All the king’s horses


When was the last time one of your relatives bought so many victuals they needed a team of a hundred horses to haul the load back from the market?

Perhaps it was that time your great uncle Napoleon was preparing for his not-so-great trip to Moscow.

Or perhaps your great great great uncle Christopher needed a long team of horses to move his groceries before he got in a boat to try to sail to India. Or your extra-extra-great grandpa Richard I, who really bought in bulk before his trip to the Holy Land in 1191.

More likely, though, if you live in North America, somebody from your family needed a team of hundreds of horses to bring home groceries in the past 24 hours – even if they were only picking up a carton of milk or a bag of cheese puffs.

“Need” might not be exactly the right word – but they used a team of hundreds of horses nonetheless, in the sense that they fired up the same hundreds-of-horsepower engine that they use for nearly every local trip no matter how light the cargo.

This grotesque mismatch between the task at hand and the tools we use for that task, have played a large role in pushing us deep into a climate crisis. At the same time, this mismatch can point us to one of the easiest, least painful ways we can move toward true sustainability.

When we look at our dominant car culture, we can consider it from a system standpoint or a device standpoint. On a system level, we have constructed a society in which homes are far from schools, from workplaces, from stores and from entertainment. We have built wide roads and streets that facilitate, at least potentially, high speeds between these newly distant sites. We have devoted most urban public space to huge heavy vehicles that make roads and streets unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. It took decades to build this environmental nightmare and it will take decades to fix it, even if we run out of cheap energy somewhere close to the beginning of the process.

The previous installment in this series looked at transportation on a systems level, with a call to change lifestyles so that we don’t need to, and we don’t imagine we need to, travel many thousands of kilometres every year. This post takes a narrower focus.

Strictly at the device level, some of the vehicles we use are reasonably appropriate for their typical usage, while many others are beyond absurd.

At the beginning of the 1970s, my summer job was working on a highway construction crew. As an impressionable teenager I was suitably awed when an older man, who worked as a dump-truck driver, showed me his new sports car and told me how powerful its engine was.

I don’t remember the number of horsepower it boasted, but I do remember my Dad’s reaction.

“That is really ridiculous!” my dad exclaimed. “The engine in his car is just as powerful as the engines in all of our gravel trucks!”

My dad was no opponent of car culture – he had a successful career building highways throughout half a dozen US states. But after growing up on a Minnesota farm, driving tractors and grain trucks since before he was ten years old, he had an instinctive understanding of the capabilities and usefulness of different engines.

He understood that for steady work hauling 10 or 15 ton loads, often along hilly highways at speeds up to the speed limit, a 300-hp engine was appropriate. But for hauling one young man along roads with the same speed limits, a 300-hp engine was ludicrous.

As it was in the 1970s, so it is today. Some of the devices we use for transportation – those used to haul heavy freight – have a reasonably powered engine for their assigned task. It will be a difficult challenge to convert their engines from fossil fuels. (Simply moving a lot less freight in the first place is one answer, of course, but that’s a system-level topic beyond the scope of this essay.)

But a greater number of the vehicles on our roads have power systems vastly beyond those needed, even if we accept for the moment that the “need” is to carry a person tens of thousands of kilometres along roads every year, sometimes at speeds of roughly 100 km/hr. There would be no technical hurdles in accomplishing that same task with power systems using a small fraction of the energy. The challenge would be cultural, not technical.

Going nowhere fast. Newly manufactured light trucks awaiting distribution and sale, parked outside GM Canada building in Oshawa, Ontario, Aug 28 2022.

“Get just enough horsepower to do the job.”

That 1970s truck driver whose muscle car impressed the teenage me and perplexed my practical dad? It turns out that by driving a car with the power of a dump truck, he was an avatar of the American future. Today, it is commonplace for Americans to make their daily rounds in cars with the power of dump trucks.

And how much power is that? In 2010, Brian Lindgren, a marketing director for Kenworth Trucks, offered prospective truck buyers this advice:

“One of the big mistakes many people make with dump truck engines is they spec too much power, says Lindgren. ‘You should get just enough horsepower to do the job. Generally, 350 to 400 horsepower is plenty for most applications. Extra horsepower just uses more fuel, puts more strain on the rest of the drivetrain, and adds cost up front.’”

Other trucking-industry publications make similar points: an appropriate horsepower range is somewhere between 300 and 600 horsepower, with the high numbers corresponding to semi-trailer tractors and “Super Dump” trucks carrying highway-legal payloads up to 26 tons.2, 3

This is the kind of advice that makes sense to practical business people who want to earn a profit from their vehicle. For that purpose, there’s no point in forking out a lot of extra cash upfront, and extra cash at every fuel re-fill, for an engine with horsepower far in excess of what’s needed.

