Perhaps the most controversial part of the stadium for the new highways in Ontario that Progressive Conservatives want to build is that they will be good for the environment.
If the idea is not immediately accounted for – how can a big green asphalt strip be? – The party has an answer ready. By getting rid of bumper-to-bumper traffic, its leaders say, the new infrastructure will reduce pollution from the slowdown.
However, scientific research has shown that new highways will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but their construction can carry the equivalent carbon emissions of a vehicle that has been idle for thousands of years.
As concern about climate change grows, and the province is committed to cutting emissions, highway opponents say they will be taking Ontario in the wrong environmental direction by encouraging long car journeys.
“Doug Ford believes that the way into the future must lead to costly sprawl, intensifying climate pollution, clearing farmland and wetlands, and polluting Lake Simcoe,” says Green Party leader Mike Schreiner.
Once in office, the Progressive Conservative Party dusted off two highway proposals that the previous government had put on hold.
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The first, Highway 413, is 59 kilometers long, and runs through the northwest portion of the Greater Toronto Area. This proposed highway will pass through the Greenbelt Conservation Area, extending from the intersection of Highway 401/407 in the West to Highway 400 at Vaughan.
The other big proposal, the 16-kilometre Bradford Bypass, will connect Interstates 400 and 404 in Simcoe County and the York area.
“Reducing congestion on existing highways also means reducing greenhouse gas emissions from commuters stuck in traffic,” Kristen Elliott, who has served as deputy prime minister for the past four years, says on her legislative page.
However, Shoshana Sachs, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Toronto, points to the environmental degradation inherent in highway construction. She cited US research indicating that the construction of a four-lane highway one kilometer away generates approximately 5,500 metric tons of greenhouse gases.
She cautioned that this figure is not accurate, saying it is for a surface road and does not take into account additional features such as bridges, intersections or tunnels – all of which would add to the impact. However, inferring from this figure, the construction of 75 kilometers of the new highway together is expected to generate at least 413,000 tons of greenhouse gases.
By comparison, running a three-liter engine idle for an hour produces the equivalent of just over 4 kilograms of greenhouse gases, according to Natural Resources Canada. This means that the driver will have to take 11,375 years off work to keep up with the impact of the construction of the two highways.
While there has been some progress towards building a greener highway, Professor Sachs said such methods are not widely used and are unlikely to be used on these Ontario projects.
She said, “Anything we build or manufacture will have an environmental impact, but building materials have an irreducible effect due to the chemical processes, which we use to make steel, concrete and asphalt, releasing greenhouse gas emissions just by making them.”
The environmental impact of transportation has received increasing attention in recent years around the world. In some jurisdictions, major infrastructure decisions are viewed through a lens that includes the health of the planet.
In Austria, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2040, AFP reported in December that the government had scrapped eight motorway projects. And in April, US regulators approved the rail merger in part because it would get trucks off New England roads.
As for the argument that the new roads will be environmentally beneficial by reducing congestion, an academic in Quebec City who studies urban transportation and sustainable development called the idea laughable.
Fanny Tremblay-Racicot, an assistant professor at the National School of Public Service, noted that new roads are always filled with new drivers.
“It is very sad to see that the government has not been better informed by the Department of Transport,” she said. “To say that emissions are offset by less traffic, it just shows how, I don’t know, I like, there’s a lack of words. It’s hypocrisy, it’s ridiculous, it’s ignorant, it’s crazy.”
A study published in 2012 found that increased road capacity produces more pollution, because the promise of easier driving causes more people to do so.
“In the long term, capacity-based congestion improvements…can reasonably be expected to increase emissions,” the authors wrote in the journal Transportation Research.
Environmental Defense Group 413 has studied and expects a massive increase in leadership if it is built. The report says that vehicles using the highway will produce 17.4 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.
“Building giant highways is a very old way of thinking and we really can do something better,” said Lana Goldberg, director of the group’s Ontario Climate Program.
“We need to plan for a transition that cannot include new giant highways, which will only increase transportation emissions, and instead need to build low-emissions, accessible transportation systems for all residents that will provide healthy, whole, and sustainable communities.”
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