Climate Urgency

Every year that passes, climate change becomes a more urgent problem to solve: every year that emissions do not fall means that future emissions will have to fall even faster to avoid catastrophic global warming and ocean level rise. This aspect makes climate change different as an issue from air pollution, health care, education, etc., all of which can be solved tomorrow in approximately the same way as today.

Transportation is an increasingly important aspect of climate change. In the 1990s activists could focus on electricity generation, due to the prevalence of coal power in developed countries. Today, when coal has terminally declined in most of the developed world, and is controversial in China and India because of its severe air pollution emissions, the share of transportation in greenhouse gas emissions is higher, and still rising (see e.g. US data on PDF-p. 32 and UK data).

Fast decisionmaking

As the biggest challenge of urbanism and transportation shifts from local public health to global climate change, the need for mechanisms that enable rapid demotorization and reurbanization becomes more urgent. I wrote a lot about consensus urbanism in 2011, and a lot of what I said still works if the aim is long-term improvement of democratic decisionmaking through inclusion; in essence, the consensus process spends time on buying goodwill from various groups instead of money (through open or de facto bribes) or political capital (through controversial coercion). But if the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change, then the value of time is high and will grow as the years go by and no action is taken, and thus the consensus process loses a lot of its appeal.

In lieu of slow attempts at consensus, there are two ways to implement policy fast: market pricing, and top-down coercion. In cultural theory terms, consensus is egalitarian, market pricing individualist, and coercion hierarchical; the fourth cultural bias, fatalism, is not really associated with any system, but rather with the government by exception that characterizes populism, and does not proceed in a particular direction.

The upshot is that governments should aim to spend money and political capital instead of time, and use governing mechanisms that facilitate rapid change. In areas where the market supports green decisions, for example urban real estate construction, it is necessary to remove restrictions on market activity. Where it cannot, for example any question of infrastructure, it is necessary to reduce delays, for example by removing the ability of individuals to sue over environmental reviews – decisions about environmental impact should be taken internally through a civil service.

Learn to say no

One of the biggest loci of opposition to the green transition is a culture war by an old guard that clings to a postwar vision of the good life that centers car ownership and either the suburbs (in the US and parts of Europe) or a small town that turned into a suburb (in the other parts of Europe). Waiting for the old guard to die off or otherwise slowing down the process of change to make it more palatable may work for other goals, such as reducing urban housing costs, curbing air pollution, and providing better mobility for people who already don’t drive. It does not work for climate change.

The upshot is that there are two valid strategies to deal with literally hundreds of millions of first-world citizens who stand to lose income, wealth, or social or cultural status from the green transition. The first is to buy them off, or at least buy off those who can be bought off without bankrupting the state. The second is to tell them no. No, we are not going to accommodate you: saving the planet is too important a goal, and turning your 20-minute car commute into a one-hour three-seat ride by a bus because you kept voting against trains is a price we are willing to pay, and even if you’re not willing to pay it, we don’t need you to vote for us.

This is easier in Europe than in the United States; Canada is somewhere in between. If NATO-Europe gets into a war with Russia tomorrow and bans personal car use the next day to conserve fuel for tanks, people will for the most part be able to adapt; the trains will get more crowded, but outside Paris and London, the main constraint on train capacity is rolling stock, which is cheap to make more of even in an environment of total mobilization. If the United States gets into a shooting war, it will not be able to do so – at most it may be able to organize car-sharing clubs as in World War Two, but even then, many weak-centered cities would cease to function.

Climate change is urgent but less urgent than a total war starting tomorrow, which gives some time for expansion of transit. There’s about a generation’s worth of time; in the same timeframe, Vancouver has turned itself from a postwar suburban hellscape into something resembling a transit city. However, two important caveats make a public works-only green transition impossible. First, there is political opposition to transit, especially cost-effective transit (for example, buses taking freeway lanes from cars rather than adding lanes to freeways). And second, without some combination of transit-oriented development and coercive taxes on fuel, public transport remains underutilized – a number of American cities have built ample urban rail but have far lower ridership than comparable European and Canadian examples. Rail expansion makes confrontational green politics more palatable; it does not remove the need for confrontation.

