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Linking taxes to empathy

I look at how logical Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are [because they enacted a carbon tax] and wonder how we in the US are still so positively stupid.

(I’m not alone in thinking so.)

It’s the one tax that both conservative and liberal economists agree on. You tax the amount of gasoline you use, the amount of garbage you don’t recycle (since it releases greenhouse gases once it’s sitting in a landfill), and the amount of energy you use to heat your home. The result: more money for the government (which wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess otherwise), and less pollution. If you design it so that lower-income households are subsidized, it doesn’t lower consumption or increase inequality.

You can’t blame Obama entirely because any environmentally-progressive thing he might want to do would be vetoed by the Republican-controlled House (though it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try). And you can’t blame Republicans in the House entirely because someone elected them. Could you blame the people that elected the Republicans?

I used to think that people who were homophobic, conservative, and tax-evading didn’t have the same access to good education. But then I remembered Alex. He and I went to the same public middle school and high school, and by his senior year, most of his opinions were already formed. He was smart and capable–he just didn’t care about most other people. And there’s the problem: no public school curriculum in the US teaches empathy.

Are all environmentalists good people? Probably not. Are all environmentally apathetic people “bad?” Certainly not. But for every person who opposes having taxes, I must ask: will they still refuse to pay taxes once they need the services of a fireman, policeman, public school teacher, or even sanitation engineer (garbage collector)? Once they or their children somehow end up needing social services support? Why should it be different for our shared environment and climate? Why do we need gigantic natural disasters to foster any significant action?

Bamboo: the next revolution?

In Africa’s Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo

In Africa you want everything. You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion, to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo comes the closest — it gives you the most things.

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35 percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3 percent.

Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo.

While Rosenburg, who wrote the above New York Times blogpost, makes some interesting points, she misses one huge, gaping hole of an argument: planting bamboo plantations will overpower and undermine whatever remaining biodiversity persists in these growing semi-deserts. The same process already occurred with eucalyptus, but given the even more extensive root networks of bamboo, native tree species may be completely outcompeted, leaving a vast, bamboo-only landscape rather than the extremely diverse forests that Africa used to be known for (along with the associated ecosystem services that all those different species provided.)

Raising the IQs of “Dumb” Cities

After spending hours searching for books on green architecture (or even sustainability) in Paris at the Bibliothèque de la Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine yesterday (which, by the way, has an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero), and giving up largely in vain [because Paris just isn’t sustainable], I was happy to come across this gem of a project in the US.

CITE, or the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation, will be a small town built near Hobbs, New Mexico for research companies to test out green energy technologies, intelligent transport systems, first responder (homeland security) technology, and high-tech wireless infrastructure in real-life settings–just without having people to account for. As the article puts it, the developer (Pegasus) will stop just “shy of interior decorating.” Sounds to me like it could have the potential to become a new Silicon Valley hotbed of creativity!

Hobbs, NM in context (Courtesy of Google Maps)

That said…

CITE will intentionally be an imperfect place… “We’re a dumb city,” Brumley says, “and we bring smart technology to the dumb city, or the ‘legacy’ city, to see how its IQ can be elevated. If you think of it that way, 99.9 percent of all American cities are dumb–they’re all legacy.”

While I (and apparently many others) would have wanted to see a prototype for a smarter city rather than another “legacy” city modeled on Rock Hill, South Carolina, complete with suburbs, exurbs, and other forms of sprawl (which then perpetuates the existence of these “dumb” cities), CITE is still a start in the right direction (both in terms of economic development for the NM-Texas border region, and for the many technologies that are approaching or are stuck in the infamous “valley of death” before commercialization and larger-scale use by the public).

Africa’s Largest Carbon Market & Other Superlatives

After an audit of its first six months of operation, Vestergaard-Frandsen earned 1.4 Million CDM Gold Standard credits (equivalent to 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions averted) for its LifeStraw Carbon for Water Program. The project is expected to average 2.5m tonnes annually over its 10-year duration. This is a big deal because:

  • It’s the largest carbon project of any type in Africa thus far
  • It’s the first ever safe drinking water project to be financed using carbon credits (drinking water is usually purified by boiling the water over a fire with non-renewable wood)
  • It’s the first carbon project to monitor, report and verify actual health impacts of a technology (mostly reduced recorded instances of diarrhea in this case)
  • It’s financially sustainable: the LifeStraws are distributed [and repaired and replaced] for free (the program distributed 877,505 Family water filters so far, in Kenya’s Western Province) and are financed through the sale of carbon credits
  • In addition to providing safe drinking water, the project has other benefits. It aims to reduce extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education (since young girls are often tasked with finding fuelwood and must therefore miss school), empower women and girls, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases (as HIV/AIDS patients are more susceptible to illness from unsafe drinking water).

