PSRC Plan Avoids Climate Reality

By Dan Bertolet April 7, 2010

The Puget Sound Regional Council's Transportation 2040 plan has been getting no shortage of attention from the 'Cola over the past few days, but we have yet to take a look at the gory greenhouse gas (GHG) numbers (which is where I come in, as one never truly recovers from a past career in engineering). And as we'll see, my inner engineer is none too jazzed about how the GHG emissions projections stack up.

But before getting into it, one key point: To honestly assess T2040 in terms of greenhouse gases, you need a defensible goal to serve as a benchmark. The T2040 plan repeatedly cites the greenhouse-gas reduction targets codified in Washington State law last year. But those targets—cuts of 25 percent by 2035, and 50 percent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels—are not consistent with the best available science.

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that avoiding climate catastrophe will necessitate global reductions of at least 80 percent by 2050. And because the U.S. is already emitting greenhouse at relatively high rates compared to the rest of the world, many believe that we have an obligation to go even beyond an 80 percent reduction, and that zero emissions should be the 2050 target.

Here in the Puget Sound region, the transportation sector produces nearly half of our greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore must be a point of focus in any realistic plan to address climate change.

Keep both those things in mind when you look at the greenhouse-gas projections in the table from the TR2040 executive summary reproduced below:

The BASELINE alternative is business-as-usual; ALT1 and ALT5 are two of  five alternatives that were originally analyzed; and PA is the PSRC's final preferred alternative.

In the "CO2 mobile" row of the table above, the first thing that jumps out is that emissions for the preferred alternative are projected to increase by 25 percent in 2040 compared to 2006 levels. In other words, the trend arrow is pointing in the wrong direction, and doesn't have a chance in hell of arriving at anything like an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

The second thing to note is that the preferred alternative is only a nine percent improvement over the business-as-usual baseline. This reflects the fact that T2040 is only proposing incremental changes from the status quo, and in fact is loaded up with road-building and expansion projects.

Now to be fair, part of the reason those numbers look so bad is that they do not include GHG reductions resulting from expected improvements in vehicle and fuel technology—PSRC's planning has no impact on those factors. But the report does also include an extended GHG analysis on the preferred alternative that includes two possible scenarios for vehicle/fuel improvements—one "likely" (fuel efficiency improvements that are probable given current trends) and one "aggressive" (improvements that will require a more "concerted effort to transition the vehicle fleet to a more energy-efficient approach.") Those two scenarios resulted in eight percent and 43 percent reductions, respectively, in transportation emissions compared to 2006 levels.

That 43 percent is admirable, but still a long way from the greenhouse gas cuts we need. Given that, what in the world would an zero emissions T2040 alternative look like?  Would we have to take out roads? $100 per mile tolls? Seriously! Hello PSRC, did you run any models that push the envelope? Are we even allowed to talk about this?

Metropolitan Planning Organizations like PSRC are essential for regional planning to address climate change, but they also tend to be constrained by the same political boundaries that usually prevent government agencies from affecting bold change. It's a particular problem for the PSRC, because its executive board is made up of elected officials. This can lead to a counterproductive situation in which officials fight to keep their jurisdiction's pet road projects in the plan at all costs. For T2040, the most egregious example of that dynamic is Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and her beloved Cross-Base Highway. (Portland Metro, in contrast, is governed by a council directly elected by the region's voters. The Portland area, incidentally, has fewer freeway miles per capita than the Puget Sound region.)

In short, what we have here is yet another manifestation the sustainability gap, the practice of sustainability doublethink. We all hear the climate scientists telling us what we must do, but then we go into denial mode and forge ahead with long-range plans we know won't achieve what's necessary. The task is monumental, no doubt, and it may well be that right now we really have no idea how to get there. But the task isn't going away. And incremental change isn't enough. Where will the essential bold leadership come from?
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