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Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “carbon and lifestyle”

Interview with Ian Monroe, Founder of Oroeco, Social Network for Carbon Reduction

ian-monroeIan Monroe is the founder of Oroeco, a pioneering social network focused on voluntary carbon reduction.  I interviewed him regarding the challenges of convincing consumers to reduce their carbon use. The interview has been condensed.

 

Matthew Metz (MNM): What motivated you to start Oroeco?

Ian Monroe (IM):        Part of the motivation is just doing anything and everything I can to help solve climate change.  I grew up on a small organic farm in Northern California and have seen the effects of climate change in drought and wild fires.

I have worked in international development on renewable energy and climate solutions throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Communities within the fringe of poverty appreciate that climate change is really a social justice and racial justice issue. Climate change  is a tremendous human issue which intersects with everything I care about.

We now have some amazing technology and social networking tools that allow us to connect information with incentives to shift behavior, but we are not really using these technology tools yet to shift our behavior around climate change. Read more…

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Interview with James Turner, Communications Head of Greenpeace

I interviewed James Turner, Communications Chief for Greenpeace about how consumer consumption patterns can be changed, and role of major environmental organizations such as Greenpeace in promoting that change.  MM

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MM:
 What is the way forward in moving consumers to curtail their gasoline usage?

JT: Greenpeace doesn’t work on the consumer side in terms of trying to change personal behaviour. You know, we sort of suggest things that people can do if they’re looking to reduce that footprint, but our attitude is very much, the most effective thing you can do is to lobby your Congressman or woman in order to change the legislation, to change the top-down measures that could, for example, increase engine efficiency or increase the use of public transport or cycling in urban centres.

So that’s very much where our focus is right now. I think that historically there has been some hesitation or some fear, I suppose, about talking directly to people (I prefer to use the word “people,” rather than “consumers”) about their personal choices and personal behaviour – fear of being seen as lecturing them or preaching at them.

Personally, I feel as if the time has come for a grown up, adult conversation with our supporters and with other members of the public, which looks at that construct actually of the idea of the consumer and starts a conversation about how we construct our identity and our measure of success in the modern world. And I do think it’s time for a new conversation where that becomes replaced with how happy you are, how much time you spend with your family, and how healthy you feel.

MM.   Can you just give me a little bit of history on the origins of that original decision to avoid talking to consumers about lifestyle? Where did that decision come from and how long has it been in place for?

JT.  I’m not sure there was ever a specific decision on that. Greenpeace’s modus operandi since the early 70s is to look at very iconic examples of environmental harm and then lobby the decision makers and the power brokers to fix them or to introduce, for example, a ban on nuclear waste dumping at sea, which was a huge environmental crime that was occurring in the 1970s, and so we’ve continued with that kind of strategy.

The other thing to remember is, we are a relatively small organization. We don’t have the advertising budgets of a government or a large corporation, and so our ability to reach large numbers of people is quite limited, and I think we feel as if it is the best strategic use of our resources to try to effect these top-level decisions which can have a large effect over huge numbers of people.   Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s we relied almost entirely on traditional media and broadcast media, and news media in particular, which is not a good format for behaviour change messages. You know, they are looking for a cause, a decision maker, a conflict, and that doesn’t fit well with an address to the public at large.

So, I think it’s a combination of our resources, our size, but also the way in which we have campaigned historically that’s led us to this point.

I do wonder if we were to work on behaviour change if we would be able to measure success and progress in such a distinct way, and I wonder whether or not that’s one of the reasons behind this – that if you’re trying to essentially change behaviour, but also culture, really, public opinion, that can be very hard to measure; it can also be very, very slow. It can take 5/ 10/ 20 years. Sometimes our planning cycles and the way we measure success needs something a little bit more quickly than that.

MM:  At what point do you think conditions are right for more of a mainstream push towards consumers on behavior change? What needs to be in place or what needs to happen for that to really start to work and be effective?

JT:   Well, I think one of those things has already happened, and one of those things that I’m thinking of is the move from traditional media, the very high concentration of power and influence amongst a relatively small number of media outlets being really collapsed by the arrival of social media, social sharing, peer-to-peer sharing, and I think that now gives us an advantage or a leg up against the large corporations and the large channels of yesteryear. So that part has already happened.

The second thing that I can think of is actually whether or not a Sierra Club or a Greenpeace is the right organization to be doing this, and the reason I say that, certainly in the US and this is true in the UK as well, is that the environment has become a highly politicized issue and those groups are seen as on the left. Now, whether or not that’s correct or not, environmental action and the groups who campaign on it are seen very much on the sort of far left on the spectrum.

