Enough "Cowboy" Greenhouse Gas Reduction Policies
by Wendell Cox 03/20/2009



The world has embarked upon a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a serious challenge that will require focused policies rooted in reality. Regrettably, the political process sometimes falls far short of that objective. This is particularly so in the states of California and Washington, where ideology has crowded out rational analysis and the adoption of what can only be seen as reckless “cowboy” policies.

Last year, California enacted Senate Bill 375, which seeks to reduce future GHG emissions by encouraging higher urban population densities and forcing more development to be near transit stations. Yet there is no objective analysis to suggest that such an approach will work. Of course, there are the usual slogans about people giving up their cars for transit and walking to work, but this occurs only in the minds of the ideologues. The forecasting models have been unable to predict any substantial reduction in automobile use, and, more importantly, such policies have never produced such a result.

In fact, higher densities are likely to worsen the quality of life in California, while doing little, if anything to reduce GHG emissions. California already has the densest urban areas (which includes core cities and surrounding suburbs) in the United States. The Los Angeles urban area is 30 percent more dense than New York urban area. The San Francisco and San Jose urban areas are also denser than the New York urban area. Sacramento stands as the 10th most dense among the 38 urban areas over 1,000,000 population, while Riverside-San Bernardino ranks 12th and San Diego ranks 13th.

This high density creates the worst traffic congestion in the nation. The slower stop and go operation of cars in traffic congestion materially intensifies local air pollution and increases health hazards. It also consumes more gasoline, which increases GHG emissions. Finally, California’s prescriptive land use regulations have destroyed housing affordability. By the early 1990s, land use regulation had driven prices up well beyond national levels relative to incomes, according to Dartmouth’s William Fischell. Over the next decade the rationing effect of California’s excessive land use restrictions tripled house prices relative to incomes, setting up the mortgage meltdown and all that has followed in its wake.

The implementation of Senate Bill 375’s provisions seems likely to make things worse. California’s urban areas already have plenty of dense “luxury” housing, much of which is now empty or is now converted from condos to rentals. Wherever they are clustered, particularly outside traditional urban centers like San Francisco, such areas experience intense traffic congestion, with all the resultant negative impact on both people and the environment.

Yet despite the problems seen in California, the ideological plague has spread to Washington state. Last year the Washington legislature enacted a measure (House Bill 2815) that requires reductions in driving per capita, for the purpose of GHG emission reduction. By 2050, driving per capita is supposed to be halved. This year there was a legislative proposal, House Bill 1490, that would have mandated planning for 50 housing units to the acre within one-half mile of light rail stations. This would have amounted to a density of nearly 50,000 per square mile, 3 times the city of San Francisco, 7 times the density of the city of Seattle and more than that of any of more than 700 census tracts (small districts) in the three county Seattle area. Areas around stations would be two-thirds as dense as Hong Kong, the world’s most dense urban area.
The density requirement has since been amended out of the bill, but the fact that it made it so far in the legislature indicates how far the density mania has gone. The bill appears unlikely to pass this year.

Extending the density planning regime is not likely to help the people on the ground, much less reduce GHGs. Seattle already has a housing affordability problem, which is not surprising given its prescriptive planning policies (called growth management or smart growth). Theo Eicher of the University of Washington has documented the close connection between Seattle’s regulatory structures and its house price increases.

As in California, Seattle house prices rose dramatically during the housing bubble, nearly doubling relative to incomes. At the same time, much of the debate on House Bill 1490 has been over affordable housing. Yet there has been virtually no recognition of connection between Seattle’s low level of housing affordability and its destructive land use regulations. House Bill 1490 would have only made things worse, and still could. Proponents have indicated that they have not given up.

The theory behind House Bill 1490 parallels that of California’s SB 375. It assumes high densities would significantly reduce driving and attract people to transit. As in California, however, this is based upon wishful thinking, and has no basis in reality. No urban area in the developed world has produced a material decline in automobile use through such policies.

Regrettably, the special interest groups behind the California and Washington initiatives appear more interested in forcing people to change their lifestyles than in reducing GHG emissions. This is demonstrated by the Washington driving reduction requirement.

A good faith attempt to reduce GHG emissions from cars would have targeted GHG emissions from cars, not the use of cars. The issue is GHG emission reduction, not behavior modification and the more the special interests target people’s behavior, the clearer it becomes how facetious they are about reducing GHG emissions.

Technology offers the most promise. Already the technology is available to substantially reduce GHG emissions by cars, without requiring people to change their lifestyles. Hybrids currently being sold obtain nearly three times the miles per gallon of the average personal vehicle (cars, personal trucks and sport utility vehicles) fleet. And that is before the promising developments in decades to come in alternative fuels and improved vehicle technology. In addition, the rapid increase in people working at home – a number on track pass that of transit users by 2015 – would also represent a clear way to reduce GHG emissions.

Finally it is not certain that suburban housing produces higher GHG emissions per capita than high rise urban development. The only comprehensive research on the subject was conducted in Australia and found that, generally, when all GHG emissions are considered, suburban areas emitted less per capita than higher density areas. This is partially because dense urbanites tend to live a high consumption lifestyle, by eating out at restaurants serving exotic foods, having summer homes and extensive travel. It is also because high density living requires energy consumption that does not occur in lower density suburbs, such as electricity for elevators, common area lighting, and highly consumptive central air conditioning, heating, water heating and ventilation, as Energy Australia research indicates.

Further, tomorrow’s housing will be more carbon friendly than today’s. Japan has already developed a prototype 2,150 square foot, single story suburban carbon neutral house.

Much of the anti-suburban and anti-car sloganeering ignores these developments and generally assumes a static world. If the world were static, we would still be living in caves.

The California and Washington initiatives were not based upon any comprehensive research. There were no reports estimating the tons of GHG emissions that were to be reduced. There was no cost analysis of how much each ton removed would cost. United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that the maximum amount necessary to accomplish deep reversal of GHG concentrations is between $20 and $50 per ton. Responsible policy making would have evaluated these issues. (It seems highly improbable that Seattle’s currently under-construction University light rail extension remotely matches this standard, with is capital and operating costs per annual patron of more than $10,000.)

The price that society can afford to pay for GHG emission reduction is considerably less today than it was just six months ago. The history of the now departed communist world demonstrates that poorer societies simply do not place a high priority on environmental protection. That is not surprising, since people address their basic human needs before broader objectives, such as a better environment. That may not comport with the doctrines of political correctness, but it is reality.

In such times, communities should be careful not to undertake policies based on assumptions or the preferences of those planners, architects and ideologues who seem to hold suburbs and personal mobility in such contempt that they would not be satisfied even if they emitted no GHGs. These radical motives are inappropriate. “Cowboy” policies enacted ad hoc at the bequest of ideologues openly disdainful of our basic lifestyles threaten not only the future prosperity of a society but our most reasonable path to long-term environmental improvement including reducing GHG emissions.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”