”œThere is no government…that does not understand that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil in which our food grows are not free goods; that in depleting them as the country is, we are not only devastating the environment but we are devastating our economy.”
Paul Martin, M.P., House of Commons debate, May 1991
The original era of governmental activism on envi- ronmental matters in Canada, from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties, was followed by a period of environmental concern restrained by caution as the eco- nomic implications of environmental action became clearer, and the complexity of many environmental problems more evident. The slogan of ”œsustainable develop- ment,” originally a rallying cry that could bring together a wide coalition of support for environmental action, became a hollow mantra. It was ambiguously interpreted as pursu- ing environmental policies that sustain economic growth or, alternatively, managing growth so as to sustain our envi- ronment. But sustainable for whom, and at what level and at what cost? Could we have a mass consumption North American society and extend it throughout the world with- out extraordinary environmental damage? It seemed unlike- ly we could eat our cake and have it too. As the nature of reconciling these interests became perceived to be complex and intractable, on major (and expensive) issues economic growth tended to trump environmen- tal preservation.
As well, a growing belief in neo- conservatism and reliance on market solutions as the mechanisms for meet- ing public needs, and the conviction that without economic growth there would not be the financial resources to tackle environmental challenges, dis- couraged governments from acting sim- ply on the basis of the cautionary principle. For the more dogmatic disci- ples of laissez-faire economics, environ- mental policy was seen almost as a form of chicanery practiced by those who would constrain the engine of growth.
And yet environmental policy is an area where reliance on neo-conservative principles is least likely to be effective. Free market forces, unless regulated by government, tend to lead firms to try and push the environmental costs of their activities off their balance sheets and on to others. Markets also have a tendency to focus on the short-term rather than the long-term effects ”” which in envi- ronmental terms may amount to decades. The purpose of markets is the accommodation of private interests; the greater the economic power of the interest the greater its weight in the process of accommodation. Social goods, however, are not allocated only by the interests of the economically powerful but on a conception of their impact on the gen- eral public interest. That is, meeting social costs is fundamentally a function of government where all citizens should count equally rather than a function of allocation through market power.
At the heart of the most difficult environmental issues is the ques- tion of trade-offs in costs and benefits in three forms. First, there is the exter- nal displacement of costs from those who profit from causing pollution in the form of damages for others who thus bear the costs that polluters cause.
Second, there is the generational trade-off that flows the environmental costs of creating present wealth for today’s beneficiaries to harsher conse- quences for future generations in the form of cumulative environmental degradation.
And third, there is a jurisdictional trade-off, since governmental jurisdic- tions have environmentally illogical borders that often cause the cost bur- den of environmental remedial action to apply to one jurisdiction while the (perhaps hypothetical) benefits accrue to another. Citizens, and the politicians who represent them, find it difficult to pursue costly policies whose advan- tages will flow primarily to others.
These trade-offs are all made more difficult to assess by the difficulty of integrating scientific and political judg- ment ”” two ill-assorted disciplines.
Scientists, almost always, believe that more research on any problem would be useful. The public wants an assurance about the dangers of inaction, and the costs of response, that scientists cannot give us because they do not know what future research will provide to us. But there is also the danger that the fruits of research will only reach definitive con- clusions when it is too late to undertake remedial action. Scientific uncertainty means that environmental decision- making is a process of risk management. The problem the politician faces is bal- ancing an uncertain potential damage against unknown costs on the basis of insufficient knowledge. Risk manage- ment of the environment is a very diffi- cult principle to apply in the political sphere. Politics deals with public accept- ability. The public does not want to accept any risk. It wants safety, security and assurance.
It is relatively easy, therefore, for political institutions not to respond to environmental problems promptly in an effective way given the complex nature of the problems.
There is the uncertainty that sur- rounds their understanding. There is difficulty in building a consensus among competing interests. There is difficulty in engaging the benefits of scientific research effectively. There is a tendency for government to concen- trate on what is urgent in the short term rather than what is needed in the long term. There is always the tempta- tion, when great costs are involved, to argue that one should wait, do more research and put off hard decisions. So there is incentive for procrastination and delay ”” but that may well prove disastrous. Governmen- tal policy-making on environ- mental matters is inevitably complex and difficult, and involves trade-offs that demo- cratic political systems find it difficult to make. This inherent inadequacy in government structures can only be over- come by a vigorous sense of political direction.
