A tale of two transportation systems

Two recent news items offer up in pleasingly compact form parables about the choices we face as a society and the trends, both good and bad, that will shape our built and natural environments for decades to come.

First, a high-speed rail line in Europe achieved an ambitious emissions reduction target — three years ahead of schedule.

> Eurostar announced in 2007 that it would aim to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 25 percent per passenger journey over then-current levels — and do so by 2012. But the train operator says it already met that goal, and it introduced a new target: reducing CO2 emissions by 35 percent per passenger journey by 2012.

The success is attributable to three factors: increased ridership on the trains; efficiency improvements on the trains themselves; and a switchover to low-carbon electricity from France, rather than dirty electricity from Britain. Eurostar represents in miniature the path that the entire economy must take. Better consumer choices, plus more efficient technology and infrastructure, plus low-carbon energy can lead to rapid emissions reductions.

That the low-carbon electricity in this case happens to come from nuclear power plants adds an element to the story that I’ll leave open to the reader’s interpretation. Depending on your point of view, this fact is either a) irrelevant, b) damning, or c) telling.

Next, Indian manufacturer Tata has so far received 203,000 advance orders for its pocket-sized Nano automobile, twice the number the company is capable of producing in its initial production run.

The car — which costs between $2,050 and $3,300, depending on the model — at once embodies both the entirely reasonable aspirations of the Indian middle class and the severe pressure that will be placed on the environment as the developing world gains material wealth.

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  1. richard schumacher - May 13, 2009

    The lesson is right there in those two stories: the world’s people will use more energy to improve their standard of living, and so we must develop every available carbon-free energy source to meet that need without a ruinous increase in global warming. Economic justice and environmental justice must happen together.

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