Those practical considerations don’t count for much with the typical North American car buyer. The typical cargo is small – just one, and occasionally two or three, warm bodies weighing from 150 – 300 pounds each. But apparently the weight of desire for status, and the weight of drivers’ insecurity, has been on a decades-long climb – at least if we go by the size and horsepower rating of the vehicles they choose to move around in.

This chart by Kevin Drum illustrates the trend: 

By Kevin Drum, from his article “Raw Data: Horsepower of New Vehicles in the US”, on Jabberwocking.

As recently as 1980, when most buyers of pick-up trucks had a day-to-day practical need for such a vehicle, engines were only slightly more powerful than the engines in typical cars. Today pick-up truck horsepower ratings have nearly tripled, while engines in cars have more than doubled.

What that graph doesn’t show is that pick-up trucks have become a far larger share of the automotive market in recent years, as if an epidemic of cattle-ranching or lumberjacking has taken hold in every North American suburb.

A question arises: are today’s four-door pick-up trucks merely oversize cars in disguise, or are today’s oversize SUVs actually trucks in disguise?

Whatever. The US Department of Energy lumps them together with other cars as “light-duty” vehicles, and finds that in this category:

“Preliminary data for model year 2021 show that the average horsepower (hp) reached 252, an increase of more than 6 hp over the 2020 model year.”

If the average new personal passenger vehicle has a 252 horsepower engine, then something like half of those vehicles have a good bit more power – right up into the dump-truck or semi-trailer tractor range.

Car & Driver reported in 2021 that “Finding an SUV with about 400 horsepower is relatively easy these days. That number just doesn’t impress like it once did.”

These days if your personal vehicle has only as much power as an ordinary dump truck, you’re not making much of a statement. But don’t worry – if you’ve got the cash or the credit, you can buy a vehicle with as much or more power as a big, big, big dump truck. Car & Driver lists 15 SUVs and crossover vehicles with power ratings from just under 600 hp to more than 700 hp.

Costs, benefits, and opportunities

What’s the problem, defenders of superpowered cars might ask? After all, just looking at horsepower is an oversimplification that might give the wrong impression. The horsepower rating of passenger vehicles nearly doubled in the period 1989 to 2019, and vehicle weight increased by 24%, but it’s not as if fuel economy has taken a big hit. In fact, average fuel economy improved modestly.

And one ultra-important measure of performance improved dramatically in spite of the extra weight: “acceleration increased (i.e., 0-60 mph times dropped) by 37%.” Car & Driver notes that the most powerful SUV on its list “can get to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds.”

Just think of all the time that saves a rushed commuter! Between the time a driver leaves a red light and catches up to the snarl of traffic behind the next light, he might save two or three seconds. Between the time he turns onto a freeway on-ramp and the time he reaches the maximum speed that won’t risk an expensive speeding ticket, he might save several seconds, compared to driving with the woefully underpowered vehicles of the 1970s or 1980s. In a long commute with many starts and stops, those precious seconds saved through superior acceleration could add up to a minute or more.

And it’s not as if that massive engine is working hard and really sucking down fuel all the time. Once the vehicle is at cruising speed, power usage is way down and fuel usage is (relatively) lower too.

All true. And yet …. Manufacturing cars that weigh a lot more, and manufacturing millions of bigger engines to propel those heavier vehicles, also has a correspondingly larger carbon footprint. All cars – be they subcompacts or supersize SUVs, gas, diesel, or electric – have resulted in a lot of carbon emissions before the impatient driver even revs the engine for the first time. The more materials used to make that vehicle, the bigger the upfront carbon emissions.

If or when we switch to electric vehicles, those issues of weight and power don’t magically go away. The larger and heavier a vehicle is, the larger the battery needs to be. The larger the batteries, the more scarce minerals we need to mine and refine, and the more high-speed chargers we’ll need to get these big batteries recharged in a reasonable length of time.

We’re in a period when we have a desperate need to curtail fossil fuel combustion, but during which we have only a small fraction of the clean renewable energy installations that would be needed to power an industrial society like ours. It would be folly to continue building bulky, heavy, massively overpowered vehicles to move one or two passengers along roads, and therefore devoting a huge share of our still scarce clean power supplies to building and/or operating that oversized vehicle fleet.

