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Climate and EnergyJune/July 2006

Turning Down the Heat


One of the biggest sources of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which are changing the earth's climate is gasoline-powered transportation. Sonoma County's 2005 Greenhouse Gas Inventory has estimated that transportation accounts for 42% of local GHG emissions from all sources, and approximately 60% of household emissions.

Both conservation (driving less) and increased vehicle efficiency reduce GHG emissions from transportation. As individuals, we can change our driving habits by making fewer trips, using public transportation, and car-pooling. Bicycling and walking can replace car use close to home. Fuel efficient hybrid cars are already available, and more types of fuel-efficient vehicles will be coming onto the market soon. On a larger scale, we can redesign our communities to reduce car use, as Portland, Oregon has begun to do.

The long-term strategy for completely eliminating GHG emissions from transportation is still unclear. It will require replacing gasoline with a fuel that doesn't produce GHGs either when it is manufactured or when it is consumed. Proposed alternative fuels generally fall into one of two categories: liquid biofuels, which could be used just like gasoline, or some kind of hydrogen fuel cell or electric battery.

Biofuels are attractive because they could use the existing distribution infrastructure of gas stations - but they have significant drawbacks as well. While they produce about 25% of the GHGs that gasoline does, they are not zero emission fuels, and manufacturing and distributing them takes energy. The biggest problem however, is that they are made from plant material. If manufactured on the same scale that we use gasoline, biofuels could greatly increase the size of world agriculture. With growing turmoil on the horizon for global agriculture - from climate change, the increasing cost of energy and fertilizers, growth in world population and declining soil fertility - it doesn't make sense to invest in a big way in a technology that will put even more pressure on the finite amount of land we have.

Fuel cells or batteries which are filled using fossil fuel-based technologies offer no advantage in the context of climate change. But there are lots of creative ideas around for different ways to fill a battery. Energy storage will be an important part of our future, since the most benign renewable energies, like solar or wind, are intermittent, and need to be stored to be reliable. Eventually we may be able to plug the electric car into our home windmill or let it recharge itself from its own solar collecting roof - but not quite yet.

What You Can Do

  • Increased efficiency vehicles: Consider buying a car with significantly better mileage than the one you drive now. There are only two cars available now that have mileage of more than 40 mpg. Beware of 'hybrid' vehicles that don't get much better mileage than a non-hybrid. Consumer Reports (April 2006) Hybrid cars; Union of Concerned Scientists website: Clean Vehicles.
  • Look at your own driving habits: Can you carpool more, consolidate trips, take public transportation, walk or bicycle? Driving at lower speeds on the freeway reduces gas use. If you need to idle for more than a few minutes, turn your engine off.
  • Sonoma County is updating its General Plan right now: Let the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors know that we need to use the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan to create a network of safe walking and biking paths throughout the county. The Plan exists and has been adopted by the County; it needs to be implemented.
    Sonoma County Planning Commission
    2550 Ventura Avenue, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
    (707) 565-8343
  • Land use decisions can also make a big difference to how much people need to drive. The County is committed to city-centered growth, but can do more by discouraging industrial uses and non-agriculture tourism in rural areas. Cities can encourage live/work developments rather than suburban housing isolated from jobs and shopping.
  • The County and cities need to work together to build a coordinated public transport system. Re-starting passenger trains within the county can help to 'grow' a network of connected bus routes and bike paths.
  • Walkable cities and towns: Many vehicle trips are made within a mile of home, since streets and major intersections are often unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists. Look around your neighborhood - what could be done that would make walking to work, school or shopping safer and more attractive? Should there be sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks with signals? Wide streets can be made into boulevards with central medians to make them safer for pedestrians to cross. Work with your city and neighborhood to create a more walkable community.

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