While researching my previous post about nuclear power, I found various sources about the construction costs of renewable electricity. They all point to the same conclusion: the installation costs of solar and wind power took a nosedive in the 2010s. By now they are down to €1-1.50 per watt for onshore wind, €1.50-2.50 per watt for offshore wind (PDF-p. 24) and around $1.10 per watt for utility-scale solar power (PDF-pp. 7, 50-51). The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for onshore wind and solar power is, depending on source, 4-7 cents per kWh (see Fraunhofer, Lazard, IRENA), at which point it’s cheaper than new coal and gas without subsidies or carbon taxes and cheaper than existing coal and gas with mild carbon taxes. Intermittency is still an issue, but at continental scale it is much more of an irritant than a serious impediment. Decarbonization of electricity is substantially a solved problem.
The problem is that decarbonization of transportation is not a solved problem.
The world of 2020 is not that of 2000. The greenhouse gas inventory of 2020 is not that of 2000. In developed countries, electricity is down, and transportation is up or at best flat. In developing ones (i.e. China and India) the situation is different, but there too there’s growing public concern with coal power pollution, to the point that one of the premier sites for information about air pollution levels, AQICN, is Beijing-based. Nonetheless, cars remain aspirational in those countries, despite high levels of investment in urban and intercity rail transportation (periodic reminder: about two-thirds of global high-speed rail ridership is in China).
The problem with transportation is cars.
Cars are not getting better. There’s a growing but very small share of the market for new cars that is electric; so far production costs remain high, and there are real long-term issues with rare earth metals used in the batteries. Costs are inching down, but it’s firmly in “more research is needed” territory. And meanwhile, in the carbon tax-free developed world (i.e. the US) the vast majority of cars that are not electric are getting bigger and less fuel-efficient. American transportation emissions peaked in the mid-2000s and fell as fuel prices rose, but now that fuel is cheap they’re rising, faster than population (source, PDF-p. 32).
The problem is partly, but not only, the United States.
Whatever historical causes made Americans this way, American culture of the early 21st century is still one that thinks it’s normal to want every American to have an SUV and deviant to want every American to have an apartment in a big city with a good subway system. This mentality cuts across classes, parties, subcultures, and states, and was recently affirmed in California, particularly Los Angeles. Decarbonizing solutions on the road that may be popular in segments of the tech industry, like electric cars and mobility as a service, are still brushing against a culture that equates the size of one’s car and engine with one’s moral worth. One of two things will happen: this culture will vanish, or hundreds of millions of people in countries Americans can’t find on a map will be inundated.
But it’s not just the United States.
Public transportation usage in Europe is increasing, unlike in the United States – and it’s increasing from an already nontrivial base. But it’s not increasing fast enough. The same motorist culture of the United States exists in a more attenuated form here. There are high fuel taxes and they help a lot – SUVs and pickup trucks are rare, and vehicle-km per capita are maybe half what they are in the US – but the difference between greenhouse gas emissions of 17 and 8 metric tons-CO2 per capita is one of whether catastrophic climate change will happen soon or shortly later.
It’s a priority for Europe specifically, precisely because it’s in uncharted territory.
The United States needs to learn to imitate and get from 17 to 8 on its way to 0, but Europe needs to get from 8 to 0 and to figure out how to do so. Switzerland and the Netherlands are already at the forefront of improving mainline rail, and yet have widespread auto usage in local as well as interregional travel.
There are a number of headwinds to the replacement of cars with public transportation, all of which are politically or technically nontrivial in ways that mass installation of solar and wind power isn’t:
- Public transport is the most convenient in large cities and least convenient in rural areas, but modern nationalism holds the rural to be more authentic and moral. Thus, when rural motorists riot the state is paralyzed with inaction and the media urges understanding of populist anger at elites, whereas when urbanites riot the state immediately engages in mass arrests and the media urges law and order.
- The pace of urban redevelopment is too low, thanks to local NIMBYism, making it hard for people to live in cities where car-free living is already convenient. Local housing activism always focuses on people already present; Berlin passed a new rent control law that is projected to reduce investment by 25%. Even Paris, which is building more housing, is doing so almost exclusively in the suburbs and not in the city proper.
- Local notables tend to drive even controlling for income and social class. One does not become a local notable by working at a city center office with people from many neighborhoods, many of whom are recent migrants to the city, but by staying within one neighborhood and interacting with old-timers. The latter kind of economic and social network is less convenient to travel by train. Thus, the loudest voices in a local discussion are against seizing space from cars and giving it to pedestrians, cyclists, buses, or trams.
- At low levels of public investment, the car will predominate, for two reasons. First, some state action is needed to give buses priority on roads. Second, public transportation has more moving parts that must be integrated – fares, schedules, infrastructure, equipment, development. This makes fiscal austerity a drag on the ability of a developed society to demotorize unless this austerity specifically takes the form of very high taxes on cars and fuel.
- A political process that slows down investment in order to mollify NIMBY opposition makes it very hard to shift priorities on the ground. In this sense, the freeway revolts and the changes they led to are the best thing that ever happened to car culture, even more than the freeways themselves; in the American context, the revolts happened largely only when the freeways intruded on middle-class neighborhoods.
These headwinds are phrased politically, but all have various technical components, like construction costs for new rail lines, public transport network design, interagency cooperation issues that are too far removed from mass politics to be truly political, etc. Is the problem solvable? Most likely, yes. It’s not only in the biggest cities in the world that public transport usage is high; getting Stockholm, Vienna, Zurich, and so on to demotorize is within the realm of possibility, and getting other cities to have what those cities have is as well.
But “within the realm of possibility” is not a statement of utmost confidence. It’s a difficult program, one where failure is regrettably an option. Every aspect is hard: convincing governments that don’t like spending money on mobile people to invest more in rail, raising taxes on fuel and on cars, building more housing in the cities, reclaiming street space from cars, improving the quality of public transport service, improving connections between lines. It all takes money, and though the required subsidies may well fall with better technology and higher usage, the most optimistic view is that public transportation now is like wind and solar power in 2010, when they was still an economic gamble, and not what they are today that the gamble is paying off.
I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.
Electricity in Germany
There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.
Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.
Why is Germany like this?
It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?
The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:
Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.
West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.
Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?
In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.
Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs
On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.
The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”
What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of €1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps €1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about $2.50/W after PPP adjustment.
The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.
There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.
In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.
The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.
It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.
Bloomberg is reporting that Germany and Sweden are seeing a trend of reduced domestic air travel and greater rail usage. In Germany, intercontinental air traffic is up 2% year-over-year and international European traffic is down 2%, but domestic traffic has crashed in the last few months and is down 12% now. In Sweden, domestic air traffic is down 11%.
