Metro Vancouver has dirtier transportation than France
One common excuse I hear for why the transportation in BC and Canada is so much dirtier than in Europe is that Canada is a much bigger and more spread out. It is certainly true that denser populations usually use less gasoline per person.
But the reason for the huge gulf in gasoline burning between Europe and Canada is more complicated than just the relative size of our countries and populations would suggest. For one, Canada is actually a very urban nation. Second, Europeans pay 80 cents more per litre for gasoline, and lastly, Europeans drive much more efficient vehicles.
The result of lower gas prices and less efficient vehicles is that even within our densest and greenest cities, like Vancouver, we struggle to get down to the national averages for European nations like France, Germany and UK.
I was surprised when I first read the stats on just how urban a nation Canada really is. A third of us live in just three cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Half live in our dozen largest urban areas. Close to two thirds live in what Statistics Canada calls “large urban areas.” Eighty percent of us live in urban areas and ninety percent live within 100 miles of the USA border.
From the limited data I could find, it does seem that our cities -- on average -- are less dense and more sprawling than European cities. And as my top chart shows (view larger version), Canadian cities with higher density can burn much less gasoline per person. Just compare Vancouver to the larger Metro Vancouver region to see this effect. So, clearly, increasing urban density will be a vital tool in reducing transportation impacts in Canada.
But this overall trend of declining-gasoline-use-with-increasing-population-density is super-imposed on top of a Canadian transportation sector that is much less efficient than the Europeans.
Laws of economics apply
A fundamental difference is that the British, French and Germans add 80 cents more in taxes – per litre -- to their gasoline than we do. As my previous article showed, these 80 cents equals $330 in additional carbon taxes. Naturally, they use much less gasoline. And of course adding $330 in carbon taxes reduces the amount of carbon they emit. That is all basic Economics 101.
One effect of consistently higher gasoline prices in Europe can be seen in the following chart, which shows the average efficiency on new vehicles sold in various nations.
The average European vehicle goes 13 more miles from each US gallon worth of gasoline. That was true in 2002. It was still true in 2008.
The European economy receives a bonus of 13 extra, cost-free, CO2-free miles from every gallon of gasoline they buy compared to our Canadian economy. Each year, we drive our vehicles more than 300 billion kilometres in Canada. Every one of those hundreds of billions of kilometres is significantly more carbon polluting on average than in Europe. Or in Australia. Or in Japan. Or even in China.
Carbon pricing works
This chart is a textbook illustration of the power of carbon pricing. The higher the cost of the carbon fuel, the more efficiently the nation uses it in their transportation.
There is nothing mysterious or magic going on here. As gasoline prices increase, so does the efficiency of vehicles purchased. Nations that charge themselves more for gasoline reap the triple benefits of higher efficiency, lower overall spending on gasoline and lower climate damages.
A recent article in the Washington Post headlined "$4 gas reinforces trend toward lower U.S. fuel consumption" offers further proof of this basic concept:
… drivers have cut their consumption of gasoline to its lowest levels in a decade, driving less and buying cars that are more fuel-efficient.
… This will be the third year in the past five with historically high oil prices. Even before the latest price spike, gasoline consumption had dropped 6 percent from 2007 through 2011
… the fuel efficiency of cars and sport-utility vehicles sold last month jumped to 29.6 miles per gallon in a combination of city and highway driving, up 4 miles a gallon since October 2007.
… Jim Cain, a GM spokesman, said that three years ago only 16 percent of the vehicles it sold got 30 miles per gallon; last month, more than 40 percent surpassed that level of fuel efficiency … ”fundamentally, everyone likes to go farther on a gallon of gas, and no one wants to pay more at the pump…As you go forward in time, 40 [miles per gallon] is going to become the new 30. That’s good for the consumer. . . . It will keep personal mobility affordable even if gas prices rise.”
Several years ago, I spent a couple months in Europe. I can not remember seeing a single full-sized pickup truck anywhere. Big SUVs were extremely rare and widely feared, as they were so much bigger than almost every other vehicle on the roads. At the time, Paris was considering banning them from the city completely. London charges a hefty daily fee to bring one into the city core. Many European service vans fit easily on small sidewalks.
One afternoon in Paris, I stood stunned as six large police officers emerged from a police van than can only be described as tiny. In comparison, years later today in Vancouver I regularly find myself watching a parade of absolutely gigantic single occupancy vehicles thunder by. They have names like Titan, Canyon, Armada, Hurricane and Deluge. Ok, I made those last two names up. Or did I?
So there is lots of low-hanging fruit still to harvest even in greenest Vancouver. The Europeans have shown clearly that much higher pricing on carbon fuels is an effective tool to gain low-carbon mobility. Here in MetroVan our new two cents per litre gas tax for funding public transit is a good step...but a small one. We will require much higher increases at regular intervals if we want to close the huge benefit gap with Europeans and others.
BC Liberals to axe their own carbon tax?
And what about our wee toddler of a carbon tax? It is four years old and out of diapers but still not big and strong enough to do much heavy lifting for us. Will we allow it to grow up to help play a significant role in preserving our mobility in the coming CO2-limited economy?
Look, our BC Carbon Tax weighs in at just $25 per tonne of CO2. That is $330 shy of the behemoth the Europeans suit up everyday. Put our scrawny BC Carbon Tax on the ice with that bruiser and it will have a triple concussion and broken ribs before the first shot on net.
So far our BC Carbon Tax has only added one penny more to gasoline prices each year. Either we bulk it up or we get hammered in the for-keeps game of preserving low-carbon mobility with nations like Australia, China, Japan and all of Europe.
But apparently, the BC Liberals under Premier Christy Clark are throwing in the towel. They are talking about hitting the stop button on our BC Carbon Tax. One more penny next year is just too much for them to sign on to. The oil companies are going to love where that policy will take us but somehow I don’t think the rest of us are going to enjoy it much.