Clark Williams-Derry

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a nonprofit sustainability think tank working to promote smart solutions for the Pacific Northwest. He was formerly the webmaster for Grist.

Burnt CAFE

CAFE standards reduce fuel use, but increase the total amount of miles driven

A point of clarification about CAFE standards, apropos of Dave's post below. According to this report (careful, it's a pdf) from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, increasing CAFE standards would, in fact, save fuel (contrary to the claims of this this moronic article). The problem is that more fuel-efficient cars are also cheaper to drive. And that would mean that CAFE standards, even as they save fuel, would also slightly increase the number of miles people drive. Now, driving obviously has all sorts of "externalities" -- costs that are borne by someone other than the driver. Some of the externalities are related to fuel consumption and the resultant air emissions; CAFE standards do help reduce those problems. But extra driving also means more car crashes, more congestion, more noise pollution, more risks for walkers and bikers, higher rates of obesity, lower rates of physical activity, more expenses for road building and maintenance, and so on. So in simple terms, all the bad stuff that comes along with extra driving would overwhelm the good stuff that comes from consuming less fuel. Yes, we'd import a bit less oil, but we'd get in more crashes, build more roads, sprawl a little more, etc. And the human and environmental costs of all those other things (according to the VTPI report, at least) outweigh the good that's done by raising CAFE standards. I don't think that's reason not to have CAFE standards. But it is reason to be very careful about what other policies you have in place that would help soften those unintended consequences.

Last West-Coast clean car domino falls

Oregon joins Washington and California with emissions limits

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski just tipped over the last clean car domino on the West Coast: He's directed his Department of Ecology to draft regulations for adopting California's clean-car standards. This is a major step. Washington State had opted for California's standards, provided that Oregon adopted them too. Because Canada has adopted similar standards, Oregon's move has created a clean-car corridor stretching from San Diego through northern British Columbia. Together, between California, Canada, and the northwest and northeastern states that have followed their lead, about 40 percent of the North American new-car market will soon be cleaner and, if all goes well, more fuel efficient to boot. (There's a pretty good chronology of all the political action on the car standards here, if you scroll down through the posts.)

Flame on!

PBDEs may pass PCBs as biggest chemical threat

Dumb headline (unless you're a Fantastic Four fan), but a serious subject. A new chemical analysis, being released today by California EPA scientists at an international scientific conference in Toronto, shows that 30 percent of Northwest moms tested had higher levels of the toxic flame retardants PBDEs in their bodies than of well-known chemical threats PCBs. This study is a follow-up to the PBDE study of Northwest women Northwest Environment Watch did last year. The study provides pretty unambiguous evidence that PBDEs have emerged as a major toxic menace. And it suggests that, if recent trends continue, PBDEs could soon overtake PCBs as the most dominant "organohalogen" pollutant in people's bodies. And an interesting -- and probably significant -- side note to the study was that there was no correlation between PCB and PBDE levels. This suggests that the two classes of compounds may get into people's bodies through different pathways. At this point, the principle source of PCB contamination in people is food, particularly fish. For PBDEs, nobody is sure; but a recent exposure modeling study from Canada suggests that ordinary housedust, containing minute quantities of PBDEs sloughed off from furniture and the like, may be the principle route of exposure in people. (More here.)

Security and the city

City cores are, if anything, safer than the ‘burbs.

This article in Sunday's Washington Post, penned by New America Foundation fellow Joel Kotkin, is definitely thought provoking. In the wake of terrorist attacks in London and New York, Kotkin argues that the single most important challenge facing modern cities is providing basic security to their citizens. To wit ... While modern cities are a long way from extinction, it's only by acknowledging the primacy of security -- and addressing it in the most aggressive manner -- that they will be able to survive and thrive in this new century, in which they already face the challenge of a telecommunications revolution that is undermining their traditional monopoly on information and culture, and draining their populations. Wiith memories of 9/11 still fresh, perhaps it's natural that people should question whether cities are really safe. Terrorism is, quite obviously, a serious problem; and central cities have proven to be ready targets. Still, I think that the article's emphasis on terrorism per se reveals an interesting and broader cultural bias about risk. There are certain kinds of risks that our culture fears more than others. Some hazards -- say, the threat of random violence, whether by ordinary criminals or by terrorists -- seem intolerable, and society demands a concerted effort to put a stop to them. Others -- say, traffic accidents -- we generally shrug off, and accept as part of the unavoidable background of modern life. But sometimes the "unavoidable" risks are far more hazardous, and every bit as avoidable, as the ones on which we focus our attention.

A bridge just far enough

Vancouver city politicians take risky moves to fight climate change.