The Greta effect
Greta Thunberg famously crossed the Atlantic by sailboat to avoid personally contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. But she’s fairly practical about alternatives and said right out that she travels in such conditions to highlight how difficult complete decarbonization is. She is also very insistent on the fact that while changes in behavior are nice, collective political action is still needed.
Moreover, the young (as in, younger than me) Greens I meet in Germany are themselves practical as well. The more committed might take a train to France or Italy, but there’s not much interest in back-to-the-land 1960s communes, degrowth, or political revolution in the sense of the socialists and anarchists. Nor have I seen anti-nuclear sentiments recently – the one anti-nuclear sign I saw at the September 20th climate march, which had 100,000 people in attendance, was held by a pensioner and someone who looked 40, whereas the median age at the rally looked like 20.
It’s relatively easy to change travel behavior to avoid domestic flying in Germany as well as Sweden. Domestic rail travel pain in Germany means hourly Hamburg-Munich and Berlin-Stuttgart trains take 5:40 each. International rail travel pain means Berlin-Paris trains take 8:11 with a short transfer that I don’t trust DB or SNCF to meet. Domestic trains only get this long if many transfers are needed, in which case the main competition to the train is the car rather than the airplane, or if one needs to travel between Umeå (population 123,000) and central or southern Sweden. It’s thus likely that the shift in travel pattern reflects a change in consumer desires to avoid polluting – other explanations, such as the grounding of the 737 MAX, would equally affect domestic and European air travel.
Upcoming carbon taxation
Germany has been planning climate legislation for years, but the September 20th protest created a lot of pressure on the government to enact an aggressive package. A carbon tax will begin at €25/t-CO2 in 2021 and rise to €55/t by 2025, where the original plan was to only go up to €35/t. Sweden has had a carbon tax going back to 1991; starting in 2014, the Löfven cabinet has hiked the tax on industry to match the tax on transportation, both currently at €114/t. The effects on the German economy are to be seen, but in Sweden, economic growth has been healthy throughout this period, ahead of any not-newly-industrialized developed country save Australia (although the differences near the top are small).
In addition to the German carbon tax package, the EU is planning to levy a carbon tax on jet fuel for internal flights; so far, international emissions, including international aviation and shipping, are not subject to carbon tax. A leaked report suggests the EU is considering a tax of €330 per 1,000 liters of jet fuel, which corresponds to a hefty €130/t-CO2, the high figure coming from the fact that a ton of CO2 emitted at high altitude causes more global warming than one emitted at ground level. A very fuel-efficient plane like the A320neo consumes 2.25 liters per 100 seat-km on a 1,200 km flight, raising fares on a full flight by €9.06, which is not a game changer but is noticeable at low-cost carrier rates.
Planning for busier trains
The upshot is that demand for flights in Europe is likely to go down, shifting toward rail. The article linked above about the Greta effect says that DB expects its intercity rail traffic to double to 260 million passengers a year by 2040. The article makes no mention of which further investments in intercity rail DB is assuming, but a virtuous cycle is likely: higher ridership justifies more investment, and faster and more convenient trains attract higher ridership.
Of note, the weakness of international rail in Europe points to international connections as an investment priority. In Sweden, trains from Stockholm are fast toward Gothenburg and Malmö, averaging almost 140 km/h, and there are unfunded plans for high-speed rail connecting the three largest cities. However, Stockholm-Oslo trains are quite slow (about 6 hours for what looks like 500 km), even though Oslo is bigger than Gothenburg and Malmö and there are extensive economic and cultural connections between the Nordic countries. The Greens have called for Stockholm-Oslo high-speed rail, and the government should work with Norway on establishing such a line.
In Germany, the situation is different. London and Paris are vast cities, and Paris is within reasonable high-speed rail distance of most of Germany, with good connections on the French side and poor ones on the German one. Trains between Paris and Frankfurt take about 3:48, of which 1:47 is between Paris and Saarbrücken on the German side of the border, a distance of 380 km, and then 2:00 is between Saarbrücken and Frankfurt, a distance of about 200 km by rail and 160 by air. In Belgium, the existing high-speed line east of Brussels is compromised to the point of being slower between Brussels and Liège or Aachen than legacy lines like Stockholm-Gothenburg or London-Manchester.
The reason the map of the high-speed rail I think Germany should build is heavy on international connections is mostly that Europe is gradually building thicker international economic and social connections. However, a future with more expensive air travel and a consumer taste for greener ways of travel does not change the basic picture, and makes it more urgent.
(Map legend: blue is existing or under-construction lines, red is lines that are either in planning or not even in planning but should be built.)
Speed and capacity
DB’s forecast for 260 million annual rail travelers argues in favor of building more capacity. However, in no way does this conflict with building a dedicated high-speed rail network for Germany. On the contrary, the bypasses providing relief to congested lines are already planned to be high-speed: this was the case for the Tokaido Shinkansen and LGV Sud-Est decades ago, and this is now the case for HS2 and the planned Frankfurt-Mannheim express connection.
A largely dedicated network for high-speed passenger rail, with freight using the legacy lines, improves intercity rail reliability, allowing average speeds to rise to be closer to their theoretical technical maximums. Average speeds of 250 km/h on a few lines are plausible, as on Paris-Strasbourg or Madrid-Barcelona. Moreover, through-tunnels enabling intercity trains to run through Frankfurt and possibly Munich without reversing direction facilitate planning high-speed rail as a separate system. Timed connections with regional trains remain important, but critical trunks like Frankfurt-Cologne and Berlin-Hanover can run very frequently.
The schedule I tried writing for the above map in which domestic city pairs mostly run every half hour all day, interlining on a few trunks, assumes ridership of about 250 million. This is not the same as DB’s forecast of 260 million: this counts only high-speed rail riders, and assumes the average trip is 350 km long. To get from DB’s forecast to 87.5 billion p-km per year requires the virtuous cycle of higher ridership and more investment to work over time, but this is plausible given high levels of investment.
When Greta talks about systemic solutions, she understands that it’s important to make it easier to live a comfortable life without greenhouse gas emissions and harder to live one with high emissions. There are many aspects to green convenience: carbon-free electricity (largely achieved in Sweden but not in Germany), pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, urban and periurban public transport, intercity and freight rail, passive solar design, urban density, carbon-free industrial power generation.
In every case, it’s important to seize upon any social, economic, or political trend that facilitates the green option. If people want to live in big central cities, then governments should make it easy to build housing there so that more people can enjoy the low-carbon wealth of Munich or Stockholm rather than live in cheap declining rural areas and drive. If people support solar power, then governments should leverage its political popularity and subsidize it to decarbonize electricity.