On a system level this is a long-term and complicated problem; we need to dramatically reduce the need to travel far and fast just to get to work or school on a daily basis. But on a device level it is simple. We could build cars that carry one or two people, and occasionally the smaller families that are typical today, plus a typical haul of groceries, at speeds up to but not a lot faster than highway speed limits. We could employ the latest automotive engineering improvements, not to move ever heavier vehicles ever faster, but to power lighter vehicles with the best energy efficiency currently achievable.

As we try to “electrify everything”, with clean renewable energy installations that are still nowhere near adequate for the transition, we should ensure that cars and “light trucks” make the smallest possible demands on our electricity network.

Technically that’s easy but culturally it’s hard. We have an auto industry, after all, whose key to bigger profits has been to persuade people their cars are never big enough or powerful enough. And we have millions of traffic-bound motorists convinced that it really matters whether their cars can go from 0 – 60 in 10 seconds or 5 seconds.

• • •

In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at a combined system-and-device level problem. In the cities where most people live, a big share of vehicle trips don’t actually require use of a car or a truck. How can we change the mode share of urban trips quickly, using existing technologies, and what kind of devices are most appropriate?

Illustration at top of post: detail from Market Economy, composed by author from Creative Commons-licensed images – Horses from image at; wagon and driver from photo by Milo Bost0ck, from Wikimedia Commons; Wal-Mart Supercentre, N Lexington-Springmill Rd, Ontario, OH, photo by Kirk Allen, from Wikimedia Commons; milk carton illustration by Paul Robinson, from Wikimedia Commons; random number background created in Excel.



“How much horsepower does a semi-truck have?” on Trucker’s Corner, August 6, 2019.

“Dump Trucks 101: how to choose the right one”, on

US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fact of the Week, Feb 7, 2022.

Car & Driver, “Most Powerful Crossovers and SUVs on Sale Today,” Nov 13, 2021.

6 Personal Transportation Factsheet, University of Michigan.

Car & Driver, Nov 13, 2021.

“In 1977, the U.S. average vehicle occupancy was 1.87 persons per vehicle. In 2018, average car occupancy was 1.5 persons per vehicle.” – Personal Transportation Factsheet, University of Michigan.

night moves


The days grow shorter but marsh birds grow bolder.

With nesting finished and fledglings close to adult size, both the parents and the juveniles are easier to spot in that short interlude between the brightness of afternoon and the deepening dusk.

Black-crowned Night Herons lurk at the edges of the cattails, but their light colouring makes them conspicuous even in the shadows.

Night Heron awaits the dark

A young Great Blue Heron, with just the first few wisps of an adult’s plume, catches the last direct rays of sunlight.

Profile of a young Great Blue

Dense congregations of lily pads cover much of the water. Young Spotted Sandpipers, looking all grown up except that they have no spots on their bellies, nearly disappear behind upturned leaves as they hunt for insects.

Pipers dashing after supper

Compared to the pipers, an almost full-grown Gallinule looks shockingly large and nearly sinks through the lily pads in spite of its huge feet.

Gallinule looms large

A Green Heron hides in semi-darkness, but a turn of the head makes its bright eye patch stand out.

Conspicuously hiding

At this hour even the Virginia Rail sneaks out beyond its usual cover to grab worms from the mud.

Virginia Rail reflection

Profile of Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail – the edge of the shadow

• • •

To close, something completely different. A look at the dry loose sand in the full heat of an August afternoon shows sand wasps working tirelessly to dig tunnels where they can lay their eggs. They have no interest in any picnic lunch humans might bring to the beach – they just want to get their larvae hatched, and then bring the larvae enough tiny insects to get them on their way.

In the meantime sand must fly.

Hypermobility hits the wall

Also published on Resilience

Imagine a luxurious civilization in which every person has a motorized travel allowance of 4000 kilometers every year, with unused amounts one year carried forward to allow more distant journeys, perhaps every few years. Imagine also that non-motorized travel is not tallied in this quota, so that a person who makes their daily rounds on foot or bicycle can use all or most of their motorized travel quota for those occasional longer journeys.

It’s true that a motorized travel quota of 4000 km per year would seem a mite restrictive to most people in wealthy industrial countries. But such a travel allowance would have been beyond the dreams of all of humanity up until the past two centuries. And such a travel allowance would also mean a significant increase in mobility for a large share of the global population today.

Still, as long as we “electrify everything” why should we even think about reducing the amount of travel?

Australian scholar Patrick Moriarty floats the idea of a motorized travel allowance of 4000 km per year1, based on a recognition that the environmental harms of high-speed and motorized mobility go far beyond the climate-destabilizing emissions that come from internal combustion cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships.