So, for one of those groups to be the messenger for any kind of message on personal behaviour change, I think we get very polarized very quickly and you might see some quite vitriolic attacks from, you know, the GOP and potentially from their supporters in the country. So, what I think needs to happen is for perhaps a new, less politicized organization to emerge which is based on some, you know, universal tenets: things like the fact that spending time in our community and with our family is, you know, makes us happy and makes us more fulfilled.

Things like – I know, this may sound slightly heretical – the idea of owning less stuff, or buying less stuff as a root to wellbeing, you know, that is not by nature a political statement, but I mean, it would be seen as highly controversial for Greenpeace to say that at this time.

So, maybe it is, you know, about spinoffs of these organizations or entirely new organizations emerging to say these things, but I also think they would then require funding, they would require donations, and it’s interesting to think about how they could get the visibility and the news, sort of, profile of a Greenpeace or or a Sierra Club if they are working in this new space.

MM: It was a very strong campaign against Shell and there was even action at gas stations, but you didn’t quite take it to the point of “Don’t buy.” It didn’t quite make it there.

JT: I think consumers want to take action, they want to do things, but I think sometimes the environmental groups are in quite a difficult position with regards to what you can actually have people do, and that the received wisdom on boycotts is that it needs to be huge in order to have any direct financial impact, and that, in fact, if your boycott is ineffective, or if it goes on a long time and not many people engage with it, then it actually make you look weaker to the oil company. So, that’s some of the qualifications we have for that.

One of the big challenges I think we face is to not sell this as a sacrifice or as a thing to do on behalf of others, but to actually make the benefits of this more visible and attach prestige and status to these behaviors in the same way that we have around driving fast cars.  I do see examples of that happening in California, in Los Angeles, where a lot of cultural thought leaders and artists and creative people are starting to leave these different behaviours, but I think it will take some time to trickle down and I think it needs to be accelerated massively and I think that there is a role for art and culture to do that, but I also think there is a role for the creative industry in terms of advertising and marketing.

Advertising traditionally worked by making behaviors or choices seem attractive and desirable, whereas campaigning normally works by making people feel worried and gloomy and depressed. And it’s very interesting that certainly the campaigning organizations, the charities don’t seem to learn an awful lot from advertising, even though it’s clearly the most effective form of communication out there, and I think they should learn some of those tricks and that the consequences of that in selling the solution, selling the alternatives rather than kind of carping on about the problem so much, but again, that’s very difficult for an organization like Greenpeace to do.

It is very possible to think of an ad where fossil fuels are denigrated and seen as socially unacceptable, but which big advertising agencies take on that brief when its other clients are Ford and GM? So, you know, there’s an awful lot of vested interest and money on the other side.

ELECTRIC CAR OWNERS SHOULD LEAD CONSUMER MOVEMENT AWAY FROM GASOLINE

gasoline pumpThe timely transition away from fossil fuel-powered transportation in U.S. will not happen as a result of government edict, high taxes, high fuel prices, or running out of oil.  As long as the vast majority of consumers use gasoline and the oil companies retain their financial grip on Congress and state legislatures, high gasoline taxes and gasoline bans will remain pipe dreams.   New oil extraction technologies, vast proven oil reserves, and regular discoveries of new oil fields virtually assure that cheap oil will be with us for decades.

Rather, the transition to clean transportation will occur because consumers reject gasoline-powered cars in favor of electric cars.  Some of the motivation to reject gasoline cars will be driven by price and cost—long-range electric cars will soon attain price parity with gasoline-powered cars, and electricity is already considerably cheaper than gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis.  Most of the motivation for rejecting gas cars will be lifestyle-driven—mainstream consumers will come to see gasoline use as an unnecessary, dirty, anti-social act, and will prefer the “clean” feeling associated with driving an electric car.

America’s 300,000+ electric car owners are key leaders in the transition away from gasoline to electric cars.  We have first-hand experience with electric car technology, with charging, and have been leading advocates for building out the charging-station network.  Electric car owners already have strong associations and social media networks where we share information and collaborate on policy. We have proven our commitment to a cleaner environment by “putting our money where our mouth is” and buying electric.

Electric car owners should not be satisfied solely with reduction or elimination of our own car’s pollution, and in increasing the convenience of charging an electric car, although these are very important goals.  We also need to become leaders in convincing our family, friends, co-workers, and company fleet managers to reject gasoline.

