cars.

What will our children and grandchildren think of us?

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Canadian crimes against humanity in Africa

Should Africans pursue Stephen Harper for crimes against humanity?

The Africa Progress Report 2015 suggests they may have a solid moral, if not necessarily legal, case.

Led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Panel highlights Canada and Australia as two countries that “have withdrawn entirely from constructive international engagement on climate.” The mainstream group concludes that Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have shown “far higher level of ambition” to lessen CO2 emissions than Canada.

The report, which was released last week, adds to a significant body of evidence showing that anthropogenic global warming poses a particularly profound threat to Africans. Although hardest hit by climate change, the terrible irony is that Africa, among all continents, is least responsible for the problem.

If nothing is done to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, average temperatures may rise 7°C in southern Africa and 8°C in the north by century’s end. Reaching nearly twice the global average, this would destabilize human life on large swaths of the continent.

Still, a skeptic might argue, how does this amount to charging Stephen Harper with crimes against humanity? Doesn’t that require some form of mass murder or genocide?

Back in 2012 the Climate Vulnerability Monitor concluded that climate disturbances were responsible for 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in Africa. Nigerian ecologist Nnimmo Bassey has dubbed growing carbon emissions a “death sentence for Africa” while Naomi Klein reports that “African delegates at UN climate summits have begun using words like ‘genocide’ to describe the collective failure to lower emissions.”

Various ecological, economic and social factors explain the continent’s vulnerability. Most Africans are directly dependent on resource sectors – fisheries, forestry and agriculture – that are particularly vulnerable to climate conditions. Between half and two thirds of the continent are subsistence farmers who largely rely on natural rainfall, rather than irrigation, to water their crops. Additionally, large swaths of the continent are arid and a third of Africa’s productive area is already classified as dry land. As such, subsistence farmers’ crop yields and incomes are easily damaged by reduced or intermittent rainfall. According to Tanzanian Minister of State for the Environment Binilith Mahenge, “global warming of 2˚C would put over 50 per cent of the African continent’s population at risk of undernourishment.”

CO2 induced food shortages are not in some far off dystopian future. A study by Britain’s Met Office concluded that global warming sparked a major famine in Somalia in 2011 during which 50,000 Somalis died.

While water shortages represent a threat to many, an excess of this same element poses a hazard elsewhere. A quarter of Africa’s population lives within 100km of the continent’s 38,000 km coastline. Without significant investments to mitigate risks to major metropolises, such as Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Lagos, the threat of flooding looms.

Carbon can also trigger the taking up of arms. Climate change has spurred violent cattle raids in north-western Kenya and triggered the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali while the mid-2000s violence in Sudan’s Darfur region was dubbed the world’s “first climate change war.” A University of California, Berkeley, study found a statistical link between the hotter temperatures generated by climate change and the risk of armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The Colorado researchers forecast a 54 per cent rise in civil conflict on the continent due to climate change by 2030, causing 393,000 more combat deaths.

Increasing the strain on governance structures, climate change has already exacerbated inequities and ethnic divisions in parts of the continent. Climate change may well propel large areas of Africa into a downward cycle, further undermining the capacity of communities and governments to cope.

But most African governments can contribute little to curtail runaway global warming because their countries’ carbon footprints are negligible compared to the biggest capitalist economies. Per capita emissions in most African countries amount to barely 1% of Canada’s rate. In Uganda, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda and Mozambique, per capita emissions comprise less than 1/150th of Canada’s average. In Tanzania, Madagascar, Comoros, The Gambia, Liberia and Zambia per capita emissions are less than 1/80th Canada’s average.

Forward looking comparisons are equally stark. If plans to double tar sands production proceed, by 2030 Alberta’s project will emit as much carbon as most sub-Saharan African countries combined.

Canadian officialdom has done little to regulate tar sands emissions and has, in fact, subsidized its expansion. The Conservative government has campaigned aggressively against any international effort to reduce carbon emissions from fuel sources, which might impact sales of Alberta bitumen. Canadian diplomats worked with feverish determination to undermine the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive, a modest bid that would force suppliers to privilege lower-emission fuels. To the south, the Canadian government also lobbied aggressively against any US legislation that might curtail tar sands expansion and in favour of the Keystone XL pipeline to take oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

Despite the rising toll of climate change in Africa, the Canadian government pushed to grow the global “carbon bomb” in international forums. At every turn, Harper’s Conservatives have blocked progress on setting minimally serious targets for reducing CO2 emissions, repeatedly receiving the Colossal Fossil given out by hundreds of environmental groups to the country that did the most to undermine international climate negotiations meetings. At this week’s G7 meeting, Canadian officials reportedly sought to undermine German chancellor Angela Merkel’s bid for a statement committing countries to a low carbon economy by 2050.
Under Conservative government leadership, Canada became the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement committing leading industrial economies to reducing GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. (Instead of attaining its 6% reduction target, Canada’s emissions increased 18 per cent.)

In addition to undermining international climate negotiations and the efforts of other nations to reduce GHGs, the Harper government made a mockery of its own commitments. As part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, Ottawa pledged to reduce carbon emissions 17 per cent by 2020 (from the levels in 2005). Five years later, however, Environment Canada admitted this target would not be reached. In fact, Environment Canada suggested emissions would rise 20% by 2020.

