The May 20 article “Will your next car be a plug-in?” asks, “What does a zero-carbon future look like for transportation in Minnesota?” It paints a picture of an electric-vehicle-filled world and sets it with a quote from Brendan Jordan of the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute:
“Decarbonizing does not necessarily mean giving up a car ... I can’t see a narrative where [it] results in a dreary post-apocalyptic future.” (Disclosure: my father is on the board of the Great Plains Institute.)
Declarations like Jordan’s, and articles like this one, are dangerous in their implications. The way we live our lives is how we got into this climate catastrophe in the first place. Of course we have to change. And that means driving less, not just switching which model sedan we buy. It means transforming how our personal needs relate to stewardship of our Earth and our communities.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report indicates that “significant reductions in car use … [via] modal shifts and avoided journeys” are necessary for a sufficiently low-carbon future. The report further asserts that a low carbon future “depends on cities that … encourage walkable cities, nonmotorized transport and shorter commuter distances.”
Similarly, Minneapolis’ recently passed 2040 Plan explains that “even with the adoption of electric cars, a 38% reduction in passenger miles traveled by automobile is needed” to adequately reduce emissions.
If we are obliged to reduce car travel — and perhaps even ownership — does that mean we’re stuck with Jordan’s “dreary post-apocalyptic future”? Only if you believe Paris, Vancouver, and New York fit that description. These communities and many others are built around comprehensive transit systems. Success of these systems, and the dense land uses that support them, discourage car travel and facilitate naturally low-carbon alternatives.
These transit-centered cities show that the most efficient way of cutting emissions can be to simply cease those activities that produce emissions in the first place — in this case, driving. The numbers reveal this approach’s success: while Minneapolis’ 2016 per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 9.8 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, New York’s were just 5.4 tons CO2e, Paris’s 3.4 tons CO2e, and Vancouver’s 4.2 tons of CO2e.
Transportation isn’t the only reason these cities have an edge on Minneapolis, but it’s a big one. Compact land use that allows for walking, biking and transit is correlated with significantly reduced GHG emissions and could save trillions in transportation operating and capital costs.
Yet we’ve doubled down on automobile investments, making transportation the highest GHG-emitting sector in Minnesota and in the U.S. more broadly. Unfortunately, these emissions continue to grow.
We must reverse this trend, and fast. The slower we reduce emissions, the more difficult the path to a stable future becomes. To illustrate, a paper cited by the Presidential Climate Action Project showed that had we hit an emissions peak in 2010 we could have achieved climate stability with a 3.2% annual emissions reduction rate. If we wait until 2030 to peak, that number climbs to 8.2%. In other words: the longer we wait, the bigger the jolt to society.
The IPCC confirms the importance of immediate GHG reductions and underscores that we do not need to hit a particular date for carbon neutrality — despite headlines that imply this goal — but instead need to stay within a particular “carbon budget.”
Because every pound of emitted GHGs counts toward this budget, and because any additional emissions spell a less stable tomorrow, approaches shy of an all-hands-on-deck effort undermine our future.
All this is not to say electric cars are bad, just that electric cars are not enough. We need to embrace a transformation in social values — not just product types — that elevates stewardship of our communities as our highest priority. This includes promoting non-automobile transportation options and compact land uses that support those options.
The potential impacts of our climate crisis are frightening and overwhelming. Luckily, the path to avoiding climate change’s worst potential can be a joyful and fulfilling one, centered around exercising responsibility, stewarding those resources entrusted to us, and dedicating ourselves with an open mind to public community good. Let’s embrace this challenge.
Sam Rockwell is president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and has authored numerous climate amendments for the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.