Category Archives: pollution

The government’s giving away free money …

… and hardly anybody noticed (PDF), according to a market-research report the government released.

Canada’s ecoENERGY program offers grants of up to $5,000 for home renovations that improve energy efficiency — new windows, high-efficiency, heating, that kind of thing. I don’t think much of the way the program is designed, but the general idea has merit: energy-inefficiency and climate change affect all kinds of things the government pays for (the health effects of pollution, for instance), and it’s reasonable to try to avoid some of the costs by helping pay to reduce the extent of the problem.

But it only works if people take you up on it, and people will only take you up on it if they know about it, and Environics says the word’s not getting out:

There is a moderate level of awareness of the ecoEnergy Home Retrofit Grant, with three in ten (31%) Canadians and a similar proportion of homeowners (32%) who say they have heard of this program. Awareness is higher among those recalling the radio advertising (60% vs. 25% of non-recallers), although it is unclear the extent to which the advertising led to this higher level of awareness (it may be that those who are aware of the grant were more apt to notice the advertising). In particular, four in ten (40%) ad recallers say they have never heard or seen anything about the Home Retrofit Grant, which may be related to the relatively limited proportion of ad recallers who remember this message from the advertising.

There’s also this fun tidbit:

Canadians are more negative than positive about the federal government’s performance on the environment, with one-quarter (25%) rating it as generally good, compared to four in ten (40%) who rate it as generally poor, and 31 percent who give a neutral rating. Those who recall the recent ecoEnergy Home Retrofit Grant radio advertising are more likely to express a positive opinion, although caution is recommended against assuming a causal link, since it may be that those who are most supportive of the federal government’s performance in this area are also more likely to have noticed the recent advertising. In terms of the federal government’s performance overall and in relation to providing information and services to the public, Canadians tend to give a mixed assessment, neither of which differ significantly by recall of the recent advertising campaign.

Trade might not mean exporting pollution

It’s a constant fear that strengthening environmental protections in the developed world will just offload pollution into the Third World, along with a whole lot of manufacturing jobs. The deepening environmental hell of China suggests some anecdotal support.

But maybe not.

What is the bottom line? Increased net imports of polluting goods account for about 70 percent of the composition-related decline in US manufacturing pollution. The composition effect in turn explains about 40 percent of the overall decline in pollution from US manufacturing. Putting these two findings together, international trade can explain at most 28 percent of the clean-up of US manufacturing.

If the 75% reduction in pollution from US manufacturing resulted from increased international trade, the pundits and protestors might have a case. Environmental improvements might be said to have imposed large, unmeasured environmental costs on the countries from which those goods are imported. And more importantly, the improvements in the US would not be replicable by all countries indefinitely, because the poorest countries in the world will never have even poorer countries from which to import their pollution-intensive goods. The US clean-up would simply have been the result of the US coming out ahead in an environmental zero-sum game, merely shifting pollution to different locations. However, if the US pollution reductions come from technology, nothing suggests those improvements cannot continue indefinitely and be repeated around the world. The analyses here suggest that most the pollution reductions have come from improved technology, that the environmental concerns of antiglobalization protesters have been overblown, and that the pollution reduction achieved by US manufacturing will replicable by other countries in the future.

(Via Economist’s View.)

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Why China has to do something

James Fallows, The Atlantic‘s man in China, offers a two-image photo essay on the air in Beijing.

Sustainable is always cheaper

Writing at Green Options, Philip Profrock explains why sustainability can’t be a fad, whatever the critics say:

Green buildings save money. An energy efficient building may cost a little more to construct, but over time, the cost of operation (and the total cost of ownership) will be lower. Building owners, developers, architects and engineers will continue to use green products because they make for better buildings.

It is difficult to sustain the same high level of energy for a movement after it has won. When I was young, I remember protests and concerns about the use of DDT and the effect it was having, particularly on eagles and falcons. There isn’t that much public attention given to pesticides these days. In large part that is because pesticide regulation has been adopted into laws and regulations…

In the same way, people who advocate for green building today may be like people who clamored for sanitary practices in food handling a century ago. We no longer have a social movement dedicated to cleanliness in meat packing because it has moved from being revolutionary to being policy.

I’m often deliberately reminded about the green push of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and how that seemed to pass without having made much of a difference. But back then, we found the policy guts to stop dumping chlorofluorocarbons into the ozone layer, to chop our acid-rain-causing emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and to start recycling in a big way. Those were great big changes, and only 10 or 15 years later we argue about the details, not about whether or not they’re good ideas.

As Proefrock points out, some the work to promote energy efficiency is already done: energy costs money, and in more and more jurisdictions, it’s costing to consume pretty much what it costs to produce. Cheap energy is no longer seen as a public good to which individuals are entitled, mostly because governments realized they couldn’t afford to treat it that way. So more people are making sure their houses are better insulated and their furnaces are turned down.

That’s better all around, including for the fight against climate change, even if that wasn’t the point.