Now that electric cars are comparable to gas cars in terms of cost and convenience, the use of gasoline has become a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity.  As such, it is possible to convince fellow consumers make the shift away from gasoline.  The critical moment to push our family and friends to buy electric is when they are buying a new car.  We need to educate those considering buying cars about the pros and cons of the wide range of different electric and plug-in hybrid models, and encourage them to test drive or buy the models that best fit their needs and lifestyles.  There is a good plug-in model for just about every lifestyle and budget.  Car purchasers need to understand that the average gas-powered car will spew about 24,000 pounds of CO2 annually for each the next 10-15 years, and that they will soon start to feel embarrassment and guilt every time they go to the gas station or even drive their car.

We must be bold and proud about the benefits of clean electric living, and clear about the severe health and environmental effects of the widespread use of gasoline.  We need to spread the word that each gallon of gasoline used spews 20 lbs. of CO2 into the air, along with a toxic stew of known carcinogens and asthma triggers such as 1,3 butadiene, benzene, and tolulene.    We must spread the ethic of “owning your smoke,” the idea that the exhaust that comes out of the back of one’s car is the responsibility of the owner of that car, and not the responsibility of society at large (and our children) to deal with.

We also need to make our electric cars as carbon-free as possible, using solar panels on our roofs whenever possible to power them, thereby providing a ready answer to those who spout the old canard that “an electric-powered car is really a coal-powered car.”

Electric car owners are the key leaders in the budding consumer movement against gasoline.   We should be loud and proud about our commitment to avoiding gasoline, and diligent in pushing our friends and family to abandon it as well.  As our numbers grow, we will achieve a critical mass which will allow for more economies of scale in electric car production, more investment in the charging network, and more social pressure away from gasoline.

Our planet, and our children and grandchildren, need us to lead the movement away from gasoline, one consumer at a time.

Did Pope Francis Call for a Gasoline Boycott?

Pope_Francis_at_VargihnaMuch of the media attention on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical focused on its recognition of the causes of global warning and the impact that the Pope might have on international and domestic climate politics,    Less publicized, but possibly more impactful in the long term, is the Pope’s call to consumers to wield their purchasing power as a force for change.

Pope Francis writes:

“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. ‘Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.’ Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.” (Laudato Si, Para. 206)

The education and mobilization of consumers to reduce their carbon purchases has barely begun.   The vast majority of consumers have no idea how much CO2 they emit, nor any sense of moral responsibility to reduce their CO2 emissions, other than perhaps owning a car that gets more than 20 mpg.   Lack of leadership has been a principal driver of consumer apathy.   Until the Pope spoke out, there have been virtually no high-profile persons or organizations calling on citizens to examine their lifestyles and to curtail their carbon purchases. Read more…

Gasoline and Cancer: New Research Confirms Links

woman in mask pumping gasRecent scientific studies confirm links between exposure to air pollution from gasoline and diesel with cancer and other diseases.

It has long been known that some of the ingredients within gasoline cause cancer.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a program of the World Health Organization, classifies benzene, a principal ingredient of gasoline, and 1,3 butadiene, a component of gasoline exhaust, as Group 1 carcinogens (chemicals which cause cancer in humans).

Now, new research in peer-reviewed scientific journals from around the world is finding that people exposed to high levels of vehicle exhaust or to gasoline vapors are at significantly higher risk of getting cancer.

A 2015 study shows elevated risk of eye cancer for children living closer to busy roads.   A 2014 study from Texas shows that children living in census tracts with high levels of vehicle pollution were more than 50% more likely to have cancers of the brain and central nervous system.  The Texas study follows 2013 epidemiological research from UCLA showing that children born on streets with higher levels of traffic and vehicle exhaust have substantially increased risk of leukemia and cancers of the testicles, ovaries, and eyes.  These findings correlate closely with a study from Italy showing significantly elevated leukemia risk for children exposed to benzene from vehicle exhaust.

People living near or working in gas stations also have cause for concern. A 2012 study from Thailand demonstrated substantially higher cancer rates for those living near gas stations.  A 2014 study of gas station attendants in Brazil showed much higher frequency of chromosomal abnormalities, a frequent precursor.   A 2011 study from Spain demonstrated elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene as far as 100 meters from gas stations.

Many other health risks are associated with vehicle exhaust, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease.  One study found that people living near polluted roadways were twice as likely to die from a heart attack as those living in cleaner areas.

Gasoline is a cancer-causing agent whose use creates serious health risks to all people, and particularly children, who are exposed to vehicle exhaust or to gasoline vapors.   People who live or work in areas with high levels of vehicle exhaust are at especially high risk, as are those who regularly fill their vehicles with gasoline.

Eliminating the widespread use of gasoline and diesel will result in significant public health benefits.

