Seeing the Big Picture on Drive-Thrus and the Need to Start Somewhere

Thank you to author of article: Tony Weis: Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Western Ontario. Tony is also author of: The Global Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming
In the increasingly heated debate over whether or not the city of London should establish a moratorium on new drive-thrus, an advocate for the moratorium was recently told by a vocal opponent that they had lost sight of the ‘bigger picture’ of jobs and economic growth.
Conversely, the intensive public relations campaign led by Tim Horton’s has sought to narrow the debate to a claim – based on a paid consultant’s report – that drive-thrus are environmentally benign when compared with crowded parking lots.
This is reminiscent of the reports paid for by big oil companies which, for decades, helped justify inaction on climate change. In classic ‘greenwashing’ style, this spin has been coupled with an appeal to people’s sense of entitlement, as though it were outrageous to suggest we might be deprived of our ‘right’ to fast food without leaving our cars (including the fear-mongering inference that all drive-thrus could be closed, though this is not what is before Council).
Some ‘big picture’ context is sorely needed.
Canada and the US together represent less than 5 percent of humanity yet consume over one-quarter of the world’s oil, and contribute to more than one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon is the most significant greenhouse gas, and Canada’s per capita carbon footprint is more than twice that of the average European, roughly five times the world average, and more than 20 times that of many developing countries.
And this average world carbon footprint is already vastly too high, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2007, the IPCC described the “warming of the climate system” as scientifically unequivocal, based on evidence “from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.” It called for swift and dramatic emission reductions to avert the most dangerous fallout.
If we place the average Canadian carbon footprint in the context of the IPCC’s sustainable emissions targets, we need to make per capita emissions cuts on the order of 90 percent. Cars are a large part of this. In 2003, Canada had 561 passenger cars for every 1000 citizens, one of the highest levels in the world, along with very high levels of per capita mileage driven and oil consumed.
Meanwhile, the IPCC has long highlighted the uneven vulnerability associated with climatic change. Many of the world’s poorest nations face the most adverse and immediate consequences of rising climatic variability, higher temperatures, and drought and water stress, with obvious impacts on food security and malnutrition.
Canadians must urgently face up to our grossly outsized and destructive carbon footprint, and changes need to start somewhere.
London already has 160 drive-thrus. Whether in blissful ignorance or conscious disregard, to continue to act like we are simply entitled to more – and more urban sprawl, more cars, more oil, and more greenhouse emissions – constitutes a planetary arrogance of frightening proportions.
This debate on drive-thrus should not be dominated by facile industry sloganeering on t-shirts, buttons, leaflets, and radio ads, nor should we accept that this has anything to do with jobs. Corporate fast-food drive-thrus do not create any more jobs than do independent, community-centered cafes and restaurants closer to people’s homes and workplaces. Rather, they represent an outmoded approach to urban planning that is centered on oil and the primacy of the automobile.
A moratorium on new drive-thrus would represent an important first step towards a new vision of denser, less resource intensive cities, and one which is ultimately more in step with our responsibilities as global citizens.
In this, we could be very proud to see London take a leadership role on a Canadian scale.

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