Driving to Earth Hour

Driving to Earth Hour

Our daughter mentioned Saturday afternoon that a friend of hers would be marking Earth Hour with an acoustic guitar performance at our local fair trade coffee house.

We’ve supported the annual show of awareness and support for low-carbon energy futures since it came to Canada in 2008. So at the appointed time, four of us piled into our reasonable efficient, low-sulphur diesel vehicle…and drove to Earth Hour.

Bridgehead Coffee distributed candles, and promptly at 8:30 PM, the lights went out. But those few extra vehicle kilometres travelled told the story, an earthbound equivalent to the reminders that if you step on a plane, you immediately offset many months of low-carbon lifestyles.

It’s only when you unpack the options available to us that you get a full picture of the social and infrastructure challenges on the road to a low-carbon energy future.

We could have walked to Bridgehead. But the distance was just long enough, and the late March air in Ottawa just nippy enough, to put that option outside our comfort zone. (Would that still have been true with gas at $3.00 or $4.00 per litre? Probably.)

We could have taken a bus if our municipality had demonstrated any interest in efficient, effective transit. As it stands, the trip by transit would have taken 30 minutes each way instead of five, depending on two buses along an indirect route and an unreliable transfer. Had that been our only choice — as it would be for a household with no private vehicle — we would probably have zeroed our vehicle kilometres travelled by staying home.

Although it was chilly for a walk, we could have bundled up and travelled by bike. That route would have taken us over a narrow bridge with shadowy light after dark, where we could either risk our safety on the road or walk our bikes and crowd pedestrians on the sidewalk.

And so, we drove. It’s not that our few kilometres in a car will affect Canada’s ability to reduce its energy-related greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. The question is: If a household that wants to show tangible support for Earth Hour has to incur an extra carbon footprint to do so, what part of this challenge are we missing?

Transit is part of the answer, but through my work with the Trottier Energy Futures Project, I’ve learned that transit systems as they’re currently configured may not be. In Reinventing Fire, the landmark compendium of low-carbon energy solutions, Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute point to smart growth and “intelligent transportation” systems that make urban mobility more efficient, even holding out the promise of buses that run on time.

Proper bike lanes are a must in a community that has seen a rash of cyclist deaths and injuries in recent years. But the lanes are just the start. The option only works for people who are fit and “abled” enough to ride a bike — if my back is having one of its occasional episodes, I’ll barely be walking, much less biking.

And then there’s the location and safety of the lanes. My wife points out that an isolated bike path can be a nervous place to ride if lighting is intermittent, or if unknown danger could be lurking behind any bush.

By now, it looks like the answer to Earth Hour starts with awareness and inclination, but goes quite a bit further.

It means municipalities investing in modern, on-demand transit systems, at a time when they’re confronting a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure gap [PDF for free download] and only receive eight cents out of every tax dollar collected in Canada.

It means redesigned, ultra-light, electrically-powered vehicles for people who can’t ride or bike short to moderate distances, and safe paths for those who can.

And safety has to be defined through the eyes of the people who live it, not at the aggregate level where a project like the TEFP necessarily operates.

No one said 80% by 2050 would be easy, and the TEFP will never delve into all the lifestyle issues that determine whether four people drive a few kilometres to celebrate Earth Hour. But once the focus shifts from modelling to real life, from potential to practice, those details will become more and more important.

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