Norway’s capital, Oslo, has announced it will eliminate conventional automobiles from its city center by 2019, replacing them with electric cars — and thus slash its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2020.
This is sensational news for Oslo. But it may not be the right strategy for other cities intent on becoming carbon neutral, at least not yet. There are many other ways cities can reduce carbon emissions and air pollution in the near term: by transforming traffic-choked streets into integrated networks for bicycles, e-bikes, public transportation and walking.
Overall, Europe’s urban transportation system is nothing to crow about. But there are affordable, visionary plans to change that by 2030. Worldwide, cities are responsible for 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and transportation is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The battle against climate change must begin at street level.
The imperative to lower emissions in the transportation sector has never been more urgent, especially with world leaders meeting on Nov. 30 at the climate summit in Paris to devise new greenhouse gas targets. At present, Europe isn’t on track to meet its 2030 goal to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent — and transportation is an obvious culprit. In Europe, greenhouse gas emissions by fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, air travel and shipping have risen 27 percent since 1990, even as other sectors have reduced emissions.
It is scandalous that countries such as Germany don’t even have emissions reduction targets for their transport sectors. On the contrary, the automobile and aviation industries are coddled like spoiled children, a fact that this year’s Volkswagen debacle underscored. It wasn’t a coincidence that the German carmaker’s cheating on the emission levels of its diesels — which emit more carbon than gas-powered cars — was uncovered in the United States and not in Europe. Germany’s special treatment of its auto industry also obstructs efforts to cut air and noise pollution. More than 80 percent of Europeans today live in cities with prohibited levels of smog.
The good news is that recent advances in electromobility — spurred by the U.S. automaker Tesla — have put more e-vehicles on the road and cleared the way for a revolution in plug-in, battery-powered vehicles. European automakers have rushed to drop clunky hybrids in favor of models along the lines of the Tesla S, the first plug-in to have a range of over 200 miles and quick-charging batteries. Oslo is the world leader in e-mobility, with much of its street traffic already electric.
Norway is also exceptional in that it generates about 98 percent of its electricity from renewables, mostly hydropower from its abundant mountain lakes and rivers. This means that electric vehicles plugged into charging stations are being juiced up with zero-emission energy. This is the only way that e-mobility makes sense: when the electricity is green and not generated by coal or other fossil fuels. In many countries, the power supplies are so dirty that it makes more sense to drive a high-efficiency conventional vehicle than an e-car.
But there’s another way for cities to go green in the meantime, and it’s not expensive. Cities that restrict car traffic, tax fossil-fuel burners, slash public transportation costs, phase out diesel and revamp their avenues in favor of bikes and pedestrians can shrink their carbon footprints dramatically — in the way Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Zurich and Barcelona have already done.
Governments can start by doing away with subsidies to the automobile and aviation industries and redirecting funds toward the greening of cities. In Europe, for example, airlines enjoy tax breaks worth 40 billion euros a year. This is why it costs less than half as much to fly from Berlin to Paris as to take the train, which is not exempt from these taxes and pays a per kilometer rail tax too.
The European Union’s automobile-manufacturing nations regularly intervene on behalf of their industry to block new fuel efficiency regimes, pollution reduction measures and the imposition of speed limits and tolls. The car lobby, which is powerful and wields its clout deftly, is fighting a fierce rearguard battle to keep its luxury-size gas guzzlers on the road.
Automakers must start paying for the damage they’re inflicting on the planet. This can start with highway tolls and in urban centers with congestion pricing along the lines of those regimes in London, Milan and Stockholm as well as in Singapore and San Diego. In downtown London, commuters pay 10 pounds a day to drive in the city; a new tax on diesel drivers will more than double that. During the toll’s first decade, bus usage doubled, the volume of bicycle travel increased 79 percent, and London experienced a 30 percent reduction in congestion.
Moreover, by reversing subsidies and tax breaks, traffic can be moved from the road and the air to rail. By making conventional cars and airlines pay but letting trains go tax-free, tens of billions of euros could be generated for halving the price of bus, train and subway tickets in climate-friendly cities.
Bike paths aren’t expensive, but it takes sophisticated urban planning to design a smart city, which begins with the fundamental decision to prioritize bikes and pedestrians over cars. Copenhagen, for example, is the cycling capital of the world. In a city of 570,000 residents, half of them ride bicycles to work every day along 200 miles of extra-wide bike lanes. The bicycle infrastructure, which includes traffic lights for bikes, parking places and favorable traffic laws, has the city at pace to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.
“There’s a triangle consisting of energy, climate and transportation,” says EU parliamentarian Michael Cramer, a German Green, The greening of the energy supply, he adds, is a crucial long-term prerequisite for smart cities. E-cars, -trucks, -buses and -bikes all require electricity, as do businesses and homes. Planners have to integrate renewable energy production, a decentralized power grid and transportation networks that combine nonmotorized cycle travel with public transportation and e-taxis in affordable networks.
Cities that are less friendly to cars are more friendly to people. Besides being safer and more livable, they are essential for the future of the planet.