Greenhouse Gas Omissions: The “Growing Cooler” Report


    Anti-suburban interests have published a new report, Growing Cooler, which wrongly suggests that it will be necessary to sharply reduce car use and undertake much more dense development to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Growing Cooler is more reflective of greenhouse gas omissions than of any rational policy with respect to reducing greenhouse gases. The report is based upon incomplete data, faulty assumptions and incomplete analysis. Adoption of its recommended strategies is likely to reduce economic growth, employment and increase poverty. Sustainability in environmental policy cannot be achieved without both economic and social sustainability.

Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change appears to be another attempt to advance the anti-mobility, anti-suburban agenda, this time under the cover of climate change (greenhouse gas emissions). Growing Cooler is more reflective of greenhouse gas omissions than of any rational policy with respect to reducing greenhouse gases. It was released by the Urban Land Institute, Smart Growth America, the Center for Clean Air Policy and the National Center for Smart Growth. Growing Cooler predictably suggests that car use must be curbed and that we must build densely to save the planet. Like so many agenda-driven reports, Growing Cooler tells only selected parts of the story, and even those not very reliably.

Greenhouse Gas Omissions

The greenhouse gas omissions of Growing Cooler start with housing, urban transport and economic growth (or poverty alleviation).

Housing: Growing Cooler implies that more dense development would be less greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive. That is not necessarily so, and certainly is not known at this point. Higher density requires construction of higher rise buildings. Construction produces GHG emissions. Does Growing Cooler assure us that the construction of higher-rise buildings will produce gains enough to offset any higher imagined GHGs from detached housing? No --- because there is no such data (Note 1). This is an important enough issue that such knowledge should precede adoption of any strategies that favor one form of housing over another.

Moreover, Australian research shows that, once housing is constructed, GHG emissions per capita are higher in mid-rise and high-rise condominium buildings than in detached and attached suburban housing. A principal reason is that common (shared, rather than billed to households individually) GHG emissions are so high (halls, elevators, parking lots, heating, cooling, etc.). Shared GHG emissions can exceed the consumption per capita of households in the same buildings.

The situation in the United States? No one knows. There is data for detached and multi-unit housing in the United States, but these US Department of Energy estimates exclude shared energy consumption. If shared GHG emissions are anywhere near those in Australia, detached housing is likely to be less GHG intensive than high rise condominium buildings. This is before taking into consideration the significant GHG reduction advances that are being incorporated into new detached houses.

Urban Transport: Urban transport has its own construction issues. Constructing the urban rail systems favored by the anti-suburban lobby produces so much in GHG emissions that the savings from attracting drivers from cars may never be recovered. The US federal government found that a Seattle light rail line would require 45 years to pay back the GHG emissions produced in construction (Note 2). If one accepts the Growing Cooler projections (which I do not) rail-based urban transport policies would probably leave 2050 GHG emissions from cars and transit every bit as high as the “business as usual” case Growing Cooler uses as a “whipping boy.”

Economic Growth and Poverty Alleviation: Growing Cooler, like nearly all similar publications, virtually ignores the economic impacts of its proposed policies Yet, there are potentially devastating economic impacts.

It starts with exploding house prices, which result from excessive land regulation and banning development on the low cost land that makes affordable housing possible. For example, it costs little more to build a house in San Diego than in Atlanta, but the land in San Diego is at least $250,000 more costly. These kind of land price differentials are unprecedented and they are the direct result of land use restrictions. Metropolitan areas that have severe land use regulation, including smart growth, have seen their housing prices increase more than $100,000 since 2000 compared to areas with more traditional regulation. Smart growth’s land rationing policies have already exacted a huge cost. The policies Growing Cooler favors would spread those economic losses to parts of the nation where housing still remains affordable.

Forcing people to spend more time traveling --- an inevitable consequence of substituting transit use for car use --- would reduce the time people have for productive activity. That means less economic activity, less economic growth, fewer jobs and more poverty (Note 3).

The anti-suburban lobby never has understood the strong association between the unprecedented, broad economic prosperity and reduction of poverty achieved in the West and Japan and the simultaneous expansion of personal mobility and home ownership on cheap suburban land. There can be arguments about the extent of this relationship, but one thing is clear. The prosperity-suburban association should not be omitted from the GHG emissions discussion.

