Irresistible Forces Meet an Immovable Object?

Commentary, Municipal Government, Owen McShane

Government has floated a proposal that all buildings be assessed for their carbon footprint before issuing a building consent.

This is yet another half-baked scheme which will make housing even less affordable without delivering any measurable benefit. No one knows how to measure such a footprint with any reliability, let alone over the 100 year lifetime of a building. If New Zealand adopted nuclear energy next year the future footprints would change dramatically. The error terms are so huge as to make the exercise meaningless.

It seems clear that buildings are the target of such nonsense simply because “They are there”.

Transport and “Sustainable Urban Form.”

Some speakers at the recent major transport conference – The Next 50 Years – fell into the same trap. Although the dominant theme of this excellent conference was the development of transport infrastructure, a major “sub-theme” was the “obvious” connection between private vehicle use and man-made global warming. The promoters of “sustainable urban form” were in “climate change clover”, and generally seized the opportunity to persuade us that they should be given the power to “design” “sustainable cities” with “compact urban form” behind Metropolitan Urban Limits so as to increase densities, stop people living in suburbs, force them out of their cars and onto buses and trains, or onto bike tracks and footpaths.

They simply assumed these draconian interventions are self-evidently necessary as pathways to salvation from Global Warming. Smart Growth fans (such as the ARC) take it as read that suburban living sets us on the pathway to global warming hell.

They are wrong.

Transport analysts acknowledge that the modern private-vehicle fleet is more fuel-efficient than buses and trains. This is because the whole-of-day percentage loading of the private car is much superior to the whole-of-day percentage loading of the public transport fleet. The UK Rail Safety and Standards Board recently admitted that catching a diesel train is now twice as “polluting” as traveling by car for an average family.

No amount of social engineering by managing “urban form” can significantly change these whole-of-day loadings because the majority of vehicle trips in a modern city are for social and recreational activities rather than commuter trips, and commuter trips become less focused on the CBD by the day.

Consequently “getting people out of their cars and into buses and trains” does nothing to reduce the family carbon footprint and almost certainly makes it worse.

More importantly, the government’s own climate change web page tells us that the private vehicle fleet accounts for only 8.5% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. Only a third of those vehicles are in large urban centres. So manipulating urban form can impact on only something under 3% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. And the impact goes in the wrong direction anyhow.

Place Doesn’t Matter.

Smart Growth theory has been further undermined by a recent Australian study called “Consuming Australia” by Sydney University’s Australian Conservation Foundation, using data collected by the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis. You cannot get a much more PC organization than that.

The Sydney researchers found that total transport activity – including private vehicle use, public transport and aircraft – accounts for only 10.5% of the carbon footprint of the average Australian family. This was the smallest slice of the carbon footprint “pie”. Food accounted for over 28% of the footprint. Putting everyone on a diet would have a greater impact.

Now there’s a new campaign for Weightwatchers – “Join up and Save the Planet!”

The Government should note that “construction and renovations” account for only 11.8% of the family’s carbon footprint – a bit more than transport, but much less than “other goods and services” at almost 30%.

The report bluntly concludes:

If every Australian household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving their cars tomorrow, total household emissions would decline by only about 18%.

So why do our social engineers focus on transport and construction which are such small slices of the carbon footprint pie? Again, I suspect it’s just because “They are there” – and, in particular, they are there to tax, inspect, and regulate.

This Australian study also examined the carbon footprints of families living in different states, different cities, and in different locations within cities. The researchers probably expected to come up with support for Smart Growth claims that high-density inner-city living will help save the planet while suburban living sends us down the pathway to toast.

Instead, they found that “place doesn’t matter.” Household income was the major variable. Families with the smallest carbon footprints are on lower incomes and live on the outskirts of town. The carbon footprint “criminals” are on high incomes, and live in “vibrant downtown communities”. Burning up all that midnight ethanol must pump out the CO2.

The researchers had to declare that:

“Despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other aspect of consumption. … the opportunities for relatively efficient compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living. In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of consumption.”

There goes the Smart Growth neighbourhood!

Yet the ARC’s summary report of their decisions on Proposed Change 6 simply asserts:

Urban living is more transport efficient than rural living.

Oh, really?

Smart Growth has always been a policy in search of justification. It started out as a means of pricing blacks and Hispanics out of white enclaves in the US. It worked but proved “inappropriate”. Then Smart Growth would “save” rural land from urban growth. There is no such thing as “productive land” so it didn’t work. Then it would save us from the oil shocks. The shocks went away. Most recently it would deliver us from global warming.

The Australian report knocks the props out of the carbon footprint argument.

What will they come up with next? Central planners need some excuse to push us round.

Can Couch Potatoes Save the Planet?

As if the Australians had not fired enough shots, the UK adds to the shrapnel with a report by Chris Goodall, Green Party Parliamentary candidate, and campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life. His ultimate heresy declares that:

Food production is now so energy-intensive that more carbon is emitted providing a person with enough calories to walk to the shops than a car would emit over the same distance. The climate could benefit if people avoided exercise, ate less and became couch potatoes.

Driving a typical UK car 5.0km adds about 1.0 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere, based on Government figures. On the other hand, walking the same distance uses about 180 calories and would need about 100g of beef to replace those calories, resulting in 3.6kg of emissions, or four times as much as driving.

“The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better.”

So the science is settled – yeah right!