Textes d'opinion

Public transit is an inefficient way to cut greenhouse gases

Quebec’s Action Plan on Climate Change is an extraordinary document. It is relatively short, to the point, clear, and particularly honest concerning its own limitations. If the public, the media and our environmental experts had the patience to read the entire 50-page document, public debate would be greatly enhanced.

What is the plan? It was originally designed for the period 2006-2012, and was updated in 2008. It contains 26 measures, of which 17 are aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, two for awareness, one for research, development and technology and six for adaptation.

Many of these measures involve government subsidies and investment that amount to approximately $250 million per year. They are financed with an annual payment from Quebec’s Green Fund, which in turn obtains its revenue from a charge levied on GHG-emitting fuels, plus a contribution from the federal government. The plan contains a variety of other approaches and policy types, which range from new-vehicle emission standards, to public transit investment, to guidelines for government departments, to ethanol use.

The first point to be noted is that the cost-benefit ratios for the plan’s components differ dramatically one from another. One surprising figure is that $720 million out of the $1.2 billion to be spent during the five-year period will be devoted to encouraging the development and use of public transit. But this will ccount for only 100 out of the 13,380 kilo-tonnes of CO2 reduction brought about by the plan. In other words, if we exclude public transit, more than 99 per cent of the CO2 reduction goal can still be met, but with less than half of the budget!

If GHG reduction were the only objective, the choice to include such an item would be strange indeed. Public transit is possibly being supported from this source of financing because of funding shortages elsewhere.

Second, these numbers suggest that cries for investment in public transit from virtually every environmentalist on the planet in the name of reducing GHGs are ill founded. Can the plan be wrong? No, in fact the experts at the transport ministry understand the same principles as transport engineers around the world.

Consider this: Suppose that an improvement in the quality of public transit reduced congestion in Quebec’s cities. Such a reduction would immediately decrease the time cost for auto commuters, and in turn provide them with an incentive to continue to use their private vehicles.

The way to reduce the number of private vehicles is to increase the cost of using them relative to public transport – as in the case of the congestion toll imposed in London several years ago. But, at the end of the day, investment in public transport alone does not usually change relative prices in any substantial way. Unless the price system is used as a supplement, additional public transit investment will be insufficient to combat CO2 emissions.

This is not to argue that we should not invest in public transit; but our tendency to consider such investment as an ultimate saviour against climate change is most certainly misguided. It is even more so when we consider that GHG emissions from individual cars have gone down by 7.5 per cent from 1990 to 2007 because new models are a lot more energy-efficient. Although road transport is responsible for the major part of the increase in GHGs, the greater number of light trucks (including SUVs) and heavy vehicles on our roads explains this, not cars.

Buses are actually responsible for almost as much CO2 emission per person trip as private automobiles. The reason is that, while they are very efficient during rush hours, they run far below capacity for much of the day. Individual cars are a very effective mode of transport off peak, particularly when the origin-destination points are not well served by public transit.

The final point to be made about the plan is the explicit acknowledgement in the appendix that the hoped-for carbon-reduction goals are «presented only as indications, and should not be taken as forecasts.» Accordingly, we should not be surprised in the coming years if, as the government announced earlier this month, CO2 emissions fail to attain the «possibilities» outlined in the plan.

Ian Irvine enseigne à l’Université Concordia et est chercheur associé à l’Institut économique de Montréal.

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