If you want an example of what sets greater Vancouver, B.C., apart from cities south of the U.S.-Canadian border, look no farther than this Vancouver Sun headline: Council votes to turn two of six lanes on Burrard Bridge into dedicated bike lanes. Just for context -- the Burrard Bridge is one of just a few main access points into downtown Vancouver, and carries a significant amount of car traffic into downtown from some of the western neighborhoods. Vancouver tried a similar experiment in the mid-1990s, but it ended after just a week or so because of a public outcry over congestion. The same thing may well happen again. So politically, this is a risky move. Which makes it all the more impressive: Vancouver city leaders are actually willing to take concrete and potentially unpopular steps to reduce the city's global warming emissions and promote biking and walking -- steps that seem completely outside the realm of political possibility in, say, Seattle or Portland. Even Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who has won national recognition for organizing hundreds of the nation's mayors to speak up on global warming, has dedicated considerable political capital to rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct -- a massively expensive project that will, in all likelihood, increase Seattle's global warming emissions. But there's no such mismatch between rhetoric and reality in Vancouver city politics. According to city councillor Fred Bass: "I became a city councillor because of global warming," Bass said after the vote. "And it seems to me that what we have here is a very feasible way of testing out whether we can mobilize people to walk and cycle and for people to leave their cars behind." Definitely an experiment worth keeping an eye on.

Seafood, see food travel

‘Domestic’ seafood sent abroad for processing.

Globalization in action: Some locally-caught seafood is now being shipped to China for processing and then back to the Northwest for sale. This saves on labor costs -- labor is a fifth to a tenth as costly in China as it is here -- but massively increases the amount of energy consumed. For the most part, I prefer to buy food that's grown or caught locally. But sending locally-caught seafood on an 8,000 mile journey in search of cheap labor definitely strains the definition of "local". But as long as international markets remain open, transportation remains cheap, and disparities in international labor costs remain wide, we're likely to see more and more of this sort of thing. Which means, unfortunately, that green-minded consumers may have to remain vigilant not just about where their food is grown, but also where it's processed.

Sunny share

Car-sharing starts to take off.

Here's a bit of interesting news on car sharing companies, which, according to The New York Times, are catching on a bit in Europe. The most salient bit: Studies suggest that one shared car replaces 4 to 10 private cars, as people sell their old vehicles...The result is a 30 to 45 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled for each new customer. Now, 30 to 45 percent is a pretty sizeable decline in driving. But this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; as any economist would predict, converting a fixed cost (e.g., the cost of buying the car) to a variable cost (e.g., the cost of renting a shared car, which for Seattle Flexcars costs up to $9 per hour) makes people far more selective about how much they drive. And that probably saves car-sharers money overall: Yes, they pay more for each trip, but they make fewer trips, and also avoid much of the expense of purchasing and maintaining a car for personal use.

Cost plus

The healthcare costs of chemical pollution far outweigh any economic benefits.

Health care has become such an expensive endeavor -- consuming roughly an eighth of all the money our economy generates -- that even small improvements in health can save a lot of money. A recent study, mentioned here in the Seattle P-I, looks just at the health costs -- care for asthma, cancer, lead pollution, and the like -- resulting from exposure to manufactured chemicals. And according to Dr. Kate Davies, the study's author, the costs are pretty sizeable: Davies said the environmental health costs associated with children's conditions is roughly .7 percent of the state gross national product, while environmental health costs for adults equates to 1 percent of the local annual GNP. Which means that the health costs of a polluted environment rack up to about, oh, $4 billion a year or so in Washington State alone, at least by this estimate. I'm not sure how much sway cost-benefit analyses should hold over environmental policy. Not only does the classic cost-benefit framework tend to sidestep fairness (why should I pay if someone else benefits?), but perhaps more importantly, cost-benefit analyses can overvalue short-term and concrete costs and benefits, while undervaluing the long-term and nebulous ones. Still, cost-benefit analysis can be an important tool if used wisely. And there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that if lead, for example, had been required to pass through a rigorous cost-benefit analysis before it was added to paint and gasoline, there's no way we'd still be paying the costs today.

Jammin’ on traffic

From Gordon Price's most recent Price Tags newsletter -- a computer simulation of traffic congestion that will run on any java-enabled web browser. It's mesmerizing to watch "phantom" traffic jams form -- temporary slowdowns in traffic caused just by congestion, without any obstacle in the road. And the especially nifty thing (or big time-waster) for me is that you can tweak the settings -- traffic volume, driver politeness, road setup -- to see what kinds of things lead to more congestion. For example, traffic that flows along smoothly when the speed limit is set at 80 km per hour (about 50 miles per hour) might completely jam up when the speed limit is bumped to 100 kph (or 60 miles per hour). And the same road can jam up when speed limits are decreased to 40 km per hour. This may seem either counterintuitive or completely obvious, depending on your perspective. In both cases, though, it's pretty easy to identify with the little dots stuck in traffic -- the congestion patterns are all too familiar. As drivers, we tend to think that we exercise conscious control over what happens on the road-- which makes it easy to blame other drivers' "mistakes" when traffic slows down for no apparent reason, as in a "phantom" traffic jam. So it's instructive to see that little computer rectangles following simple rules show the exact same kinds of complex traffic patterns that humans create. Which is a reminder, perhaps, that the rules of the road can have more of an effect on real-world outcomes (traffic or otherwise) than our conscious choices -- which really is something to chew on while you're stuck in traffic.