The one saving grace of this need for confrontational, risk-taking politics is that the status-anxious opposition is the same to everything: to urban redevelopment, to public transportation, to raising taxes on cars, and often even to a consensus-based process if this process empowers the wrong social classes or ethnic groups. Quite often this opposition is exceptionally loud and connected, but running against it, while risky, is not political suicide. California voted against expansion of rent control last year, congestion pricing proved popular in London and Stockholm after the initial controversy of implementation, carbon taxes in Sweden keep going up and emissions keep going down, the German Christian Democrats’ road warrior tendency is conservative rather than reactionary. The green movement should expect to lose battles; it should not expect to lose the war.

How France builds high-speed rail and how Spain builds subways

France and Spain have opposite approaches to cost containment. France spends time rather than money: informal political opposition in rural areas is hard to break – what the state will let the police do to suburban Arabs and blacks who protest brutality it won’t dare let it do to rural whites who protest trains despoiling their romantic Provence views – so the state painstakingly negotiates with the landowners. The resulting construction costs are reasonable: the 106 km LGV Est phase 2, with 4 km in tunnel, cost €2.01 billion euros in 2008 prices. However, the process takes a long time: in Provence, where placating the NIMBYs proved impossible, the resulting alignment is tunnel-heavy and expensive, and even though public debate goes back to 2005, the line will likely open well into the 2030s.

Spain takes the opposite approach. In the view of Manuel Melis Maynar, time is money, and the faster a project is completed, the cheaper it will be, as there will be less time for problems to accumulate. Madrid Metro awards contracts based on how fast construction can be completed as well as on the budget, and its internal planning process is designed around fast decisionmaking.

Spain builds infrastructure more cheaply than France, but that by itself is not enough to argue in favor of the Spanish approach. Spain does many things to curb costs that France does not, and the question of whether time and money are substitutes or complements occurs in many industries with different answers. In tech, there may well arise situations in which code can be written cheaply or quickly and ones in which delays add costs within the same project.

That the time or money question is delicate means that infrastructure builders need to cultivate enough expertise to be able to know when it’s one or the other and when it’s both or neither. However, that, by itself, has nothing to do with urgency; “work on building infrastructure more cheaply” is a good principle regardless of whether everything needs to be in place in 10 years or in 100.

What the urgency of climate change does mean is that there should be a bias against delays. In situations in which it is certain that time and money are substitutes, agencies should prefer to spend money, for example by buying off property owners and paying above market rates. In situations in which it is unclear, agencies should act as if time is money and aim to complete projects quickly even at the cost of budget overruns, rather than to complete them on a prescribed budget even at the cost of schedule slips.

That Spain has lower construction costs than France suggests that acting as if Spain is right and France is wrong is not likely to have too many drawbacks. It may require some internal cultural changes in how infrastructure builders think, and possibly regulatory changes streamlining environmental reviews, but it’s likely to either save money in the long run or only cost a little more.


  1. IAN! Mitchell

    “Spain has lower construction costs than France”
    Aren’t spanish incomes about two-thirds those of French ones? How much cheaper are their projects?

    Is it deliberate that you don’t mention EVs (incl. electric buses) or aviation, or land-use as it applies to issues other than transportation (albedo, land-clearing)?

  2. Matthew da Silva

    What is the prognosis for cities such as Dallas, that have built extensive but as of now underutilized networks of urban rail?

    • Alon Levy

      Dallas has so much housing growth – it’s the number 1 metro area in North America in absolute housing growth (not per capita) – that it could if it wanted have a lot of TOD around its light rail. It just doesn’t care enough to do it.

      • IAN! mitchell

        There’s a lot of Texas Doughnut going on along light rail in Dallas. The parking requirements, whether from the city itself or from the institutional REITs funding the development definitely throw a wrench in things.