In the case of intercity transportation, a shift in taste toward intercity rail is a cause for celebration. Europe is full of intercity trunk lines ranging from ones that scream “build me now” no matter what (HS2, completing Berlin-Munich, etc.) to speculative ones. Any positive shift toward rail justifies adding ever more marginal intercity rail lines to the network. Perhaps if the network I mapped was justified before the Greta effect, after the Greta effect the most marginal parts of the network (like Stuttgart-Würzburg) are on more solid footing, while unmapped marginal lines like Munich-Prague or even Bremen-Oldenburg-Groningen become plausible.
But celebration does not mean idleness. Climate change is a systemic issue. The state must plan ahead, using the shift toward rail to plan further investments now so that they open in the 2020s and early 30s. This way, the rail network will meet near- and medium-term growth in demand, while stimulating long-term growth, to be satisfied through future investment, paid by taxes on the richer Germany of the 2030s. Good transit activists should take a page from Greta’s refusal to treat good news as grounds for letting up, and demand intensive investment in Europe’s rail network to ensure that green travel will be more convenient, featuring higher speeds rather than more sitting on luggage in the corridors of full trains.
Two of the cities I have lived in are in areas with a carbon tax regime: Vancouver and Stockholm. British Columbia implemented a carbon tax starting in 2008, at a level reaching C$30 per metric ton of CO2, under the right-wing BC Liberals, who favored the carbon tax as a market-friendlier approach than the left-wing NDP’s proposal for cap-and-trade. The tax was revenue-neutral, offsetting other taxes, and is seen as a success; the NDP has since won power and announced a hike in the tax to C$50/t by 2021.
Sweden’s carbon tax is higher and older. It was implemented by the Social Democrats in 1991, at a rate of €24/t for home use, such as fuel, and €6/t for industrial use; it has been subsequently hiked multiple times, reaching €88/t for home use by 2004, and Löfven’s coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has increased it to €114/t for both home and industrial use. Our World in Data cites it as a success too, linking it to high levels of political trust and low corruption levels in Sweden as well as in other European countries with carbon taxes, such as Switzerland.
The question of interest is, how come these carbon taxes are good not just for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also for the economy? British Columbia’s economy has grown somewhat faster than that of the rest of Canada. Sweden has had high economic growth since the 1990s as well – see for example World Bank data from 1990 to 2018, in which Sweden’s growth in GDP per capita only behind that of Norway and the Netherlands, both by very small margins. What gives? How come this is apparently good for raw economic growth, when it’s supposed to be an economic distortion that reduces living standards if one ignores long-term environmental benefits?
Negative carbon taxes
There is an array of policies that act as negative carbon taxes – that is, taxes on green activity, or subsidies to polluting activity. The construction of highways is one example – the negative effects of cars include not just climate change but also local air pollution, noise, and car accidents. There are various policies counteracting these effects, such as fuel taxes and mandatory insurance, but they are not enough. For example, in British Columbia the minimum insurance requirement is $200,000 in personal injury plus $300,000 in medical expenses and smaller sums for related torts like funeral costs, but the insurance value of human life is measured in the millions.
To the extent non-carbon taxes on cars are too low, the addition of a carbon tax should move the tax level closer to the true level of the negative externality even ignoring long-term climate change. Carbon taxes should not by themselves improve economic growth on a 30-year horizon, let alone a 10-year one, but lower levels of air pollution, fewer car crashes, and less traffic congestion would.
Another aspect is development. Various zoning laws, such as single-family residential zones in much of Vancouver and restrictions on high-rises in Central Stockholm, encourage people to live and work in lower-density areas. This is simultaneously a negative carbon tax of a sort and a drag on economic productivity. A carbon tax is no substitute for reforms making it easier to add housing – and thankfully, both Stockholm and Vancouver already have fast housing construction, unlike (say) New York – but it does help countermand the subsidies to suburbanization implicit in restrictive zoning.
Climate science vs. arbitrary rule
The economic reasoning behind why special fees on various activities are inferior to broad taxes on income, property, and consumption has to do with incentives and rule of law. Taxing a specific activity incentivizes people and corporations to find creative ways to shift apparent activity elsewhere, creating economic distortions. It also sends everyone a message, “spend more money on lobbying politicians to keep your sector’s taxes lower than those of other sectors.” Broad-based taxes don’t do that, first because the only way to avoid an income tax is to be poorer, and second because there are fewer moving parts to an income or sales tax.
However, carbon taxes are not your run-of-the-mill tax on an activity some politician does not like. Yes, there is a definitive political movement calling for restraining greenhouse gas emissions, but the reasoning behind it is telegraphed years and even decades in advance, and is based on a scientific consensus. Lobbyists can try to fight for exemptions, as they can from income taxes, but the tax itself is based on a process that is transparent to informed economic actors.
In green democracy as in social democracy, the role of the state is not to side with the interest groups that voted for the party in power, unlike in populism. Social democracy holds that the state has an expansive role to play in the economy, but this role is not based on arbitrary exceptions but rather on budgetary and regulatory priorities that have been largely stable for generations: income compression, labor unions, health care, education, child care, infrastructure, housing. It’s not a coincidence that the part of the world with the strongest social-democratic institutions, the Nordic countries, also has more or less the lowest corruption levels.
Green democracy has a different set of priorities from social democracy, but they too are well-known, especially when it comes to the transition away from greenhouse gases. There’s a lot of lobbying concerning specific spending priorities, but the point of a carbon tax is that it adjudicates how to prioritize different aspects of the transition apolitically.
Carbon taxes and good government
The World in Data’s praise of Sweden’s carbon tax regime talks about the necessity for low corruption and high trust levels for a carbon tax to work. But does the causation really run in that direction? What if the causation is different? It’s likely that a carbon tax could politically work in a wide variety of countries, but only in states with high levels of political transparency do politicians prefer it to opaque schemes that reward cronies and favored interest groups.
In other words, once British Columbia enacted its carbon tax the results were positive even without unusually low corruption for a rich country. But for the most part, governments without much transparency or rule of law such as much of the United States do not like the simplicity of a carbon tax. Politicians who call themselves green prefer schemes that either directly subsidize favored groups or at least politically empower them (“Green New Deal”), and that specifically ream difficulties on groups they do not favor (real estate developers, the nuclear industry, etc.).
But that American politicians do not like carbon taxation does not mean carbon taxation could not work in an American context. It does in a Canadian one, without any of the negative economic effects that people who take perverse joy in environmental destruction predicted. The private economy can and does adapt to changes in relative prices, as fuel becomes much more expensive and other products become cheaper to compensate – and judging by the experience of Sweden in particular, even a fairly high tax is compatible with fast economic growth for a mature economy. All it takes is someone willing to spend short-term political capital on the long-term green transition.
