Alan Durning

Alan Durning directs Sightline Institute, a Seattle research and communication center working to promote sustainable solutions for the Pacific Northwest.

Clean-car dominoes

Clean-car dominoes keep falling. This week, it's Canada, with Oregon next. On Wednesday, word came that the Canadian government and the big automakers have signed an agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from new vehicles. The previously announced target of a 25 percent reduction in new-car emissions by 2010 has apparently been nixed. In its place is a specified number of tons of gases that automakers must keep out of the atmosphere through improvements to new cars, as MacLeans reports. The number of tons, according to one report, is roughly equal to the old 25-percent target. Unfortunately, that's a hard claim to assess, because the details of the agreement are still secret. The 25-percent target has always been important, and ambitious--more ambitious than the 30-percent emissions reduction written into California's clean-car standards because the latter standard has a deadline of 2016. The year 2010 is just around the corner in a gigantic industry that takes many months to usher new technologies into mass production. So even if this agreement turns out to be watered down, it's likely that it at least matches the California standard.

Feebates in the U.K.

Just like Canada, the United Kingdom is seriously considering vehicle feebates, reports the invaluable newsletter Green Budget News. To recap, feebates (sometimes called "freebates") are a great way to harness market forces to encourage energy efficiency and discourage pollution. The article above gives a good explanation of how they'd work: The proposal would require owners of more polluting vehicles to pay an extra levy, while drivers of environmentally friendly cars would reap the benefits and receive a grant as a reward for buying fuel-efficient vehicles. So people who buy gas guzzlers pay a fee that's refunded to people who buy gas-sippers--creating a powerful incentive for continual improvements to automobile efficiency. One of the great features of feebates is that they pay for themselves -- taxpayers don't even get involved.  In fact, the UK proposal is to use feebates to replace the existing vehicle excise duty, which apparently has had little effect on consumers' vehicle choices. And by the way -- I can't recommend Green Budget News enough. Almost every article holds some fragmentary insight into tax shifting and market oriented sustainability. And while it's focused on the European Union, it's chock full of ideas that could be adopted in this part of the world as well. The current edition of the newsletter, which is published by Green Budget Germany, also contains informative updates on congestion pricing in Scotland and Austria and vehicle, pollution, and energy taxes in Denmark.

A whale of a debate

The longtime Northwest controversy (discussed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) over the Makah tribe's whaling is rooted, like so many contemporary Indian issues in the Northwest, in the treaties of 1855, now 150 years old. I side with the Makah. The five or fewer gray whales they intend to hunt each year are from a now healthy population numbering in the tens of thousands. Aside from sentimentalism about marine mammals, I can't see a single compelling reason to effectively abrogate the Makah's treaty rights by denying their application to resume the hunt. The notion that recognizing the Makah's right to hunt whales will create a precedent for a widespread return to commercial whaling seems preposterous. The Makah are the only group in North American with an explicit right to whale in their treaty. And they have a 1,500 year history of whaling responsibly. It seems to me that the Makah whaling issue is controversial primarily because it is a wedge: It separates advocates for sustainability from animal rights activists. What do you think about Makah whaling? I'm curious where Gristmill readers stand.

Doomed to repeat the past?

Did the dinosaurs die out because of global warming? Well, sort of. In an op-ed in Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Peter Ward, a University of Washington professor of biology and earth and space sciences, takes a look at climate change through the unlikely lens of paleontology. Ward points out that prehistoric volcanic eruptions released enough carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere to radically alter the planet's climate, resulting in serious ecosystem disturbances and extinctions.

True preparedness

Most of the Northwest's coast is equipped with early warning systems for tsunamis. (See, for example, this article from the Newport (Oregon) News-Times.) But that doesn't make us immune from giant earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. The 1964 Alaska earthquake was actually bigger on the Richter scale than the recent Indonesian temblor, and it set off a giant wave that swept a few Oregonians and Washingtonians to their deaths. A similar-scale quake and wave with more-local origins likely occurred around 1700, according to a good article in the Coos Bay (Oregon) World. Flooding rivers pose a similar threat. They're typically not as sudden as tsunamis, but far more northwesterners are exposed to them. And unlike tsunamis, river flooding is an annual occurrence, with massive floods coming once or twice in a lifetime. (As climate changes, the severity of flooding may be accelerating.) And though we have more systems in place, preparedness in the form of disaster kits, escape routes, and early-warning sirens is still a pale imitation of true preparedness for high waters.

Tsunami response

If you're wondering what to do about the Indian Ocean tsunami, here is some advice I trust from my friend Vicki Robin of the New Road Map Foundation and Conversation Cafe: make a donation to the Sri Lankan grassroots development movement Sarvodaya. (Back when I studied such things -- a dozen or more years ago -- I regarded the organization as among the best in Asia.) Vicki passes along a note from a friend of hers named Sharif Abdulla:

Going local

The Bush Administration's plan to put greater control of National Forests into the hands of local forest rangers is provoking cries of outrage from the environmental movement and Democrats, as reported by many publications just before Christmas. I share the discontent but, unlike many of my mainstream environmental associates, I am attracted to one rather un-green reordering of public-lands governance. Just not this one.

The Gonad Test

Joel Gallob, who writes for the Newport (Oregon) News, has a fascinating column on Tidepool. It points out the awful time lag between how fishing is regulated and how fish populations change. There's too much fishing when fish populations plummet and too little fishing when populations surge. And he suggests an ingenious mechanism -- involving the gonads of female black rockfish -- for synchronizing fishing with fish numbers. Check it out.

Our daily oil spills

Most of the points I mentioned on Northwest Environment Watch's blog about the recent devastating oil spill in southern Puget Sound also apply to the Unalaska spill now unfolding in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Here's a recap of the most relevant points, with an addition. Like the death toll in the Middle East and the melting of the Northwest's glaciers, these spills show us the true cost of oil -- which is far higher even than the prices in this year's world oil market. The spilled petroleum is ship fuel, not a product being transported on a tanker. Parts of the shipping industry are holdovers from the bad old days of dirty fuel, dirty engines, and careless practices. The "bunker fuel" they burn is literally the dregs of oil refining: the polluting crud that's left over after gasoline, diesel, and other products are "cracked" out of crude. In recent years, shipping has finally begun to get the attention it deserves from the press and environmental regulators, both to its air pollution and to the sewage dumped by cruise ships. But it's still in the days cars were in before catalytic converters.