In short the greatest prob- lem in the management of environ- mental issues is a lack, or failure, of political will. Such issues can only be successfully met through a strong and continuing commitment of effort, a capacity to communicate their com- plexities, while charting long-term strategies, and a willingness to expend political capital on their behalf. They require, in other words, strong politi- cal leadership. There are grounds for hope that Paul Martin will provide it. As environment critic for the opposition Liberals from 1991 to 1993, Martin was a staunch and informed champion of environmental protec- tion and a trenchant critic of Tory environmental policy. In debate he argued that ”œthe environment must be the basis of everything we do. A healthy environment is now an essen- tial precondition for a sustainable dynamic economy.” On another occa- sion he remarked ”œif you wonder why our health costs are rising, take a look at the air we breathe and the water we drink. If you wonder what is happen- ing, why there is such a huge deficit ”” if you think the economic deficit is great, I simply ask you to examine the environmental deficit which we are in the process of leaving to our children.”
Those were prescient words in 1991 and remain so today. More recently, during his second bid for the Liberal lead- ership, Martin correctly diagnosed the general malaise affecting our urban areas and indicated his intent to develop poli- cies to address this challenge. However, aside from a promise to devote a portion of the federal excise tax on gasoline to the cities, his prescriptions to deal with the profound environmental and infrastructural challenges in Canada are still largely unknown.
We would like, as an example of what can be done, to discuss in detail one important area of environmental policy ”” where changes are needed, practicable, and promise great envi- ronmental benefit but, equally, require strong leadership to achieve ”” namely the significant increase in emissions and airborne pollution brought about by the growing use of cars and heavy commercial trucks.
The Conference Board of Canada’s autumn 2003 report, Performance and Potential 2003-04: Defining the Canadian Advantage, which measures Canada’s performance against that of 24 other countries in relation to 100 economic, social and environmental indicators, gives Canada a failing grade in the area of emissions. In the Conference Board’s view, our air quality is not only poor, it is declining. This view is endorsed by David McGuinty, President of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. He has argued that ”œCanadians’ exposure to ground-level ozone is creeping up.”
In fact, the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario in surface transporta- tion is a depressing one, once the facts are examined carefully. Road-based transportation of both passengers and freight has exploded in the last decade. Contrary to the images portrayed in advertisements run by the major vehi- cle manufacturers, the sight you are least likely to see from within your car is an open road. As a recent federal government report has noted, ”œtraffic has certainly grown faster than the capacity of the network, and faster in particular than the capacity of arterial and expressway systems in and around major cities.”
In Canada’s ten provinces, there are 16.8 million light vehicles (cars, sta- tion wagons, vans, sport utilities, and trucks); and 580,000 heavy (commer- cial) trucks (2001 figures). Car ownership and use continue to outpace GDP growth with an annualized rate of increase of 3 percent. Under this assumption, total car use will be 50 to 60 percent higher in 2015 than 2000.
Trucking, under the twin pressures of North American trade pacts and new models of logistics and ware- housing, grew in activity terms (tonne/kilometers) by 112 percent between 1990 and 2000. Cross border trucking is growing rapidly as the visual evidence at places like Windsor, Ontario clearly confirms. As the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America notes in its 2002 report, Free Trade and the Environment: The Picture Becomes Clearer,
Research shows an absolute increase in air pollution concen- trations at Mexico-US and US- Canada road border crossing points, due to the scale effects of increased road freight transport.
Highway 401 in Ontario now vies with the Santa Monica Freeway in California as one of the busiest roads on earth.
The number of passenger vehicles and commercial trucks on the road is closely correlated to energy consump- tion. The transportation sector remains the single largest energy user in Cana- da, accounting for 35 percent of total energy use in 1999. As the report of the Canada Transportation Act Review Panel noted, between 1990 and 1999, total energy consumption in Canada increased by 12 percent with energy demand growing fastest in the trans- portation sector ”” by 26 percent. With- in the transportation sector, road vehicles account for 72 percent of total energy consumption. Despite the oil shock of 1973, our growing dependence on foreign oil reserves, and warnings about global warming, our apparently insatiable demand for energy remains undiminished.
The benefits of motorized trans- port ”” mobility and flexibility ”” are self-evident but have recently begun to be challenged by its drawbacks; name- ly, its adverse impacts on the environment in the form of climate change, smog and acid rain. Until the 1970s, the tendency was to assume that the by-products of transportation were rel- atively benign. Until very recently, the external costs of transportation such as pollution, were not allocated to the debit side of the ledger.