In several articles and a recent book2 Moriarty and his frequent co-author Damon Honnery provide perspective on what Moriarty refers to as “hypermobility”. The number of passenger kilometers per person per year exploded by a factor of 240 between 1900 and 2018.3

“This overall 240-fold rise is extraordinary, considering the less than five-fold global population increase over the same period. It is even about 30 times the growth in real global GDP.”4

The global average for motorized travel is now about 6,300 km per person per year. At the extremes, however, US residents average over 30,000 km per person per year, while in some countries the average is only a few hundred km per person per year.5

Could the high degree of mobility now standard in the US be extended to the whole world’s population? Not likely. Moriarty calculates that if each person in the world were to travel 30,000 km per year in motorized transport, “world transport energy levels alone would be about 668 EJ, greater than global total commercial energy use of 576 EJ for 2018.”6

Increasing mobility services for the world’s poorest people, while decreasing motorized mobility for the wealthiest, is not only an environmental necessity, it is also a matter of equity. As part of examining those issues, we need to ask this simple question: what good is transportation?

We’re moving, but are we getting anywhere?

Moriarty calls attention to an issue that is so basic it is often overlooked: “What people really want is not mobility itself, but access—to workplaces, schools, shops, friends and family, entertainment etc.”7

Sometimes more mobility also means more access – for example, a person acquires a car, and that means many more workplaces, schools, and shopping opportunities are within a practical daily travel distance. But other times more mobility results in little or no gain in access. As two-car households became the norm in many rural areas, grocery stores and even schools consolidated in bigger towns, so that a car trip became necessary for access to things that used to be a walkable distance away in each small town.

Sometimes more mobility for some people means less accessibility for others. When expressways cut through urban neighbourhoods, lower-income residents of those areas may face long hikes across noisy and polluted overpasses just to get to school or a store.8

In the sprawling suburbs of North American cities, people typically drive much farther to get to work every day than their parents or grandparents did 25 or 50 years ago. But to what end? If you can now travel 50, or 70, or 100 km/hr on your commute, but the drive still takes an hour because you go so much farther, what have you gained?

Moriarty asks us to consider to what extent the explosion in mobility – hypermobility – has actually improved the quality of life even for those privileged enough to participate:

“Personal travel levels in wealthy OECD countries are several times higher than in 1950, yet people then did not regard themselves as ‘travel deprived’.”9

While the benefits of hypermobility are unclear, the costs are crushing and unsustainable.

Death rides along

Motorized transportation always comes with environmental costs. These costs are especially high when each individual travels in their own motorized carriage. Only a fraction of these environmental costs go away when a car or truck fueled by internal combustion is traded for an equivalent vehicle powered by electricity.

Many researchers have cited the high upfront carbon emissions involved in building a car or truck. Before the vehicle is delivered to a customer, a lot of carbon dioxide has been emitted in the mining and refining of the ores, the transportation of materials and parts, and the assembly. For currently produced electric cars and trucks, the upfront carbon emissions are typically even higher than the upfront emissions from an equivalent combustion vehicle. It will be a long time, if ever, before that manufacturing and transport chain runs on clean energy sources. In the meantime every new electric car signifies a big burst of carbon already emitted to the atmosphere.

If only the damage stopped there. But building and maintaining roads, bridges and parking lots is also a carbon-emissions intensive activity, with additional negative impacts on biodiversity and watershed drainage.  And though an electric vehicle has no tailpipe emissions, that doesn’t mean that electric driving is pollution-free:

“[N]on-exhaust emissions of fine particular matter from tire wear is actually greater than for equivalent conventional vehicles, because EVs are heavier than their conventionally fueled counterparts.”10

Finally, there is the direct toll from the inevitable, predictable “accidents” that occur when multi-tonne objects hurtle along roads at high speeds:

“In 2018, some 1.35 million people were killed on the world’s roads, with millions more injured, many seriously. Paradoxically, most of the casualties occur in low vehicle ownership countries, and are pedestrians and cyclists, not vehicle occupants.”11

Death reliably accompanies high-speed transportation – but the fatalities disproportionately accrue to those not privileged enough to travel.

Slowing the machine

To recap the argument: the mass production of high-speed vehicles has made possible an explosion in mobility for a privileged portion of the global population. But the energy costs of transportation increase exponentially, not linearly, with increases in speed.  Hypermobility was fueled overwhelmingly by fossil fuels, and even if we could recreate the infrastructure of hypermobility using renewable energies, the transition period would result in a burst of upfront carbon emissions which our ecosystem can ill afford. Finally, if we concentrate on ramping up renewable technologies to serve the rapacious energy demands of hypermobility, it will be more difficult and will take longer to convert all other essential energy services – for producing and distributing foods, for heating and cooling of buildings, and for distributing clean drinking water, to name a few examples – so that they can run off the same renewable electricity sources.

