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Saturday August 25, 2007

It's time to start counting emissions like calories

By Cameron Smith.

Recently, protesters at Heathrow airport in England claimed that air travel is the foremost culprit in global warming. It's not. The biggest culprits are single drivers of big SUVs.

And total road transportation accounts for more than 52 per cent of all Canada's greenhouse gas emissions – far more than air travel.

Here's how the percentage is calculated:

Tailpipe emissions account for 31 per cent of all emissions. This increases to 44 per cent when emissions from fuel production and vehicle manufacturing are included. When leaks from vehicle air conditioners are added, total emissions rise to 47 per cent.

Emissions from garages, including those relating to the manufacturing of oils, greases, antifreeze, etc., bring the total to 48 per cent. Then there's the construction and maintenance of roads, including the production of concrete, asphalt, metals for roads, bridges and lampposts, and electricity for lighting, which bring the final total to 52 per cent.

In addition, there are emissions too complicated to calculate, related to how cities are designed to accommodate cars, such as with low building density, which requires lots of travel, plus increased demands for sewers, water, roads, streetlights, and utilities.

Now, here's how carbon dioxide emissions are tallied:

A single person driving a large SUV on the highway, with gas consumption of 8.3 kilometres a litre, will produce 286 grams of CO2 per kilometre – twice as much as an airline passenger to London, England, who will be responsible for 102-170 grams per kilometre.

Driving in the city at 5.9 km per litre, the same SUV driver will produce 405 grams of CO2 per kilometre – three times as much as the airline passenger.

There's a qualifier, however. Because emissions from jet engines are more potent at higher altitudes, their impact is 1.9 times greater that it would be at ground level.

This makes the global warming impact equal between airline passengers and SUV drivers on the highway. But in the city, with lower gasoline mileage, the driver of a big SUV will still have an impact one-third greater than the overseas air traveller.

There's a second qualifier. Short domestic flights consume more jet fuel and the responsibility of an airline passenger doubles to 204-340 grams of CO2 per kilometre, outstripping the emissions of the SUV driver even in city driving.

Last weekend, as I was mulling over the Heathrow protest, I happened to read a book review by the Toronto Star's literary critic Philip Marchand.

He recalled Eric McLuhan writing that "(C)ivilized man is so enveloped by his own artefacts and technologies that he has forgotten himself ... (and) has become subject to them, and spends his days ignorant that he lives in a fairyland of his own making."

The fairyland the Western world has created is the so-called global village, immediately accessible to everyone, anywhere, anytime, in which no one need be concerned where food comes from, where vacations are taken, or what the global economy demands in travel and transportation.

There are heretics, of course, such as the Heathrow protesters, the British drugstore chain, Boots, which is printing a "carbon footprint" – the amount of CO2 emitted in manufacturing and transportation – on some of its cosmetic products, the British supermarket giant Tesco PLC which says it will eventually put similar labels on all 70,000 items in its stores, and PepsiCo, Inc. which puts an emissions label on its Walker potato chips in England.

In Canada, McLuhan's fairyland exists because people lack information, and regulators won't insist on full and fair labelling.