As Devra Davis, a distinguished epidemiologist and toxicologist, and recent author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, has noted, formerly the stan- dard practice in economics was to regard any activities that result from pollution ”” whether clean-up costs, hospital stays, or burial costs ”” in terms of their added value to the gross domestic product. Insofar as this activ- ity was seen as adding to GDP, pollu- tion could be regarded as a ”œgood.” In the absence of a proper full cost accounting methodology, the impetus to lay more pavement in order to ”œbuild yourself out of congestion” became the accepted wisdom, even though it soon became apparent that adding extra capacity merely induced new traffic. Coupled with low-density residential and commercial develop- ment, single use zoning, the absence of tolling on Canadian roads, and insufficient spending on public transit, the impact of the pro-roads approach has been more and more driving. Not surprisingly then, 80.7 percent of Canadians commute to work by per- sonal vehicle compared to the 10.5 percent who take public transit and the 6.6 percent who walk.
Today we know a little more about the impacts of transportation, especially about the science of what comes out of a tailpipe and its envi- ronmental and health impacts. When burned, gasoline yields water, oxygen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds. A number of other toxic and volatile materials, which Environment Canada measures as Criteria Air Contaminants, are also emitted, such as particulate matter, benzene, butadiene, n-hexane, and other highly aromatic compounds. Ground level ozone, the main con- stituent of summer smog, is formed from the action of sunlight on nitro- gen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). As Transport Canada states, the transport sector is ”œa major emitter of most of these pol- lutants, accounting for roughly 20 per- cent of Canada’s VOC emissions and more than 50 percent of NOx emis- sions.” Transport is a significant emit- ter of fine particulates and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that there is no ambient level of fine particulate matter (smaller than PM10) and ultrafine particles (smaller than PM2.5) below which health effects (including cancer) do not occur. Figures 1 and 2 provide a breakdown of the sources, by mode, of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
In respect of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, road transport’s pro- duction of carbon dioxide is acknowl- edged as a key contributor to climate change. In 2000, GHG emissions from the transport sector accounted for 157.6 megatonnes. According to Transport Canada, the sector is the sin- gle largest source of GHGs in Canada. Figure 3 apportions the various modal contributions to GHG production from the transport sector.
It indicates that road-based emis- sions from cars and trucks are the pre- ponderant contributor to the problem, at 77 percent of the total. It should be noted that two-thirds of these emis- sions occur in urban areas. With respect to freight, trucks carry 35 per- cent of the total of surface tonne-kilo- metres and produce 32 percent of transportation GHG emissions; while rail carries 65 percent of surface tonne-kilometres and produces only 4 per- cent of transportation GHG emissions. The more interesting data though is that which describes the growth in emissions over the decade 1990–2000 and is depicted in Figure 4.
Almost two-thirds of the increase in GHG emissions came from road freight, much of it from heavy-duty trucking. Although the fuel efficiency of new trucks has increased somewhat, the sheer increase in overall trucking activity from liberalized North American trade, ”œjust in time” inven- tory management, and deregulation in the trucking market, have all com- bined to erase these improvements. New truck diesel engines may soon be getting cleaner but there are lots more of them on the road. With roughly 88 percent of our total exports, in value terms, now destined for the United States, our dependence, for better or worse, on highways and trucks is size- able and growing. The result of both increased freight and passenger trans- portation activity is that overall trans- port GHG emissions rose by 20 percent between 1990 and 2000 and show no sign of abating. From this vantage point, the Kyoto targets seem illusory.
None of this bodes particularly well for what is an increasingly urbanized country. With more Canadians living in close proximity to high traffic density zones, the environ- mental and public health implications of failing to grapple with single-occu- pant vehicle commuting and rampant truck use are disturbing. Not surpris- ingly, children are the first victims of an environment that is rich in ground level ozone and fine particulate matter, although the elderly and those with respiratory conditions are also affected. Catherine O’Brien, a fellow at the York University Centre for Applied Sustainability, has undertaken consid- erable study of the impact of trans- portation on children. She notes children are thought to be more vul- nerable to airborne pollution because their airways are narrower than those of adults. They also breathe more rap- idly and inhale more pollutant per kilogram of body weight than adults.
