EarthBeat Weekly: Re-imagining how we get where we're going

Transit issues key to a green recovery

This article appears in the EarthBeat Weekly feature series. View the full series.

greenhouse gas sources.jpg

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

It turns out that how we get there matters. A lot.

With transportation responsible for 28 percent of the greenhouse gases threatening the planet, the choices we make in this area -- as individuals as well as governments -- have huge consequences.

As lockdowns began stalling transit of all forms back in April, some of the most polluted cities in the world were reporting blue skies unlike any that had been visible for decades. 

As more and more regions have been opening up in recent weeks, though, the dirty air has begun settling back in again right along with all that traffic. The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air created a "COVID-19 Air Pollution Rebound Tracker" to measure what's happening. By early May, the Center found that "health-harming air pollutants" in China had exceeded concentrations in the air for the same period last year. 

"The rapid rebound in air pollution and coal consumption levels across China is an early warning of what a smokestack industry-led rebound could look like: highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy," the Center concluded.

If the China example plays out in similar ways around the globe, we'll be right back in the mess we were in before coronavirus.

Arguing that the recovery from the pandemic "cannot be a return to business as usual," the United Nations reported on a recent study examining four "green transport" scenarios in 56 countries in North America, Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Addressing employment issues along with the climate crisis, the report found that millions of new jobs could be created if the countries involved were to come out of the pandemic with a fast and dramatic shift to electric vehicles -- public transit vehicles as well as automobiles.

Looking at the issue from another vantage point, bicycle and pedestrian advocates in a number of cities have been challenging the enormous percentage of precious space that so many locales hand over to cars.

Farhad Manjoo, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, teamed up with the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism to present a visually stunning piece headlined, "I've seen a future without cars, and it's amazing." Among the opening stats: If you added up all the space that Manhattan devotes to cars, you'd have an area nearly four times as large as Central Park -- or nearly 25 percent of all of Manhattan. Manjoo offers a "what if" look at what life might be like if a whole lot of those acres were converted to bike lanes, bigger sidewalks and maybe the occasional bench and potted plant.

Similar discussions -- and experiments -- are happening elsewhere, with some of the shift around the world already underway pre-pandemic.

I live just outside Boston and for the last several years, my wife and I have enjoyed living without a car. It's been pretty easy. We're a two-minute walk to the bus and a six-minute walk to a trolley stop. ZIP cars are parked at the end of our street. Lyft and Uber are never more than a few minutes away. 

But we haven't boarded public transportation in more than four months, and ZIP, Lyft and Uber have returned to the location they occupied in our lives not that many years ago: Nowhere.

At whatever point a vaccine becomes available and we're all once again on the move, we'll be facing some big questions when it comes to getting where we're going. With air pollution leading to an estimated 4 million premature deaths around the world each year, the stakes are high. Some of the questions: 

  • Will the vaccine be effective enough that we'll again feel safe on public transit?
  • Will governments find the political will to invest in a recovery that's green as well as just?
  • To what extent will people decide that maybe we don't need to get to as many places as often as we once thought we did?  

Here's what's new on EarthBeat this week:


Here's some of what's new in other climate news this week


Upcoming Event:

Franciscan Action Network and Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities will present a webinar at 7 p.m. EDT July 28: Protect our Future: Living out Laudato Si'.

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Closing beat:

In one of our first Small Earth Stories last Fall, Daria Mark reported on the efforts of the environmental group Mothers Out Front to reduce pollution in the town of Brookline, Ma. by banning oil and gas installations in new construction and major renovations. The Town Meeting approved the ban by a nearly unanimous vote. But this week the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healy, said that even though she supports measures to reduce greenhouse gases she had no choice but to overturn the ban because it conflicts with state law.

Responding to the attorney general's action, Jesse Gray, a Brookline Town Meeting member and co-sponsor of the bylaw told the Boston Globe: “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is infantilizing Brookline and standing in the way of progress on climate. We call upon the attorney general and upon the state Legislature … to give us the keys to the car that the Commonwealth shows little interest in driving itself.”

We'll keep you posted on what happens. And if you have a story to tell about what you're doing to address the climate crisis, please share it with us here

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Thanks for reading.
Bill Mitchell
NCR Climate Editor
bmitchell@ncronline.org