In addition to economic growth, should improving the climate be an important goal of government policy?
The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate offers ten recommendations designed to help countries of all income levels achieve these two goals. Their first recommendation is that cities “commit to developing and implementing low-carbon urban development strategies by 2020.” This includes prioritizing investments in non-motorized transport and renewable energy. Policy to achieve this goal will likely make many urban residents, particularly the poor and working class, worse off.
The use of nonrenewable fossil fuels has contributed to healthier, more prosperous and more accessible cities.
Inexpensive gasoline along with good highways make it possible for people to commute considerable distances to work, enhancing job opportunities and economic prosperity. Similarly, the low cost of truck transportation has enabled urban residents to afford a higher standard of living, including a greater variety of healthy and nutritious food. Fossil fuels have contributed to the widespread availability of affordable indoor heating and air conditioning, which reduces the incidence of health problems resulting from cold or hot weather.
Good reasons exist for why people rely mostly on nonrenewable rather than renewable energy. Renewable energy, whether biofuels, solar energy or wind energy, is generally more expensive than nonrenewable energy. Solar energy and wind energy are less reliable. Some renewable energy sources, including wood and other biofuels causes as much or more pollution than gasoline, fuel oil, or natural gas.
Some of the changes associated with low carbon development are beneficial. Americans need more exercise, which they could get if they drove less, and compact, connected cities are more pleasant than cities dominated by highways. Traffic congestion causes many hours of wasted time and fuel; if more people walked or used public transportation, congestion could be reduced.
Nevertheless, people have legitimate reasons for driving including the value they place on getting to their destinations comfortably and quickly. It may make sense for people to pay more for the driving they do to discourage them from driving on congested streets and highways. But if they must bear higher costs those costs should be connected with actual problems caused by driving, such as traffic congestion and pollution that is harmful to health. Requiring greater use of renewable energy or limiting driving to reduce CO2 emissions offers few if any benefits, and could increase the cost of living substantially.
Improvements in technology make motorized transport less and less harmful to the environment. Similarly, new technologies are reducing the amount of pollution from burning nonrenewable fuels. Rather than pursuing draconian policies to promote low carbon cities, governments should pursue policies that do not put obstacles in the way of creating or maintaining neighborhoods where people can easily walk, ride bikes or use affordable public transportation for access to their daily needs, but also have the mobility they want and need as the result of a good system of streets and highways and affordable fossil fuel.