The smog which is a function of both vehicle emissions and coal-fired electricity generation is a serious pub- lic health issue. Canada has one of the highest asthma rates in the world. Asthma affects about two million Canadians and a growing portion of sufferers are children. According to the Ontario Medical Association, asthma is now the most common chronic dis- ease in children, and the leading cause of hospital admissions. As one recent American report noted, even in their cars, whilst being transported to and from school, children are exposed to high levels of pollution, often exceed- ing those in the ambient air.
A European Union report from 2002, entitled Kids on the Move, made the following disquieting observation: ”œin-car benzene concentrations can exceed concentrations in the roadside by up to a factor of four. Carbon monoxide concentrations maybe more than ten times higher inside cars than at the side of the road.” A 2002 report, from the Toronto Public Health Department, which looked into the impact of key carcinogens in Toronto workplaces and the environment found that ”œtwo of the ten carcinogens ”” benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) ”” are present in outdoor air at levels that are ten times higher than the levels considered tol- erable and should be given high prior- ity by the City for actions that will reduce emissions. The transportation sector is likely the most significant source of emissions for both these con- taminants with the City.”
The public health consequences of growing reliance on heavy commercial trucks and increasingly ubiquitous SUVs, are increasingly obvious but BAU trends suggest Canadian govern- ments have yet to take the problem seriously. Despite new regulations con- cerning emissions standards affecting new truck diesel engines, coming into force in 2007, the lack of overall caps by category of vehicle, with respect to emissions of individual pollutants, means that aggregate exposure levels are likely to continue rising. Furthermore, discretionary (often sin- gle occupant) car use in Canada con- tinues to grow while the average duration of daily vehicle commuting time is increasing. Sprawl is having an insidious effect. As Transport Canada notes, most of the future growth in transportation demand will come from private vehicles, trucking and aviation.
This has the potential to offset overall reductions associated with technological improvements in private vehicle emissions achieved between 1980 and 1990.
The challenge for the incoming Martin government is to look for ways to arrest these trends so that transportation of both passengers and freight may be put back on a genuinely sustainable footing. We must uncouple economic growth from environmen- tally hazardous transport growth. Serious jurisdictional challenges exist. The rail, air, marine and pipeline modes of transport are regulated feder- ally while inter-provincial trucking has, since 1954, been regulated provin- cially. The schism dividing the regula- tion of the two main surface modes ”” truck and rail ”” must be re-examined since a serious erosion in quality of life threatens if it is not. At present, we have no national, multi-modal surface transportation policy. Coordination of policies is lacking.
We believe, the following measures should be given careful considera- tion by a new Martin government as it develops a more sustainable trans- portation policy:
Develop a framework to monetize the external or social costs of transport activity in order to achieve greater transparency and public awareness;
Make the provision of future fed- eral dollars to the provinces for highway expenditure, contingent on the introduction of a system of full cost accounting on our major highways and trade routes, start- ing with weight-distance charges for commercial road users;
Consider spending a portion of federal funds on private rail infra- structure, especially in respect of short line railways, in view of the significant public interest benefits ”” emissions abatement, conges- tion reduction, improved safety ”” that would accrue;
Formally recognize the environ- mental and emissions benefits that accrue when a freight mode shift from truck to rail occurs;
Consider allocating federal excise taxes levied on the fuel purchases of each mode into a dedicated transportation fund that would channel investments to all modes, not simply roads alone;
Place the accent on intermodality in future transport spending ”” in other words, foster the seamless linkage of one mode to another;
Provide new forms of innovative financing, in conjunction with the provinces, to ensure that Canadian cities are equipped with modern commuter rail and transit networks; and
Develop a research agenda that explores the impact of status quo transportation trends on children, and especially on the health of children residing in high traffic density urban areas.
BAU policies in surface transporta- tion are no longer sustainable in emis- sions and environmental terms. Passenger vehicle GHG (CO2) emis- sions, and the ozone precursors con- tained in diesel exhaust from heavy trucks are together of special concern. Global warming and the proliferation of smog are increasingly thought to be linked. The consecutive record setting for the number of smog days in south- ern Ontario over the past several years highlights the need for joint, concerted action by the federal and provincial governments. As Devra Davis has argued, ”œwhere the health of large numbers of people is at stake and the harm is potentially irreversible, it is far better to err on the side of caution.” We urge a Martin-led federal government to tackle this problem more systemati- cally, developing policies that are founded on a reasoned understanding of the underlying realities, and demon- strating a commitment to public health and well-being in keeping with their primordial importance.