        • Matthew da Silva

          Wouldn’t the REIT’s rather maximize the number of units they can fit on a given parcel as well as avoid the expense of decked parking?

          • IAN! Mitchell

            If they were purely economic actors, sure. The fact is that they want to build the same thing as many places as possible. New architectural plans and change orders aren’t cheap. In Arlington, TX or Raleigh, NC you’d need 1.5 spaces per bedroom, and it may not generate enough more units to justify re-designing the whole thing at the current land values along DART. Doughnuts also aren’t solely residential, and most nationwide retailers assume they need a parking space to have a customer.

            That’s not permanent. Seattle’s got new apartments sans parking going up. But that’s with higher land costs and rents.

  3. Diego Beghin

    California voted against expansion of rent control last year, congestion pricing proved popular in London and Stockholm after the initial controversy of implementation, carbon taxes in Sweden keep going up and emissions keep going down, the German Christian Democrats’ road warrior tendency is conservative rather than reactionary. The green movement should expect to lose battles; it should not expect to lose the war.

    Another example of how popular green policies can be are the protests in Madrid about the reversal of anti-pollution measures. The previous city government had banned most cars from the city centre 7 months ago, the new right-wing mayor wants to allow cars back in (it was a campaign pledge). Thousands of protesters are demonstrating and disrupting traffic.

    The school strike movement and the many climate marches also show that tens of thousands of people can take to the streets in favour of environmentalism. Luckily green activists elsewhere in Europe aren’t as daft as the French ones, and made no attempt to associate to the Gilets Jaunes.

    • Alon Levy

      The German Greens unfortunately have some serious Baizuo problems (at least my local city rep is, a.k.a. the one who tried ‘splaining gentrification to me when I complained that the face of anti-gentrification activism in a Middle Eastern neighborhood was white). The Swedish ones might be better, I’m not sure – they ran in 2014 on a platform of building more housing in Stockholm, but I was repelled by Swedish culture to the point that I never got to socialize with enough Swedes to see the hypocrisy up close the way I do here.

      • Diego Beghin

        I had to google Baizuo, but yeah, the Green parties have a white saviour problem. At the very least they tend to be good about promoting green energies, waking/biking and car taxes, even if they dislike rapid transit.

        Anyway, green policies aren’t limited to the official green parties, here in Brussels we had a socialist minister of transport who was very good at investing in transit and curbing car use (e.g. not replacing an expensive viaduct that had reached the end of its life). I voted for him a lot more for those policies than for anything relating to socialism. Sadly, it looks like he won’t keep his ministry 😦

    • michaelrjames

      Diego Beghin, 2019/07/09 – 11:13
      Luckily green activists elsewhere in Europe aren’t as daft as the French ones, and made no attempt to associate to the Gilets Jaunes.

      Perhaps true, but it is only fair to mention those horrible French elites almost 50 years ago had the foresight to build the greenest electrical grid in Europe (well, except for a few minor countries who by luck of geography have a lot of hydro-power). Although they haven’t built a new nuclear power station since the 90s France still has the lowest retail electricity prices in the EU, and at certain times is a big energy exporter to its neighbours including the UK.
      However, despite all that and contrary to some of the remarks on this thread, I don’t think nuclear is the answer to low-carbon energy. As it happens I wrote a piece on this close to ten years ago (link below) and (immodestly) find it as valid today as then. Remarkably the two French EPRs then under construction, one in Finland and one in France, which were subject to construction delays and vast cost over-runs back then, still have not begun delivering power to the grid! In fact, in the same year (2009) the Chinese began building two EPRs in collaboration with French Areva, and one of these, Taishan 1, started in December 2018, and the second, Taishan 2, is due this year. The point is not just that these cost and delays are typical (and yes, even in China), even if it all went smoothly, it wouldn’t be the answer. For all its ability to construct big infrastructure China’s nuclear reactors by 2030 nuclear would still only represent about 6% of their grid. If they can manage to scale up further it would still be under 10% by 2050. This doesn’t mean China shouldn’t build these things but that they aren’t even the short- or near-term solution. For the west they would be a distraction (in a way they are not for China which has the world’s largest energy investments and R&D in everything, solar, wind, nuclear). Did someone mention Small Modular Reactors (SMR)? Not a single one built and everything written about them is vaporware. In fact the French EPR is a LMR (Large Modular Reactor)!
      Nuclear economics just don’t add up
      MICHAEL R. JAMES, December 24, 2009.

