Eric de Place

Eric de Place is a senior researcher at Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank.

Hybrid hype: Incentives gone wild

Incentives should reward fuel efficiency, not hybrids per se

Hybrid cars are good for us, right? So policymakers should provide incentives -- things like tax breaks, access to HOV lanes, and free parking for hybrid drivers. Well, not so fast, says a great article in today's Washington Post. There's growing reason to believe that those incentives for hybrids will make things worse -- actually generating more gasoline use, not less. That's because many of the incentives confuse the means for the end. Reducing fuel use (and attendant GHG emissions, air pollution, etc.) is the goal; getting drivers into hybrids is simply one instrument in pursuit of that goal. But one of the more popular incentives to boost fuel efficiency has been to encourage hybrid ownership by offering hybrid drivers access to HOV lanes, even when the drivers are alone. And as the article rightly points out: An incentive -- whether it's access to a carpool lane or cut-rate financing -- still aims to put another car on the road, and that undermines efforts to encourage carpooling. Giving over HOV lanes to hybrids is probably counterproductive. In Virginia, where allowing hybrids in HOV lanes was pioneered, officials are worried that solo drivers in hybrids are clogging the high-capacity lanes and thereby discouraging carpools (because carpooling is no longer any faster than driving alone). In fact, 25 percent of all Virginia HOV lane users are hybrid drivers. And despite their hype, hybrids are not so fuel efficient that they can offset the fuel efficiency of an ordinary car with two or three riders. So the fuel efficiency of Virginia hybrids may become illusory as the vehicle fleet actually consumes more gas because drivers give up carpooling. Same goes for other popular incentives: tax breaks and free or reduced-price parking. These incentives encourage people to drive by making it cheaper. And if some incentives are wrong-headed, it's because they seem to miss the reason why hybrids are good in the first place. If we want to reduce fuel use, it's hard to see why hybrids deserve special tax breaks not afforded to buyers of other fuel-efficient, gas-powered cars (some of which are actually more efficient than certain hybrids). What's so special about hybrids?

Looks matter (to ecosystems)

Sagebrush ecosystems are overlooked by conservationists cause they’re, um, not pretty

Oregon State University just won a $3.6 million grant for sagebrush-ecosystem restoration. That's good news -- sagelands conservation always seems to take a back seat to other landscapes. I wonder if the explanation for sagebrush's short shrift isn't surpisingly superficial (how's that for alliteration?). Looks matter, and sagebrush just doesn't sell like the prettier places do. If so, sagebrush ecology is paying the price for its lack of glam appeal. The American West is home to 100 million acres of sagebrush country, but it is a battered landscape. As the AP story today puts it: Because of the invasion of non-native plants, increasing wildfires and the expansion of juniper woodlands, sagebrush ecosystems have become one of the most threatened land types in the United States, researchers say. "We are losing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems at an alarming rate, as wildfires fueled by cheatgrass sweep across the landscape," said project coordinator Jim McIver, an associate professor of rangeland resources. The ongoing tragedy of conservation biology, with its limited resources, is that large attractive creatures -- "charismatic megafauna," in biologist speak, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker -- generate most of the hoopla and therefore receive most of the protection. Less sexy creatures are often ignored, though they may be no less critical to complete and well-functioning ecosystems. Landscapes tend to go the same way as wildlife. People get animated by old-growth forests, coastlines, canyons, and alpine settings. These are the places we protect in national parks, photograph endlessly, and write volumes of earnest prose about. Big conservation organizations have little trouble "branding" these ecosystems and drumming up the dollars necessary to protect them from depredations. But sagebrush country is another matter.

The backyard bog

Landscaping for water-runoff management

Not quite two months ago, my wife and I became homeowners. We love it. But in addition to the pride of ownership, there are also the worries: Can we really afford this house? Should we get earthquake insurance? Why does a small lake appear in the backyard when it rains? That last one has been on our minds a lot lately. After 26 consecutive days of rain (and counting) here in Seattle, there's a frighteningly large pool of water that has swamped the roses and turned the lawn into something resembling the Everglades. My dad jokingly suggested that we stock it with trout. But I have a better idea: I'm going to landscape my way out of the problem.

Go fish

The decline of hunters and anglers augers poorly for conservation

Over the weekend The Oregonian ran a good short series on the diminishing numbers of hunters and anglers in the state. While the state's population has doubled since 1950, the number of hunters and fishermen has declined. (Read the articles here, here, here, and here.) This is not just a Beaver State phenomenon -- it's true nationwide, and it may have some troubling implications for wildlife protection. The Oregonian seems mostly concerned that without hunting and fishing, fewer people will want to protect wildlife and natural areas. I think that's wrong. Northwesterners are still getting out into nature in vast, teeming, trail-clogging hordes. In fact, wildlife watchers generate substantially more economic activity than hunters and anglers combined. The more important question -- and the one that The Oregonian gives comparatively short shrift to -- is a basic policy question. As the paper has it: ... who will pay the costs of preserving habitat and managing fish and wildlife? Hunters and fishermen now foot most of the bill, not just through the steep license, tag and access fees they pay, but also through countless hours of volunteer labor, pulling out abandoned fences, cutting down water-sucking juniper trees, planting streamside willows and tending boxes of fish eggs. In Oregon, as in many other states, hunting and fishing licenses, together with taxes on items like ammunition and fishing rods, pay for a huge variety of conservation benefits -- everything from fieldwork by professional biologists to refuges like Sauvie's Island on the Columbia River. Without those (declining) sources of revenue, the future of conservation may look even more bleak than it already does. So what to do?

