Sunday 20 January 2013

A blown nose, a blown world environment - and why some people confuse the two

It’s one of the few times I’ve managed seriously to annoy a motorist while stationary on my bike. One dark winter night a couple of years ago in London, I blew my nose while waiting at traffic lights. But, lacking the time to fish out a handkerchief, I snorted onto the road.

Traffic queuing in Miami Beach. Some of these cars might look to you
like polluters - but the drivers might think snot more offensive
It can’t, I accept, have made for a pretty sight. But the reaction of a woman in a car behind still surprised me. Leaning on her horn, she gesticulated her disgust wildly. The irony instantly struck me. In contemporary society, it’s regarded as entirely acceptable to make urban journeys in vehicles that spew out gases that will pollute and warm the atmosphere for a century or more. Clear one’s airways of a little biodegradable mucus, however, and one puts oneself entirely beyond the pale.

But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve realised the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park was exhibiting attitudes to environmental pollution and emissions very common in industrialised societies across the world. She regarded herself as having the right to an environment treated as she wanted. She felt perfectly entitled to criticise others’ treatment of that environment. Her attitudes, however, made no reference to any ultimate yardstick about the fate of the world environment as a whole.

I’ve said before on this blog that I am nothing like as exercised about environmental issues as many people assume cyclists are. I enjoy the overall sense that cycling is a rational way to get around – that it makes good use of scarce city space, that it contributes very little to congestion, that it keeps me healthy, that it’s enjoyable. It’s part of that picture that each trip contributes hardly at all to overall carbon emissions. But the environmental factors form only one corner of the overall scene.

A car abandoned in the lot the Invisible Visible Man
helped to clear. Some scientists reckon the car's emissions
helped to cause the destruction in this corner of Brooklyn
That said, I regularly currently confront vivid evidence of the seriousness of the world’s environmental problems. Parts of the Hudson River Greenway, which I use for nearly half my daily commute in New York City, were under five feet – 1.6m – of water at the height of Superstorm Sandy in October. Many scientists think such extreme weather events are becoming more common as the world’s climate changes. Yesterday, I cycled down to Coney Island, one of the parts of the city worst-hit in the storm, to help clear out a vacant lot that was under seven feet of water on the night the record high water swept up New York Bay. The weather was so unseasonably mild that on the way home it felt oppressively warm. There’s an undeniable sense that climate change is becoming a more urgent, practical issue, which anyone who takes an interest in the wider world needs to address.

A modern, fuel-efficient container ship:
a surprisingly clean way to import food
Yet few of the responses to the issue rise much above the level of honking one’s horn at behaviour one dislikes. I’ve frequently heard it averred, for example, that it’s good for the environment to eat local, seasonal produce. But very few of the people who claim that can give a detailed accounting of local, seasonal produce’s carbon costs – even though the ships that import food to temperate, rich-world countries use remarkably little fuel. It’s certainly far from clear that buying fruit imported on such a ship from a country where it grows easily is worse than eating greenhouse-grown local fruit that’s come to the farmer’s market in a small, inefficient van.

Railway lobbyists also make blanket claims that their transport mode is invariably more environmentally friendly than using a car. But, while that is undoubtedly true for a well-filled train in the London rush hour, it isn’t true for a nearly-empty train spewing diesel fumes into the air to move a couple of passengers to their destinations. When I lived in the UK, my most regular long-distance rail journey was London to Chester on a Super Voyager diesel-powered train. I would give a rueful smile as I remembered that the complex, heavy but fast train issued much the highest level of emissions per seat mile of any UK train model. It was, on average, a better environmental bet to take the train for that journey than to hire a car. But the margin was not very wide at all.

There are some similarly questionable attitudes towards cycling’s environmental performance. I’ve recently come across a number of attacks on cycling’s environmental record that point out, for example, that manufacturing bikes produces carbon emissions – an undeniable point, which makes it clear that one shouldn’t replace one’s bike more often than necessary. Such attacks generally go on to point out that fuelling a bike involves carbon emissions. There are carbon costs to moving the extra food that cyclists eat that they otherwise wouldn’t. And the food generates emissions that the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park would presumably dislike even more than mucus – in the form of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon monoxide from cars.

The most entertainingly bonkers attack of this kind I’ve encountered was a recent blogpost from an Ian Pearson who claims to give “a more accurate guide to the future” (How can he tell?) on bikes’ carbon performance. Cycling might well, Mr Pearson accepts, produce next-to-no carbon emissions per kilometre. But, when a cyclist rides in traffic, he asserts, the extra carbon cost of attending to accidents – and the effect on cars’ carbon performance of slowing down then accelerating to overtake cyclists – probably produces so much extra carbon that it would have been more environmentally friendly for the cyclist to go by car.

This new Ford pick-up truck concept will be more fuel-efficient
when it launches than its current equivalent.
But that won't make its drivers necessarily
friends of the environment.
The common thread between all these questionable assertions is that they treat the environment’s fate as an abstract matter – as susceptible to objective observation as the question of how to live the good life or whether God exists. People who profess concern about the environment often have a bias in favour of things that appear traditional and prepared without the benefit of complex, modern scientific advances. Many assume locally-produced food must be better for the environment because, well, it feels as if it should be. Similarly, people who are relatively unconcerned about environmental issues have a tendency to work back from their own behaviour to a spurious justification. “My car’s not as polluting as it might be” gets rationalised into “I am environmentally virtuous”. “I don’t like manoeuvring around these cyclists” becomes “these cyclists are bad for the environment”.

Yet, for the effects of air pollution and global warming, it is ultimately possible to estimate the effects objectively. Scientists now have a reasonable idea of what kind of damage different levels of carbon emissions produce. It is even possible to come up with rough figures for the costs that different kinds of emissions impose on wider society.

In a rational world, governments would now be rushing to take the guesswork out of estimating environmental impacts. Food products would include a label detailing the carbon costs of their production and include a tax reflecting them. Air tickets would include something similar, while the carbon costs of burning each unit of fuel would form a clear and distinct part of the petrol price at the pump. Past experiments with introducing new prices for previously-free goods – such as the Central London Congestion Charge – suggest consumers would move swiftly away from the most environmentally damaging behaviours towards less damaging ones.

I am robustly confident that such an exercise would make far clearer than the existing tax systems in most rich-world countries that bikes have big environmental advantages over most other transport modes. It is hard to imagine that the change would not significantly increase cycling levels.

A bicycle sign on New York's W54th street:
the kind of decisive action on the environment
that many governments are taking
The challenge, however, is that such a move would upset groups commonly supposed to be hugely influential – motorists, regular air-travellers and the owners of big houses – while pleasing few others. Governments consequently lay down a few cycle lanes on the roads, offer some subsidies for electric cars, meet some of the cost of better home insulation and generally gesture vaguely in the environment’s direction. Action that would make a real difference remains resoundingly untaken.

Yet that, perhaps, should be no surprise. Across the industrialised world, governments depend on the votes of people as inconsistent as the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park, Ian Pearson and, come to that, each of us reading (and writing) this blog. There’s no firm consensus yet among all those people in favour of firm action to rein in the galloping horse of the worsening global climate. That many governments consequently seem little more rational on the issue than an irritated, late-night driver may be sad – but it is depressingly understandable.