Transportation’s Tricky Carbon Footprint

Kristine Wong is our Climate Watch intern for the current term. She’s a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

interchange_0145_blogStudy comparing environmental impact of transportation modes yields surprising results

By Kristine Wong

You may not believe that during peak commute hours, Boston’s light rail system generates more greenhouse gases (GHGs) per person than a gas-powered, fully occupied SUV–or a commercial airliner filled to capacity, traveling the same distance.

Yet this is what UC Berkeley researchers found in a study released this week. Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath compared the environmental impacts of cars, buses, planes, and rail after adding up all the energy costs and emissions (both GHGs and local air pollutants) over their entire life cycle–not just by what came out of the tailpipe. The authors say no such comprehensive study had been done before.

The researchers developed a method that evaluated each transportation mode based on the energy inputs needed for production and maintenance of the vehicle itself. They also looked at the infrastructure for each mode, such as construction of supporting components like rail station platforms and airport runways, bus and rail station lighting and parking, and the source of  power for each mode (e.g. gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or electric–and the costs of distributing and producing these inputs).

In total, Chester and Horvath compared 79 components across all transportation modes. Within each they also selected a few variations to represent differences, depending on factors such as vehicle make and mileage, passenger occupancy, and size.

The results were both logical and surprising. Most of the energy consumed and GHG emissions from auto, bus and air travel originated from the operational period, not from the materials needed to produce and maintain the vehicles. Rail produced the greatest amount of GHGs compared to all other modes over their life cycle. But Chester and Horvath point out that there is a big difference in GHG emissions from light rail systems in the Bay Area versus, say, Boston due to the portion of fossil fuel-based electricity used. Boston’s fuel mix is 82% fossil, while the Bay Area’s BART system clocks in at just 49% fossil fuel–a major factor in efficiency and GHG emission rates.

Finally, passenger occupancy was a key factor influencing efficiency. Not surprisingly, each mode was most efficient when used to capacity. But the researchers caution that boosting passenger occupancy is not a magic bullet. They say minimizing fossil fuel inputs and adding pollution filters and controls would have a greater effect on efficiency.

Chester and Horvath say that they hope their results will provide a framework for more comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts of transportation, and to assess the impact of hybrid or electric vehicles and alternative energy sources such as biofuels, solar power, and wind power, none of which were included in the study.

There are more details of the study posted at the websites for Green Car Congress and Sustainable Transportation.

Head-to-Head: Chevron and The Sierra Club

Two giants of California’s energy debate squared off at a Commonwealth Club forum in San Francisco last night.

Chevron CEO Dave O’Reilly and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope fielded questions from moderator Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal and a sometimes impassioned audience, about renewable energy opportunities, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and predictions for the future of the United States’ energy economy. Several questions also concerned Chevron’s high profile court battle in Ecuador and the oil company’s presence in Richmond, the Bay Area city where a major Chevron refinery dominates the skyline–and some say, local governance

Carl Pope, ED of Sierra Club Alan Murray, Executive Editor of WSJ Online Dave O'Reilly, CEO of Chevron. Photo: Gretchen Weber

From left to right: Sierra Club chief Carl Pope; WSJ Online Executive Editor Alan Murray; Dave O'Reilly, CEO of Chevron. Photo: Gretchen Weber

In what was less of a debate than a discussion, Pope and O’Reilly agreed that the United States needs to make major changes towards greater energy efficiency and that the country must begin to rely more on renewable energy sources.

Their views diverged significantly, however, on the timeline for such changes. While Pope supports a 90% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from today’s levels by 2050 and says he believes this goal possible, O’Reilly projected that by 2050, the United States will have reduced its GHG emissions by no more than 20-25% from today’s levels.

O’Reilly said that even if the U.S. replaced the entire transportation system with a zero-emissions system, the country would reduce GHG emissions by just 34%–and that doing likewise with the nation’s power generation would reduce GHGs by another 40%.

“So we have to ask ourselves, can we replace our entire energy system–transportation and power–in just a few short decades?” said O’Reilly. “I think the transition is going to take some time.”

According to O’Reilly, his company is already the largest provider of geothermal energy in the world and yet only 2% of Chevron’s income currently comes from renewable energy.