Reading a bunch of people criticize green politics on the grounds that it imposes unreasonable reductions in living standards has clarified something for me. There’s extreme right criticism of Angela Merkel’s latest statement that climate protection is vital, accusing her of deindustrializing the country in the name of green-left ideology; from the left, Branko Milanovic, who has criticized the degrowth stream of environmentalism before, complained of people who “call for 50% reduction in income to combat climate change.” I think highly of Milanovic, both for his analysis of economic inequality and for his historical and social insights, but what he’s criticizing is actually a good example for why a high carbon tax does not actually mean a big reduction in income.
Take, as a starting point, the Stern Review‘s numbers. They were on the high side when the review was published in 2006, but a lot of the green consensus since then has converged toward them. As detailed on PDF-p. 20, the expected cost of unmitigated climate change is 20% of global GDP. The implication is that the optimal carbon tax today should be 20% of global GDP – we should be willing to reduce income by 20% now to avoid a permanent 20% reduction in income in the future. Global emissions intensity today is about PPP$2,400/t-CO2e ($127 trillion/53.5 billion t-CO2e), so the carbon tax should be $480/t, right?
But in reality, we should be willing to accept a much higher carbon tax. The reason is that the money raised by the carbon tax is not ejected into outer space. It circulates in the world economy. If a carbon tax is used to offset other taxes, or to pay for new government spending, then the same amount of money stimulates the economy. If it is used to reduce the deficit, then in the long run this stimulates some investment. The money is shifted rather than thrown away.
There is some cost to the carbon tax, but it is much lower than its face value. The cost is the economic loss from shifting consumption to carbon-free products, at the prices of a world in which greenhouse gases are not taxed at all. This is similar to the cost of a tax on cigarettes or alcohol or really any other product – the money is spent on less harmful activities.
The point is that the zero-carbon lifestyle that I advocate as the future is not one of penury. Evidently, so many people enjoy living in dense cities where cars are not necessary that those cities are very desirable. Cities like New York and London, which offer high-wage jobs and comfortable public transportation but aren’t building enough housing to accommodate the tens of millions of people who wish to take advantage of their opportunities, are very expensive to live in. The current zoning regimes in the US, and to some extent even in Europe, act as a negative carbon tax, making it harder to not emit greenhouse gases – this should be reversed, replaced with zoning liberalization and a positive carbon tax.
What’s more, the money saved by not having to drive goes to other forms of consumption. The proportion of income spent on transportation is lower in areas with good public transit than in ones without. Even taking subsidies into account, the operating and equipment costs of New York City Transit are about comparable to the depreciation cost of the cars that one would need to buy for New Yorkers to match the auto usage of the rest of the United States – and car purchases are just 40% of American auto spending, the rest going to fuel and spare parts. This saving is plugged into other kinds of local spending, such as going out to eat. In cities with more modern housing stock than New York this also includes better-accessorized housing. It may also include higher spending on consumer electronics.
What’s true is that not everyone wants to live that kind of future. Some people enjoy driving big cars and keeping the lights and temperature control in their large houses on even when they’re not at home. They will not be able to do so in any realistic green transition, and that’s a real cost. Some people even object to solar power and energy-efficient devices on culture war grounds, and they too will have to adapt to a culture they dislike, just as so many immigrants have. But the alternative lifestyle they will need to adapt to is one that so many comfortably middle-class people choose even at the current carbon cost of $0 that the imposition is not so onerous.
There are still remnants of people who define themselves by the environmental and health hazards of previous generations. Europeans and Japanese still smoke at pretty high rates, as do some subcultures in North America. We can expect that likewise, some people will keep driving at €2/liter fuel, at €3/liter, at €5/liter, and define themselves by not shifting to public transportation or even buying an electric car. But they will be marginal as the bulk of the population shifts to greener consumption, and if squeezing out the last remaining carbon emissions requires regulatory bans, not too many people will mind, just as people no longer mind restrictions on cigarette advertising.
So raise the fuel tax, early and often, and cut other taxes, and spend some of the difference on solar power and public transportation. And make it easy for people to move to big, dense cities by building more housing there. Maybe start worrying if the deadweight loss assuming there were no such thing as climate change grew beyond the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, but the carbon tax required to get there is such a large multiple of the cost of carbon emissions that by then the world would go zero-carbon. Do what you can to limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels, and keep raising carbon taxes and spending on alternatives to get there.
One faction of urbanists that I’ve sometimes found myself clashing with is people who assume that a greener, less auto-centric future will look something like the traditional small towns of the past. Strong Towns is the best example I know of of this tendency, arguing against high-rise urban redevelopment and in favor of urbanism that looks like pre-freeway Midwestern main streets. But this retro attitude to the future happens everywhere, and recently I’ve had to argue about this with the generally pro-modern Cap’n Transit and his take about the future of vacations. Even the push for light rail in a number of cities has connections with nostalgia for old streetcars, to the point that some American cities build mixed-traffic streetcars, such as Portland.
The future was not retro in the 1950s
The best analogy for a zero-emissions future is ironically what it seeks to undo: the history of suburbanization. In retrospect, we can view midcentury suburbanization as a physical expansion of built-up areas at lower density, at automobile scale. But at the time, it was not always viewed this way. Socially, the suburbs were supposed to be a return to rural virtues. The American patrician reformers who advocated for them consciously wanted to get rid of ethnic urban neighborhoods and their alien cultures. The German Christian democratic push for regional road and rail connections has the same social origin, just without the ethnic dimension – cities were dens of iniquity and sin.
At the same time, the suburbs, that future of the middle of the 20th century, were completely different from the mythologized 19th century past, before cities like New York and Berlin had grown so big. Most obviously, they were linked to urban jobs; the social forces that pushed for them were aware of that in real time, and sought transportation links precisely in order to permit access to urban jobs in what they hoped would be rural living.
But a number of other key differences are visible – for one, those suburbs were near the big cities of the early 20th century, and not in areas with demographic decline. In the United States, the Great Plains and Appalachia kept depopulating and the Deep South except Atlanta kept demographically stagnating. The growth in that era of interregional convergence happened in suburbs around New York, Chicago, and other big then-industrial cities, and in parts of what would soon be called the Sunbelt, namely Southern California, Texas, and Florida. In Germany, this history is more complicated, as the stagnating region that traditionalists had hoped to repopulate was Prussia and Posen, which were given to Poland at the end of the war and ethnically cleansed of their German populations. However, we can still see postwar shifts within West Germany toward suburbs of big cities like Munich and Frankfurt, while the Ruhr stagnated.
The future of transit-oriented development is not retro
People who dislike the auto-oriented form of cities can easily romanticize how cities looked before mass motorization. They’d have uniform missing middle built form in most of the US and UK, or uniform mid-rise in New York and Continental Europe. American YIMBYs in particular easily slip into romanticizing missing middle density and asking to replace single-family housing with duplexes and triplexes rather than with anything more substantial.