It is clearly possible for a society to prosper with a lot less motorized travel than our hypermobile society now regards as normal. Given the manifold environmental costs and manifest social inequality of a hypermobile society, we need to rapidly cut down not only on the use of fossil fuel in transportation, but also the total amount of motorized transportation as measured in passenger-kilometers (p-k) per person per year. This is the underpinning for Moriarty’s “tentative proposal for an average aspirational target of 4000 vehicular p-k per person per year.”12

But how to begin applying the brakes?

In an article titled “Reducing Personal Mobility for Climate Change Mitigation”, Moriarty and Honnery have examined the likely impacts of various factors on overall motorized mobility. Neither new information technology services, carpooling, or land-use planning changes are likely to result in significant reductions in travel, particularly not in the 10 – 25 year time frame that is so critical for staving off a truly catastrophic climate crisis. Large and rapid increases in the market price of fossil fuels, on the other hand, would dramatically hurt lower-income people while allowing high-income people – who consume by far the most energy per capita – to maintain their current personal habits. Thus Moriarty and Honnery conclude:

“The only equitable approach is to reduce the convenience of car travel, for example, by large travel speed reductions and by a reversal of the usual present ranking of travel modes: car, public transport, and active modes.” [emphasis mine]13

Expressed graphically, that reversal of priorities would look like this chart from Mikael Colville-Andersen’s book Copenhagenize:

From Copenhagenize, by Mikael Colville-Andersen, Island Press, 2018; reviewed here.

At the outset of the motor age, walking and cycling routes were as direct and convenient as possible. As streets were dedicated to fast, dangerous cars, walking and cycling routes started to zigzag through many detours, or they simply disappeared, while priority was given to auto routes.

To make our cities safer and healthier, while also reducing the voracious energy demands of motorized transport, we need to flip the hierarchy once more, putting active transportation first, public transit second, and cars third. That way we can improve access to essential services even as motorized mobility drops.

Within cities where most people live, I think Moriarty and Honnery are right that this change would result in a substantial reduction in overall motorized kilometers per capita, and would do so in a generally equitable manner.

Easier said than done, of course. While many European cities have made major strides in this regard, even timid moves to de-privilege cars are tough for city councils to enact in North America.

A personal travel allotment of 4,000 km per year will seem outrageously low to most North Americans, and it is hard to imagine any North American politician – at least anyone with a hope of ever being elected – saying a good word about the idea.

Yet the luxury of any high-speed travel at all is a recent phenomenon, and there is no reason to take for granted that this extravagance will last very long. We do know that we need drastic, rapid change in our energy consumption patterns if we are to avoid civilization-threatening environmental instability.

We might not find it within ourselves to voluntarily steer away from our high-speed, hypermobile way of life. But if, a few decades from now, our society is in free-fall due to rapid-fire environmental disasters, the complex infrastructure needed for widespread motorized transport may be but a faint memory.

* * *

Though I only came across Moriarty’s work a few years ago, for most of my adult life I unwittingly lived within a motorized travel allotment of 4,000 km/yr – with one major exception. More than 40 years ago, as a new resident of an urban metropolis, I realized it was a bizarre waste of horsepower to use a car simply to haul my (then) scrawny carcass along city streets. Besides, I found it healthier, cheaper, more interesting, and definitely more fun to ride a bike to work, to concerts, to stores, and nearly everywhere else I wanted to go. I was fortunate, too, to be able to choose a home close to my workplace, or change my workplace to be closer to my preferred home; throughout several decades I never needed to regularly commute by car.

But: I did get on a plane once or twice a year, and sometimes several times a year. For many years these air journeys accounted for most of my motorized transport kilometers. Later I learned that of all typical modern travel modes, air travel was the most environmentally damaging and the least sustainable.

In upcoming installments in this series I’ll look at the energy needs, both real and imagined, for personal transportation within cities; and at the impact of hyper-hypermobility as embodied in routine air travel.

Illustration at top of page courtesy of, free for personal and commercial use under CC0 public domain license.


See his brief article in Academia Letters, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”, published in September 2021.

Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, Switching Off: Meeting Our Energy Needs in a Constrained Future, Springer, 2022.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport,” MDPI Encyclopedia, February 2021.

P. Moriarty, Academia Letters, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

For more on the trade-offs between mobility and accessibility see my article “The Mobility Maze”.