      • Eric

        How is it that France increased their fraction of nuclear power 5% to 80% in 15 years, but China is unable to increase above 10%? Are Chinese engineers stupider than French ones?

        • michaelrjames

          France had a nearly mature market though it grew over the 40+years, simply nothing like China where electricity consumption will continue to grow like crazy for decades to come. So, France wasn’t chasing an accelerating target. China’s first gen of nuclear reactors will be getting retired while China’s demand will still be growing. It is almost impossible to grasp the size of China. It has 21 times the population of France but can we really grasp that? France built its 58 reactors (for 63GW installed) in the first 25 years (and hasn’t opened a new once since 1999; maybe this year?). China actually began its first in 1985 but didn’t speed up until the mid-90s but this is still roughly the same timespan, yet has ‘only’ built 39 with 34GW installed for a measly 3.9% share of the grid. (Interesting to note that the Three Gorges hydro system equals more than two-thirds of China’s nuclear power. Also China’s ≈1200GWh of hydro is about 20 times France’s 64GWh.) There are 19 under construction, but still nothing remotely close to 21 times the French rate. France was and is a lot richer. I certainly don’t think the Chinese are less competent etc. It is more reflection of the fact that it is not at all easy to scale up construction of nukes like everyone likes to assume. Remember too that nuclear is very demanding of water and a lot of Chinese mega-cities are not on the coast. China is one of the most water-constrained countries, hence the gigantic water projects (which they need for cities and ag, not to see it used by power gen!). Solar and wind gen don’t need water. France has much more water resources (per cap) than China and in bad summers (which are more frequent and getting more extreme) it has to run its nukes slower due to cooling limits (so does the US).

          Now it may be that they have been holding back a bit while they evaluate each competing design & build & operation before they settle on one or a few to begin to really scale up? If they have mastered the Areva EPR perhaps they might go with it, as it delivers close to double what the old Westinghouse design does and it is not clear if much difference in construction times etc. Of course that’s why the French went with that design even if their first builds were nightmares … And the Brits chose to go with two EPRs (built by a French-Chinese consortium) despite all the bad PR.

          Or they might have done the calculations and decided renewables + storage will do the job before they could begin to match France’s performance with nuclear. After all, France has made the same decision and plans to replace about 50% of its nuclear with renewables. Here’s another stat (and that is 2 years out of date): In China, as in every year since 2012, electricity production from wind alone (241 TWh), exceeded that from nuclear (198 TWh) in 2016.

          In fact, like I wrote a decade ago, the history of nuclear power has already been written. It doesn’t matter about the nukes being built or planned, they contribute but not enough and never will, and renewables is the future.

  4. Adam

    The middle class probably needs a substantial bribe to make them feel like they’re getting a stake in the outcome. Free solar panels and batteries for every SFR! sort of thing. Awful for equity, but worse for equity would be giving them nothing and having them burn the world down because they didn’t get anything.

  5. adirondacker12800

    turning your 20-minute car commute into a one-hour three-seat ride by a bus because you kept voting against trains is a price we are willing to pay

    Five or six years ago the wild optimists, who understand things like compound interest and declining prices, made very conservative estimates that the purchase price of electric cars would be the same as internal combustion cars in 2026-2028. They were wrong. Prices dropped faster. So they redid their estimates and came up with 2024-2025. They were wrong. Prices dropped faster. They are saying 2022-2023. It might be 2021 for the cars with smaller batteries. Rapid decarbonization is going to happen because burning dead dinosaurs is going to cost too much. It’s not going to be hydrogen or ammonia or methanol or synthetic petroleum because they cost too much.

