On Carbon Ethics, Individual action, and the Value of Slow Travel

In a recent post, I tried to start a deeper discussion with Milan about what it means to act ethically in these needful times with respect to climate change.

I’m not sure if he meant this post as a response to my post, or as a response to the ongoing discussion on carbon ethics – but either way, it really does not does not “bring about any clarity to the many discussions we’ve had here about carbon ethics”. It really just repeats what we already know – action must begin collectively and immediately – and from there re-makes the assumption that it is desirable that, in full knowledge that collective action will not begin immediately, that still “we individually [should] want to mirror what the world as a whole needs to do”.

I’ll repeat the argument I’ve made before, and again, I’ll give reasons for my position. (While it makes me sound like a liberal, giving reasons for arguments is a central requirement to dialogue. Without reason-giving, it is not really possible to hold others responsible for what they’ve said.) I do not think it is not desirable that we individually, as individuals, want to mirror what the world needs to do. In fact, I think the notion that we should do as individuals what the world as a whole should do while the world isn’t doing it is deeply misguided. The fact the world isn’t doing it means the actual cuts needed are deeper and sharper – so what justifies someone personally cutting their carbon more slowly when the world’s inaction produces a requirement for even sharper cuts?

In fact, I would not advocate any carbon ethics that remains on the level of individually setting an example where that example is “what is required of everyone”, rather than attempting to demonstrate what is desirable about acting socially, together as a society, to mitigate climate change. However, I would not recommend amending your position to give a different curve of carbon cut-back because cutting back on carbon emissions is largely not something we can do as individuals – it requires investment on the societal level.

Taking into account the importance of the societal, my claim is that it is desirable that we “mirror what the world needs to do” – together. The emphasis needs to be on the “we”, not on the “as individuals”. Rather than acting “individually” – any action to be effective must foster social movements, activism, political pressure, and so on. I don’t think it is particularly virtuous to live a “moral” (pious), personally low carbon life – the relevant virtue here is in spurring and organizing the social transformation we so desperately need if we want our children not to live in a much more violent and hostile place than we. Of course, I do not mean to construct a false opposition between personal and social action. Rather, what I mean to show is that a personal action can either be individualizing or fostering of a social movement.

I think the bus/train decision is an example of where these values diverge in an individual’s choice. I don’t mean to criticize your decision – just some of the logic you stated with regards to the issue. There are lots of reasons to take the bus that are good reasons. However, specifically looking at a comment responding to my post on high speed, overnight, and trans continental rail travel you wrote:

“Arguably, there is little point in getting people onto cross-country trains, until they have a significant climate advantage over air travel.”

I think this is misguided. The real effects of our actions are not only their immediate release of carbon, but also the extent to which they contribute to the societal will to spend to mitigate, to build a world appropriate for a carbon neutral future. Whether you like it or not, taking the bus cross country appears to others as embracing a low-carbon asceticism. In my experience, people seem deeply hostile to this.

We could debate whether it’s good or it’s bad that there is a hostility to asceticism – but the fact is there is a deep and longstanding hostility to it, and having one’s actions spur social movement building means being sensitive to which values one can shift and which ones one cannot shift. There is room for movement, for example, on the value of working 40 hours a week, or 46 to 50 weeks a year – look at the idealization of German Vacation time in Canada (especially our immediate experience of it in the West in the form of RV tourism), and also the strength of the work-less party with their extremely sensible policies.

Looking at the long term ramifications of social choice, I come to the conclusion that the right value to shift towards with respect to travel is slow travel – accessible, utilitarian and comfortable. We should pressure Via to shift away from tourism service towards useful travel service for all Canadians, which means, for transcontinental service, daily departures and restoring the Montreal – Ottawa – Sudbury connection.

Slow travel also endorses more travel by bicycle. There is no reason why trips of less than 100km, when time is not the primary issue, can not be made increasingly by bicycle. What is required to open this up to more of the population is investment in bicycle routes, even dedicated tracks. Despite my love of road bikes, maybe the right value here is unpaved maintained trails, since they can simply be grated when a paved trail would need resurfacing.

Slow travel requires more time than plane travel – so this goes hand in hand with becoming more mindful, more aware, more intentional of our actions. Milan is right that we need to ditch flagrantly needless trips – and switching from air to rail means it is no longer possible to have that quick weekend in Paris, or a day trip to New York for a business meeting. But it also means increasing the value of a visit we do choose to make – since it will not be as quick and easy to move from place to place, we will value those visits we do make that much more greatly.



