Cities can start to tackle climate change by plugging in their vehicles

Mmm, electric cars. Image: Getty.

President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement reaffirmed what was already clear: The federal government is no longer leading American efforts to shrink our carbon footprint. But many state and local governments – along with businesses and consumers – aim to help fill this policy void.

At least a dozen governors have joined the United States Climate Alliance, committing their states to achieve emissions reductions consistent with President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge. More than 200 mayors are promising their cities will follow suit.

My research with my former student Shayak Sengupta about how cities can benefit from buying electric cars suggests that fuel-free municipal fleets can cut urban carbon footprints while improving public health and saving taxpayers money.

Options for states and cities

States can help curb emissions in many ways, such as by setting caps on power plant emissions and creating incentives and targets for renewable electricity. Most of those steps lies beyond the jurisdiction of cities. So how can they take climate action?

Urban governments most strongly impact emissions by influencing the behavior of local residents and businesses through building codes and incentives, public transit and urban planning. Buying increasingly affordable electric vehicles gives cities an additional opportunity to cut climate-warming emissions by reducing the amount of fossil fuels their vehicles consume.

Historically, cities and transit agencies turned to natural gas as an alternative fuel for fleet vehicles and buses. However, our previous research showed that natural gas does not provide significant emissions savings compared with gasoline cars or diesel buses.

Electric vehicles, however, can bring about clear-cut reductions in carbon emissions.

The electric vehicle market

U.S. cities own few of the 540,000 electric cars on the road nationwide as of 2016. The nation’s two largest cities, New York City and Los Angeles, operate 1,000 and 200 electric cars, respectively.

That could soon change. Thirty cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, are seeking bulk-rate deals on electric vehicles. They’ve asked manufacturers to submit bids to supply up to 114,000 electric vehicles, ranging from police cruisers to trash haulers, at a total cost of roughly $10bn.

This surge in electric vehicle sales could make them more affordable not just for cities but for the rest of us too. That’s because emerging technologies typically get cheaper as production increases. A study by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates that electric car batteries prices fall by 6 to 9 per cent every time production doubles.

Some analysts forecast that as soon as 2025, electric cars will become cheaper than gasoline-powered cars. In some cases, they are already cheaper to own and operate over the vehicle’s lifetime, our research has shown. If cities help ramp up demand for electric cars faster than anticipated, this transition could happen even faster.

Municipal fleets

City-owned fleets are in some ways ideal candidates for electric-powered transportation. Cities operate large numbers of vehicles in densely populated areas, where emissions most endanger human health.

Local driving by municipal employees is well-suited for electric cars. For example, the Nissan Leaf now has a range of as much as 107 miles, and the Chevy Bolt can travel 238 miles without recharging.

Meanwhile, electric models of pickup trucks, dump trucks, buses and police cruisers are becoming increasingly available.


Houston’s vehicles

We studied vehicle options available to Houston, which operates a fleet of about 12,000 vehicles, in 2015. Those options included two gasoline-powered Toyota sedans (the Corolla and the Prius), the natural gas-powered Honda Civic, the plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius and the fully electric Nissan Leaf. Since all these sedans seat five passengers, they are interchangeable.

Because Houston in 2015 bought 75 percent of its electricity from wind farms (it now draws even more of its power from wind and solar sources), we calculated that the fully electric Leaf would have reduced life cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 87 per cent relative to the gasoline-powered Corolla over seven years. About half of those benefits would have been lost if the Leaf was charged from the fossil-heavy grid elsewhere in Texas.

Financially, the savings on fuel and maintenance would have more than offset the $12,000 premium for buying a Leaf instead of a Corolla. We estimated that Houston would have saved about 4 cents per mile while operating the Leafs, as long as enough charging stations were available. That’s even before counting any savings from bulk purchases or federal tax credits.

Charging stations

One significant problem holding back demand for electric vehicles is the shortage of charging stations. Greater availability of charging stations assures cities and consumers that full electrics like the Nissan Leaf can complete their trips, and lets plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt operate mostly in electric mode.

That’s why cities like Pittsburgh have obtained state grants to build their own, while utilities in Seattle and Kansas City are building charging stations to jump-start demand for electric cars.

The ConversationElectric municipal fleets won’t by themselves propel cities all the way to their Paris-based pledges. But by speeding the adoption of charging stations and cleaner cars, they could help curb emissions – while saving money for urban taxpayers and improving public health.

Daniel Cohan is associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.