High Speed Rail and Carbon Emission Reductions
One of the more troubling elements of the flawed Legislative Analyst Report on high speed rail was its attack on HSR’s role in reducing California’s carbon emissions. The LAO claimed that HSR would actually not be very helpful in achieving those reductions. But as we’ll see, the LAO’s claims here are flawed:
Given these considerations, the administration’s proposal to possibly use cap–and–trade auction revenues for the construction of high–speed rail raises three primary concerns.
• Would Not Help Achieve AB 32’s Primary Goal. The primary goal of AB 32 is to reduce California’s GHG emissions statewide to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the revised draft business plan, the IOS would not be completed until 2021 and Phase 1 Blended would not be completed until 2028. Thus, while the high–speed rail project could eventually help reduce GHG emissions somewhat in the very long run, given the project’s timeline, it would not help achieve AB 32’s primary goal of reducing GHG emissions by 2020. As a result, there could be serious legal concerns regarding this potential use of cap–and–trade revenues. It would be important for the Legislature to seek the advice of Legislative Counsel and consider any potential legal risks.
Of course, AB 32’s ultimate goal is to reduce carbon emissions for a long time to come. The purpose isn’t to just reduce to 1990 levels by 2020 – itself a goal that is widely seen by climate scholars as being way too modest to be effective – but to use that goal as a way to set California on a path to much greater reductions over the long term. It’s not as if suddenly efforts to reduce carbon emissions would or should stop in 2021.
• High–Speed Rail Would Initially Increase GHG Emissions for Many Years. As mentioned above, in order to be a valid use of cap–and–trade revenues, programs will need to reduce GHG emissions. While the HSRA has not conducted an analysis to determine the impact that the high–speed rail system will have on GHG emissions in the state, an independent study found that—if the high–speed rail system met its ridership targets and renewable electricity commitments—construction and operation of the system would emit more GHG emissions than it would reduce for approximately the first 30 years. While high–speed rail could reduce GHG emissions in the very long run, given the previously mentioned legal constraints, the fact that it would initially be a net emitter of GHG emissions could raise legal risks.
Which “independent study” is the LAO talking about here? Surely they are capable in this day and age of citing a source.
Aside from the legal risks, the bigger question is what the difference between HSR emissions are and emissions from other existing methods of travel between SF and LA. How much fewer are HSR carbon emissions than airplane emissions and vehicle emissions over that distance? The LAO didn’t examine that question. Previous studies indicate that in fact bullet trains actually have a significant advantage over planes and automobiles.
• Other GHG Reduction Strategies Likely to Be More Cost Effective. As we discussed in our recent brief on cap–and–trade, in allocating auction revenues we recommend that the Legislature prioritize GHG mitigation programs that have the greatest potential return on investment in terms of emission reductions per dollar invested. Considering the cost of a high–speed rail system relative to other GHG reduction strategies (such as green building codes and energy efficiency standards), a thorough cost–benefit analysis of all possible strategies is likely to reveal that the state has a number of other more cost–effective options. In other words, rather than allocate billions of dollars in cap–and–trade auctions revenues for the construction of a new transportation system that would not reduce GHG emissions for many years, the state could make targeted investments in programs that are actually designed to reduce GHG emissions and would do so at a much faster rate and at a significantly lower cost.
This criticism was taken up by Brad Plumer today on the WaPo’s Wonkblog:
The California High Speed Rail Authority claims that by 2030, if the train ran entirely on renewable energy, then it would start reducing the state’s carbon emissions by about 5.4 million metric tons per year. That would mean the rail network would cut California’s emissions at a cost of around $250 per metric ton of carbon dioxide over the ensuing 50 years, given the current price tag. (And this is an optimistic figure, since it ignores the energy used to build the system — by some estimates, high-speed rail would actually increase emissions in its first few decades.)
That’s a fairly pricey way to cut carbon. To put this in perspective, research has suggested that you could plant 100 million acres of trees and help reforest the United States for a cost of somewhere between $21 to $91 per ton of carbon dioxide. Alternatively, a study by Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley found that it would cost somewhere between $59 and $87 per ton of carbon dioxide to phase out coal power in the Western United States and replace it with solar, wind and geothermal. If reducing greenhouse gases is your primary goal, then there are more cost-effective ways to do it than building a bullet train.
Of course, one should not have to choose between different methods of carbon emissions reductions. Given the desperate need to make significant reductions in the near future, a whole range of different kinds of savings is needed, from changing the way power is generated to changing the ways people travel.
Additionally, one has to ask whether the costs of using HSR to reduce carbon emissions – even if more expensive than other options – are still a savings over the costs of global warming and high carbon emissions. Further, cost effectiveness should not be the only means by which a method of carbon reduction is judged. At least Plumer understands the other benefits of HSR and that they should be considered too:
Now, to be clear, this is not an argument against high-speed rail in general. There are all sorts of non-climate reasons why California might want a rail system: It might boost economic development in cities along the route, or offer residents more convenient transportation options, or allow the state to build fewer roads and airports. It’s even possible that, over the very long run, a passenger rail system could spur denser development that, in turn, reduces California’s dependency on automobiles. (That’s a more diffuse calculation and isn’t figured into the carbon numbers above.)
These are good points and ones worth examining in more detail, even if doing so is beyond my own expertise. But at least Plumer made that consideration. The LAO rarely ever acknowledges any benefits to the high speed rail project, instead biasing their analysis only toward the risks of the project and downplaying (at best) the benefits.