Monday, June 12, 2017

A step forward for Paris and carbon caps

Despite all the hullabaloo about the US leaving the Paris Accord (and joining the new Triple Entente with Syria and Nicaragua), work to advance the (almost) worldwide climate change effort goes forward.  Many of these initiatives have been covered in the media.  One important step forward – with miniscule media attention – is publication of a new report on carbon pricing.
The Report of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, written by a blue-ribbon group of economists, sets out a global strategy for putting an extra price on carbon dioxide emissions (report available here).  Their argument:  “A well-designed carbon price is an indispensable part of a strategy for reducing emissions in an effective and cost-efficient way… Carbon prices encourage producers to decrease the carbon intensity of the energy sector and manufactured products, and consumers to choose less carbon-intensive goods.”
The report goes on to discuss the two main policy alternatives for putting a price on carbon (a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system) and how these alternatives might be applied in a variety of settings throughout the world.  There is a good account of how the revenue raised from carbon pricing can be used to pursue an array of policy choices: cutting other taxes (the revenue-neutral option), assisting the poor and vulnerable, easing the transition for the hardest-hit economic sectors, investing in infrastructure, fostering technological change to support the transition, and – my favorite – investing in public transportation infrastructure and supportive urban planning.
None of this analysis is particularly new, although it is crisply and clearly presented.  The big takeaway is probably the price that the authors recommend for carbon.  The bottom line recommendation is pricing of $40 to $80 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted by 2020 and $50 to $100 by 2030.  Applying these costs through carbon taxes, cap and trade, or some combination should incentivize market forces to “decarbonize” the economy enough to keep us within the magic 2°C ceiling that scientists have established.
What would those rather esoteric numbers mean in the real world?  Those of us who are old transportation hands like to think in terms of cents per gallon of motor fuel.  In the surface transportation sector, CBO has estimated that a tax of $20 per ton of emissions would raise the price of gasoline about 20 cents.  By this measure, the $40 to $80 range of pricing recommended for 2020 would be equivalent to about 40 to 80 cents per gallon.  Of course this is just a rule of thumb for one sector in one country, but I think it gives a sense of what we are talking about.  Imposition of a federal gas tax (or equivalent) increase certainly isn’t politically viable at the present time in the present Congress.  But it’s not crazy either.

Thanks to Joe Stiglitz, Nicholas Stern, and their colleagues for giving us another step forward for Paris (and Paris is never a bad idea).

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Storrs Center at 15

I recently wrote about Poundbury (here) and garden villages (here) in Britain, but there are also good things happening in the US.
Storrs Center, Connecticut is now built out!
Storrs is the central place of Mansfield Township, home to the University of Connecticut………..and lots of trees. 
A few years back, the town leadership decided to build themselves a real town center, put together a master plan (approved 15 years ago), and then built it!
Storrs Center is a mixed-use, Smart Growth development, with a real town square, lots of retail and entertainment, and housing (see their website here).  The agency that implemented the plan insisted on strict sustainable, New Urbanist design standards (available here) for buildings, streets, and open spaces.  The result is a handsome and virtually complete town center.  The center is heavy on retail, serving as the “college town” for UConn, just across the street, as well as for the surrounding area.  But there is also intensive housing, with 618 apartments (with about 1,000 tenants), 32 townhomes, and 10 condos. 
As I mentioned in discussing Poundbury, the transportation value of communities like this lies mostly in “being there already” – the sense that people are only a few minutes’ walk from most everything they need.
For longer trips, Storrs Center has a transportation hub – the Nash-Zimmer Transportation Center – with access to buses serving the UConn campus, local communities, and intercity service to Hartford (about 40 minutes away), Providence, New York, and Boston.  The Transportation Center also has parking, bike rentals, and electric vehicle chargers.

Storrs Center is a real success story in community planning, a story that I for one will continue to follow with great interest.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

