MONTREAL, PQ – Here at Movin’On, the Michelin-sponsored “World Summit on Sustainable Mobility,” we are living a mix of nostalgia and the ultra-modern.
The sentimental bits?
As I sit waiting for the start of a seminar called Speeding up Decarbonization of the Americas, the sultry sounds from a jazz quartet are
amusing some 200 of us in the Cabaret Thales. The music would be at home in a prohibition speakeasy. Naturally, the trumpeter and lead singer – yes, both, a la Louis Armstrong – is a slender woman in stylish spectacles, her head topped with a bouffant that would make Hayley Mills proud.
This new-age conference touting state-of-the-art solutions from vegans and the anti-car movement is designed to put a warm, inviting face on the wrenching change that is upon us, especially those who live in large cities. The little bits of charming are everywhere and they are soothing here in a place where the newfangled is promoted and celebrated.
I mean, here at Movin’On we can explore Restoring the Confidence in AI (artificial intelligence) in one session or Putting Circularity at the Core of New Mobilities in another. As one drifts from one working session to the next forum or lab, the illegitimate children of Montreal’s Cirque Du Soleil are acting as roving troubadours and stunt performers.
Michelin is a French company, and we are, after all, in La Belle Province. There is a Gallic cultural flare infusing what is, in fact, a very serious Summit. The amusements and entertainers are here to make discussions and seminars and presentations on artificial intelligence and decarbonization less intimidating and more palatable for those of us born long before the internet was invented by Al Gore (or so he tells us).
(Gore, by the way, is not on the agenda for this three-day extravaganza, but obviously should be. He belongs here like former President Barack Obama belongs at a basketball game.)
Personally, I am immensely interested in decarbonization. Isn’t it really at the heart of the “green” movement? Carbon — its extraction, production, sale and use – is everything. As The Guardian notes in a very useful Q and A, “Carbon is shorthand for greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and F-gases.
These gases are released by many different types of activity – not just the burning of fossil fuels, but also farming, deforestation and some industrial processes. Greenhouse gases – carbon – are what comes with modernization, industrialization, a better quality of life, and social and economic progress.
Here in 2019, however, there is an urgency that cannot be denied. That is, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that unless we change course by 2030, we will be locked onto a path away from the so-called “Goldilocks” environmental conditions that have enabled civilization to flourish. There will be no way “back to normal”.
As Rahul Kumar, one of the panelists speaking about decarbonization notes, “We have until 2030 to do something. After that, we’ll all look like burnt toast. The time is now.”
Everyone here is framing change as an existential effort that’s is the only hope we have of saving the planet as a livable place. The research suggests that if we don’t change, the imminent collapse of our oceans, air and the total biosphere will be the end of us.
This Summit is one of the pieces in what The Telegraph recently described as a quiet revolution, one that “like any good human insurrection” is spreading into an unprecedented, collaborative movement which now appears unstoppable.” This Summit is part of the organized elements in that insurrection.
As we settle into the discussion of decarbonization, Guangzhe Chen of The World Bank offers hope. The world is, indeed, engaged in the acceleration of low-carbon mobility, with the energy coming from wind and solar, he argues.
Monica Arraya from Limpia of Costa Rica gets into the nitty gritty of a carbon-free country, noting that five years ago her government approved the first fossil-free plan for a Latin American country. “Don’t be paralyzed by fear,” she says. Carbon-free is possible.
This is a “story built from the middle…where the person in the middle comes to the realization that we could become the first fossil free country,” she says, adding that we should think of Costa Rica as a lab for carbon-free change.
But she’s also blunt. The shift to low- or zero-carbon mobility is not easy. Most important of all, “somebody has to figure out how to finance it.” And there needs to be a political strategy to explain the whys, hows and what-fors. Because for many, the shift away from carbon sounds a lot like a ticket to disruption and unemployment.
Arraya adds that any successful decarbonization plan must have “a whole message around financing. Ministers of finance will have to own it.”
Kumar, a marketing vice-president for Keolis, which develops public transportation solutions worldwide, adds that carbon-free or carbon-less mobility is, of course, difficult to plan and harder to implement. “You can’t just tell people to take public transit.”
Instead, mobility has to be made accessible and equitable. Planners need to devise other transportation modes and structures that give people the “freedom of the automobile.”
And here Kristof Vereenooghe of The Netherlands’ Evbox enters.
He boasts that Amsterdam has the most developed EV (electric vehicle) charging network in the world. When you are picked up at the airport, he says, you ride into the city in an EV. In-city deliveries are done by zero-emissions vehicles, by law. Thanks to the government, he says, his country has the best-developed charging network in the world.
Meanwhile, down in Texas, says Chris Nielsen of Electric Cab North America, points to something that is the antithesis of what the Dutch have devised. Like a true Ronald Reagan disciple, Nielsen with his typical Texas swagger, suggests government is the problem. What works in Texas is private industry that is unfettered by do-nothing politicians.
“We target the price of carbon” in our business plan,” he says. “People are only motivated by economics, at least in Texas.” And that why his company is successful and profitable. It provides EV services that people want at a price they can afford.
It’s interesting to watch the interplay between Kumar, Nielsen and Vereenooghe. Nielsen is anti-government, Vereenooghe is pro-government and Kumar lands somewhere in the middle. For the latter, decarbonization is not an ideological issue; t’s geometry.
“The (government) policies are there,” he says. “The vehicles are there. It’s a matter of designing an infrastructure” to make carbon-free mobility successful, equitable and accessible. He adds that this is “not about disruption. It’s about adoption. It’s about scaling adoption.”
He sees the decarbonized city as one where officials are “mobility managers not owners” of huge vehicle fleets. He, not surprisingly, given his business interests, advocates for the planning and execution of “a damn good transportation network.” Get it right, and people will get out of their cars.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 29 per cent of carbon emissions associated with human activity. Decarbonize cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes, and the world will most definitely be a better place.
What the world needs is a roadmap and the will to take the journey. What makes this tricky was on display here at the decarbonization session: not all the various players agree on the rules or the playing field. That may be the biggest barrier of all to a carbon-free or at least a carbon-less world.