High Speed Rail Won’t Impact Climate Change

According to the high speed rail authority’s website, the bullet train is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by just over one million metric tons annually by 2040. This reduction is supposed to be achieved by replacing almost 10 million miles of motor vehicle travel each day, and eliminating between 93 and 171 daily flights. But these HSR projections have two fatal flaws: they are based on unrealistically high ridership estimates and they fail to take into account the transition to hybrid and plug-in electric cars. If HSR’s numbers are adjusted to take these factors into account, the project’s emission savings turn out to be much less. Further, they won’t have a meaningful impact on climate change.

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HSR’s Environmental Impact Report used EMFAC2007 to estimate emission savings. EMFAC2007 is an emission model published by the California Air Resources Board ten years ago.  It has since been superseded by new versions released in 2011 and 2014. The EMFAC web page specifically states: “Do not use EMFAC 2007 for new studies.”. Back in 2007, no Teslas, Chevy Volts or Nissan Leafs had shipped, nor had California begun building its large network of vehicle charging stations. An emissions model created back in 2007 could not take into account what is now obvious: we are undergoing the initial phases of a transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles to hybrid and plug-in electric cars. In fact, the state’s goal is for all new cars to be zero emission vehicles by 2050.

Since electric cars use the same power sources as high speed rail their respective contributions to greenhouse gas emissions will be proportional. If electricity is derived from coal, its use will be associated with large volumes of greenhouse gases. If, on the other hand, the electricity comes from wind, solar or nuclear, generating and using it won’t contribute to global warming. How much (or even whether) HSR reduces greenhouse gas emissions will then depend on how clean our electricity is, and (if it is not totally clean) how full the HSR trains are. A train carrying several hundred passengers will likely use less electricity than several hundred cars, but the energy savings won’t materialize if most seats on the train are not occupied.

And that brings us to the ridership issue. CPC’s recent infrastructure study reviewed evidence suggesting that HSR’s ridership estimates are wildly optimistic. For example, we point out that HSR’s 2040 ridership projection of 33.2 million – 56.8 million passengers is far above current ridership of 11.7 million in Amtrak’s northeast corridor linking Boston, New York and Washington. The northeast corridor has more people, is more densely populated and is much more accustomed to rail travel than California – so its ridership levels would appear to provide a ceiling for California HSR utilization. If that’s the case, HSR is overstating ridership – and thus greenhouse gas emissions savings – by a factor of three or more.

Even in the extremely unlike event that HSR’s one million metric ton annual emission savings estimate were to be realized, it wouldn’t have a significant impact on global warming. According to EPA figures, global CO2 emissions total 9449 metric tons in 2011. Assuming this level remains constant and that HSR’s estimates are correct, the project would only reduce global emissions by about 0.01%. And, based on the evidence provided above, it is safe to assume that the real savings will be a small fraction of this figure.

A fair rejoinder is that even though nothing California does by itself will significantly move the dial on global emissions, the example we set for the result of the world is more important. If an affluent economy like ours’ can’t get emissions under control, how can we expect others to do so. But if we want to set an example, shouldn’t we do so in a cost-effective manner? Spending $64 billion to achieve minimal emission savings does not set a good example. Undoubtedly, there are ways to make steeper reductions in emissions at lower cost.

Marc Joffe is the director of policy research for the California Policy Center.

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