Logical Omissions

Growing Cooler and similar reports start with a fundamentally flawed assumption --- that transit use produces a substantial reduction in GHG emissions relative to cars. Think again. According to data published by the United States Department of Energy, cars (not SUVs) are more fuel efficient (read emit less GHGs per passenger mile) than transit buses. Outside New York, cars are only 10 percent more GHG intensive than transit. Moreover, cars are getting more fuel efficient. Peugeot will soon be marketing a compact car that will be less GHG intensive than transit in New York. This is no small accomplishment, and it is just the beginning

Other Omissions

Growing Cooler, like other agenda driven reports, uses selective data to paint a far darker picture than is plausible.

Noting that transportation accounts for a “full third” of US GHG emissions (Note 4), Growing Cooler paints an overly negative picture of US automobile impacts and trends. In a significant GHG omission, Growing Cooler does not tell us that automobiles and SUV’s account for only about half that figure. Airliners, trucks and trains ---the other half --- are not cars.

Growing Cooler notes that annual miles traveled have increased three times more than population growth since 1980. There are far more important indicators than population growth. Miles traveled has increased only one-tenth more than employment and only one-quarter more households. These figures, of course, are a small fraction of “three times more”.

Part of the increase in driving has occurred because the number of ethnic minority households with cars has increased. Would the Urban Land Institute, Smart Growth America, the Center for Clean Air Policy and the National Center for Smart Growth be happier if African-Americans and Hispanics had less access to cars and had an even larger income gap relative to white non-Hispanics? In 1980, 9,000,000 fewer women had drivers licenses than men. By 2005 women held as many drivers licenses as men. Would it be better for the clock to be rolled back on the advancement of women?

A Complex and Serious Issue

GHG emissions policy is challenging, serious and complex. Things are not always as they seem. It would be a mistake for policy makers, like na├»ve converts on foreign shores, to accept the “feel-good” doctrines of this anti-suburban missionary society.

Consumption is the Driver: It is important to know what we are doing. It starts will a full understanding of what drives GHG emissions throughout all sectors of the economy. Of course, it all comes down to consumption. Greenhouse gases are produced for consumption, whether it is for mobility to jobs or shopping, to produce food or to provide for the national defense. At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to suggest that consumption should be reduced. The very sustainability of modern society requires a high level of employment, which any serious reduction of consumption would destroy.

Life Cycle Analysis: Moreover, it is important to ensure a full life-cycle analysis. This requires including all GHG emissions, from the extraction and manufacturing processes, to fuel consumption and eventual disposal. Life-cycle analysis needs to be applied to every sector. Without that kind of an inventory, serious mistakes are likely to be made. It is an understatement of serious proportions to state that no such inventory or information exists.

Rational Strategies: There are economic consequences to virtually everything that produces GHGs. GHG reduction policy will have serious consequences (negative externalities) unless it starts with objective, rigorously developed and comprehensive inventories based upon consumption. Every gram of GHG emissions should be allocated to a household, whether from direct or indirect consumption.

Environmental, Economic and Social Sustainability: From analysis based upon such inventories, it will be possible to identify the best strategies based upon effectiveness ---- those that are most consistent with the maximum economic growth and poverty alleviation. This is a radically different approach from the knee-jerk, agenda based measures the anti-suburban lobby would like to see imposed. But it is the only way to reduce greenhouse gas omissions in a way that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

Note 1: I say “imagined” because new detached housing is often 70 percent more fuel efficient in its operation than previous designs.

Note 2: Actually the case endorsed by the Federal Transit Administration was overly generous to the rail project. It assumed that a substantial amount of the electricity used to operate the trains would be produced by hydro. In fact, virtually all new electricity production for years in the Seattle area has been by fossil fuel (including natural gas). This would materially lengthen the payback period. Further, the 45 year time frame did not include energy that would be required for the inevitable refurbishing of the system and subsequent vehicle car production.

Note 3: Generally, travel by transit takes twice as long as travel by car, even where roads are congested. There are exceptions, the most obvious being travel into Manhattan, where the high density of rapid transit systems and, just as importantly, the intense concentration of jobs make it possible for many transit trips to take less time than commuting by car. It is infeasible to build this intensity of transit to anywhere except the largest downtown areas (central business districts). Our research suggests that a transit system capable of replacing car use throughout would cost a major European or American urban area 50 percent of its gross domestic product annually --- hardly an achievable amount.

Note 4: Actually, United States Environmental Protection Agency data indicates that transportation accounted for less than a full third (33.3 percent) of GHGs. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 transportation accounted for 26 percent of gross GHG emissions and under 30 percent of net GHG emissions.

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