Europe vs. America (Travelogue vs. Travelblog?)

Posted by Don Fullerton on Feb 22, 2010

Filed Under (Environmental Policy)

This week, I’ve been travelling in Paris, to make a presentation at an OECD meeting on “encouraging low-carbon vehicle technologies”.  Now I’ve moved on to Barcelona, and in a few days fly to Istanbul.  I’ve been sightseeing “old Europe”, with very narrow city streets that are really just alleys at best, where walkers share the space with intermittent bicycles and mopeds.  The occasional delivery van is the only four wheeled vehicle that must venture down some of these alleys, just to reach the shops where they have to deliver their goods.

It is all very quaint, and picturesque.  Anybody who really needs to get somewhere just rides the metro.  Perhaps the dense grid of subway stops is not surprising in a city the size of Paris, but Barcelona has a similar number of stops on many routes, all around the city.  The population is about 3 million.  I don’t think that any city of 3 million in the United States has dug so many subway lines for convenient public transportation.

The narrow streets and convenient subways reflect the culture and history of the place.  Given the topic of my presentation, however, I have to wonder if it reflects the current policies in place.   Has the high tax on gasoline (“petrol”) encouraged these citizens to buy mopeds instead of cars, and to vote more funding for public transportation?  Or has the number of mopeds and subways induced the people to vote for high taxes on petrol?

I don’t know, and it would be very difficult to sort out the direction of causation.  But I do know that “old” Europe is a long way ahead of the U.S. in terms of low carbon footprint.  We in the U.S. see congested highways as an indication that we need to spend more money on highways!  That kind of reaction will never get any of us out of our cars and into public transportation.  For that we need infrastructure, which requires exactly the wording I used above: “culture and history”.  It cannot be built overnight.  The existing trajectory for building of highway infrastructure will put us on the path to future emissions, which sow the seeds of future global warming.

I’m easily as patriotic as the next American.  Last night I cheered when Bode Miller won the gold metal in the men’s “super combined event” at the Vancouver Olympics.  But I really have to wonder if the rest of the world is right that the United States has already caused more than its share of what will be a huge global warming problem, and we’re just not doing enough about it.  It’s not much warmer yet, but CO2 concentrations have already increased enough to guarantee another 5 degrees warmer climate.  If we don’t change our culture of driving, our way of life could be history.