If you want to see what 21st-century TOD looks like, go to the richer parts of East Asia, especially Tokyo, which builds much more housing than Hong Kong and Singapore. The density in Tokyo is anything but uniform. There are clusters of high-rise buildings next to train stations, and lower density further away, even small single-family houses fronting narrow streets far enough from train stations that it’s not economical to redevelop them. It offends nostalgic Westerners; the future often does.
In the context of a growing city like New York or London, what this means is that the suburbs can expect to look spiky. There’s no point in turning, say, everything within two kilometers of Cockfosters (or the Little Neck LIRR station) into mid-rise apartments or even rowhouses. What’s the point? There’s a lot more demand 100 meters from the station than two kilometers away, enough that people pay the construction cost premium for the 20th floor 100 meters from the stations in preference to the third floor two kilometers away. The same is true for Paris – there’s no solution for its growth needs other than high-rises near RER stations and key Metro stations in the city as well as the suburbs, like the existing social housing complexes but with less space between buildings. It may offend people who associate high-rises with either the poor or recent high-skill immigrants, but again, the future often offends traditionalists.
The future of transportation is not retro
In countries that do not rigidly prevent urban housing growth the way the US does, the trend toward reurbanization is clear. Germany’s big cities are growing while everything else is shrinking save some suburbs in the richest regions, such as around Munich. Rural France keeps depopulating.
In this context, the modes of transportation of the future are rapid transit and high-speed rail. Rapid transit is preferable to buses and surface trains in most cities, because it serves spiky development better – the stations are spaced farther apart, which is fine because population density is not isotropic and neither is job density, and larger cities need the longer range that comes with the higher average speed of the subway or regional train over that of the tramway.
High-speed rail is likewise preferable to an everywhere-to-everywhere low-speed rail network like that of Switzerland. In a country with very large metro areas spaced 500 km or so apart, like the US, France, or Germany, connecting those growing city centers is of crucial importance, while nearby cities of 100,000 are of diminishing importance. Moreover, very big cities can be connected by trains so frequent that untimed transfers are viable. Already under the Deutschlandtakt plan, there will be 2.5 trains between Berlin and Hanover every hour, and if average speeds between Berlin and the Rhine-Ruhr were increased to be in line with those of the TGVs, demand would fill 4-6 trains per hour, enough to facilitate untimed transfers from connecting lines going north and south of Hanover. The Northeast Corridor has even more latent demand, given the huge size of New York.
The future of travel is not retro
The transportation network both follows and shapes travel patterns. Rapid transit is symbiotic with spiky TOD, and high-speed rail is symbiotic with extensive intercity travel.
The implication is that the future of holidays, too, is not retro. Vacation trips between major cities will become easier if countries that are not France and Japan build a dense network of high-speed lines akin to what France has done over the last 40 years and what Japan has done over the last 60. Many of those cities have thriving tourism economies, and these can expect to expand if there are fast trains connecting them to other cities within 300-1,000 kilometers.
Sometimes, these high-speed lines could serve romanticized tourist destinations. Niagara Falls lies between New York and Toronto, and could see expansion of visits, including day trips from Toronto and Buffalo and overnight stays from New York. The Riviera will surely see more travel once the much-delayed LGV PACA puts Nice four hours away from Paris by train rather than five and a half. Even the Black Forest might see an expansion of travel if people connect from high-speed trains from the rest of Germany to regional trains at Freiburg, going from the Rhine Valley up to the mountains; but even then, I expect a future Germany’s domestic tourism to be increasingly urban, probably involving the Rhine waterfront as well as the historic cities along the river.
But for the most part, tourist destinations designed around driving, like most American national parks as well as state parks like the Catskills, will shrink in importance in a zero-carbon future. It does not matter if they used to have rail access, as Glacier National Park did; the tourism of the leisure class of the early 20th century is not the same as that of the middle class of the middle of the 21st. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are not the only pretty places in the world or even in the United States; the Hudson Valley and the entire Pacific Coast are pretty too, and do not require either driving or taking a hypothetical train line that, on the list of the United States’ top transportation priorities, would not crack the top 100. This will offend people whose idea of environmentalism is based on the priorities of turn-of-the-century patrician conservationists, but environmental science has moved on and the nature of the biggest ecological crisis facing humanity has changed.
The non-retro future is pretty cool
The theme of the future is that, just as the Industrial Revolution involved urbanization and rural depopulation, urban development patterns this century involve growth in the big metro areas and decline elsewhere and in traditional small towns. This is fine. The status anxieties of Basil Fawlty types who either can’t or won’t adapt to a world that has little use for their prejudices are not a serious public concern.
Already, people lead full lives in big global cities like New York and London without any of the trappings of what passed for normality in the middle of the 20th century, like a detached house with a yard and no racial minorities or working-class people within sight. The rest will adapt to this reality, just as early 20th century urbanites adapted to the reality of suburbanization a generation later.
It’s not even an imposition. It’s opportunity. People can live in high-quality housing with access to extensive social as well as job networks, and travel to many different places with different languages, flora and fauna, vistas, architecture, food, and local retail. Even in the same language zone, Northern and Southern Germany look completely different from each other, as do Paris and Southern France, or New England and Washington. Then outside the cities there are enough places walking distance from a commuter rail line or on the way on a high-speed line between two cities that people can if they’d like go somewhere and spend time out of sight of other people. There’s so much to do in a regime of green prosperity; the world merely awaits the enactment of policies that encourage such a future in lieu of one dominated by small-minded local interests who define themselves by how much they can pollute.
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).
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.
I’ve been asked to write about the issue of growth versus no growth. This is in the context of planning, so broader questions of degrowth are not within this post’s main scope. Rather, it’s about whether planning for more growth is useful in combating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is yes, though the reasoning is subtle. Smart growth is the key, and yet it’s not a straightforward question of transit construction and transit-oriented development helping the environment; it’s important to figure out what the baseline is, since a large urban apartment still emits more CO2 than the closets people end up living in in parts of San Francisco and New York.
The argument for growth specifically is that a high baseline level of growth is what enables smart growth and TOD policies. Vancouver’s secular increase in transit usage, and to a lesser extent the ongoing revival in Seattle and that of Washington in the 2000s, could not happen in a region with Midwestern population growth.
Smart growth vs. no growth
VTPI has many references to studies about smart growth here. The idea of smart growth is that through policies that encourage infill development and discourage sprawl, it’s possible to redirect the shape of urban areas in a greener direction. Here’s one specific VTPI paper making this comparison directly on PDF-p. 3.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are at least three poles: in addition to sprawl and smart growth, there is no growth. And moreover, many of the bureaucratic rules intended to encourage smart growth, such as comprehensive zoning plans, in fact lead to no growth. The following table is a convenient summary of housing permitting rate vs. my qualitative impression of how smart the growth is.