“The challenge of scale demands that we acknowledge that conventional energy sources will remain indispensable for decades,” said O’Reilly. “We must be realistic. For the foreseeable future we need to develop it all: conventional as well as non-conventional energy, as well as renewables and alternatives.”

When asked what his prediction was for how much of Chevron’s income would come from renewable energy sources by 2050, O’Reilly said he thought the number would be about 10-15%.

Pope responded, “The world will have room in 2050 for a very small company, 90% of whose energy comes from fossils [fuels]. The world will not have room, or tolerance, in 2050 for a big energy company [that does], so if Chevron wants to be successful, I think Chevron’s going to need to change those numbers.

Pope also called on Chevron to “come to the table” with local communities in which Chevron operates, such as Richmond, CA, and he proposed that all oil companies donate 10% of their profits to a global fund to clean up areas of the world damaged by the petroleum industry.

Not surprisingly, Pope and O’Reilly agreed that the highest priority for reducing GHG emissions is to replace coal with natural gas or another less carbon-intensive energy source, and while on stage, the men shook hands on an agreement to lobby the issue together in Washington.

KQED will broadcast the entire Commonwealth Club event at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 19, with a rebroadcast at 2 a.m. the following morning.

Carbon Offsets in the Air

Friday on The California Report’s weekly magazine, Rori Gallagher reports on ways to assuage your carbon guilt with a quick stop at an airport kiosk.

By Rori Gallagher

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

I first got the idea to do a story on carbon offsets back in December, when San Francisco International Airport announced it was partnering with a private company called 3Degrees to install carbon offset kiosks.

Originally, the kiosks were supposed to be installed sometime “in the spring.” But there seems to be a delay with the contract negotiations. I kept checking in with 3Degrees about a launch date. At first they were saying Earth Day–then it was pushed to May, and now “by the end of June.”

But there are already other options out there. I found that Virgin America, the only major airline based in California, was the first to offer carbon offsets in the sky. Other airlines do offer customers the chance to purchase offsets but Virgin allows you to do it during the flight through the in-flight entertainment system.

Carbon offsets are supposed to stop carbon emissions that would have otherwise taken place. That’s really difficult to substantiate. Projects like wind farms for example, certainly seem good for the environment but likely most of them would be built anyway and produce power without this type of third-party incentive.

Virgin’s program managers say they stringently vetted carbon offset programs, and that theirs are among the most credible out there. But as I point out in my radio story, there is very little regulation of the voluntary carbon offset industry and it’s difficult to know if they’ll do what they say they will.

There are some independent efforts to separate the sheep from the goats, for example the Natural Resources Defense Council has produced a buyer’s guide for carbon offsets.

Trucks line up at an IdleAire terminal, which provides "carbon offsets" for airlines. Photo: Rori Gallagher

Trucks line up at an IdleAire terminal, which provides "carbon offsets" for airlines. Photo: Rori Gallagher

New Tailpipe Regs are an “Alternate Reality”

Amy Standen specializes in science and environmental reporting for Quest. She’s among the guests today on KQED’s Forum program. Listen to the archived program here.

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Yesterday afternoon, as I started working on my news spot about the new federal standard for tailpipe emissions, I dug up my notes from over a year ago, the last time I covered this story in any depth.

The contrast in tone between then and now amazed me. Back then, I was describing accusations of outright lying, government actions that California enviros called “completely illegal,” and California officials “sharpening their knives” as they marched into battle with EPA former Administrator Stephen Johnson. It was September, 2007, and Democratic lawmakers, led by Henry Waxman (D-CA), were accusing the White House of strong-arming the EPA into denying California its “waiver,” or permission to regulate auto tailpipe emissions. The mood between California environmentalists, many of the state’s elected officials, and the Bush administration couldn’t have been more hostile.

Today, it’s as if we’ve landed in an alternate reality.  Not only has California been given its more fuel-efficient cars, but those same laws are taking effect nationwide. The new rules actually exceed anything that California–traditionally the most ambitious state in the union, when it comes to greenhouse gas regulation–could have asked for.

