Lesson for dealing with climate change found in lower speed limits

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail

Man-made climate change is real and that it will cause significant problems. We could avoid much of its effects by making immediate and drastic cuts in carbon emissions. However, I believe that doing so would be one of the worst things we could do.

To get a handle on such a seemingly paradoxical position, step away from the vicious political debate on global warming and consider the more simple matter of traffic accidents.

Every year, 50 million people are injured on the roads. More than 1.2 million die. Nine in ten fatalities occur in the Third World. The cost from all this carnage mounts up to a staggering $512 billion each year.

And the problem is getting worse. Traffic is increasing, especially in developing nations. In India, for example, motor-maker Tata Motors is launching an ultra-budget four-door car that will cost less than US$3,000. The company aims to sell more than a million automobiles a year.

Thanks in part to the extra cars on the road, traffic accidents will be the planet’s second-leading cause of death by 2020, right after heart disease.

Yet, we have the know-how to solve this problem overnight. We could save 1.2 million lives and eliminate $500 billion of damage and we would especially help the Third World because that’s where most deaths occur.

How? We simply lower the speed limit – everywhere – to five miles per hour.

At such a slow speed, the number of injuries or fatalities would drastically tumble. We wouldn’t just save human lives: each year, 57 million birds are hit by cars in the United States alone.

Of course, this is a ‘solution’ that the world will never embrace. The benefits from our higher speed limits vastly outweigh the costs. Relatively fast-moving vehicles play a crucial role in every aspect of modern life. A world creeping along at 5 mph would be a world gone medieval.

This is not meant to be flip. We really could solve one of the world’s top problems if we wanted. We know traffic deaths are almost entirely caused by man, we have the technology to reduce it to zero, yet we seem to persist in going ahead and exacerbate the problem each year, pushing traffic deaths to become the number two killer in the world by 2020.

I suggest that the comparison with global warming is insightful. We also know that global warming is strongly caused by man and we have the technology to reduce it to zero, yet we seem to persist in going ahead using fossil fuels, exacerbating the problem each year causing the temperature to increase to new heights in 2020. Why? Because the benefits from moderately using fossil fuels vastly outweigh the costs.

Global warming will cause problems on the order of half a percent of global GDP, although it is often irresponsibly oversold as a catastrophe. Compare this to how fossil fuels provide low-cost light, heat, food, communication and travel. We can access fruit and vegetables year-round, reducing cancer by at least 25 per cent. Air conditioning has stopped Americans from dying in droves during heat waves. Cheaper fuels could have saved many of the 150,000 people killed by cold winters in the United Kingdom since 2000.

Improving access to fossil fuels is vital for the Third World. Two-and-a-half billion of the world’s poorest people rely on wood, waste and dung to cook and to keep themselves warm. This is a major cause of indoor pollution which kills about 1.3 million people – mainly women and children – each year. Improving access to fossil fuels could save a million lives and dramatically improve billions. Both for the developed and the developing world, thinking of a world without fossil fuels in the short or medium term is a lot like a world gone medieval.

Basically, early and drastic cuts in fossil fuel use would hurt humanity, especially those least able to cope. But I don’t believe we should ignore the major problem of global warming.

Look again at the traffic problem. Most countries have strict speed limits – if they didn’t, fatalities would be even higher. Yet we also make the tradeoffs -- lowering the average speed limit in Western Europe by just a few miles per hour would save 10,000 lives each year, but we don’t do it. In democracies, we have a reasoned discussion where we debate the merits of faster travel versus those of fewer deaths.

When it comes to climate change, we can have a similarly constructive talk about setting a carbon tax at, say, $2, or even $14 dollars per ton. But while a $100 or $150 tax is technically doable, it is simply unreasonable.

As we realize that there is little opportunity to lower speed limits, we think about other and smarter ways to lessen the road toll. We promote air bags, seat belts and motorcycle helmets. We build better highways and safer streets.

Debate on global warming has become fixated on drastic reductions in carbon emissions. We’ve forgotten that our primary objective is to improve humans’ quality of life and the environment.

We have other and smarter options. I believe the best option is for nations to commit to spending .05 per cent of GDP on researching non-carbon emitting energy technologies, like solar, wind, clean fossil fuels and energy conservation. Such spending would be a ten-fold increase on today’s global research budget, yet would only cost a tiny fraction of the costly and ineffective Kyoto Protocol. Each nation could play its part, with richer countries paying the larger share.

Some campaigners advocate effectively halting economic development and progress to combat climate change. I believe the opposite is true. A low-carbon, high-income world is possible. What we need is smart innovation.

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