The permitting rate is absolute, rather than relative to birth rates, immigration, and internal migration pressure as seen in average incomes. Tokyo’s permitting rate is similar to Vancouver’s – Tokyo Prefecture’s rate of 10 annual units per 1,000 people and so is Metro Vancouver’s, but Japan’s population is falling whereas Canada’s is rising. See also European rates linked here and American rates here.
The infill vs. sprawl dimension is qualitative, and combines how transit-oriented the construction is with whether the development is mostly in the city or in the suburbs. Berlin’s suburbs are shrinking due to the depopulation of East Germany, and growth in the suburbs of Tokyo and West Germany is weak as well, but city growth is going strong. Paris is building a lot of public transit and is very dense, but there’s more development per capita in the suburbs, and likewise in California most development is in exurbs rather than in central cities; Seattle is penalized for having bad transit, and Atlanta for having no transit, but in both there’s a lot more development in the city than in the suburbs. Stockholm and Vienna have growth all over and excellent public transit.
The significance of the diagram is that by the standards of European transit cities, California is not an example of smart growth, but of no growth.
In the high-growth area of the diagram, the most interesting case is not Tokyo, but Vancouver and Seattle. In these cities, there is a transit revival. Metro Vancouver’s mode share went up from 13% in 1996 to 20% on the eve of the Evergreen extension’s opening. Moreover, for most of this period Vancouver saw car traffic decrease, despite high population growth. Metro Seattle’s transit revival is more recent but real, with the mode share rising from the “no transit” to “bad transit” category (it is 10% now).
Both cities invested heavily in transit, Vancouver much more so than Seattle, but it was specifically transit aimed at shaping growth. Before the Expo Line opened, Downtown had few skyscrapers, Metrotown did not yet exist, New Westminster had a low-rise city center, and the areas around Main Street-Science World, Joyce-Collingwood, and Edmonds were nonresidential and low-density. The combination of fast growth and rapid transit ensured that new development would add to transit ridership rather than to road traffic. Moreover, the strong transit spine and growing employment at transit-oriented centers meant existing residents could make use of the new network as well.
The same situation also exists in Europe, though not on the same transformative scale as in Vancouver, since the cities in question came into the new millennium with already high transit usage. Stockholm just opened a regional rail tunnel doubling cross-city capacity and is expanding its metro network in three directions. This program is not available to lower-growth cities. Berlin has grandiose plans for U-Bahn expansion and has even safeguarded routes, but it has no active plans to build anything beyond the U5-U55 connection and S21 – the city just isn’t growing enough.
Public transit without growth
By itself, growth is not necessary for the existence of a robust transit network. Vienna proper had more people on the eve of WW1 than it has today, though in the intervening generations there has been extensive housing construction, often publicly subsidized (“Red Vienna”), increasing the working class’s standard of living. However, in a modern auto-oriented city – say, anything in North America other than New York – it is essential.
This becomes clear if we look at the next tier of American cities in transit usage after New York, that is Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston. Washington is the odd one – it had a transit revival before the Metro collapse of this decade, and got there through TOD in choice locations like Arlington. The others inherited a prewar transit network and made some improvements (like the Transbay Tube replacing the Key System), but froze urban development in time. Essentially all postwar development in those cities has been sprawl. Chicago had big enough a core to maintain a strong city center, but outside the Loop the job geography is very sprawled out. Boston and the Bay Area sprouted suburban edge cities that became metonyms for their dominant industries, with a transit modal share of about 0%.
Chicago’s transportation situation is difficult. The city is losing population; some specific neighborhoods are desirable and some around them are gentrifying, but the most optimistic prognosis is that it’s akin to New York in the 1970s. If there’s no population to justify a public transit investment today, there won’t be the population to justify it tomorrow. Any investment has to rely on leveraging the city’s considerable legacy mainline network, potentially with strategic cut-and-cover tunneling to connect Metra lines to each other.
And if Chicago’s situation is difficult, that of poorer, smaller cities is most likely terminal. Detroit’s grandiose plans are for urban shrinkage, and even then they run into the problem that the most economically intact parts of the region are in low-density suburbs in Oakland County, where nobody is going to agree to abandonment; the shrinkage then intensifies sprawl by weakening the urban core. Even in European cities where the shrinkage is from the outside in, there’s no real hope for any kind of green revival. Chemnitz will never have rapid transit; its tram-train has 2.6 million annual passengers.
Idyll and environmentalism
The environmental movement has from the start had a strong sense of idyll. The conservationism that motivated John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt was about preserving exurban wilderness for rich adventurers to travel in. The green left of the 1960s dropped the explicit classism but substituted it for new prejudices, like the racism embedded in population control programs proposed by Westerners for the third world. Moreover, the romantic ideals of Roosevelt-era environmentalism transformed into small-is-beautiful romanticism. Even Jane Jacobs’ love for cities was tempered by a romanticism for old low-rise neighborhoods; she predicted the Upper West Side with its elevator buildings would never be attractive to the middle class.
But what’s idealized and what’s green are not always the same. Lord of the Rings has a strong WW1 allegory in which the hobbits (Tolkien) leave the Shire (the English Midlands) to go to war and come back to find it scoured by industrialization. But on the eve of WW1, Britain was already a coal-polluted hellscape. Per capita carbon emissions would remain the same until the 1970s and thence fall by half – and in the first three quarters of the 20th century the fuel source shifted from coal to oil, which is less polluting for the same carbon emissions. The era that Tolkien romanticized was one of periodic mass deaths from smog. The era in which he wrote was one in which public health efforts were undertaken to clean up the air.
Likewise, what passes for environmentalism in communities that openly oppose growth freezes the idyll of postwar America, where suburban roads were still uncongested and the middle class had midsize houses on large lots. But American greenhouse gas emissions per capita were the same in 1960 as today, and had been the same in good economic times going back to the eve of the Great Depression. Only centenarians remember any time in which Americans damaged the planet less than they do today, and “less” means 14 tons of CO2 per capita rather than 16.5.
The upshot is that in the developed world, environmentalism and conservation are opposing forces. Conservation means looking back to an era that had the same environmental problems as today, except often worse, and managed to be poorer on top of it all.
Growth and environmentalism
Strictly speaking, growth is not necessary to reduce emissions. The low-growth city could just as well close its road network, ban cars, and forbid people to use electricity or heating generated by fossil fuels – if they’re cold, they can put on sweaters. But in practice, low-emission developed countries got to be where they are today by channeling bouts of economic growth toward clean consumption of electricity as well as transportation. Regulatory coercion and taxes that inconvenience the middle class are both absolutely necessary to reduce emissions, and yet both are easier to swallow in areas that have new development that they can channel toward green consumption.
