Daily Archives: July 11, 2007

Guilt is an ineffective tool

This is a touch depressing, or would be if it were strictly true. Reports the CBC:

Canadians have gotten a little bit greener over the past 12 years, especially where governments passed laws to force behaviour changes, a newly released survey suggests.

But in other areas, consumers are acting just as they did in 1994, says a Statistics Canada report released Wednesday.

In two areas where there were big changes — garden pesticide use in Quebec and composting in the Atlantic region — governments compelled greener behaviour.

Nationally, chemical pesticide use fell an insignificant two percentage points between the two surveys. But in Quebec, “where strict regulations on pesticide use were imposed in recent years, the proportion [using pesticides] plunged from 30 per cent to 15 per cent,” the survey said.

As for composting, while there was a slight national increase, the gain was “especially large” in the Atlantic provinces, “some of which prohibit the disposal of organic materials in landfills or incinerators.”

What the CBC appears to miss is that consumers also responded strongly to price signals where they’ve been visible, mainly in household energy use. From Statistics Canada’s survey:

Households are taking advantage of new power-saving devices, the survey showed. Between 1994 and 2006, the proportion using at least one compact fluorescent light bulb more than tripled from 19% to 59%.

Households in all provinces contributed to this rise. In 2006, British Columbia and Ontario had the highest percentage of households using compact fluorescent light bulbs, nearly two-thirds in each province. In contrast, only one-half of all households in Quebec used them.

Programmable thermostats, which automatically adjust the temperature setting, have become increasingly popular. In 1994, 16% of households with a thermostat had one that was programmable. By 2006, this proportion had more than doubled to 42%. On the other hand, among households that had such a device, about 16% had not programmed it.

In Ontario, 52% of households had a programmable thermostat, more than double the proportion of 24% in 1994. Households in the Atlantic Provinces were the least likely to have one.

Quebec has very cheap power as a matter of government policy and provincial pride; Ontario’s gone to something more closely resembling market prices, albeit with very deep government involvement still in the electricity sector. Quebecers also disproportionately use their inexpensive electricity for heat while Ontarians use oil and natural gas, whose prices have been even less cushioned as a matter of public policy.

Astoundingly, the agency also found three in 10 Canadian households mainly use bottled water (you have to dig into the survey questions [PDF] to find that tidbit) for drinking.

What’s very clear from these results is that guilting and pleading with people don’t work.

A low-impact Low-Carbon Economy Act

This is about as depressing a declaration of progress in American legislators’ thinking on climate change as I’ve seen:

“The bills you can’t pass this year are a lot better than the bills you couldn’t pass a year ago.”

It’s from a New York Times story on a Senate bill outlining a cap-and-trade system for dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions, quoting David Doninger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and it’s particularly depressing because the bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Arlen Specter stinks.

From the Washington Post‘s version of the story:

To secure industry support, the bill’s primary authors — senators Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, and Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican — set limits on the price of tradable emissions credits that industry would have to purchase if they overshoot their emission allowances.

That move incurred the ire of environmental groups, who said the “safety valve” provisions in the bill that sets an initial limit of $12 per ton[ne — they specify they’re talking metric] on the price of emission credits will undermine greenhouse gas reductions.

The price of extra credits would go up by the rate of inflation plus five per cent each year, meaning it would be, by my math, about $33 in constant dollars in 2027. That would be the maximum price you could possibly pay to emit a tonne of CO2.

Keep in mind that experts, from Sir Nicholas Stern to Canada’s government-funded economic-environmental think tank to the IPCC, figure the cost of each tonne — not just tonnes beyond a cap, but beginning with ton number one — should be somewhere between $50 and $150 starting pretty much right away. The “safety-valve” element was reportedly included at the insistence of major labour unions in the UAW and AFL-CIO, in case we needed any more evidence of which side they’re on. They favour subsidies for good behaviour, and no costs attached to bad behaviour.

The Bingaman-Specter targets would aim to have the U.S. emitting greenhouse gases at 1990 levels again by 2030. By itself, this is what might kindly be called a good first step. I cannot fathom how such a weak pricing system would achieve that target. Nor, indeed, can the National Commission on Energy Policy, whose analysis (PDF) is presented with the bill at the U.S. Senate’s energy and natural-resources committee website. The commission says oh, yes, this’ll get our emissions down to 1990 levels, assuming we make a host of other changes to policies on, say, fuel economy and subsidizing “clean coal” and giving tax credits for renewable energy and efficiency improvements.

If, in other words, we do so many other things that this bill doesn’t matter very much, then this bill will be excellent.

My thinking right now favours a cap-and-trade system for heavy emitters, probably complemented by a carbon tax on consumer fuels like gasoline, and matching tax cuts in other areas. And if you’re going to do cap-and-trade, you need to (1) auction off the first round of emissions permits, so that those who will make best economic use of them will get them, and (2) be dead serious about enforcing the limits, with a safety-valve price, if you must have one, set so high an emitter would use it only in an emergency.