Thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is almost certain to be the first year the world has managed to reduce its carbon footprint.
With a provincial election scheduled for next month, and the new federal finance minister announcing that the recovery must be a green one, it is time to think about what we can learn about emission reductions from the reductions imposed by the coronavirus lockdown.
The International Energy Agency estimates that in the first quarter of this year, carbon emissions fell 3.8 per cent over the first quarter in 2019, and that 2020 could see a fall in emissions of eight per cent.
If this seems like a silver lining, don’t blink. Though the biggest reduction ever recorded by a factor of six, global carbon emissions have only fallen to levels recorded in 2010.
While this is a good start, we would have to cut emissions along these levels year after year for at least the next decade to keep global temperatures from rising beyond the safe threshold of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And there is no clear way to do that.
In fact, as economies have re-opened, carbon emissions have surged back. Despite lockdowns that saw daily global emissions reductions of about 17 per cent in early April, the carbon content in the atmosphere—which represents years of continued emissions growth—reached its highest-ever recorded levels in May at 417ppm.
A return to normal is built into the current macroeconomic policy of the federal Trudeau government, which has rescued high carbon polluters (airports, the tar sands, oil and gas pipelines, etc.) and aims to return our economy to growth as soon as possible.
The lockdown is instructive of how we might do things differently. What if instead of returning to normal, we thought about how we might reorganize our economy to lock-in the carbon reductions we saw in the lockdown? One place to think about this is in terms of urban mobility.
During the lockdown, we drove a lot less because there was less going on. In the future, we want more to be going on, but we want to drive less. Is it possible to have both?
Frederictonians spend a huge amount on urban mobility. Collectively, we spend $407.6 million per year on cars. I know, that sounds like a lot. The CAA estimates an average of $9,000 per year per car in Canada (which includes depreciation). If Frederictonians are about the average, that is how much we spend collectively.
By contrast, the municipal government spent $30 million on public transportation in 2019.
The question for New Brunswick policymakers is whether it is possible to provide Fredericton with better mobility services than it currently does for less than $437.6 million.
In addition to saving costs, better collective organization of urban mobility would help us trim the carbon emissions of a sector of our economy that accounts for about 28 per cent of our total emissions.
The Blaine Higgs Conservative government has demonstrated that public transit is not one of its priorities, deciding to refuse federal money to help Fredericton pay for its projected $770,000 transit shortfall. The Green Party announced on August 19 that they would dedicate carbon tax revenue to public transit to the tune of $2 million. To date, according to Saint John Councillor Donna Reardon, New Brunswick may be the only provincial government in Canada that does not support public transit funding for its municipalities.
In addition to saving residents’ money and reducing carbon emissions, it is possible for New Brunswick cities to increase the convenience of moving around the city, reduce inequality and shift resources from car-centred infrastructure towards other modes of getting around.
The length of the pandemic will affect people’s preferences for public modes of transportation and car sharing, but the auto industry sees it as part of the future. Public officials should now take proactive measures that can improve people’s standards of living in urban areas in New Brunswick.
Municipal governments alone cannot facilitate the shift towards a more efficient, publicly-owned and operated mobility system. This has to be done provincially and federally, providing municipal governments with new income streams and access to credit to fund a mobilities transition.
We are entering a period in which the economic crisis will force governments to take a much larger role in the economy. If governments want to restore hope for the future, it must now act in bold new ways that seemed utopian only a year ago.
Matthew Hayes is a professor of sociology and the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University.
 Data sources: there are 26,328 households in Fredericton, according to the 2016 census. New Brunswickers own an average 1.72 cars per household, according to 2018 Statscan data (549,514 registered vehicles in New Brunswick under 4,500kg). The collective amount we spend on cars, $407.6 million, comes from multiplying 1.72 cars per 26,328 households by $9,000.