How many times do climate and tar sands activists hear this condemnation?
Yes, North America currently revolves around a car culture, and yes, transportation accounts for the biggest sector share of carbon emissions in Canada: 170 out of 702 Megatonnes of total CO2 emissions in 2011 (see p. 21). You can see an even more galling visual representation of our poorly we translate our primary energy supplies into powering automobiles in this graphic:
But this doesn’t mean that we are forever, eternally shackled to this current norm, nor that cars need to be the pollution emitting beasts that they have long been.
Recent innovations in electric motor and battery technologies have made the prospects of a transition to electrified motor vehicles more realistic than ever before. Cars such as the Tesla Model S, which in 2013 earned the remarkable accolade as the car with the best ever safety rating, are slowly edging into the mainstream market, with Tesla poised to deliver a $35,000 mass market electric sedan by 2017. Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, Elon Musk, has released the patents on his inventions, making the designs available freely to other car manufacturers in the hopes that this will further expedite the transition to electric vehicles. And now that he’s been freed from managing Tesla’s intellectual property, Musk has declared that he will devote his energies to improving battery and solar panel efficiencies through his SolarCity company.
Even within the confines of the status quo – burning fossil carbon to fuel our cars – there is much room for improvement in automotive engine efficiencies. Diesel engines power 50% of European cars, far more than North America’s paltry 3% diesel share. Diesel engines are 20-40% more efficient because, despite being a dirty fuel than gasoline, diesel is more energy dense. This begs the question: why so few diesel cars on North American roads? Really, it boils down to gasoline being cheaper than diesel for drivers in Canada and the US, and weak policies and standards here that enable gasoline to reign supreme. You can read more in depth about this issue here and here.
Early gas-electric hybrids such as the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt have led a shift toward mass manufacturing of these more efficient cars, with all major automotive manufacturers now producing some form of hybrid car engine. Still, gas-electric hybrids make up less than 5% of North American car sales today, faring not much better here than their diesel counterparts.
It’s true that some major social shifts need to happen to release North Americans from our car obsessed culture. These include long-term shifts to making cities and towns on a human, walkable scale, ensuring our neighbourhoods provide us with all the necessities for our daily lives within an easy, walkable or cyclable commuting distance. Such a shift also requires that as a society, we make time for these slower, people-powered modes of transportation, by, say, cultivating the habit of leaving an extra ten or fifteen minutes to walk to a nearby destination rather than covering the same distance in under a minute with our car. We also would do well to encourage the use of mass public transit, both within cities, and as a means of long-distance commuting between adjacent urban centres. Here in Northwestern Ontario, many are the people who pine for the olden days, when passenger rail service connected Kenora with Winnipeg and Thunder Bay daily.