The environmentalist in the Parises and Stockholms has the easiest time. Those cities have functioning green economies. There are recalcitrant mostly right-wing voters who like driving and need to be forced to stop, but a lifestyle with essentially no greenhouse gas emissions except for air travel is normal across all socioeconomic classes. The Vancouvers are not there but could get there in a generation by ensuring future development reinforces high local density of jobs and residences. The pro-development policies of the Pacific Northwest are not in opposition to the region’s environmentalism but rather reinforce it, by giving green movements a future to look forward to.
The environmentalist in the Clevelands and Detroits has the hardest time. It’s even worse than in the Chemnitzes – Saxony may be a post-industrial wasteland with 10% fewer people now than it had in 1905, but it’s coming into the 21st century with German emissions rather than American ones. These are cities with American emissions and economies based substantially on producing polluting cars, propped by special government attention thanks to the American mythology of the Big Three.
But whereas the Rust Belt has genuine problems, NIMBYvilles’ low growth is entirely self-imposed. New York and Los Angeles have the same per capita metro housing growth as Detroit, but only because they choose stasis; where the price signal in Detroit screams at people to run away, that in New York and California screams to build more housing. Their political institutions decided to make it harder to build any green future not only for their current residents but also for tens of millions who’d like to move there.
New York’s high construction costs are not just a problem for public transit. Roads exhibit the exact same problem. Case in point: replacing 2.5 km of the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in Brooklyn Heights is slated to cost $3-4 billion, take 6-8 years, and require temporarily closing the pedestrian promenade supported on top of the highway. This is not even a tunnel – some local NIMBYs have proposed one in order to reduce the impact of construction, but the cost would then be even higher. No: the projected cost, around $1.5 billion per kilometer, is for an above-ground highway replacement.
The section in question is between the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Promenade is the northern half of this section.
Is it worth it?
There exist infrastructure projects that are worth it even at elevated cost. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost $4.6 billion where it should have cost $700 million, but the expected ridership was very high, 200,000 per day, and so far ridership is on track to meet projections: the three new stations had a total of 138,000 boardings and alightings between them in 2017, and the revamped 63rd Street station went up by another 8,000. The BQE replacement is not such a project. Current traffic on the highway is stated as 153,000 vehicles per day, so on a per-vehicle basis it’s similar to Second Avenue Subway’s per-rider projection, around $23,000. But cars are not transit and cities need to understand that.
The construction of a subway creates noise and traffic disruption, but once the subway is up, all of that is done. Even elevated trains cause limited problems if built properly from materials that minimize noise – the trains on the viaducts on the Paris Metro are less noisy than the cars on the street below. There are operating costs involved with subways, but fixed costs are so dominant that even in New York a busy line like Second Avenue Subway should be at worst revenue-neutral net of costs; for reference, in Vancouver the projection for the Broadway subway extension’s operating costs is well below the revenue from the projected extra ridership.
Cars are not like that. They are noisy and polluting, and greenwashing them with a handful of expensive electric cars won’t change that. There are benefits to automobility, but the health hazards cancel out a lot of that. The Stern Review estimates the cost of unmitigated climate change at 20% of global GDP (e.g. PDF-p. 38), which in current terms approaches $500 per metric ton of CO2. The US has almost the same emissions intensity per dollar of production as the rest of the world; the negative impact of cars coming from climate change alone is comparable to the total private cost of transportation in the US, including buying the car, maintenance, fuel, etc. Now add car accidents, noise, and local air pollution.
In a region where cars are an absolute lifeline, there’s a case for building connections. The costs are low since grading a road for medium speed with level crossings is not expensive. In cities, the situation is different. Drivers will grumble if the BQE is removed. They will not lose access to critical services.
Is anyone proposing removing the BQE?
Yes, there are some proposals to that effect, but they’re so far only made haltingly. Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral frontrunner Corey Johnson’s report on municipal control of the subway includes the following line: “Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety.” The halting part here is that to study does not mean to enact; Johnson himself opposes repurposing car lanes for bus service in his own district.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has relied on a lot of the information I have brought up in this space in his reports, proposes to keep the BQE but only allow access to trucks. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agrees with the idea and even pitches it as a brave alternative to the car. In other words, per the comptroller and former commissioner, billions of dollars are to be spent on the reconstruction of a somewhat narrower structure for 14,000 trucks per day. Stringer’s report even says that the comparable urban freeways that have been removed did not allow trucks in, which is incorrect for the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and for the Voie Georges Pompidou in Paris (look for “camions” here). In reality, if closing the BQE means adding just 14,000 vehicles to surface streets, then it’s an almost unmitigated success of road dieting, since it means much less pollution and noise.
The Regional Plan Association proposes its usual quarter-measures as well, sold under the guise of “reimagining.” It does not mention closure at all – it proposes rebuilding the structure with four lanes, down from the current six, and even dares to cite the closure in Paris as precedent. Everything in its analysis points out to the benefits of full closure and yet the RPA feels too institutional to propose that. Presumably if the RPA had opined on lynchings in the midcentury American South it would have proposed a plan to cut total lynchings by 25% and if it had opined on Fourth Republic-era colonialism in Algeria it would have proposed to cut the incidence of torture by a third while referencing the positive precedent of British decolonization in India.
What should replace the BQE?
The BQE should be removed all the way from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Its curves in Downtown Brooklyn with the loops to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges consume valuable real estate, and farther east they divide neighborhoods. The new Navy Yard developments are disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn because of the BQE.
Going east through Fort Greene, the BQE is flanked on both sides by Park Avenue. Buildings face the street, though many of the lots are empty or low-value. Thus, the surface streets have to stay. Selling what is now Park Avenue as parcels for residential and commercial development and mapping a street on the BQE’s 30-meter footprint is probably not viable. Instead, most of the footprint of the expressway should be parceled into lots and sold, converting Park Avenue into a one-way pair with streets about 12-15 meters in width each. East-west buses will continue running on Flushing and Myrtle, and north-south buses should probably not make stops at Park.
In contrast, going south through South Brooklyn, buildings do not face the abutting surface street, Hicks. They present blank walls, as if it was midblock. This is a prime opportunity to narrow the street as if the highway has never been there, creating an avenue perhaps 20 or 30 meters in width. The wider figure is more appropriate if there are plans for bus lanes and bike lanes; otherwise, if buses stay on Columbia, 20 is better.
In South Williamsburg, the road is nearly block-wide. The neighborhood is pro-development due to high birthrates among the Haredi population. Thus the footprint of the freeway must be used for private housing development. The area next to the Marcy Avenue subway station on the J/M/Z is especially desirable for the non-Haredi population, due to the proximity to Manhattan jobs. The city should retain an avenue-width roadway for Williamsburg Bridge access from the south, but beyond that it should restore the blocks of the neighborhood as they were before the BQE was built.