  1. Thank you for this post. It’s an important topic.

    I just got a fair bit of flack from a few eco-aqaintances over our decision to purchase a (very fuel efficient car). The context here is important. I’ve lived car-free my whole life, don’t travel by air anymore, eco-retrofitted my house, work in environmental policy… you get the idea. But we have a toddler at home now. I nearly fell into a rather deep PPD last winter being car-free with a baby. We are just having a hard time getting groceries reliably, among other things, while not neglecting our sons immediate needs (so that he grows up strong enough to face the challenges he’ll face, irrespective of our choices!).

    We agonized over this decision, but eventually looked at how frequently we ended up renting cars (local car share) and what our likely useage would be.. and realized it was our self-image as ‘greenies’ more than actual emissions savings that was keeping us car-free.

    I think there’s a distinction to draw between people who think 1) they can’t change their lifestyle to lower emissions because they are unwililng/unaware of how to do it (e.g. don’t know about rain gear on bicycles, never were part of a culture of downtown living), and 2) people who are navigating the systems we’ve collectively created as best as they can. I’ve been accused of “rationalizing”, but don’t we all draw the line somewhere? Who among us can be pure, without collective change (like better transit infrastructure)?

    I tried to “mirror” the change I wanted to see in the world, and other people with kids though that was cute. But I was still too often at home hungry or socially-isolated. If friends came to visit me, I’m merely punting the emissions over to their cars.

    Both of us will continue to push for change as we have been on many fronts… (we can do so more effectively if we are not personally drained, unwell people).


  2. A car is essential to be fully human in modern rich suburban or rural life. Otherwise you are at the mercy and charity of others who do own cars. I don’t hold it against anyone who owns a car, so long as they drive sparingly and maintain their car appropriately. Humans are really great at making cars, although many of those sold today are still garbage – this contradiction depresses me almost as much as how poorly we take care of cars.

    In the larger sense, of course cars as they currently stand have to go. But development with battery technology means a carbon neutral future doesn’t need to be an entirely car-free one. The long-distance electric car (with 20 minute charge stops every 2 or so hours) is almost here already, and will be here by or before 2020 so long as the car industry doesn’t “Kill the electric car” again.

    Of course, switching to electricity is only a partial solution – they major key is where does that electricity come from. Thus, the place to put pressure for climate change is carbon neutral sources of energy.

    You have to understand, I hate the world cars have let us build. I hate the suburbs. But, the suburbs are not enemy numero uno with regards climate change.


  3. Local car shares really are a great option for many people, and are a cheaper alternative to car ownership for people who can’t afford car payments or the uncertainty of running a used car. If I lived in Vancouver, I would certainly become a member of Vancouver Car Co-op, even if I hardly ever chose to drive. They way they are set up, you pay 1000$ share price to join, and then only pay per use charges. In Toronto, none of the car sharing is co-operative (an important value to me), and none have no monthly fee (in other words, users like me would subsidize heavy users – not the incentive structure I’m in favour of).


  4. Hey, we don’t even live in the burbs, just a pocket of downtown underserved by grocery stores (even small ones) because all the grocery stores fled to the burbs!

    We were also members of Ottawa’s car share vrtucar.com for nearly ten years. We used it on average once a month for things you just need a car for – it was great! But that’s the kind of thing that’s easy to do when single or a mobile couple – hoofing it in the snow to install the car seat while your baby wails, and returning it late because keeping to a schedule is impossible, is just not feasible for long.

    p.s. the competing companies in Toronto are due to a marital split-up.. can you imagine competing with your ex! Further proof that the personal is political (in this case bad eco-policy).

    We bought a used car partly because we’re hoping the technology will change in a shorter time than the lifespan of a new car.


  5. People do see taking the bus as ‘asceticism’ and I accept that there is sometimes a hostile reaction to it. I am going with the bus option because it is lower carbon and two days faster than the train.

    In the long run, we need to create better travel options: principally those powered by low-carbon electricity. We probably also need to accept that it will be many years (if ever) before people have a level of sustainable mobility comparable to what is now achieved using fossil fuels.


  6. “We probably also need to accept that it will be many years (if ever) before people have a level of sustainable mobility comparable to what is now achieved using fossil fuels.”

    How long would it take to get 2 transcontinental trains per day leaving in each direction (exchanging passengers in Winnipeg), powered by fuel-cell locomotives?

    I realize we all love to hate fuel cells, but compared to retrofitting private vehicles, retrofitting the railways would be a walk in the park. It might be much cheaper than electrifying cross country lines.

    The fuel cell nonsense would take a while – but certainly it is possible by 2020. As for beginning the operation with diesel power, it could start almost immediately. Via has 39 sleeping cars currently completely un-used in Thunder Bay.

    That, plus a return to the old 3 day rather than 3 day 12 hour schedules, would make the train as fast and as accessible as the bus.