Now, we have to make more difficult changes to put more of the economy on a sustainable footing, the biggest — the only non-negotiable, non-delayable — being finding a way to put a price on carbon emissions. Once paying that price, and finding ways to not emit so that we don’t have to pay it (such as by unplugging electrical devices we’re not using, or buying ones that don’t suck power when they’re on standby), becomes a routine part of our economic calculations, we’ll not only be living on a healthier planet, well be richer, too.

China is not helpless

ChinesePoliceGrist Mill approvingly quotes Chinese researcher Pang Zhongying‘s essay yesterday in the China Daily, which in its broad strokes copies the Chinese government’s official position that climate change is a very serious problem that it’s not China’s responsibility to address.

You see, even though it’s China where the factories are, and the dirty coal plants feeding them electricity, this whole thing is the West’s fault.

A fact we must remember is that Western countries and industrialized Asian nations like Japan and the Republic of Korea have moved many of their factories to developing countries such as China and India, where cheap labor allows them to manufacture at lower costs than at home. This globalization of production has resulted in the discharge of much more waste in poor nations that otherwise would have been released in developed countries. As a matter of fact, not all of the greenhouse gases released “in China” or “from China” are really “China’s”.

I’m just baffled by this line of reasoning. I’m certainly for putting as much power — and responsibility — in the hands of the consumer, but nobody has forced China’s many state-owned companies to take on all this environmentally unsound business, or to work in such an environmentally unsound way. These economic exchanges wouldn’t happen without a willing supplier.

China’s major advantage is cheap labour, not its lax environmental rules; if the government that runs its still heavily controlled economy wanted to toughen up on greenhouse-gas emissions, it could be done within a year.

Indeed, not only does Pang argue that China’s greenhouse gases are largely the responsibility of the West because of our trade arrangements, but so are yet other countries’:

With a population of only one-fifth of China’s, the United States is the top consumer of natural resources and the leading waste producer in the world. It has benefited the most from economic globalization and developed a production style and life-style based on indiscriminate and care-free consumption of the world’s resources. This “American” production style and lifestyle have spread to the rest of the world, thanks to globalization, like a contagious disease, especially in the non-Western world: Go to any non-Western corner of the world and one will see copied, cloned or even blown-up versions of the American style.

This is written as if “globalization” were a force unto itself, and as if “production style and lifestyle” spread on their own, without anybody else deciding to adopt them. It utterly denies the role of human agency in these decisions. Which might be expected from a state with its roots in as determinist a philosophy as Marxism, but is still bunk.

(Photo credit: “Rule by Law,” Flickr/Luo Shaoyang.)

Celebrations without the celebrating

FireworksHere on the evening of July 2, approaching the midpoint between the July 1 fireworksfest in Canada and the July 4 fireworksfest in the United States, this TreeHugger post has me thinking. Lloyd Alter writes briefly that fireworks are wasteful and polluting, burning heavy metals to make pretty colours and dumping burned gunpowder in the waterways over which they’re usually set off. “[P]erhaps its time to put this tradition to bed,” he writes.

Perhaps, but I wouldn’t invest much time in trying to tuck it in.

I’m reminded of this little tempest from the spring, over whether Prince Charles is a hypocrite for flying places to make personal appearances rather than giving speeches and accepting awards by videoconference. If Charles didn’t physically go places, he wouldn’t be fulfilling one of the functions of his office (the same would be true of a president or prime minister who didn’t tour his or her country and go on regular visits abroad). If environmental consciousness is all that matters, we’ll abolish the office of Prince of Wales, not ask the fellow who holds it to not fulfill its functions.

One of the ways we humans celebrate, whether it’s the harvest or the birth of Jesus or the anniversaries of the foundings of our countries, is by revelling in our prosperity — by conspicuously enjoying our good fortune and the fruits of our various labours — and by doing it together.

You can nickel-and-dime the heck out of Canada Day or Independence Day or Guy Fawkes Day (just think of the carbon dioxide emitted by all those barbecues!), but the unavoidable truth is that the greenest way to celebrate any of those occasions, or a dozen others, is to not. Stay home. Don’t invite friends and family over, or go see them (call, if you must). Don’t make a lot of food. Don’t set off fireworks or pop crackers or distribute candy that had to be trucked to your city specially. That’s what you do when environmental consciousness is at the very top of your priority list. None of these traditions is necessary, strictly speaking. No tradition is. They’re all skippable.

But if we abandon them all as superfluous, what do we have left?

A car is a car without a hydrocarbon-burning engine. A home is a home without an artificially preserved, water-sucking lawn around it — and in many places, a home is a home without being a detached single-family dwelling at all. A meal is a meal without out-of-season veggies imported from across the globe. A fluorescent lightbulb is a lightbulb, and a run-of-the-river hydro power plant delivers the same kind of electricity to run it as a coal plant does.

For most people it is not, however, the Fourth of July without rockets glaring red and bombs bursting in air. We’d surrender something fundamental to the celebration if we gave up the fireworks entirely, and for marginal gain. Take transit instead of driving, keep the fireworks from landing on endangered species in sensitive wetlands, yes — but a once-a-year tradition of fireworks is worth the consequences.

Pointless made-up activities like the wretchedly wasteful Live Earth concerts, meanwhile, I think we could all just as easily do without.

(Photo credit: “Fireworks 01,” Flickr/SMN)