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The Green New Deal and Converting Air Travel to High Speed Rail Travel

June 04, 2019
In their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, released in October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that time is running out to avoid a global climate disaster. Specifically, to avoid a net temperature increase of 2ºC, we have until the year 2030 to reach net zero global carbon emissions.[1] In 2017, President Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement, and since then, there has been no national policy in place to address climate change.

During her campaign for Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) made climate change a key issue. She introduced the idea of a Green New Deal (GND) to press for action on climate change as well as mitigate the negative economic impacts of it. The Sunrise Movement, a youth climate advocacy organization, joined Representative Ocasio-Cortez in advocating for the GND. On February 7, 2019, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the bill to Congress.

The US has the second-highest carbon emission rates in the world, and to reduce climate change, the US must cut its carbon emissions.[2] The GND proposes that the US achieves this end by converting domestic air travel to inter-city high-speed rail travel (HSR) in the continental US. This article will examine the major environmental and economic considerations associated with this proposed change.

High-speed rail travel has lower greenhouse gas emissions than air travel, the main reason to switch. In 2016, transportation accounted for 28% of total US GHG emissions. Of this, 12% was produced by aircraft (so 3% of the total).[3][4] While the emissions of aircraft are high, they have been improving significantly with time. Jets in service in 2017 were more than 80% more efficient per seat kilometer than their early counterparts in the 1960s.[5] Another factor to consider is that as biodiesel becomes cheaper and more widely used, aircraft fuel efficiency will continue to rise.[6] However, the fossils fuels that aircraft continue to use are especially dangerous given their context. Due to their high cruising altitudes, any GHG emissions from aircraft cause more warming than GHG emissions at ground level and are therefore more perpetuating of climate change.[7] HSR does not have this additional threat associated with its emissions.

HSR is powered by electricity, not fuel. The promise seen in HSR is that the potential exists for it to be completely powered by renewable energy, while this option does not exist with the fuel needed for aircraft, as biodiesel still emits GHG when burned. In 2018, renewable energy sources accounted for nearly 20% of total US electricity production.[8] This number is up from 15% in 2016 and is continuing to rise.[9] One of the goals of the GND is for the US to achieve net-zero carbon emissions within the next 10 years.[10] While this goal has come under much scrutiny for its feasibility, the ride of renewable-powered HSR could be very beneficial in pushing the US closer to achieving it.

One of the main environmental concerns with HSR is infrastructure construction, which can cause habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem disruption if not properly managed.[11] When HSR is constructed through a habitat, it divides the area into sections, creating habitat fragmentation. This is dangerous because it can cause local extinctions if some populations become cut off from vital areas such as water sources.[12] Additionally, when HSR is constructed, the natural environment in the path of construction is degraded significantly, causing habitat loss for local species.[13] These effects can be mitigated by mindful construction of HSR routes with regard to the unique environmental needs of each area. For example, HSR routes could be constructed along major highway routes so that they do not create new major habitat fragmentation.

The possibility for HSR to significantly decrease GHG emissions in the US depends on how quickly the production of renewable energy increases. Habitat modification also plays a significant role in the environmental friendliness of HSR, with much research needed in order to mitigate the impacts of infrastructure construction. Environmental factors are just one of the ways to evaluate the efficiency of HSR. There are also several important economic factors to consider. Specifically, the monetary savings associated with the travel time, safety, and operating costs of HSR compared to that of motor-vehicle and air travel need to be compared to the upfront costs of building, operating, and maintaining the HSR infrastructure.

Assuming HSR can become a competitive alternative to motor-vehicle and air travel (in terms of travel time and ticket prices), the national economic savings could be significant. Due to increasing use of domestic transportation, the US spends more than $100 billion offsetting delays caused by motor-vehicle and air travel congestion each year.[14] The traffic congestion in the motor-vehicle sector also poses hefty safety costs (upwards of $300 billion) and an additional $140 billion in sacrificed labor productivity.[15][16] The main contributors to these costs are motor-vehicle accidents and collisions, which are proportional to the number of drivers on the road. By decreasing the number of people on the road, HSR would alleviate some of these motor-vehicle safety costs as well. Since HSR provides an additional mode of transportation for commuters, its implementation would not only decrease congestion and the costs associated with it, but also has the potential to decrease travel times, effectively increasing productivity levels and the gross domestic product (GDP).

In California alone, the projected costs of HSR construction are greater than $77 billion– and they keep rising.[17] But it is often overlooked that with sustainable infrastructure, the bulk of its total lifetime cost is its installation. As such, it is important to consider not only the money that HSR will save the government but also the value associated with the intangible benefits it will generate. HSR will provide new links among cities in the continental US, which will stimulate the economy in a number of ways. Not only will these inter-city connections increase the scope of geographically-accessible employers for US workers, but it will also boost multiple-city tourism and economic activity.[18] In fact, every $1 invested in HSR infrastructure is projected to have a $4 economic benefit resulting from it.[19] Moreover, the construction of HSR infrastructure itself stands to create a surge in available jobs (each $1 billion investment will create 24,000 jobs).[20] HSR will also reduce the US dependence on foreign oil, making the US more economically secure.[21]

Image: Climate change and high speed rail fast factsImage: Climate change and high speed rail fast facts

While it is difficult to quantify the precise environmental benefits that HSR can potentially provide, HSR is more environmentally-friendly than existing modes of domestic transportation (motor-vehicle and air travel). Thus, converting some of those travelers to HSR will reduce US carbon emissions. However, the extent of the environmental impact of HSR has to do with the types of primary energy sources that are being converted into electricity. Though HSR would bring the US one step closer to being able to use renewable energy sources on a large-scale, renewable energy alone cannot currently meet the demands needed for producing the electricity of HSR. There still needs to be significant innovation surrounding methods of storing renewable energy so that it can be used as a baseload power source for the grid.

Ultimately, whether or not the environmental benefits of HSR outweigh its economic costs hinges on the sophistication of the infrastructure that is built. For HSR to be a realistic option for travelers, ticket prices and travel times will have to be proportional to that of air and motor-vehicle travel. If the HSR infrastructure is capable of being a competitive transportation offering for passengers, its implementation would decrease US carbon emissions in the long-term. However, if the infrastructure that the US realistically builds is unable to compete with other modes of domestic transportation, then billions of government dollars will go to waste. Moving forward with inter-city HSR as an alternative to domestic air travel requires a detailed cost-benefit analysis that considers both the potential economic costs and benefits as well as the effectual impact that investing in HSR will have on US fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

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