P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

10 P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

11 P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

12 P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

13 Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, “Reducing Personal Mobility for Climate Change Mitigation”, in Handbook of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Springer, 2022, pages 2501 – 2534.


Essential services

Also published on Resilience

When you live in a petrostate like Canada or the US, and someone publicly floats the idea that we should begin to limit fossil fuel use by stopping a specific pipeline or levying a small carbon tax, you can expect someone to respond with the statement “Well, we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight.”

This statement is delivered with an air of argument-ending authority, as if the insight is worthy of simultaneous Nobel Prizes in physics, economics, accounting and rocket science.

Now, I’ve never heard anybody seriously suggest that we can quit fossil fuels overnight. It has also occurred to me that “we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight” may be a stand-in for “we really don’t want to, and we have no intention of, even slightly slowing down fossil fuel use, not anytime soon!”

But let’s put cynicism aside, and let “we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight” serve not as the end of a discussion, but as the beginning.

Why can’t we quit fossil fuels tomorrow, and what implications does that have for our way of life given that we are already in a climate emergency?

For the foreseeable future we will need aviation fuel for the water bombers that fight forest fires, which we can expect to occur with increasing frequency and intensity. We will need fuel for helicopters that rescue people from severe flooding, also increasing in frequency. As droughts become more frequent and widespread, with resulting crop failures, we will need fossil fuels to ship emergency food supplies long distances.

For the near-term future we will need diesel fuel for the tractors that power the industrial food system1, and more diesel fuel to transport the food to all the far-away megacities.2

For at least a decade or a few, we will need fossil fuels to run the mines and factories that can produce equipment for concentrating, transmitting, storing, and utilizing renewable-energies.3

On the other hand, purely from a climate-stabilizing point of view, we should quit fossil fuels tomorrow. Our fossil fuel consumption has already resulted in dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and every additional increment of these gases will make our current climate crisis worse.

This is quite the predicament. If we do quit fossil fuels overnight, huge numbers of people will starve, the global economy will crash, and civilization will most likely collapse. If we don’t quit fossil fuels overnight, or at least damn soon, climate catastrophes will rapidly grow both in frequency and intensity, and yes, huge numbers of people will starve, the global economy will crash, and civilization will most likely collapse.

The best outcome seems clear to me (though not to most policymakers): we must decide which fossil-fueled services are essential to keeping us alive and helping us through our predicament, and we must drastically curtail all other fossil-fueled services, starting immediately.

As we quickly learned to do during the covid pandemic, we must distinguish between essential activities and discretionary activities. We must then recognize that where discretionary activities result in greenhouse gas emissions we can no longer afford them. We must come to this recognition and course of action not for a year or two of a pandemic, however, but for a generation or two, perhaps a lifetime or two, perhaps a century or two, until the climate crisis is in the rear-view mirror.

Sounds drastic. Sounds like what we might do if, when we say we’re in a climate crisis, we actually mean it – if we mean that our situation demands a crisis response, instead of continued wishful thinking the crisis will go away without any drastic measures.

Clearly the biggest changes would need to come from those of us in the “developed” world, those of us whose lifestyles contribute by far the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions. For a large share of the world’s population, a drastic curtailment of discretionary fossil-fueled services would entail little change in behaviour, given that they consume little fossil fuel for either essential or discretionary services.

What might a distinction between essential and discretionary use of fossil fuels mean in practice? Regarding aviation, for example, we might recognize use of water bombers in fighting forest fires, helicopters in performing rescues, and airlifts to deliver essential food and medical supplies in the aftermaths of hurricanes. Fossil-powered vacations – flights to beach holidays, golf outings, or “eco-tourism” adventures that start and end on a runway – are clearly discretionary and would be banned or severely restricted, if we were to take the climate crisis seriously.

Use of fossil-powered industry for the manufacture of renewal energy equipment or basic medical technology would be deemed essential. Fossil-fueled manufacture of leaf blowers, recreational vehicles, patio heaters, and most of the products that litter our big-box stores before littering our garages and then our landfills, would be recognized as discretionary and would cease.

Production of plastic packaging and containers for some specialized needs might be essential while we develop and ramp up the production of replacements. Production of single-use disposables, most plastic packaging, and plastic toys would be deemed discretionary and would cease.

Production and use of fossil-burning trucks to haul heavy but essential goods long distances would be deemed essential, until renewable-energy powered trucks can be built in sufficient numbers and until our logistics systems can be right-sized. Production and much use of passenger-vehicles, especially the huge, heavy, monstrously over-powered passenger vehicles like SUVs and “light trucks”, would be deemed discretionary and drastically scaled back, in number and in size, starting now.