In a sign of Ottawa’s near total indifference to the impact of global warming in Africa, the Conservatives pulled out of an international accord to study the consequences of desertification, a process ravaging parts of the African continent. In 2013, Canada withdrew from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in countries seriously affected by drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa.

Adopted in 1994, this international convention collects and shares scientific information about drought and ways to curb its spread. By becoming the sole nation outside the convention, Canada saved itself a paltry $300,000 a year. While the savings barely registered in the federal government’s $260 billion budget, the message was clear.

Clearly Harper’s Conservative government has wilfully ignored the interests of Africans and pursued an environmental, economic and political course that has already killed hundreds of thousands.

In a just world a Fulani pastoralist in Burkina Faso would have a forum to pursue Stephen Harper for crimes against humanity.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada in Africa, The Ugly Canadian

Make Harper pay for his environmental crimes

Will Supertyphoon Haiyan serve as a wake-up call for Canadians? Can environmental activists connect the dots between Harper’s climate crimes and the death and destruction caused by the most powerful storm ever recorded?

In response to the thousands who have died and hundreds of thousands who have been left without shelter on a number of islands in the Philippines, aid agencies, rescue services and many countries’ militaries have been mobilized, while many Canadians are making donations. But rather than simply provide aid after a disaster occurs, doesn’t it make sense to also deal with root causes?

At the UN climate talks currently taking place in Poland, Filipino negotiator Naderev Sano explained, “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness.” Simultaneously, Sano announced he would fast until there is progress at the negotiations towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For years the World Meteorological Organization has warned of the links between climate change and the growing number of natural disasters. Discussing the recent disaster in the Philippines, the agency’s chief Michel Jarraud, noted “Although individual tropical cyclones cannot be directly attributed to climate change, higher sea levels are already making coastal populations more vulnerable to storm surges.”

But Typhoon Haiyan or Hurricane Sandy are simply the most visible face of anthropogenic global warming. Loss of crops and increases in various diseases linked to climate change are already taking a toll on millions of people around the world. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor has estimated that climate disturbances are responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

In an oddly unjust twist, most of the victims live in countries that discharge few greenhouse gasses. While Canada and the U.S., for instance, emit among the most GHG’s per capita, places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia are being hit hardest by climate change.

Despite a growing human toll and scientific consensus on climate change, the Harper Conservatives have pushed to grow the “carbon bomb.” This week they applauded a move by Australia’s new rightwing government to eliminate the country’s carbon tax. A Guardian headline noted, “Canada reveals climate stance with praise for Australian carbon tax repeal: Canada discourages other industrialized nations from following through on their own climate change commitments.”

At every turn, Harper’s government has blocked progress on setting minimally serious targets for reducing CO2 emissions. They made Canada the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that commits the leading industrial economies to reducing their CO2 emissions below 1990 levels. For five years running they’ve received the Colossal Fossil given out by hundreds of environmental groups for being the country that’s done the most to undermine different international climate negotiations.

In a bid to advance tar sands interests, Ottawa has lobbied aggressively against efforts to reduce carbon emissions from fuel sources. They’ve worked feverishly to undermine the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive and have targeted California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Section 526 of the U.S. Energy Security and Independence Act, which effectively forbids government agencies, including the heavy consuming U.S. military, from buying oil with a high carbon footprint.

In addition to undermining international climate negotiations and other countries’ modest efforts to reduce GHGs, the Conservatives are ignoring their own reduction commitments. In 2009 Ottawa committed to reducing carbon emissions 17 per cent by 2020 (from the level that existed in 2005). But now Environment Canada is admitting that there will only be a 3 per cent drop.

To the extent that some sectors of the economy are seeing GHG reductions it’s mostly because provincial governments, especially Ontario, are phasing out coal use for electricity. GHG emissions from electrical generation are set to drop 41-million tonnes between 2005 and 2020, but this reduction will be more than wiped out by soaring emissions from the tar sands, which are expected to increase by 61-million tonnes from 2005 to 2020.

The economic interests behind tar sands growth basically guarantees that Canada will oppose or flout international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Former environment minister Peter Kent made this point forcefully in December 2011 when he described the Kyoto Protocol as “one of the biggest blunders the previous Liberal government ever made.”

But the public is not on board with this type thinking. According to a recent Leger Marketing poll sponsored by Canada 2020 and the Université de Montréal, most Canadians don’t know the Harper government pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol. Incredibly, 59 per cent of respondents were unaware that the Conservatives had withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol.

Once aware, they aren’t happy. The poll showed that nearly 60 per cent of Canadians want climate change to be a top issue for the government and 76 per cent say Canada should sign on to a new international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

This combination of ignorance at what the government has done and desire for action suggests there’s a great deal of potential for activism on this issue. One way for the climate justice movement to exert itself could be to choose a half-dozen ridings where Conservative MPs are vulnerable and mount an aggressive popular education campaign. We could flood the specific ridings with tens of thousands of posters and leaflets denouncing Harper’s climate crimes.

If done properly this type of campaign could contribute to some Conservative MPs losing their seats and be a warning to politicians that there is a price to pay for policies that destroy humanity’s ability to survive.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, The Ugly Canadian