Instead of knives being sharpened, California enviros are singing the praises of “an historic blueprint to carry out rigorous greenhouse gas emission standards,” to quote one email I received today. Another group told the New York Times: “This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Compared to the fall of ’07–actually make that since ’05, when California first asked for the waiver and the EPA first started stalling–it’s like night and day.

Still, listening in to the White House background press briefing on Monday afternoon, you could hear the seeds of criticism taking root in a few reporters’ questions.

Sure, American automakers will be making more fuel-efficient cars, one reporter asked, but what is the White House doing to encourage consumers to buy them? (in addition to restricting tailpipe emissions, the new rules also substantially increase fuel efficiency standards for manufacturers’ fleets–SUVs and trucks will still be available; they’ll be more fuel efficient than before, but less efficient than smaller cars.) The question takes on new relevance as the federal government finds itself a major stockholder in auto companies.

President Obama says the new regs will have the equivalent impact of taking 177 million cars off the road.

Change Your Diet, Change the Climate?


Climate Watch contributor David Gorn has been looking at the link between climate and the food we eat. His latest report aired recently on NPR’s All Things Considered.

So I have to admit, when I first got this story assignment from National Public Radio, my reaction was mixed. You want to reduce global carbon emissions by changing your personal DIET? Oh, come on. I mean, how much of an impact could diet change have on climate change?

Quite a bit, apparently.

A United Nations report says livestock accounts for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses, much of it from the methane produced by cows, as well as goats and sheep.

Shipping beef and dairy products across the country and around the globe also contributes heavily to that carbon footprint, in the form of emissions from trains, planes and trucks.

So the idea is that by cutting out beef and cheese from your personal diet, you can significantly reduce your personal carbon footprint. Chris Jones, a staff researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of the Environment, says the production and distribution of beef, pork, lamb and cheese are particularly high offenders on the greenhouse gas emissions chart.

In my story for All Things Considered, I focused on an Earth Day event where the University of San Francisco cafeteria and about 400 other food service outlets across the country, managed by Palo Alto-based Bon Appetit, were cutting all beef and cheese out of the menu for one day. Yes, no cheeseburgers in a university cafeteria. Scary thought, eh? The students didn’t seem to flinch, though.

It looks like this approach to the low-carbon diet it may be catching on among Bay Area hospital cafeterias, as well.

It’s unclear what effect the current efforts might have on climate patterns but it’s a familiar pattern to Americans; using personal buying power to influence public policy decisions.

Robust Discussion of Rising Seas

KQED’s Forum program devoted a full hour this morning to recent projections for sea level rise and the threat it poses to California. Listen to the archived program here.

I joined host Michael Krasny and guests Peter Gleick and Will Travis, to discuss some of the recent findings. Travis heads the Bay Conservation & Development Commission and Gleick’s Pacific Institute issued a new report on the impacts last week.

Travis is just back from a trip to The Netherlands where he was studying some of the engineering techniques that the Dutch have deployed, to keep the North Sea at bay. Gleick has been tracking the issue here in California since 1990.

Gleick’s impact projections were underscored last week when scientists at a climate conference in Copenhagen projected a potential one-meter rise in the mean sea level by the end of this century, depending on how soon and how much we’re able to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty significant adjustment from the 2007 UN report, which had the rise pegged at a foot or two over the same time span. And two months ago, a USGS-led report postulated that a four-foot rise isn’t out of the question.

Some interesting questions and comments that came in from listeners:

– Sewage treatment plants in the Bay Area recently overwhelmed by storms are one glimpse into a future with higher sea levels.

– If pumps that convey water through the giant state and federal water projects in the Central Valley were solar-powered, it would reduce the carbon footprint of moving water around in California (often cited as 20% of our electricity use).

– A barrier at the Golden Gate could help “stem the tide” and potentially be part of a plant generating tidal power (Travis was skeptical).

– The Earth’s rotational bevavior also affects sea level and should be factored in.

