This week in climate inaccuracy: Climate strike poses


A crowd of hundreds of thousands at the Montreal climate strike on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by Josie Desmarais

Over the course of an election campaign, you expect to see more than a few slick elisions of truth ⁠— the details of a platform shaded or facts of the case bent to make one party’s stance look more desirable than another.

And because climate change is especially complex and addresses such a wide range of data, scientific research, policy minutiae and future-tense assumption, it is especially susceptible to such inaccuracies, willful or otherwise.

I expect to use this space to point out these calculated, often half-hidden falsifications from here to Election Day.

Other times, though ⁠— well, other times, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada shows up in Vancouver on the morning of a historic climate march to announce that widening roads will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Scheer violates a ‘fundamental law’

Now, the shading and bending of fact in this case is not so much akin to careful massage as to what the Kool-Aid Man did to kitchen walls after the kids yelled “Hey, Kool-Aid!”

But the truth-smashing in this case is so egregious that I couldn’t possibly cycle past it without comment on the way to the march.

Andrew Scheer flew cross-country last Friday to land in suburban Vancouver and promise to prioritize funding for a handful of large-scale urban infrastructure projects designed to reduce commuter times.

As examples, he cited subway expansion in Toronto and a new bridge or tunnel in Quebec City, as well as expanding a notoriously bottlenecked tunnel under the Fraser River in suburban Vancouver.

Asked what this might have to do with climate change, Scheer answered, “when you have a tunnel that does not have the capacity to handle the number of motorists who use it, that means there’s huge backlogs, and lots of time spent idling or moving very slowly ⁠— that leads to higher emissions.”

Even on its face, the argument that, by making it easier to commute in vehicles that burn gasoline, emissions can be cut, scans as likely false.

Though Scheer is correct that any individual vehicle will create more emissions if it’s forced to idle in gridlock en route, he could only be correct on the larger point if Vancouver had a finite number of cars traveling through the tunnel in question each day, so that new lanes would allow just those cars and no other vehicles to travel smoothly from home to workplace.

In reality, though, expanding the capacity of a roadway inevitably leads to more overall vehicle traffic ⁠— this through a well-proven phenomenon called “induced demand,” a concept as well understood in urban planning circles as “pandering to the base” is to politicians.

At its most succinct, induced demand can be boiled down to what has been called the “fundamental law of road congestion,” and it goes like this: “On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.”

Expand the road (or tunnel) and it makes commuting faster and easier, which invites more people to commute by private vehicle.

The law itself is half a century old, and piles of research since have confirmed its bedrock truth in cities around the world. In a 2009 study of traffic patterns across North America from 1980 to 2000 ⁠— one of the most widely cited ⁠— researchers discovered a “perfect one-to-one relationship” between increasing road capacity and increased driving.

That means that a city that expanded road capacity by 10 per cent saw a 10 per cent increase in traffic.

It’s possible that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are sitting on an approach to tunnel expansion that stands the whole field of urban planning on its head.

More likely, though, is that four more lanes of traffic between Delta and Richmond will lead to four more lanes’ worth of commuters, emitting more greenhouse gases than ever.

NDP, Greens don’t tell the whole story

Scheer, of course, wasn’t the only leader to take advantage of last Friday’s climate strike to tout some climate bonafides.

Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May marched in Montreal with student strike leader Greta Thunberg, and Jagmeet Singh took to the streets in Vancouver.

Both the NDP and the Greens used the occasion to attack the government’s record on climate action as nowhere near as ambitious as their own ⁠— both employing sharp, protest-sign-worthy slogans on social media to summarize their criticisms.

And both guilty not so much of inaccuracy as not quite telling the whole story.

The NDP’s main line of attack on the Liberals, as phrased in a pointedly brief press release last week and repeated on strike day, is: “You. Bought. A. Pipeline.”

This. Is. Certainly. True. The federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline and is fully backing its expansion.

But if the NDP wants to score points on its pipeline opposition, it should be noted that its leader has been unclear where exactly he stands on pipeline projects in general, while his plan promises both to curtail reliance on oil imports and “prioritize domestic upgrading and refining.”

Details in the party’s plan are thin, but this would clearly oblige new domestic upgrading and refining infrastructure, and the upgraded and refined oil would have to reach import-free gas stations coast to coast somehow.

There surely will be pipelines involved. Just not that one, I guess.

The Greens, meanwhile, came at the Liberals’ Paris emissions reduction goals, which they have repeatedly noted feature “Harper’s targets.”

Again: unassailably true. The federal government committed in Paris to cut emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and this is the same target announced by the Conservative environment minister in May 2015.

The implication, though, is that little has changed on the action front. But when the Conservatives left office later that year, Canada was projected to overshoot its greenhouse gas reduction target by 300 megatonnes.

Today, Canada will still miss its target, but by a much smaller 79 megatonnes ⁠— maybe not enough, as the Greens like to point out, but not nothing, either.

Justin Trudeau, for his part, said last week his government was “on track” to hit its Paris goal. Since 79 megatonnes is also not nothing, that isn’t true, either.

And with three weeks to go in a campaign where the long-promised focus on climate seems to be finally emerging, it’s sure to be far from the last inaccuracy we hear. Stay tuned. SOURCE

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