Posted by: Jeff | August 20, 2010

Car Culture Will Survive a Carbon Price

Responding to Ezra Klein’s worries over Americans’ fixation on car ownership, Matthew Yglesias posts the following chart and comments:

In reality, oil is not that carbon-intensive compared to coal-fired electricity and transportation is not that big a consumer of energy…

What’s more, a fair share of “transportation” is the transportation of goods rather than the transportation of people. If you look at per capita carbon emissions you’ll see that California is one of the very lowest-emission states in the union, notwithstanding its famous automobile orientation. That’s because mild weather plus relatively clean electricity equals low emissions. Heating and cooling poorly insulated single-family homes is extremely energy intensive.

Like Yglesias, I’m a big fan of walkable urban design. But it’s points like this that are bringing me around to the belief that walkable urbanism isn’t so much a crucial part of making America enviro-friendly as it is a lifestyle aesthetic of middle-to-upper class liberals. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing! But the distinction should be remembered, especially when it comes to ranking walkable urbanism’s relative importance in tackling the much more practical (and dare I say existential?) problem of global warming.

Given our energy use, failures to properly insulate our buildings and homes, to design them in a manner that prioritizes energy efficiency, and to generate our electrical power from renewable sources, all contribute a lot more to our carbon footprints than our car culture. While, as Yglesias notes, there are probably structural overlaps between walkable urbanism and more energy efficient construction, the latter is really more key and does not necessarily require the former.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that getting America’s carbon emissions under control — which will inevitably require carbon pricing — won’t have real impacts on how we use our cars. I imagine we’re going to see far more extensive hybridization and electrification of the car fleet. I also think that changing the way we interact with cars will be a big factor; probably through more forms of cooperative car use, such as rentals and companies like ZipCar. Innovation doesn’t simply mean changes in technology, but also changes in our behavior and in our organizational forms — so that we decrease the absolute amount of energy we consume without also decreasing our quality of life.

But all that said, getting America to a place where its economic activity no longer threatens the global ecology probably won’t involve changing the way we move people around all that much. Once we’ve shifted more transportation of goods to things like rail, I doubt we’ll be completely up-ending America’s car culture, or engaging in some massive nation-wide construction project of euro-style public transit.

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