This essay is part of a series on not owning a car. ----- The weekend before Halloween, my car-less family got a loaner plug-in hybrid-electric car to try. You see, the City of Seattle and some other local public agencies are testing the conversion of some existing hybrids to plug-ins to accelerate the spread of these near-zero-emissions vehicles. As a favor and, perhaps, for some publicity (this post), the city's program manager offered me four days' use of the prototype -- previously driven by actor Rob Lowe. Enthusiasm about plug-in hybrids -- like their now-almost-mainstream siblings the gas-electric hybrids -- has been running high of late. For example, the California Air Resources Board is among the toughest air quality regulators in the world. When members of the board's expert panel reviewed the evidence on plug-in hybrids, they issued a boosterish report predicting widespread adoption and fast market penetration. The Western Governors' Association is similarly smitten (MS Word doc). The tone of some popular press reports makes it seem that the vehicular second coming may be at hand. For this auto (pictured in our back yard, with our Flexcar visible out front), I wondered, would my family give up its car-less ways? Would the joy of these 100+ mpg wheels cause us to end our 21 months of car-free-ness, emulate Rob, and buy our own plug-in? The short answer? No. Plug-in hybrid-electric cars hold great promise, as long as we can fix the laws. And the technology. Oh, and the price. None of those fixes are "gimmes." Without fixing the laws -- and specifically, without a legal cap on greenhouse gases -- plug-ins could actually do more harm than good. And without the second two fixes -- working technology and competitive prices -- plug-ins won't spread beyond the Hollywood set. (Echoes of this point are in Elizabeth Kolbert's latest article in The New Yorker.) But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
Last month, the deputy mayor of New Delhi fell from a terrace to his death while trying to fend off a gang of wild monkeys. This weekend, rampaging monkeys attacked up to 25 people in the Indian capital. While the scenes are tragic, it would be a stretch to call them unexpected: In the center of New Delhi, monkeys scamper through buildings, bathe in fountains, and frolic in parks and on groomed lawns. “They attack patients who are being rolled inside the hospital, pull out IV tubes, and scamper off to drink the fluids,” says lawyer Meera Bhatia. Half a …
Big-box stores have significant impacts on a community's economy, environment, and character. The Big Box Evaluator (created by the Orton Family Foundation, which offers numerous programs that aid good land-use planning) is a new online tool designed to help citizens, activists, and municipal officials get the basics on these impacts in an unbiased manner. It's interactive, and lets you plug in variables like tax rates, community demographics, size of a hypothetical big-box proposal, and much more. The outcome is a well-rounded assessment of probable impacts, the good as well as the bad, which will help its users ask important questions when proposals like this come to town.
At the end of October, both New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and, believe it or not, Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, passed their cosponsored bill in the Senate to allocate $1.9 billion per year for six years to expand passenger rail in the U.S. According to Parade magazine (yes, the one that's inserted into Sunday newspapers), the main goal is "to develop high-speed, short-haul rail corridors modeled on the European city-to-city routes. They could run between Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.; Portland and Seattle; Chicago and Detroit; Miami and Jacksonville, Fla." In addition, the Senate wants to give Amtrak a solid long-term financial foundation. (Imagine!) The same Parade article, entitled "A better way to travel," extols the benefits of rail: Many transportation experts insist that the best answer to transportation gridlock is efficient intercity rail travel. Trains use one-fifth less energy than cars or planes ... Amtrak ridership was up for the fifth year in a row, reaching record levels -- despite the fact that a third of trains arrived late last year ... Severe weather will further add to the transportation turmoil, leading travelers to look for alternatives to air travel. And what about global warming? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a report in September 2007, "Public Transportation's Contribution to Greenhouse Gas Reduction" which directly addresses the issue. According to their calculations, public transit, use saves 37 percent of the CO2 that would have been emitted had private transportation been used (19.2 million metric tons, including traffic congestion) instead of public transit ( 12.3 million metric tons). And that's including a lot of diesel-powered trains and buses.
Portland, Ore., has unveiled an innovative plan to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. The city will require an energy-efficiency inspection of new homes, then levy a tax on builders who have merely complied with Oregon’s efficiency requirements. Builders who construct homes 30 percent more efficient than the state building code requires will escape the fee; those who go above and beyond, with construction that saves at least 45 percent more energy, will be paid cash rewards. Portlanders will vote on the plan in January. Hint: vote yes!