    These are concrete proposals, ones we can start petitioning politicians on right away. And also, they are exciting – a lot more exciting than taking the bus. I read just this morning in the newspaper that the CEO of Via thinks rail travel needs to become a major part of intercity travel again, as it has been in the past.


  7. You may want to glance through Joseph Romm’s The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate. I think the number of barriers to the effective deployment of fuel cells is sufficient to make it dubious to say they will be workable by 2020, if ever.

    When I say “sustainable mobility comparable to what is now achieved,” I am not comparing the bus with the train. I am comparing flying today with some hypothetical future option. In fact, it may be impossible to ever get that level of mobility in a sustainable way. Whether it is possible or not probably depends on how biofuels pan out, in the long term.


  8. Do you have a copy of Romm’s book?

    My point about the railway is that any new technology will require a lot of infrastructure investment to get it going. Since the railway infrastructure is much more finite than the road infrastructure, I think it’s sensible to think the new technology could be more quickly implemented there.

    For fuel cells, sure there might be lots of barriers that I don’t know about, but compare the number of locomotives in North America to the number of trucks – it must be ten thousand to one. For private cars, a million to one. So, many fewer units are required. So, if building units are expensive, it would be cheaper to concentrate the building of units to railway application. Also, many fewer filling stations are required – literally across Canada perhaps a dozen filling stations would be adequate for trans continental travel. And, since rail is the cheapest way to transport a freight ton-mile, the transportation costs of the hydrogen would be the cheapest along the railways (except compared to pipelines).

    As for safety, we already have containers that keep nuclear waste safe in a 120mph railway crash into concrete.


  9. “…because electrolysis of water into H2 is only about 80% efficient, the associated emissions of electrolytic H2 used to fuel a train would be 25% higher than the average of the grid power used to produce it. And although it’s theoretically possible to generate H2 solely from off-peak renewable electricity when the latter is not being used to back out higher-emitting power sources, the capital cost of that route is much higher, because it would only operate a small fraction of the time.”



  10. “Taking shape in the BNSF Railway workshop at Topeka, Kansas, is an experimental shunting locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells. BNSF believes that fuel cell technology offers the potential to reduce air pollution as well as preparing the way for a future locomotive fleet that is not dependent on oil.”

    “The Railpower locomotive, which had been reduced to a shell, was delivered from Montréal to Topeka in 2007, and the various components, including the fuel cell power modules and the hydrogen storage tanks are now being installed, along with the electrical transmission and control systems. BNSF and Vehicle Products had hoped to begin testing the completed unit in 2008, but are now expecting to start operations during 2009. The loco is also expected to visit the Transportation Technology Center at Pueblo for testing by the Federal Railroad Administration.”



  11. “The RTRI initiated the development of fuel cell trains in fiscal 2001 and has been testing a single-car fuel cell hybrid train since April 2006. The latest prototype runs on electricity generated by the 120 kW polymer electrolyte fuel cell (PEMFC), which uses hydrogen fuel, while a 360 kW lithium-ion battery is recharged during operation and through regenerative braking. The two-car model demonstrated improved acceleration, recording 70 percent energy efficiency rate during the test run.”



  12. “With first-hand certainty, I can tell you about one international conspiracy that is absolutely real, although it is known only to a very small—if growing—fraction of the population. If you’ve followed this column over the years, you’ve read about it.

    The object of this conspiracy is a revolt, one to free diesel railroads everywhere from reliance on oil-producing countries by fomenting a revolution in railway traction technology. We aim to overthrow petroleum and establish hydrogen power in its place: Code name: “hydrail.””

    “In November, 2007, the Premier of Ontario, Canada—Dalton McGuinty—announced that Ontario and Bombardier Transport are in talks about the manufacture and the export of hydrail trains of exactly the kind Mooresville proposed for the Mount Mourne to Charlotte commuter line; the Ontario Globe and Mail newspaper called me for a comment. Now, that just can’t be coincidence: conspiracy!”



  13. Canadian Hydrail Projects

    Fuel Cell Mine Locomotive

    “The first ever hydrogen-powered locomotive was developed by the Fuel Cell Propulsion Institute for use in a below-ground mining operation in Canada.”

    Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society

    “Intended to function as part of B.C.’s Hydrogen Highway, the Society plans to purchase a replica of a 1950s rail car which will be powered by either a fuel cell (est. 300kW system) or a hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine. With delivery of the rail car replica anticipated by late 2008, project planners anticipate completed demonstrations of the concept in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.”


    “The Ontario government is talking to Bombardier Transportation about funding the development of one of the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains, according to Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty.”