    My back of the envelope calculations is that a typical parking space in typical suburban parking lot is big enough, covered with solar panels, to recharge the typical commute, in a few hours. The naysayers who said this could never happens were wrong. Even the wild eyed optimists. It being almost impossible to build more highway lanes and more parking will kill it off in the bigger metro areas. Traffic and parking isn’t a problem in smaller ones.

    If NATO-Europe gets into a war with Russia tomorrow

    The tanks crews that didn’t die of radiation poisoning would be dead from hypothermia in the nuclear winter that would follow. Which makes it much more difficult to ship crude oil to the refineries that would have severe staffing problems between the radiation poisoning and hypothermia.

    buying off property owners and paying above market rates.

    That would be illegal in the U.S.

    • Eric

      Electric cars do not solve the emissions problem (even if coal use ends, the plants will still mostly be running natural gas, unless there is a sudden breakthrough in the fight against nuclear power bureaucracy) though it does decrease emissions to a large extent.

      Also, dense urban housing decreases heating costs, which are another significant contributor to emissions.

      • adirondacker12800

        If I’m charging the car’s batteries with the solar panels over my parking space at work there’s no carbon emissions. Or charging the HVAC’s batteries with the excess solar and wind after the car’s batteries are charged. The HVAC’s batteries don’t move around much and can be batteries that are cheaper than the ones in the car. If prices continue declining as fast as they have it gets so cheap in the next few years that nobody wants to burn things anymore.

      • IAN! Mitchell

        “does decrease emissions to a large extent”
        It means a vehicle as clean as the grid it uses. It means a battery backup that can smooth out demand and supply peaks that doesn’t have to be utility-owned. The typical city bus in the US has 11 people aboard, and thus gets about 50 passenger-miles per gallon of diesel. Any EV on the market gets the equivalent of over 100 even for a single driver. A full bus does better, as does a full EV. The diesel bus will never be powered by nuclear or wind. An EV can be.

        “dense urban housing decreases heating costs”
        The 10 cities with the lowest fewest climate control energy demands are San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Riverside, Sacramento,Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and New Orleans.
        (Houston, Austin and San Antonio are in the 15 lowest)

        The 10 with the highest are Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit, Hartford, Denver, Cleveland and Salt Lake City.

        It requires four times less energy to cool a home for a year in phoenix than to heat the same one in Chicago.

        That 2,000 square foot ranch house with modern insulation to keep out the triple-digit heat uses less energy than the 500-square foot apartment in chicago with shared masonry walls takes to keep the pipes from freezing.

        Ideally, I’d like us to be building cities that look like New Orleans elsewhere in the sunbelt (although at higher elevation). A lot of <10 unit multifamily, streetcar suburb levels of density made livable by a combination of dockless mobility, rideshare, public transit, and plain old walking.

        “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland”

        -Tennessee Williams,

        • Eric

          Ideally, I’d like us to be building cities that look like New Orleans elsewhere in the sunbelt (although at higher elevation).

          Ideally, we’d be building cities that look like NYC in California.

          Note that of your 10 cities with highest emissions, only Chicago has any kind of density (and if it’s the Chicago metro area, only a small part of it has density). The best combination is a warm climate AND density.

        • Pokemon Black Card

          Using New Orleans as a model for sustainable development is a lovely vision, and one I think you’d have an easy time selling current sunbelt residents on. It’s also scalable, since New Orleanian duplexes and courtyards match the setback and building envelopes of their single family neighbors. Very easy to go into, say, Austin or Little Rock and say “duplexes and courtyards allowed in SFR, all other restrictions unchanged.”