There has certainly been a great deal of discussion of carbon taxes and various cap-and-trade and cap-and-auction frameworks among environmentalists. Recently, Nordhaus and Shellenberger used the term "public investment" as another mitigation strategy, a term which seems to refer mostly to research and development. However, another alternative is direct governmental construction of the various means of transforming economies toward sustainability -- what might be called public reconstruction. I thought I'd share three quotes from well-known writers that seem to be moving in this direction.
Now in her seventh term, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) represents California's 36th Congressional District. Jane Harman. Even sunny skies and pleasant ocean breezes over much of our state can't mask the fact that Californians breathe some of the most polluted air in the nation. California is the world's 12th largest source of carbon dioxide, the chief heat-trapping gas that causes global warming. As dirty as our air is, we are taking the lead nationally in trying to make the air cleaner and our actions greener. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law ambitious legislation establishing the goal of reducing dangerous emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. And yet many in Washington, D.C., are unhappy with California's efforts and are working to undermine and override state laws and regulations designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and promote cleaner fuels. Several weeks ago, emails from the U.S. Department of Transportation suggested senior-level administrators, and possibly the secretary of transportation herself, have been lobbying on behalf of automobile interests to persuade the EPA not to issue a waiver allowing California's clean-air rules. Currently, the Bush administration and Gov. Schwarzenegger are at odds over whether California can do its part to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. Sixteen other states have either adopted or are planning to adopt the California standard, so if the U.S. EPA grants the waiver, it would directly impact 40 percent of the U.S. auto market. In April, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to the EPA giving them six months to act on his waiver before he would be forced to file a lawsuit. Six months have now passed, and the EPA has still not made a decision. Not one to make an empty threat, Schwarzenegger's administration filed suit today demanding that the EPA make a decision on the waiver. It is unclear how this standoff will end, and whether the Bush administration will allow California the leeway to regulate its own emissions. Fortunately, the feds cannot impede a growing effort to address global warming now underway at the local level: the "Cool Cities" program.
The tallest building in North America is officially going green, along with a few of its Windy City counterparts. At a green building expo in Chicago yesterday, former President Bill Clinton and eterna-Mayor Richard Daley announced a partnership to retrofit landmarks including the Sears Tower and the Merchandise Mart, the nation’s largest commercial center. Using features like wind turbines and green roofs, the endeavor will seek to save energy, fight climate change, and — perhaps most important — show other communities and countries around the world that environment and economy do mix. Green building and other climate fixes represent “a …
In the Seattle metro region, voters just sank an $18 billion transportation megaproposal that would have built more than 180 lanes miles of highway and 50 miles of light rail. But so far, the mainstream press has missed one of the most important stories of the year. The real story isn't tax fatigue, it's this: perhaps for the first time ever in the U.S., a critical bloc of voters linked transportation choices to climate protection. In the run-up to the vote, a surprising amount of the debate centered on the package's climate implications. (The state has committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and many cities, including Seattle, have been national leaders on climate.) The opposition argued global warming. So did the measure's supporters. If you don't believe me, see, among others, the Seattle P-I (yes), The Stranger (no), the Yes Campaign, the Sierra Club's No Campaign, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center (no), and even the anti-tax/rail No Campaign, which oddly enough kept trumpeting the Sierra Club's opposition as a primary reason to vote no. The turning point may have been when King County Executive Ron Sims suddenly withdrew his support. He cited the climate-warming emissions from added traffic as one of his chief objections -- he was thinking about his granddaughters, he said, not just the next five years. The funny thing was, there was a heap of confusion and disagreement over the proposal's true climate impacts, mainly because no one had conducted a full climate assessment of the measure. But climate clearly weighed as a factor for a critical bloc of voters on both sides of the issue. In fact, Prop 1 may be the last of its kind, at least in the Pacific Northwest: a transportation proposal that lacked a climate accounting. Obviously, there were more factors in play than just the climate. Taxes and traffic congestion mattered too. But what ultimately may have tipped that scales is that Puget Sound voters are reluctant to expand roads because they lock us into decades of increased climate pollution. It's pretty well accepted that Seattle-area voters are receptive to environmental messages -- and in this case there were smart and well-informed greens on both sides of the debate. But green or not, the biggest problem for a certain segment of voters may have been that there was no comprehensive accounting of the climate impacts of the project -- one that included the roads, the rail, and the probable effects on land use. So what's the lesson?