My only apprehension is the problem of uptake: many interventions like this have failed in the past because not enough people changed their behaviors to make using such interventions routine. If it’s too time-consuming, a hassle, changes social norms (for example, no longer having the opportunity to talk with friends at the neighborhood well), or expensive (in this case that’s not an issue), then the technology likely won’t be taken up, regardless of its effectiveness. Here’s to hoping that this project has a [positive] lasting impact.

Putting Global Investment into Perspective

It’s all about your outlook.

There are two main views on the amount of investment needed to adequately mitigate climate change: either it’s a reasonable [small] amount… or it isn’t.

McKinsey’s 2012 report on resource requirements claims that about $2 trillion is needed to adequately improve energy efficiency, resource use, and climate change impacts.

They also wisely point out:

“Today, governments are subsidizing the consumption of resources by up to $1.1 trillion. Many countries commit 5% or more of their GDP to energy subsidies.”

They acknowledge that changing our behaviors to account for climate change is expensive but very realistic, given that we would have to spend most of this amount anyway for harder-to-extract oil, more expensive land, scarcer water, etc.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC, part of the World Bank Group), in contrast, says:

“Mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries will require considerable investments—estimated by the World Bank’s 2010 World Development Report to be as much as $4.6 trillion to keep global average temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.”

A friend working at WRI (the World Resources Institute) told me yesterday that solar power is already financially sustainable (read: pays for itself) in Hawaii, and will likely get there soon in California and Texas. But this is never publicized; instead, there are tons of debates about how these “green energy” investments are not feasible and too expensive in a time of deficit. It’s a shame that much of Washington still doesn’t realize that their arguments of needing national energy sovereignty are completely aligned with smarter energy sources.

Japan and other countries way better than the US at CC mitigation

Today was my first day as an intern at the World Bank! (And I already have a deliverable due by the end of the week, such is life…) At any rate, as I was researching individual nations’ stances toward including agriculture in climate change (CC) negotiations, I found a presentation given by Japan in 2009 on everything they plan to do in order to decrease agricultural GHG emissions. The authors mention many creative (if not new) approaches, including:

  • utilizing manure for energy source by carbonization/methane fermentation facilities
  • cycling biomass resources (composting)
  • expanding the use of rice straw as feed, rather than burning it
  • prolonged mid-season drainage of rice fields
  • reduced fertilizer inputs
  • installing monitoring systems to measure soil carbon
  • reducing emissions (somehow…) from greenhouse horticulture & agricultural machineries

There’s also a great quote from an IPCC report (AR4, which has since been cited everywhere else) that speaks to much of what climate-smart agriculture tries to propone:

“About 89 per cent of technical mitigation potential of agriculture can be achieved by soil carbon sequestration.”

Cleaner clean fuel sources

I came upon this in an article about alternative clean power sources:

“If 1 percent of the earth’s hot deserts produced clean solar-thermal energy, they would meet the entire planet’s current electricity demand.”

Solar-thermal energy in this case involves using hundreds of large ground-level mirrors to concentrate light on a tall tower, which then converts the light into heat, and then into electricity via a steam turbine. Such a source of power would require massive amounts of space and decent electricity infrastructure already in place to take it from a [presumably] desert area to villages and cities. While making mirrors and one steam turbine would definitely require fewer minerals (like gallium, arsenic, cadmium, and tellurium used in PVs) than photovoltaic-based solar power, and solar-thermal energy would probably have more attainable economies of scale, I wonder how transferable solar-thermal energy will be in reality, compared to PV solar. Given the lower marginal costs and seeming efficiency (at least, based on that quote), it seems strange that solar-thermal hasn’t become more widespread.

The writer, David Benjamin, argues that the visibility [or lack thereof] of these cleaner technologies is why they’re not more widespread–but one look at the controversies behind large-scale wind farms and PV farms seems to hint at a different relationship with renewables.

In a preliminary talk with a vertical wind-turbine developer, the start-up’s co-founder claimed that their product’s biggest selling point was its visibility and therefore image- and public-relations-boosting abilities. Should this really be the driver for innovation of clean tech — aesthetics, instead of efficiency? Is the public still so unconvinced by our rising gas prices, multiple wars in oil-rich countries, oil tanker crashes, climate change, and domestic ethanol biofuel subsidies (which were supported initially because the ethanol blended well with gasoline as a replacement for more toxic additives), that we need to focus on increasing the visibility of renewables for them to be used?

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