Investments in public transportation aren’t worth as much if we can’t rely on environmentally friendly power sources.
Earlier this year, Eurostar, which operates trains between London and the European continent, announced that it had met its goal of a 25% reduction in carbon emissions just two years after setting the target for itself. Eurostar, like most high-speed lines, is powered by electric catenary, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority of its carbon savings came from buying energy from more environmentally friendly power plants. All the company had to do was buy more of its power from France, rather than England, because the former country relies far more on nuclear plants than the latter, whose electricity is largely produced by dirty coal.
Eurostar’s example is a case in point: transportation systems relying on electricity can be dirty or clean, all depending on where the power is coming from. This point is unfortunately lost on most alternative transportation activists, who cite efficiency to support the claimed ecological advantages of using transit instead of automobiles. Yet efficiency means little when the electricity used is being produced by carbon-generating plants.
This problem is especially relevant today in United States, since public transportation in the form of electrified light rail and streetcars is more popular than ever. Freight and long-distance passenger routes, both of which have relied on diesel locomotion for decades, are being considered for conversion to electric operation because of its environmental, efficiency, and capacity advantages. Meanwhile, plans to encourage the use of plug-in hybrids and eventually fully electric automobiles are advancing rapidly. But how will all this electricity be produced?
Today, the majority of U.S. electricity production comes from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. Though the latter has the most serious environmental consequences, specifically because of the strip mining required to unearth underground reserves, the use of all three fuels has negative environmental consequences that cause climate change. Light rail running on electricity may seem clean, because the local point emissions — in the city — are nonexistent, especially as compared to diesel-spewing buses. But if the necessary power is being generated at coal-based plants, the global effect is negative, making some transit systems less environmentally sensitive in terms of per passenger emissions than many automobiles.
One feasible solution is to build more nuclear plants in the United States. GOP leadership in Congress is currently pushing against a carbon cap-and-trade bill in favor of the construction of 100 new nuclear facilities. The U.S. currently has 104 operating plants. The Obama Administration is planning to devote $18.5 billion in stimulus funds for the construction of new plants, but Republicans want a lot more pointed towards an industry that hasn’t produced a new facility stateside since the early 1980s. Though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, only 20% of total electricity — also the most produced in the world — comes from the source.
The Republican argument against cap-and-trade doesn’t make much since, as the nuclear industry would benefit from its passage, and there’s no reason that the government couldn’t invest in both nuclear power and reduce our dependence on coal and oil. But the party’s advocacy in favor of nuclear power — yet to be replicated by the Democrats — has its merits. France, which relies on nuclear power for 80% of its electricity production, has less than a third of the per capita carbon emissions of the United States. Compared to GDP, France is three times as efficient as the United States; the two nations, which have very similar per capita wealth, produce incredibly divergent amounts of CO2. The use of French TGVs, metros, and tramways releases very little carbon into the atmosphere compared to U.S. systems.
Yet nuclear is no perfect answer to our energy production problems. It takes decades to build new plants, they’re incredibly expensive, and opposition to their construction — mostly based on unfounded fears about public safety — is rampant. Second, the heat nuclear plants release during electricity production is a cause of climate change, too, even though the plants themselves release no carbon. As a result, investment in renewable energy, such as wind and solar, may be the most reliable option, though those options are limited in their capacity and quite subject to changing environmental conditions, which makes their use in non-windy, non-sunny locations less than optimal. To make matters worse, the U.S. electricity grid isn’t good enough to handle shifting huge amounts of power produced by wind in the Plains states or by solar in the Southwest to the more heavily populated coasts. So more environmentally friendly power will have to come from a mix of both nuclear and renewable sources.
The point, then, is that to suggest that transit is ecologically sensitive is more accurate when the source of that transportation’s electricity is carbon-free or at least carbon-reduced. Proponents of transportation alternatives must also be strong advocates of the remaking of our electricity production system.