UK General Election: Transportation issues

It’s always fun (for me at least) to follow British politics as well as their transportation policies (see my recent comments here and here). 
So how big a role does transportation play in the current UK General Election campaign?  Actually, not much. 
Overall, the main political parties are broadly supportive of significant, and generally responsible, investment in transportation.
A look at the party campaign manifestos (what we would call platforms) gives an insight into their overall approach.
The Conservatives (the party in power) mainly emphasize increased investment, with promises to build a new runway at Heathrow, build the new high-speed rail line (HS2), and add lanes to congested motorways.
Labour focuses its manifesto on renationalizing the railroads.  In part this is a reaction to deteriorating service on the passenger network and in part a reflexive return to old Labour policies (party like it’s 1945!).
The Liberal Democrats do the best at linking transportation, environment, and energy policies, with calls for a Green Transport Act.
The Greens, although advocating a “People’s Transport System,” don’t offer a lot of specifics (interesting cross-national perspective: the Greens oppose the new high-speed rail line).
It is refreshing, from this side of the pond, to see all the major parties take serious positions about reducing the carbon component of the transportation system.  The Conservatives state an ambition “for Britain to lead the world in electric vehicle technology and use.”  Labour promises to “position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra low emission vehicles, supporting the creation of clean modes of transport through investment in low emission vehicles.”  The Liberal Democrats pledge to “support the manufacture of low-emission and electric vehicles, generating jobs and exports” and “reform vehicle taxation to encourage sales of electric and low-emission vehicles and develop electric vehicle infrastructure including universal charging points.”
Surprisingly, given the increase in extreme weather events in Britain in recent years, the parties devote little attention to transportation system resilience, although the
Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Greens advocate increased investment in flood management infrastructure.
There’s probably no immediate policy takeaway for the US from these campaign positions – the circumstances of each of these issues has very localized features – but it is clear to me that whoever wins this election will provide a more progressive transportation approach than what we are struggling with here!
(An overview of all the party transportation manifestos can be found here.  Those wanting to dive deeper can find the texts as follows: Conservatives here, Labour here, Liberal Democrats here, Greens here).


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Poundbury at 30

Poundbury, Prince Charles’ experimental new town in southwest England, has turned 30 years old (story here) and deserves a fresh look.
The town is an urban extension of Dorchester (population 20,000) and currently has 3,000 residents and 2,000 jobs.  Its design concept was developed by Prince Charles himself as a way to implement the neo-traditional architecture and planning ideas he set out in his book A Vision of Britain in 1989.  (The book attracted a lot of snark, as does virtually everything Prince Charles does.  See my review of his recent climate change book here.)  Still not built out (not sure why it’s so slow), Poundbury is notable for its walkability, mixed uses, and use of traditional building designs and materials.  Its “retro” look has drawn scorn from modernist architectural critics, although a few are now beginning to appreciate the livability of the town (see Witold Rybczynski’s account from a few years ago here). 
From a transportation standpoint, Poundbury underscores the point that the best transportation is “already being there.”  Residents have access to a wide variety of shops (a local grocery store, pub, florist, photographer, post office, farmers’ market, gift shops, etc.), amenities, and green spaces, all within easy walking distance.  An electric bus carries people into the center of Dorchester, including the train station, although with unsatisfactory (to me) 30-minute off-peak headways.  Cars are permitted, though kept relatively tame (see Rybczynski’s review for details).

All in all, I think Poundbury is a wonderful experiment, and I look forward to seeing its continued growth and success.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BC’s carbon tax: Once again no political opposition

I have written before about the remarkable (at least to Americans) political resilience of the British Columbia carbon tax, and the current general election campaign there underscores that phenomenon (my comments on the last general election here).  Voting is on May 9 (story here) and none of the three major parties contesting the election wants to eliminate or roll back the tax. 
The BC Liberals (despite the name, the most conservative party in the race, and not affiliated with the federal Liberal party) form the current government.  Their platform calls for a continuing carbon tax freeze, which they argue will support the principles of affordability, competitiveness, and revenue neutrality while advancing the goals of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change.
The New Democratic party (basically a labor/social democratic party) anticipate that the carbon tax will need to increase to meet federal targets and promise that when it does, they will use the increased revenue to fund climate change projects and to send “climate action rebate checks” to lower and middle class families.  They want to position themselves as “leaders in climate change solutions.”
The Greens (self-explanatory) want to increase and expand the scope of the carbon tax, while eliminating the principle of revenue neutrality and using at least some of the revenue to fund climate change investments.
My summary may be an oversimplification, but I think the overall picture is clear.  The BC political parties are arguing over how to use the carbon tax and whether to increase it.  No one is arguing for reducing or eliminating it.

Is there a takeaway for US observers?  I’m not sure, but at least it’s refreshing to see political arguments that don’t include the anti-scientific, flat earth viewpoints we see here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Happy Ed Balls Day!

Having mentioned recent British innovations in transportation (here) and sustainable rural development (here) I should mention another British innovation, which is unfortunately not widely celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.

Happy #EdBallsDay!

Strasbourg Tram now extends to Germany!

(Alternative title, Meanwhile on the Continent!)
The Strasbourg Tram, for those that don’t know it, is a very modern, attractive, popular light rail system (or streetcar, depending on who you ask) that connects just about every place in the historic city.  Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament, calls itself the “European City,” and that name takes on even more significance today as the Tram opens a new extension from Strasbourg (France), across the Rhine, to the neighboring German city of Kehl.  The transit extension is filled with symbolic attachments, especially at a time of tension within Europe.  (An earlier streetcar connection was pulled up in 1918, after World War I.)
A good story on the Tram extension is here and a good video here.  Note on the video the various redevelopment schemes that the Tram will tie together.
The Europeans are really good at this sort of thing.  Another study topic for us in the US!
Well done Strasbourg!  Gràtülierung!

(Photo below is yours truly with tram, a few years ago.)