Is the Electric Car Tipping Point All About Cost?

gas car balanceA recent Bloomberg article “Big Oil Is About to Lose Control of the Auto Industry: A Pollution-free Revolution Is Coming,” reports that prices of batteries for electric cars are falling fast, that cost parity between electric and gasoline cars is likely to occur within a decade, and that worldwide electric car sales totaled 288,500 (0.5% of total sales) in 2014, five times the total in 2011.  The author posits that demand for gasoline is flat and gas prices are low in substantial part because of the increasing market share of low and zero-emissions vehicles.

Meanwhile, a report from auto website Edmunds.com suggests that green cars sales are highly dependent on gas prices.   According to Edmunds, hybrid and electric vehicle sales in the first quarter of 2015 declined relative to the same period last year because of lower gas prices.  Edmunds also reported that only 45% of people trading in a hybrid or electric vehicle in 2015 bought another one, down from 60% in 2012.

The relative cost calculus of gas and electric cars will likely be murky for many years, given the patchwork of subsidies available at the time of car purchase, the fluctuating prices of gasoline and electricity, and concerns about the battery longevity and resale value of electric cars.    Consumers that are not moved by environmental concerns and social pressures are unlikely to consider electric vehicle purchases until the cost advantages of electric car ownership are clear and well established, probably 5-10 years after rough cost parity is achieved.  The cost advantages of electric cars will depend on economies of scale—the more electric cars sold, the less expensive they will be.

The number of consumers who buy electric cars for moral and social reasons (assuming rough cost and convenience parity) will therefore be a critical factor in determining the speed of the transition from a gasoline-powered fleet to an electric fleet.

“Engineering” of consumer sentiment to reject gasoline and embrace electric-powered cars must go hand-in-hand with the chemical and mechanical engineering of the electric car.  The engineering of public disapproval of gasoline usage is still in its infancy.  Few people today would criticize a person for driving a gasoline powered car of average fuel efficiency. Consumers feel no social or moral pressure to avoid the use of gasoline, and therefore no need to spend a few extra dollars on an electric car.

A successful campaign educating the public about the vast quantities of carbon pollution emitted by the family car, and asking citizens to take responsibility for avoiding that pollution, could go a long way towards ushering in the era of the electric car, and the demise of gasoline.

Interview with Rob Shirkey, Proponent of Gas Pump Warning Labels

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Rob Shirkey

In my last post, I discussed a new initiative from Canada to mandate the inclusion of warning labels on gas pumps.  Today, I interview the guiding force behind the campaign, Robert Shirkey, Executive Director of Toronto-based Our Horizon.  The text below is a summary of our interview, not a transcript.

Q.  How do  you assess  consumer consciousness regarding gasoline?

A.   The act of pumping gas is normalized, habitual, and automatic. We scarcely even think about gasoline, and have complacent about using it.  We need to bring the conversation about gasoline and carbon reduction closer to the end user.

To the extent we think about the global warming problem, we tend to think of it as a problem caused by industry, not by ourselves.

The goal of the sticker campaign is to shake up the complacency with which we view gasoline and create demand for alternatives.

While our goal is not to create guilt, if the end user does feel guilt, that helps establish conditions where change comes from.  Change comes from dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Q.    Are there sufficiently viable alternatives to gasoline right now?  Is it fair to ask people not to use gasoline before there are viable alternatives?

“If you make them want it, then you get to build it, then they will come.” If we keep on buying the old internal combustion engine, then it will take longer for better alternative vehicles to come to market. If you can signal to a producer broader market interest, you are signaling to them an opportunity to produce at greater economies of scale.

The sticker will create a thirst for better alternatives.  You make people want it first.

As long as consumers are complacent, we will not get the alternatives we want.  Complacency doesn’t drive change.  Consumers’ distance from the global warming problem perpetuates the status quo.  If consumers become dissatisfied with the status quo, they will demand better alternatives.

Q. Why have the mainstream environmental organizations not asked their membership more directly not to drive gasoline-powered cars?

A.  There is an ideological blindspot, a disconnect.The narrative popular with many activists is that there are big, bad evil corporations responsible for global warming.

If there is a narrative that we are all conflicted, that we are all part of the problem, it is harder to go to a protest and shake your fist.  The real enemy is inertia and the status quo in which consumers are comfortable using gasoline.

Sure, there are some bad apples in the petroleum industry, but our challenge is systemic inertia, not cartoonish big, bad corporations.  This narrative is more complex, but more honest.  I think it will be more effective.

Q. Where do things stand with labeling in San Francisco and Berkeley?  What do you think will be the first jurisdiction in the world to actually adopt the warning label requirement into law?

A.  There is a group in San Francisco and Berkeley that I have been advising.They haven’t yet implemented a labeling law yet, but they are at the tail end of the legislative process, and we are looking at another month or two before it is complete.  In West Vancouver, they recently passed a resolution in favor of climate change stickers on all gas pumps throughout Canada.