These few examples just scratch the surface, of course, and distinguishing between “essential” and “discretionary” will be more difficult in some cases than in others. Achieving political momentum for the necessary changes may be especially difficult. Individual, voluntary actions – important in acting as signposts and building credibility – will accomplish little on their own unless accompanied by society-wide transformation.4

Much of the change can and must happen in our transportation practices and systems, and that will be the subject of the several upcoming installments in this series.

In North America, and wherever high-energy-consumptive lifestyles are dominant, there is such vast wastage of fossil energy that we can make a big difference in emissions in a hurry – if we choose to. Though we can quibble for decades about the final difficult steps in getting to a zero carbon emissions economy, in the immediate future there is an awful lot of low-hanging fruit.

What matters now is not what we promise for 2050 – it’s what we actually do in 2023, 2024 and 2025 to get us on course.



1Jason Bradford provides an excellent overview of why it will be particularly challenging to transform our industrial agricultural system to renewable energy. His work looks at the limitations inherent in running large tractors on battery power, and the need for a significantly larger share of the population living and working in agricultural areas in future. These changes, clearly, cannot and will not happen overnight. See Bradford’s report The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification (2019), and his chapter “The Future is Rural: Societal Adaptation to Energy Descent”, in Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency (2021).

2Alice Friedemann’s 2016 book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation is a good overview of the challenges in running heavy freight-moving trucks or trains on battery power.

3Even if and when we have developed a huge capacity in renewable-electricity generation, many industrial processes, particularly those which require high-temperature and high heat flux, will be difficult or impossible to convert from fossil fuel combustion to electricity. This includes production of concrete, steel, and a large array of chemicals used in industrial products. For an overview with further references, see my chapter “Energy Sprawl in the Renewable-Energy Sector”, in Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency (2021).

4Finding the right mix of governmental policies that can quickly end the discretionary consumption of fossil fuels is not in the scope of this series. Such policies must not only be effective and practicable, but equitable. For one such mechanism, see Stan Cox’s excellent work on fair-share energy rations in Beyond the Green New Deal: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (2020).


Image at top of page: accessed from Pixabay, free for commercial and non-commercial use.

“Getting to zero” is a lousy goal

Also published on Resilience

In an alternate reality, gradually moving toward a zero-carbon-emission economy and arriving there in two or three decades would be a laudable accomplishment.

In an alternate reality –   for example, the reality that might result from turning the clock back to 1975 – a twenty-five year process of eliminating all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions could avert a climate crisis.

But in our reality in 2022, with far too much carbon dioxide already flowing through the atmosphere and the climate crisis worsening every year, knowingly emitting more greenhouse gases for another two decades is a shockingly cavalier dance with destruction.

This understanding of the climate crisis guides the work of Bruce King and Chris Magwood. Their own field of construction, they write, can, and indeed must, become a net storer of carbon – and not by 2050 by rather by the early 2030’s.

Their new book Build Beyond Zero (Island Press, June 2022) puts the focus on so-called “embodied emissions”, also known more clearly as “upfront emissions”. The construction industry accounts for up to 15 percent of global warming emissions, and most of the emissions occur during manufacturing of building materials.

No matter how parsimonious new buildings might be with energy during their operating lifetimes, an upfront burst of carbon emissions has global warming impact when we can least afford it: right away. “A ton of emissions released today,” write King and Magwood, “has far more climate impact than a ton of emissions released a decade from now.”

Emissions released today, they emphasize, push us immediately closer to climate crisis tipping points, and emissions released today will continue to heat the globe throughout the life of a building.

Their goal, then, is to push the construction industry as a whole to grapple with the crucial issue of upfront emissions. The construction industry can, they believe, rapidly transform into a very significant net sequesterer of carbon emissions.

 That goal is expressed in their “15 x 50” graph.

By 2050, Bruce King and Chris Magwood say, the construction industry can and should sequester a net 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Graphic from Build Beyond Zero, Island Press, 2022, page 238.

A wide range of building materials are now or can become net storers of carbon – and those that can’t must be rapidly phased out of production or minimized.

The bulk of Build Beyond Zero consists of careful examination of major categories of building materials, plus consideration of different stages including construction, demolition, or disassembly and re-use.

Concrete – by far the largest category of building material by weight and by current emissions –is a major focus of research. King and Magwood outline many methods that are already available to reduce the carbon intensity of concrete production, as well as potential methods that could allow the net storage of carbon within concrete.