In response to a listener who asked about a recent newspaper column that was dismissive of the prevailing climate science, I got the following note from Dave Johnson, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who teaches at Stanford:

“As to the climate-change contrarians, my short-form answer is this: I favor giving the scientifically-credible contrarian point of view some credit, and quite likely more than Al Gore or others would like. Why? Not because they necessarily have the science part right (or closer to right) than the IPCC.  Rather, it’s because the problem itself is a very complex system. Science is just now scoping the boundaries and behaviors of complex systems; to predict their behavior (especially of non-physical systems) will, to paraphrase Edward Witten, require ’22nd century’ knowledge.  As such, we all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.  In short, whether I agree or disagree with the contrarians is, objectively, of no moment whatsoever.  In science, the strongest advocate of a particular conclusion must embrace the most aggressive testing of that conclusion. “

Hard to disagree with that. It’s always perilous to dismiss contrarian views out of hand. Galileo was a contrarian.

A Rising Tide Raises All Costs

Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

Photo: Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

This has been a week of dire predictions about the rising sea level and its eventual consequences.

On Tuesday, scientists preparing for the Copenhagen climate talks this year said that the current IPCC working model for sea level is out of date and overly cheerful.  German climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf told the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change that even the most optimistic outlook for carbon emissions now portends at least a one-meter rise, or 3.28 feet by the end of this century. The U.N.’s 2007 report had anticipated a rise of up to two feet over the same time period.

Then today, analysts at Oakland’s Pacific Institute chimed in with a projection of California impacts from rising seas, based on a rise of 1.4 meters by 2100.

The report, which includes maps of projected inundation, projects nearly a half-million people at risk of a “100-year” flood event and loss of 41 square miles of coastal land, due to erosion.

“Critical infrastructure” in harm’s way includes highways, hospitals, schools, power and sewage treatment plants, as well as residential neighborhoods. It also includes several of the state’s busiest airports.

The report estimates that the tab for protecting that infrastructure could easily run to $14 billion. According to co-author Matt Heberger, “Communities really have to decide what it is that they value about the coast, whether that’s habitat, recreation, aesthetics, boating, shipping, all sort of things. We won’t necessarily be able to preserve all of those things at the same time. ”

The Governor has already issued an executive order requiring sea level rise to be factored into urban planning in all vulnerable regions of California. There remains an enormous planning task ahead.

Heberger sums it up thusly: “The evidence is in and we know what the impacts to the state are going to be. Now, what are we going to do about it?”

We’ll get some answers to that question on Monday’s Forum program on KQED and Sirius satellite. Listen to the archived program here.

Oceans Rising
Guests joining our discussion include Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan research institute on the environment and social equity; and Craig Miller, senior editor of KQED’s Climate Watch.

EPA Waiver Still Not “In the Can”

Now the waiting begins–or resumes. After nearly seven hours watching opposing sides duke it out in a Beltway hearing room this week, the EPA will settle down to deciding (again) if California should be allowed to set its own standards for auto emissions.

During the hearing, one group was using Twitter to pass around an online petition supporting the required EPA waiver. They weren’t too late. EPA will continue accepting public comment until April 6. EPA spokesman Cathy Milbourn says “We will review all of the comments, with a decision to follow.” No further timeline for that decision has been made public, however.

Meanwhile, the Detroit News is reporting today that California’s top air regulator may be ready to compromise on a new national standard that would obviate the need for a special waiver.

In case you need a quick review, the issue is whether the tailpipe emissions standards passed into law by California several years ago–the so-called Pavley regulations–can actually be enforced. The Pavley standards are more stringent than the current federal standard and the state is leaning heavily on them to attain its greenhouse gas targets under the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). But the waiver was denied under the Bush administration.

Thirteen other states are lined up to enact the California standard if they get a green light from EPA. The auto industry has long argued that this will create a “patchwork” of regulations across the nation, and the ensuing complications of compliance would place an onerous burden on the industry and push up prices for car buyers.

Supporters of the California standard, like Jim Kliesch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, say that automakers already have the technology and can easily comply. Kliesch conceded that consolidating the most efficient technology into one car would add–he figures–about $700 to the cost. But he says the same technology would recoup $1,800 in fuel savings over the life of the car.

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America pointed to an apparent disconnect in the car maket. He referred to a survey in which half the respondents said they wanted their next car to get at least 30 MPG–but Cooper said only 2% of models currently on the market deliver that.

