Category Archives: smog

Pollution fees, not fines

London mayor Ken Livingstone brought congestion charges into the mainstream by implementing them in the British capital. In extreme cases, they strike me as a reasonable way of keeping traffic moving efficiently — when the road infrastructure is fully jammed and you need some way to limit access to people who’ll use it best.

Charging polluting drivers a fee to drive in your city looks like the same thing and superficially it jibes with the idea of making polluters pay for the clean air they consume. But what “Red Ken” is actually doing is more fine than fee:

Lorries, buses and coaches who don’t meet emissions standards will pay £200, while heavy vans and minibuses, will find themselves on the business end of £100 per day. Cameras will monitor any emission-spewing entrants into the capital.

It’s difficult to imagine that any vehicle that doesn’t meet emissions standards will actually do £100 or £200 a day in damage. This is punitive.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s call the move what it is.

Sticky habits

Photo credit: Flickr/JenniferWoodardMaderazo

I’m not surprised that relatively few people took the San Francisco government up on its offer of free transit rides on smoggy days. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, local governments have paid for up to four days of free service in the summer months, and they kick in when air-quality predictions are particularly dismal.

The BART people are spinning an increase of 6,700 riders compared to a normal day as a big success. It’s about a two-per-cent increase in ridership.

As a result, the additional commuters who chose to ditch their vehicles and ride BART instead, prevented more than 294,800 pounds of pollutants from spilling into the air. According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, the average commuter spews 44 pounds of pollutants into the Bay Area’s air each day.

They’re probably right. Changing how you get to work is a big deal. Aside from figuring out a different route when you’re not at your best, it means changing what time you get up in the morning, what order you do things in — if you take up biking, maybe you’ll shower at work instead of at home — and paying attention to things like bus schedules and maybe weather reports when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Chances are, it means planning for a different routine the night before.

If that’s how many people modify their commuting habits on a few hours’ notice, I bet the number would be sharply higher if they did it for a week and told people a month in advance. Could be a good marketing technique.

What I found in the Tories’ climate-change announcement

I am certainly disappointed by what I read in the Conservatives’ much-anticipated plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gases. I won’t say much at this point lest I scoop the Citizen‘s editorial on the subject (UPDATE: That editorial is now online here), but I’ll quickly address the things I said yesterday that I’d be looking for.

Projections of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020. Baird offers clarity on this point, anticipating that the measures he’s planning will reduce our emissions to 150 megatonnes of CO2 below 2006 levels by 2020. In other words, to about 600 megatonnes. Our Kyoto target was 560 megatonnes by 2012 (more or less), so that’s out the window, but there are no obvious cheats in the target-setting.

The price of carbon offsets and The price of investing in a technology fund. The government intends to let heavy industry buy emissions credits by contributing to a technology fund charging $15 per tonne initially, then $20 per tonne down the line, subsequently rising with national economic growth. This is cheap by any standard, and particularly problematic because it sets a cap on what a company will spend on improving its own operations — it’d make no sense to make any efficiency moves that cost more than $15 per tonne of emissions saved. I would not be at all surprised if, 10 years from now, most companies are buying the right to pollute this way.

Anything resembling a carbon tax. No.

What’s this thing supposed to cost? $8 billion to the total economy in the most expensive year, though that includes the anti-smog measures, which are significant and not strictly part of the greenhouse-gas issue. This is offset by a guesstimated $6.4 billion in health-care savings from having fewer people going to hospital with asthma and whatnot.

The elephant in the room. The Conservatives are going with intensity-based emissions caps, not hard caps. If the oilsands continue to boom — and why wouldn’t they — their emissions can continue to rise. If someone wants to open a new factory, they can do so without significant concern about its carbon impact. The 150-megatonne cut is a projection (based on data not provided), not a promise.

Ethanol perhaps not so clean after all

Ethanol’s big appeal is supposed to be that it’s clean-burning, compared to gasoline. It still emits greenhouse gases, but doesn’t contribute to urban smog in the same way as traditional out-of-the-ground hydrocarbons when burned in a vehicle engine.

Well, I guess that’s technically true. According to researchers at Stanford, it contributes to smog in a different way. The New Scientist reports:

Mark Jacobson at Stanford University in California, US, modelled emissions for cars expected to be on the road in 2020. An E85-fuelled fleet would cause 185 more pollution-related deaths per year than a petrol one across the US the model predicted – most of them in smoggy Los Angeles, California.

The findings run counter to the idea that ethanol is a cleaner-burning fuel. Cars running on gasoline emit a number of pollutants – including nitrogen dioxide and organic molecules like acetaldehyde – that react with sunlight to form ozone.

However, ethanol is an even bigger culprit. Along with many of the same pollutants as gasoline, a large amount of unburned ethanol gas escapes into the atmosphere. That vapour readily breaks down in sunlight to form acetaldehyde, which can send ozone levels soaring.

This is only one study (here’s the summary at the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, where Jacobson’s study is published; the full thing requires a subscription), but here we see the clearest example yet of the problem with governments’ “picking winners” among new technologies. Governments in the U.S. and Canada are pushing automakers to produce engines that comfortably burn high-ethanol blends of fuel, and legally requiring the inclusion of smaller amounts in the stuff that comes out of every pump.

The journal notes this very problem:

[R]ushing ahead to fix one problem can create another, cautions Hadi Dowlatabadi of the University of British Columbia (Canada). In a previous ES&T study, he found that a U.K. policy designed to reduce carbon emissions created air-quality problems by encouraging particulate-spewing diesel vehicles. He praised the new paper for “trying to point out an issue ahead of time”.

Incidentally, the New Scientist account includes a frankly bizarre passage near the end:

However, the small potential increase in pollution-related deaths predicted in the study could be a risk worth taking for a renewable fuel, environmentalists may argue.

Huh? Economists concerned with our very-long-term prospects might make that argument, or geo-strategy thinkers looking to wean the West off its dependence on a non-renewable substance whose production occurs (the Alberta oilsands notwithstanding) in unstable semi-hostile regimes abroad, but renewability in itself isn’t something I can imagine many environmentalists would be willing to pay some human lives for.