Equally important, though, are construction materials that can reduce and in some cases eliminate the use of concrete – for example, adobe and rammed earth walls and floors.

By far the largest share of carbon sequestration in buildings could come from biogenic sources ranging from timber to straw to new materials produced by fungal mycelia or algae.

Harvesting homes

“Tall timber” is a popular buzzphrase for building methods that can sequester carbon within building structures, but King and Magwood are more excited about much smaller plant materials such as wheat straw or rice hulls. Their discussion of the pros and cons of increased use of wood products is enlightening.

“Assessing the degree of carbon storage offered by timber products is not at all straightforward. Far from being the poster child for carbon-storing building, the use of timber in buildings requires a very nuanced understanding of supply chain issues and forest-level carbon stocks in order to be certain we’re not doing harm in the process of trying to do good.” (Build Beyond Zero, page 111)

First, when trees are cut down typically only half of the above-ground biomass makes it into building products; the rest decomposes and otherwise emits its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Second, particularly where a large stand of trees is clear-cut and the ground is exposed to the elements, much of the below-ground stored carbon also returns to the atmosphere. Third, even once a replacement stand of trees has grown up, a monoculture stand seldom stores as much carbon as the original forest did, and the monoculture is also a big loss for biodiversity.

To the extent that we do harvest trees for construction, then, “We need to take responsibility for ensuring that we are growing forests at a rate that far exceeds our removals from them. Notice that we are talking about growing forests and not just planting trees.” (page 115)

This careful nuance is not always evident in their discussion of agricultural residues, in my opinion. The “15 X 50” goal includes the conversion of huge quantities of so-called “residues” – wheat straw, rice hulls, and sunflower stalk pith, to give a few examples – into long-lasting building materials. But what effects would this have on the long-term health of agricultural soils, if most of these so-called residues are routinely removed from the agricultural cycle rather than being returned to the soil? What level of such total-plant harvesting is truly sustainable?

Yet there is obvious appeal in the use of more fast-growing small plants as building material. Straw can sequester about twice as much carbon per hectare per year as forests do, while “the carbon sequestration and storage efficiency of hemp biomass is an order of magnitude higher than that of trees or straw.” (page 99)

There are many existing methods to turn small plants into building materials, ranging from structural supports to insulation to long-lasting, non-toxic finishes. It is reasonable to hope for the creation of many more such building materials, if industry can develop new carbon-emissions-free adhesives to help shape fibers and particles into a myriad of shapes. King and Magwood note that existing industrial practices are likely to act as hurdles in this quest:

“Nature provides plenty of examples and clues for making nontoxic bioadhesives in species such as mussels and spiders. However, the introduction and scaling of these potentially game-changing materials is so far hampered in the same way as bioplastics: by an extremely risk-averse construction industry and by a petrochemical industry keen to keep and expand market share ….” (page 162) 

Straw-bale construction project in Australia, 2012. Photo by Brett and Sue Coulstock, accessed via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

We don’t have 30 more years

Build Beyond Zero is a comprehensive and clear overview of construction practices and their potential climate impact in the near future. It does not, however, provide any “how-to” lessons for would-be builders or renovators to use in their own projects. For that purpose, both King and Magwood have already published extensively in books such as Essential Hempcrete Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; and Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Design for Rammed Earth and Straw Bale Architecture.

In Build Beyond Zero, King and Magwood offer an essential manifesto for anyone involved in commissioning or carrying out construction or renovation, anyone involved in the production of building materials, anyone involved in the establishment or modification of building codes, anyone involved in construction education.

It’s time for everyone involved with construction to become climate-literate, and to realize that upfront carbon emissions from buildings are as important if not more important than operating emissions during the buildings’ lifetimes. It’s time to realize that construction, perhaps more than most industries, has the capability of going beyond zero to become a significant net storer of carbon.

That opportunity represents an urgent task:

“It has taken more than 30 years for energy efficiency to approach a central role in building sector education …. We can’t wait that long to teach people how to make carbon-storing buildings. If we follow the usual path, the climate will be long past repair by the time enough designers and builders have learned how to fix it.” (page 173)

With global greenhouse gases already at catastrophic levels, we have dug ourselves into a deep hole and it’s nowhere near enough to gradually slow down and then stop digging deeper – we also need to fill that hole, ASAP.

As Build Beyond Zero puts it, “‘Getting to zero,” to repeat one more time, is a lousy goal, or anyway incomplete. You make a mess, you clean it up, as my mother would say. You don’t just stop messing, you also start cleaning.”

Photo at top of page: Limestone quarry and cement kiln, Bowmanville Ontario, winter 2016.