And so, the argument goes, that if car makers would just follow the market toward cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, it would actually help them recover from a financial abyss that threatens to topple them.

At the end of the day, the EPA has to make its decision based on three criteria, says David Doniger of the NRDC. To be valid, the California standard must be:

1. Equally strict or more stringent than the federal standard,

2. Needed to meet “compelling and extraordinary conditions,” and

3. Technologically and economically feasible.

Hmm. It seems like you could make a solid case for checking off numbers 1 and 2 but what’s “economically feasible” is a potential tripwire, especially with General Motors teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Much of it will come down to whether the Obama administration buys into the “patchwork” argument. It’ll be at least another month before we know.

Thin Climate Strategy in Bay Area Transit Plan

3273414070_fd61bfa09a_mThe new Draft Transportation 2035 Plan released Wednesday by the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission calls for $226 billion in spending over the next 25 years to “confront global warming and traffic congestion.”  But close up, the plans seems more like a sorely needed band-aid to patch up the region’s ailing transit infrastructure.  Fully 82% of the plan’s funding is designated for upgrading and maintaining the existing system, with 13% allotted for transit expansions.

The plan includes $400 million (0.2%) for a “Transportation Climate Action Campaign”  to raise public awareness about climate change and individual actions that residents can take to reduce the region’s carbon footprint. The campaign will also include a grants program to subsidize demonstration projects  for reducing auto emissions with alternative fuels or car-sharing projects.  An additional $1 billion is set aside for bicycle facilities and programs.

But when, by the MTC’s own numbers, 40% of the Bay Area’s emissions come from the transportation sector, $1.4 billion to fight greenhouse gas emissions seems paltry given that this is the plan to carry us through to 2035. By law, California’s greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced approximately 30% by 2020.

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said the plan “tees up two strategies that we have consistently indentified as the most important in making progress in reducing environmental emissions like CO2, in reducing vehicle miles of travel, and those are road pricing, and a better link to land use without transportation investment.”

The idea is that reducing traffic congestion by increasing the cost of driving, be it with higher bridge tolls or charging drivers to use HOV lanes,  greenhouse gas emissions will decrease.  And by upgrading aspects of the region’s transit system, more people will choose to forgo the car and opt for public transit.

“From an infrastructure perspective, I think this plan is about as climate positive as it could be,” said Heminger.

Use the audio players to hear Heminger explain how the plan attacks climate change:

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A Few Miles Closer to that EPA Waiver

img_1777.JPGContinuing his methodical repudiation of Bush administration policies, President Obama today took California’s long-delayed request to regulate tailpipe emissions off the shelf. The President ordered an immediate review of the state’s request for a waiver to supersede federal requirements with its own, stricter ones.

We should be just as clear about what didn’t happen, however. He did not throw a thunderbolt at the EPA and reverse the previous administration’s denial of said waiver. He essentially told new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to put it back on top of the stack in her in-box. Jackson had already promised a “speedy review” of California’s request, during questioning at her Senate confirmation hearing. “Speedy” is a relative term, however and the reality is that it will likely be months before we get a final decision.

Though there is little doubt what that decision will be, the President did leave room for the EPA to soften the blow to the destitute auto industry. Automakers claim that the waiver will cost them billions in new investments and add an average of $5,000 to the price of new cars.

There’s a lot on the line for California, which had taken the EPA to court over the waiver. The state’s proposed tailpipe emission standards (known as the Pavley regulations) account for nearly 20% of the hoped-for CO2 reductions in the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB-32) and 70% of the attendant economic gains (estimated to be $11 billion).

Some reactions to the White House executive order today…

From the Governor:

“With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House. Allowing California and other states to aggressively reduce their own harmful vehicle tailpipe emissions would be a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars.”

From Bernadette del Chiaro, Environment California:

“After being stuck in reverse for eight years when it comes to clean energy and global warming policy, President Obama has taken America from 0 to 60 in six days. From here on, science and not special interests will be in the driver’s seat in America.”

 You get the idea. It was high fives all around and a cavalcade of automotive metaphors in Sacramento today.