To save a species, shoot here

Is buying up hunting rights a smart conservation move?

From the wilderness of British Columbia comes an innovative conservation tactic about which I am strongly ... ambivalent. Raincoast Conservation Foundation is acquiring the guide-outfitting hunting rights to five areas along the central BC coast, a remote area of vast wilderness home to the rare "spirit bear," among other species. The angle here is probably obvious: Raincoast bought the rights in order to put a stop to hunting. Raincoast and other conservation groups have a strong interest -- one I share -- in protecting biodiversity and relatively pristine wild places. So what's my beef? It's a two-parter. First, I'm not sure that hunting is bad for the species being hunted. Second, I'm not sure the price -- Can $1.35 million plus annual licensing fees -- is the best conservation use of the money.

Public lands: Mine, all mine

In an ominous new development, Congress may soon authorize private "patents" of public land, a wildly outdated and abused provision of an 1872 mining law. The patents are functionally equivalent to fee-simple purchases of the land, which raises the distinct possibility that private individuals and corporations could stake mining claims -- and then buy the land -- in national forests, wilderness areas, and even national parks. Mining, as it is currently practiced, is so ecologically disastrous there are too many examples of environmental degradation to mention here. But the new Congressional legislation would actually worsen matters. Not only would it make it easy for mining corporations to snatch up public land at bargain-basement prices -- and never pay royalties on their profits -- but there's nothing preventing the buyer from dropping plans to mine and then re-selling the land as real estate. If mining doesn't pencil out, there's always the possibility of ski areas, amusement parks, condos ... At risk are roughly 20 million acres of public lands. Already, nearly 900 patents have been staked inside national parks and that number is almost certain to rise under the new legislation. It's hard to imagine a worse deal for the American public, not to mention our ever-more fragile natural heritage that public lands safeguard. Read the coverage in the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Times.

Sprawling alone

Sprawl is often thought to erode social capital, but the evidence is mixed

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that the decline of social capital in the U.S. can be attributed partly to urban form. In other words, according to Putnam, sprawl is at least partly to blame for the present derth of bowling leagues. But is it really? Putnam's arguments (summarized at the end of Chapter 12) are threefold. "Sprawl takes time": more time alone in a car and less for civic engagement. "Sprawl is associated with increasing social segregation," and that segregation has led to less community participation. "Sprawl disrupts community 'boundedness'," and that physical fragmentation reduces social involvement. Although Putnam's claim -- that sprawl erodes social capital -- is widely referenced, my survey of the evidence makes me suspicious. My objections are threefold.

Capturing carbon

Carbon sequestration smells fishy.

In the midst of the recent climate pledging lovefest, it's easy to lose sight of the unhappy truth that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have already reached levels that effectively guarantee us at least several decades of global warming. While the Kyoto Protocol is worthwhile--to reduce global emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels--it is only a small first step toward putting brakes on climate change. To do that, scientists estimate that worldwide emissions must be reduced by at least 60 to 70 percent.    Needless to say, achieving those levels of reductions will be a something of a challenge. We'll need to consume less, become more efficient, and develop alternative energy sources. We'll also need to figure out ways to capture greenhouse gas emissions--principally carbon--and prevent them from concentrating in the atmosphere and contributing to warming. The most talked-about way to do this is using carbon "sinks" such as forests and grasslands, which essentially soak up carbon by trapping it in living biological material. Another possibility--one that is thick with possibility and contradiction--is sequestering carbon manually. The BBC reports on pioneering technology that the United Kingdom is exploring that will capture up to 85 percent of power-plant emissions and then trap them under the North Sea in geologic formations that were once occupied by petroleum or natural gas. Sounds good, right?

The debate is over. Finally.

USA Today says the globe is warming!

Mark today in your calendars because USA Today's headline just made it official: "The debate's over: Globe is warming." My first reaction was astonishment. I kept scanning their website for other up-to-the-minute revelations. What's next? Are the Beatles really about to break-up? Is the Berlin Wall really going to come down? But my second reaction was more optimistic -- and less sarcastic. I shouldn't scoff at USA Today's belated recognition as much as I should marvel that a tipping point is happening right before our eyes. The real news here is not that the debate is over -- it's been over, of course, for quite some time -- but that USA Today and other media like it have finally awarded a TKO to climate scientists and greens. As it turns out, USA Today's conviction is because big corporations, utilities, Republican governors, and even religious groups are now demanding action on climate change. There really is increasingly broad-based recognition of the problem. Still, it's more than a little annoying that media evaluate critical issues based not on the overwhelming scientific evidence, but rather on the proclamations of Arnold and a few CEOs. But on the other hand, if even USA Today says there's a consensus on climate change, then we're just about to arrive in a brave new world where we can actually begin to do something about it on a large and systemic level. Hold on to your hats: next week we'll find out that burning gasoline warms the atmosphere through something called the "greenhouse effect" ...