The Hot Zone

A Bad Habit

Posted by Alison Hawkes on February 22, 2010
Category : The man made climate

By Alison Hawkes

Sigh. I read with dismay an article about IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri being slammed once again, this time for his personal habit of using a car and driver to get one mile from his Delhi home to his office. Reminds me of Al Gore’s fiasco concerning the energy use in his Nashville mansion.

No doubt these attacks are part of a strategy to kill the climate change message by killing the messengers. But it’s not entirely without merit to scrutinize the central figures in the climate change debate. Sure they need to expend carbon as they go about their business advocating solutions to climate change, but like it or not they also serve as examples to the public. Pachauri, a vegetarian, even drew attention to his personal habits when he pronounced that people should eat less meat.

What I find disturbing about Pachauri is that, at least when it comes to cars, he’s basically acting like everyone else (in the West). We talk about replacing light bulbs with compact florescents and insulating homes, but these two activities combined amount to a mere quarter of the amount of carbon reduction as switching from a fossil fuel car to public transit. That’s even when the buses are assumed to be three-quarters empty. Imagine the carbon savings if transit systems filled up with car-rejecting passengers. For more fun facts about cars and public transit, the Federal Transit Administration provides a nice summary entitled Public Transit’s Role in Responding to Climate Change, viewable on PDF.

Cars emit about a pound of carbon dioxide each mile traveled. That makes them really, really bad for climate change. Let me underscore this. Worse than power generators, industrial sources, household appliances, agriculture – you name it. A recent study at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies examined 13 economic sectors for “total radiative forcing,” meaning the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are forcing atmospheric temperature increases minus other airborne chemicals that have a cooling affect by blocking the sun’s rays.

Radiative Forcing

It found that on-road motor vehicles have the highest total radiative forcing of all sectors because they emit a lot of greenhouse gases and few cooling particles, like aerosols. This is expected to change by 2050 when power generation exceeds vehicles, due to regulatory requirements that aerosols be reduced (they’re bad for health and the environment).

So why does it seem that getting out of the car is the greatest sacrifice of all to make on the road to a stable climate?

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