Heal, don’t placemake
If there’s a common thread to the various proposals by local politicians and shadow agencies (that is, the RPA), it’s an attempt at placemaking, defined to be any project that they can point to and say “I built that!”. A BQE rebuilt slightly narrower, or restricted to trucks, achieves that goal, with some greenwashing for what remains a waste of billions of dollars for motorist convenience.
But the same can be said of a park, as in one architect’s proposal for the BQE. I can see a case for this in Brooklyn Heights, where the Promenade is an important neighborhood destination, but elsewhere, the case is extraordinarily weak. In South Brooklyn, the most important benefit of removing the BQE is easier pedestrian access to the waterfront; recreation space should go there. Fort Greene and the Navy Yard are both rich in parks; BQE removal makes the large parks on both sides of the motorway easier to access. And Williamsburg is hungry for private development, whether near the subway for Manhattan workers or elsewhere for Haredi families.
Thirty years from now, nobody is going to walk on the remade street grid of South Williamsburg or the narrowed Hicks Street and wonder which politician set this up. But people may well notice the lower rents – and they may well notice them within a few years of the deconstruction of the road and the sale of the land for housing development. Ultimately city residents do notice if things are improving or deteriorating. It’s on the city to nudge infrastructure development in the direction of less pollution and fewer boondoggles.
In advance of next month’s European Parliament election, several sources at the major mainstream parties have said that there are plans to coordinate a carbon tax, paired with investment in green infrastructure. Representatives of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and the Greens-European Free Alliance group (G/EFA) have agreed on an outline, to be passed after the election. The unaffiliated La Republique En Marche, which is expected to be the largest party in France in the coming election, is in on the agreement as well, and has been a key driver of the deal under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron. As the four parties as well as LREM are expected to have a large majority of the seats among them, the deal should not have difficulties passing.
At heart is an attempt to unify different national approaches to climate change. One source specifies that after frustration with the slow pace of decarbonization in France, in large part due to the Gilets Jaunes’ street riots against higher fuel taxes, Macron sought a Europe-wide approach. While the left in France was skeptical, green and social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe were supportive. Italy’s Democratic Party (S&D) was especially interested, citing worries that France’s lower fuel taxes were causing motorists in western Liguria to drive over the border to fill up in the nearby French Riviera. The Social Democrats in Sweden, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, have been supportive as well, and several sources agree that they played a role in persuading the entire S&D group to support a strong carbon tax law.
Obtaining the consent of EPP was more difficult due to its skepticism over tax increases. There is no first-hand on-the-record reporting for how this was achieved, but a large number of second-hand sources agree that Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in order to appeal to German Green Party voters, as the party is rising in the polls in the European as well as German elections and has popular state-level leadership.
The deal will impose a minimum carbon tax starting at €50 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent in 2020, rising gradually to €200 per ton in 2035. The tax will include border adjustments for the carbon content of imported goods, a clause that is said to have come at the insistence of union-affiliated S&D leaders who worried about competition from outside the EU. Controversially, the language of the draft deal permits individual member states to give industries credit toward exports.
The tax will be collected entirely at the member state level, like existing taxes on fuel and tobacco and VAT, where the EU mandates minimum floors (such as 15% for VAT) and monitors compliance but does not collect the taxes itself or redistribute the proceeds. Sweden’s existing carbon tax, currently €120 per ton, will therefore stay where it is. The EU will ensure member states collect the tax and do not give undue exceptions to industrial users; only exports and fuel for extra-EU flights and shipping may be exempted from the tax.
Simultaneously, the parties agreed to accelerate spending on EU-wide green infrastructure. As with the tax, member states will have considerable latitude, in order to mollify concerns among some Greens that the EU will stealthily mandate the construction of new nuclear power plants, as well as concerns among most EPP and ALDE parties that government spending would rise too much. Germany, in particular, has plans to reduce taxes on businesses: the Merkel cabinet has had to resist the business community’s demands for tax cuts, arguing that it is in growth times like this year that is is most tempting to engage in fiscal profligacy. There will also be additional spending on urban rail, motivated by the projected mode shift away from cars as a result of the new tax, but people close to the key decisionmakers say that massive federal spending in Germany is unlikely.
In France, the plan is to use the proceeds to invest in transportation alternatives, including a roster of new urban rail lines in Paris as well as most secondary cities. Macron is said to be in favor of accelerating the construction of new TGV lines connecting the entire country to Paris within at most 4 hours, as well as orbital lines connecting provincial cities to one another.
The timing of the leak is unusual. One source speculated that it is timed for the eve of Brexit, to nudge Britain to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU to avoid finding itself fighting another EU bureaucracy if it left without a deal. While the spokespeople for the British Conservative Party who were contacted for this story oppose the climate agreement, the agreement can pass the European Parliament even over the party’s objections.
Nonetheless, euroskeptical forces have used the leak as an opportunity to portray the EU in conspiratorial terms, particularly ones affiliated with the far-right Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) groups. The Italian Lega (ENF), expected to emerge as the single largest national party after the election, attacked the EU for dictating to member states. France’s National Rally (ENF), the party of the Le Pen family, said that Macron is immiserating France, that carbon emissions are caused by corporate shipping and not by driving, and that Europe would not have any environmental problems if it did not have population growth due to immigration. The UK Independence Party (EFDD) added that it’s not even clear if climate change is real, and said that this is why it always backed Brexit.
Nonetheless, the polls are stable enough that all observers expect ENF and EFDD, and even the UK Conservatives’ European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to lack the power to defeat or even weaken the proposed legislation. In response to threats by the Gilets Jaunes to call a massive nationwide rally next Saturday, the leader of the opposition Republicans (EPP) threatened that perhaps France should declare martial law to forestall riots.
Both Macron and Löfven have since taken political ownership of the agreement, calling it an example of pan-European cooperation to solve global problems. After the agreement leaked, Macron touted the plan as a way forward for France as Europe’s leader in high-speed rail, and promised that French industry would manufacture the trains, wind turbines, and solar cells while combating the country’s Western Europe-leading air pollution levels at the same time. He referenced the slogan from the 1970s’ oil crisis leading to the construction of the TGV and nuclear plants: “in France we have ideas.”
In Sweden, sources close to the Löfven cabinet point out that the country’s long-time moral leadership is paying off, as there is an extensive clean industry in Sweden, including rolling stock as well as engineering professional services. A spokesperson for the Swedish Greens added that this was also an example of European moral leadership, which would exercise soft power in order to convince other big countries and blocs to follow suit, such as Japan and South Korea. But when pressed on the issue of the US and China specifically, sources demurred.
As this article goes to press, no national politicians in the United States from either party have commented, despite multiple attempts to reach out and ask if they were willing to implement a similar policy in America.