  14. Two functional hydrogen switcher engines are in use by the US military.

    “A fuelcell locomotive will have the environmental advantages of a catenary-electric locomotive but higher overall energy efficiency and lower infrastructure costs. Catenary-electric locomotives, when viewed as only one component of a distributed machine that includes an electric powerplant and transmission lines, are the least energy-efficient locomotive type. Diesel-electric locomotives, while collectively worse air polluters than an equivalent number of coal-fired plants powering catenary-electric locomotives, are more energy efficient. Elimination of the high infrastructure costs by fuelcell locomotives is the key to economic viability of electric trains in low-population density regions such as the western USA. ”



  15. I don’t have Romm’s book, so it’s hard for me to respond to your comments that refer to the book without exegizing any of its arguments.

    Here is what I’ve found on the wikipedia entry on his book

    “The book claims that the most common and cost-effective method of hydrogen production is from natural gas, which emits large amounts of CO2 (a greenhouse gas), since it would require too much electric power to produce hydrogen using the electrolysis method. The monetary costs of hydrogen fueling infrastructure for the U.S. are then estimated at half a trillion U.S. dollars, and the book describes additional energy and environment costs to liquefy and compress hydrogen for use in fueling stations.”

    Ok. If we’re talking about outfitting the entire economy with hydrogen, sure. But I’m talking about outfitting railways. So, you don’t need a “huge fueling infrastructure”, you need maybe a few hundred stations at railway yards across the country – maybe less. So, that isn’t a barrier.

    As for not having enough electricity, my research suggests that electricity can be converted into hydrogen and back into electricity at 80% efficiency. If we compare that to building canaries over long distance tracks, it certainly could be an interim solution. If we can’t produce enough electricity, then that just means we can’t produce enough zero carbon energy to run the economy – so we need to get to work making more electricity.

    Here are some other points made by the wikipedia article

    “Internal combustion engines continue to improve in efficiency.”

    So what? Who cares about efficiency? We need to switch to a zero carbon economy, not a slightly-lower carbon economy. We need to be able to be wasteful with power because the power isn’t producing any CO2. That’s what the electro-hydrogen electrical system is about.

    I mean, think about this. Say there was some technology that would let internal combustion locomotives run at twice the thermal efficiency – is this a solution? No! Half as much carbon as they produce now is still far too much for the planet in the long term!

    “Since hydrogen is likely to be made from combustion of fossil fuels, it produces less CO2 and other greenhouse gases to burn the fossil fuel directly.”

    Yes, obvious that’s a stupid idea. Making hydrogen from fossil fuels is not a solution. Who said it was? People treating hydrogen as a fuel, rather than as a way of storing electricity, that’s who.

    “Fuel cells are likely to be much more expensive than competing technologies.”

    I’d need to see the book’s argument in detail to evaluate this. But what are the competing technologies for long distance rail? Canaries – overhead wires. It really does seem that overhead wires would cost a hundred times more than outfitting the locomotive fleet with fuel cell power. Especially since you could literally retrofit existing locomotives from diesel-electric to hydrogen-electric. There are many examples of this in articles I’ve cited above.

    “Fuels used to make hydrogen could achieve larger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if used to replace the least efficient of the electric power plants.”

    Again, making hydrogen from something other than zero-carbon electricity misses the point. Hydrogen is just a way of moving electricity around in a liquid form, not a source of energy.


  16. Can you please explain why it isn’t a viable option now?

    Did you notice the utter failure of Ballard Power Systems? My parents sure did, when they got wolloped on the stock.


  17. Why did it fail?

    Any viable green option requires huge influx of subsidies. If those subsidies don’t arrive, companies which require them will fail. Nothing surprising there.

    By the way, all the railways were built through huge subsidies, both in the form of land grants, and near-slave grade labour from overseas. There is no reason to think that retrofitting our transportation infrastructure can or should be done by ‘the market’.


  18. True, but it may still be the case that particular technologies do not pan out. Right now, the difficulties with both hydrogen as a fuel and fuel cells as a way of using it seem considerable.


  19. I’m not taking your position seriously if you don’t make an argument.

    What about the technologies does not pan out?

    What are the difficulties, other than the one’s I’ve dealt with above? If my treatment of those were insufficient, what did I say that was mistaken?


  20. This post generated quite a few comments. However your comment regarding slow travel by bicycles did not seem to generate comment.

    I would add my agreement to your proposition that slow travel can consider trips of under 100 km to be done by bicycle.

    By doing so one gets a strong appreciation of the journey. When bicycling one is exposed to the elements. The trip seems very real.

    When starting bicycling a journey of 20 km or so may seem the right distance. After one puts a few of these behind you you can begin to incrementally extend to where 100 km becomes reachable.

    I also like the number 100 as a goal (easier to get there in Km than miles.)


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