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.

Going postal

Mail delivery cutbacks could trim vehicle emissions

Apparently, the U.S. Postal Service is considering cutting back on one day of mail delivery per week. Personally, I suppose I'm fine with this, since I get very little time-sensitive mail. But I imagine that there are some folks who'd see this as a real hardship -- yet another little blow, at a time when there are plenty of big ones to absorb. Regardless, someone just emailed me to ask how the service cutbacks might affect global warming. Sadly, I've got no time for a real answer. But Google gives me just enough information for a ballpark answer: as an upper-bound estimate, I think that a one-day-per-week cutback in mail delivery could reduce vehicle CO2 emissions nationwide by as much as 700,000 tons per year.

Fighting congestion, RAND-style

Study finds that tolls and parking charges are key to ease traffic

Earlier this year, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, put out a report on how to get traffic moving faster. They considered lots of the standard solutions — improving signal timing, clearing accidents quickly, encouraging telecommuting, and so forth — and found that many of them could, in fact, provide some temporary congestion relief. But here’s the rub: RAND found that over the long haul, these kinds of solutions simply don’t have much effect on congestion. They can briefly get traffic moving faster, but just about every improvement in travel time results in … more people taking to the …

Congestion pricing: Can tolling be fair?

Tolls reduce congestion, but they price people off the roadway

Brilliant. That’s the word that kept crossing my mind as I read this clearly written report [PDF] about the Puget Sound Regional Council’s study on using road tolls to fight congestion. The study found that a well-designed, comprehensive system of congestion-busting tolls could make a major dent in traffic backups in the Puget Sound. It would also speed up transit, shorten commute times, and reduce gasoline consumption. But much to its credit, the report also identifies one critical question that may dominate any public debate over congestion pricing: Can tolling be fair? To collect the data for the study, the …

The end is nigh

Geologists predict that oil production will decline within a decade

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, gas prices have fallen back from the phenomenal highs of last summer. The immediate cause has been the economic crisis. When credit markets seized up, some companies that wanted to buy oil simply couldn’t get the cash. And perhaps more importantly, the economic slowdown has decreased projections for oil demand. Markets that seemed tight are now looser than they’ve been in a while. But those changes are just on the demand side. On the supply side, though, little has changed. If anything, the outlook for oil supplies is somewhat more pessimistic than it …

Loan payday

California’s innovative energy efficiency loan program is a model worth copying

A request: If you a) have anything to do with city or county government, and b) have any interest in, or authority over, property taxes, finance, or energy efficiency, please drop whatever you're doing for two minutes, and skim this article. Oh, all right, I bet you didn't actually hit the link. So to make your job easier, I'll pull a quote or two. California [just] enacted a law that allows cities and counties to make low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, high-efficiency air conditioners and other energy-saving improvements.Participants can pay back the loans over decades through property taxes. And if a property owner sells his home or business, the loan balance is transferred to the next owner, along with the improvements. [Emphasis added.] I don't think that I emphasize this enough: This is truly groundbreaking. In fact, it may well be among the top three climate policies ever adopted by the state. I hope that other states follow suit soon -- even if it means fixing the state constitution (Cough*Washington*cough).

Staycation, all I ever wanted

Photo: matildaben via Flickr. "Staycation ... a portmanteau that combines "stay" and "vacation" and refers to a holiday that takes place either at or near home." With gas well above $4 per gallon this summer, and with airlines raising prices and canceling flights because of high fuel costs, it's not too surprising to find a word like "staycation" gaining a toehold in the North American lexicon. Google now finds nearly 200,000 web pages that use the word -- most of them added within the last few months, if my casual browsing is any indicator. But even back when fuel wasn't so pricey, some of my favorite vacations were spent within a 50 mile radius of home. It's easy to forget how many parks, museums, nature walks, boat rides, and all-around fun can be found close to where you live -- which makes a staycation a perfect opportunity to reconnect yourself to your home town. So I'm curious: Is anyone out there planning a staycation this year? Where are you, and what do you plan on doing?

Feeding climate change

Still more reasons to eat local and lay off the beef

Photo: Elizabeth Thomsen via Flickr. Increasingly, consumers are trying to reduce the environmental impacts of the foods they eat. But it's not so easy to know what to do, in part because of the bewildering array of food choices the market offers, but also because it's hard to know what food choices carry the biggest impact. This nifty study tries to clear away some of the murk by tackling a fairly straightforward question: If you care about the climate, which is more important, what kind of food you eat, or where that food is grown? To summarize the findings: All else being equal, locally grown food is friendlier to the climate than food grown half a continent away. But if you're looking for a single food choice that will help curb your climate impact, your best bet is to stay away from cows!

Calling all economists

Are the CGE models useful for predicting the effects of climate policy?

Photo: StuSeeger via Flickr. My pal Peter Dorman is looking for answers: Does the class of economic forecasting tools known as "computable general equilibrium models" (aka CGE models) have any documented track record of success? This may seem like an arcane point, but it's quite relevant to climate policy. Government agencies throughout North America are using CGE models to forecast the economic impacts of various cap-and-trade proposals. But many academic economists -- Dorman among them -- think that the CGE models are built on sand. Says Dorman:

Give it away, now

Interesting research findings on wealth and happiness

Photo: sean-b via Flickr University of British Columbia researchers have put a price tag on happiness. The good news: It's available for the low price of $5. The better news: You can't spend that money on yourself. Instead, to get the most smiles per dollar, you have to spend money on other people. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and colleagues found that [experimental subjects] report significantly greater happiness if they spend money "pro-socially" -- that is on gifts for others or on charitable donations -- rather than spending on themselves. The researchers apparently looked at three different kinds of studies: a nationwide survey, a specific study of how employees spent their bonuses, and a controlled experiment on psychology undergrads. In all cases, the evidence showed that giving money away made people happier. In fact, donating as little as $5 was enough to boost happiness on any given day. But the amount of money people spent on themselves had no appreciable effect on how happy they were. In short, new research confirms an old adage: it really is better to give than to receive. But, on a somewhat more dismal note, there's another route to convert money into happiness: choose friends who aren't as wealthy as you are.