          • Steven H

            Yep, or Charleston and Savannah’s side garden houses. There are mature, dense river cities and mill towns across the south that manage to be dense, green and “human-scaled”… and also thoroughly American.

            Large, fast-growing states like North Carolina (which is well on it’s way to becoming the 6th or 7th largest state in the country) could comfortably support the kind of density you see in places like Ireland without batting an eye. Which would be great, since the state has nearly added the population of Ireland since I graduated from high school there in 2000, and will do so again over the next 20 years. If only our concept of density wasn’t so Manhattan-centric.

            Not that there is anything wrong with Manhattan, but our discourse over transportation, cities, and density is completely dominated by The City.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t know about public transport in Ireland, but on this side of the Channel it is indeed entirely about the city. Just because the city may not have a lot of skyscrapers does not mean it does not have a strong city center. For example, the share of the central 100 square kilometers of total metro area jobs in Paris is 38%, which is higher than any big American metro area; the highest in the US, New York, is around 34%. Charleston et al have way too much job sprawl.

          • adirondacker12800

            Normal people don’t express density as a percentage of the metro area. Metro New York has twice the population of metro Paris. If the percentages are the same it means New York has twice as many jobs in the same area. In other words the way normal people would look at it.

          • Alon Levy

            Metro New York has about 50% more jobs than Ile-de-France (I’m going by MSA definitions, not CSA ones). So yeah, in the central 100 km^2 the New York job density is maybe 40% higher. But already on the outskirts of that area, job density plummets, because if you’re not in the Greater Manhattan Core (i.e. Manhattan south of 59th, Downtown Brooklyn, Exchange Place, etc.), you’re in an office park somewhere in Central Jersey, Westchester, etc.

    • Alon Levy

      It may be illegal, but it’s done all the time, it’s just called by other names: reverse condemnation, CEQA mitigation, consent decree, settling lawsuits over valuation.

    • jcranmer

      The tanks crews that didn’t die of radiation poisoning would be dead from hypothermia in the nuclear winter that would follow. Which makes it much more difficult to ship crude oil to the refineries that would have severe staffing problems between the radiation poisoning and hypothermia.

      Nuclear winter, if it even exists in the first place, would not be anywhere near that severe. It’s dubious that city-wide conflagrations can pump enough soot in the stratosphere to have any meaningful climatic effect, and even if it were as powerful as volcanic winters (volcanoes being the only phenomenon we know of that can reliably pump cubic kilometers of stuff into the stratosphere), the effect would be roughly on the order of reversing global warming.

  6. Untangled

    without bankrupting the state

    A state that has their own currency and only issues bonds in that currency can’t be bankrupt ever, they can just print more money to cover the cost, which raises concerns about inflation but they can’t go bankrupt. An extreme example is Venezuela which just keeps printing money but is not yet bankrupt but even they’re not a perfect example because they issue bonds in foreign currencies. Although, bankruptcy is also a risk for Eurozone countries because they’re effectively using a foreign currency (which can only be solved by a fiscal union or going back to national currencies). But other than that a state cannot ever go bankrupt, so long as inflation is ok, everything else is ok, debt doesn’t matter. This is Modern Monetary Theory and is how many proponents of the Green New Deal plan to pay for the program.

    • Alon Levy

      [I fixed the blockquote]

      Venezuela’s commitment to saving the planet through running PDVSA into the ground through incompetence is commendable. There are real resource issues at the end of the day, even if countries that investors trust to be non-Venezuelas could stand to run somewhat higher deficits. Thankfully in Venezuela the end result has been a collapse in oil production, although the resulting food shortages are not so great. But what I worry about is that populists in oil-importing developed countries would be unable (or unwilling) to restrain consumption and instead go after green tech production.

      • Untangled

        Yeah, there are real resource constraints. The result of when you print too much money but you don’t have the resources and hence can’t spend it on productive uses is higher inflation. That’s why inflation is the key indicator.

  7. Herbert

    Several cities in heavy have declared a “climate emergency” what do you think of that?

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