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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Technology alone won't

Technology alone won't

Technology alone won't tame climate-change juggernaut

California is on the cutting edge of America's efforts to reverse climate change, right? And the Bay Area is on the cutting edge of California, right?

Then why are we building like it's 1957, and the best thing we can think of is driving on the freeway? Maybe this is what makes it different: Now we can drive hybrids on the freeway.

Guess we're on the cutting edge, after all.

We all know that if we want to keep our climate, and our planet, relatively unscathed by climate change, we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Last year, California - in an act that really was on the cutting edge - passed the Global Warming Solutions Act to reduce the state's total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That's an ambitious goal.

Now we have to get there.

The clear first step is to tackle transportation: All those cars and trucks belching out carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Transportation accounts for almost half of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area and statewide.

There are two main ways to reduce emissions from transportation. We can use an example to illustrate each approach. Let's imagine a guy named Dan who lives in Dublin and drives a big sport utility vehicle to work at a high-tech company in Mountain View every day. It's a three-hour round trip and costs him at least $60 a week on gas - just for the commute. Dan would like to lower his impact on the climate (and maybe save some money on gas).

Here's his first option: He could buy a hybrid car with much better gas mileage. He'd save about $45 a week on gas, and he'd reduce his greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. Not bad.

Here's the second option: Dan could move to Mountain View and have only a three-mile round-trip commute. Even if he kept driving his truck to work, he only would spend $3 per week on gas for the commute, and he'd reduce his greenhouse gas emissions by almost 90 percent.

The upshot? Dan could do more for the climate (and his wallet) by moving himself and his gas guzzler close to his job than by getting a hybrid car for his long commute.

Of course, it's no small task to up and move. There's a lot to take into account. The thing is, Dan would save more than greenhouse gases and money on gas - he'd save that most precious of commodities, time. He'd have at least 10 hours more a week if he lived a few miles from work. He could spend that time with his wife and kids, or could play basketball after work, or run errands that he now does on the weekend. If he were really ambitious, maybe he could even bike to work - that would still save time, and he'd be a lot healthier. (It's hard to exercise much when your commute takes so long that you all you have time to do is eat, put the kids to bed, and sack out every night, before getting up to get on the road all over again.)

But maybe - and this is probably the case - Dan lives in Dublin because he can't afford to live in Mountain View. That illustrates why affordable housing is truly an environmental issue; when people can't afford to live close to their jobs, they end up driving long distances and pumping more carbon dioxide into the air.

So if Dan is committed to reducing his impact on the climate, he might well do both: Get a hybrid and move close to work, too (if he can afford it).

That's the equivalent of what California will need to do.

Dan's options illustrate the two ways to reduce emissions from transportation: increasing fuel economy and using low-carbon fuels ("technology"); and decreasing the number of miles driven ("travel").

Technological improvements are important. We have to reduce the amount of pollution released by the average car. California is again leading the way on this, with AB1493. The bill, which will take effect next fall (pending an automaker lawsuit and a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency), will require reductions in vehicle emissions. By 2020, it will eliminate about a fifth of the greenhouse gases created by cars and trucks. That's a big step.

But technology isn't enough. Even with the new vehicle-emissions law, California's total emissions from transportation in 2020 are projected to be 6 percent higher - not lower - than they are today. This is because the number of miles we drive will increase. Here in the Bay Area, it's predicted that for every 4 miles we drive now, we'll be driving 5 in 2020.

Our cars will be more fuel-efficient, but we'll be driving them more. So we'll be right back at square one - or really, square negative one - because the impacts of our travel will probably have overwhelmed the benefits of our technology.

We need to do a lot more if we're actually going to reduce our emissions. We've got to reduce the amount we drive.

To do that, we need to build in a way that makes it easy to get around. We need to build more homes near jobs, and make sure people can afford those homes. We need to build neighborhoods with shops, services, good public transit, and parks - all within easy walking distance of homes.

It might seem like it's too late to talk about building so we don't have to drive as much. Our cities are already built, aren't they? Well, recent studies have estimated that half of all development that will be around in 2030 hasn't been built yet. There's still time. We can still choose how development should look.

This being the Bay Area, it's no surprise that we're making headway on the technology front in fighting global warming. Google and other tech firms have made big investments in plug-in hybrid cars, and more and more people are buying Priuses or even converting their cars to biodiesel. Technological innovations are at the heart of the Bay Area's culture and economy. We are experts at thinking outside the box and dreaming big - not building a better CD player, but instead rethinking the whole way we purchase and listen to music.

But when it comes to the other side of the equation - just driving less - it's like we're still using 8-track tapes in an iPod world. Why are we still building as if it's the 1950s, and we think strip malls, subdivisions and freeways are symbols of the good life?

It's time to turn the Bay Area's innovative talent to the question of how to use our land well. Instead of saying, "We have to drive, but maybe we should drive a different kind of car," let's ask, "How can we make it easier to get where we want to go?" Let's envision a better way to live for people and the planet, and let's start making it happen.

The Bay Area really can be on the cutting edge. But we have to act fast. When it comes to the climate, we don't have time to waste. Global climate change is going to take all the solutions we can provide. If we want to keep our region and our planet habitable - if we want to stop the climate juggernaut - we can't rely on technology alone. We need to do everything we know will work now.

We know it'll work to drive less. Let's build our cities to make it possible.

Tom Steinbach is the former executive director and Mike Howe is the interim director of Greenbelt Alliance, which promotes the protection of open space in the Bay Area and advocates for building homes in established urban areas. Contact them at Contact us at

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