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‘Enviro Nobel’ winner Sperling urges mix of transport solutions

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Dan Sperling, right, director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, receives the Blue Planet Prize from Asahi Glass Foundation Chairman Tetsuji Tanaka at an award ceremony in Tokyo on Wednesday. Takao Tsushima/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | October 31, 2013 |

If emerging countries follow the road taken by the world’s rich, 1.2 billion vehicles could swell to 6 billion by 2050.

There is no one solution to replacing that “obsolete car-centric paradigm” with a carbon-neutral transportation system, UC Davis’ Daniel Sperling told an audience on Wednesday in Tokyo, where he received the 2013 Blue Planet Prize.

Instead, he said, a suite of transportation technology, government policy and urban planning solutions are needed to avert disastrous changes in climate — and that work must begin now.

Awarded by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo for the past 22 years, the Blue Planet Prize is sometimes described as a Nobel Prize for the environmental sciences. It carries a $527,000 award.

Sperling founded and directs UCD’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which since 1991 has grown to include 60 affiliated researchers, 120 graduate students and a $12 million budget.

A professor of civil engineering, he pioneered research on life cycle analysis: accounting for emissions at all stages of fuel production and use, which has been used while crafting environmental policies around the world.

As a member of the California Air Resources Board, he also helped lead the 2007 study that provided the basis for the state’s first-of-its-kind low-carbon fuel standard.

“Politicians and media grasp single solutions and hype them. Unfortunately that is a disservice,” Sperling said. “We need battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen and biofuels and better urban land-use management and startup companies offering new types of mobility services and more rational financing and pricing of roads and parking — and much more.”

A focus should be placed not on “simplistic end-state visions,” but on “harder-to-design near-term policies and strategies.” The mix of solutions will vary, often dramatically, by county and city, economy and culture.

“In rich countries, with established infrastructure and locked-in sprawl, the emphasis should be more on improving technologies — though opportunities also remain to improve land-use management and reduce vehicle use,” Sperling said.

“In emerging economies, much more emphasis should be put on devising and embracing an alternative paradigm to car-centric development, to create more livable and sustainable cities.”

The scientific community needs to play a key role in making decisions, he said.

“We need to help policy makers, regulators and legislators to understand the choices and implications of their actions or inaction. Because solutions are often local, it is crucial that the scientific community of each region participate directly in government and industry decision-making.”

Humans are on pace to release 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 16 years, which would raise global temperatures by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Steering a new course is unlikely to be provoked by high gas prices, he said.

New technology is making it easier to extract fossil energy from shale and oil sands, for example. Higher fuel efficiency standards are also pushing down oil prices. And OPEC is unlikely to curtail production because half of their national budgets rely on oil revenue.

“There is as much of a chance that prices will drop below $100 per barrel as there is a chance they will soar over $150,” Sperling said.

Nor are we going to run out of fuel — “not for many centuries.”

“There are vast amounts of unconventional oil — heavy oils, oil sands, shale oils, and even coal that can be converted into transport fuel — for less than $100 per barrel. Unfortunately, these unconventional fuel sources will greatly increase carbon dioxide emissions because they require far more energy to extract and refine than conventional oil,” Sperling said.

In rich countries, the trend toward more cars and driving appears to be ending, Sperling said, but vehicle use is skyrocketing in emerging countries.

In the United States, the car culture that first arose in Los Angeles is firmly entrenched.

More than half of U.S. households own two or more cars. Car travel here accounts for 85 percent of passenger kilometers traveled and air travel 10 percent. Public transportation accounts for less than 3 percent, biking and walking less than 2 percent, he said.

There is good news, Sperling said.

Light-duty vehicles are now on a trajectory that could lead to an 80 percent reduction in their greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. That comes after the United States, Europe, China and Japan put policies into place intended to cut fuel consumption in 15 years.

The auto industry has responded by increasing efficiency, building with lighter materials, improving transmissions and aerodynamics, and embracing hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

Trucks, however, remain problematic both because of the long distances they travel and because of the weight and bulk of batteries. The best solution for them likely will be low-carbon biofuels, he said.

By 2050, trucks, planes and ships are forecasted to produce more greenhouse gases than cars.

Unlike smog or polluted water, climate change presents “a leadership dilemma” because it cannot be directly or immediately seen, Sperling said.

“Who has the courage to step forward and lead?” he asked. “We have a choice today. In 2050, they will not.”

Taroh Matsuno, principal scientist at the Research Institute for Global Change, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, also received a Blue Planet award.

The winners were chosen from among 106 candidates from 27 countries.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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