Many jurisdictions are reluctant to mandate the use of stickers now because of the threat of litigation.  No one municipality has as of yet been willing to be first, but I believe a number will be willing once the law is decided that municipalities do have jurisdiction to require warning labels.

In West Vancouver, the mayor was formerly a petroleum distributor, and he has said that he will voluntarily put the warning stickers on the gas pumps he owns.  Some consumers might want to support gas stations that voluntarily use the stickers.  Voluntary placement of stickers could be a big growth area for the sticker movement.

Q.  Is the time right for a gasoline boycott or similar coordinated withdrawal of gasoline purchasing?  When will the time be right? How could it be achieved?

A. I wouldn’t go the boycott route. But it would introduce another perspective and be an interesting downstream intervention.  We need to look at where fossil fuels companies get their revenue, which is from markets.  The only reason that pipelines, tar sands, and oil drilling occur is because there is a market for the product.  If we take away the market, all of these problems will disappear.

Gas Pump Warning Labels Push Consumers to Reject Gasoline

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Our Horizon, a Toronto-based environmental group led by Rob Shirkey, is campaigning throughout Canada and the U.S. to enact laws requiring warning labels on gas pumps which inform consumers about the environmental consequences of using gasoline.   The campaign is gaining traction.  Berkeley and San Francisco governments have given preliminary approval to the idea and are in the process of drafting the warning label regulations.  The City of West Vancouver recently passed a resolution favoring the warning labels.

In a stirring TEDx talk and on the ourhorizon.org website, Shirkey argues that the labels confront the consumer with the severe yet distant impacts of climate change, thereby counteracting the total lack of feedback between the use of carbon and its consequences.  Labelhigh-Oceans-300x300He also says that the warning labels “take a problem [climate change] of diffuse origins and locate responsibility right in the palm of your hand.”

Shirkey argues strongly for the gasoline consumer’s central role in combating climate change:

“We may worry about climate change, oil sands, pipelines, etc., but we rarely question the simple act of pumping gas. There is a complete disconnect. The act of going to a gas station and filling up a car has been normalized for several generations. The warning labels take this unexamined, automatic act and problematize it. In creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing mobility solution, they stimulate demand for alternatives. The labels disrupt the status quo, shake us out of our sense of complacency, and provide impetus for us to do better. label-low_4-300x300They are a catalyst for change.

Discourse around climate change in Canada tends to overlook end-use in favour of focusing on oil companies, points of extraction (e.g. oil sands, offshore drilling) or means of transportation (e.g. pipelines, shipping). Unfortunately, the uncomfortable reality is that we all share in responsibility for this problem.   Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gases come from end-use; emissions from extraction and processing pale in comparison to emissions from vehicle combustion.

[W]hile a diversity of approaches is important, there is a risk that in framing the [CO2 pollution]  issue as an exclusively upstream problem, we actually distance ourselves from it and perhaps unintentionally perpetuate the status quo through demand-side complacency. A complacent, disconnected marketplace is unlikely to affect change upstream; engaging consumer demand can help us to finally address these issues in a more meaningful way.” (p.17)

The labeling campaign has attracted vigorous opposition. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil-industry lobbying group, said the plan imposes “onerous restrictions” on businesses and “compels speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”   A Berkeley councilmember said that the labeling ordinance is a “feel-good measure” that would “increase people’s guilt without giving them useful action.”

As electric cars and other transportation solutions become increasingly viable, consumer perceptions of gasoline will play a key role in determining the longevity of gasoline as the world’s dominant transportation fuel.  By graphically and repetitively reminding gasoline consumers of the environmental damage that gasoline use causes, gas pump warning labels can help shift consumer demand to other fuels and technologies and speed up gasoline’s demise.

Interview with Michael Vandenbergh, Author of Beyond Gridlock

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Michael Vandenbergh

Last week I reviewed Beyond Gridlock,” a major new article by Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan concerning voluntary carbon reduction strategies.  This week, I interview Michael Vandenbergh about the ideas behind the paper.

 

MNM:  Why have consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies been given so little attention relative to carbon pricing schemes? 

MV:  We all share a conceptual framework that assumes that the principal actor that can respond to climate change is government, and the principal actions are government regulation or a carbon price.  Even our vocabulary locks in this framework – terms such “policy,” “regulation,” and even “international” imply that government is the key actor.  This is buttressed by our tendency to pursue panaceas, as Elinor Ostrom noted, rather than to pursue multiple strategies when the policy plasticity [MNM: ability to implement] of the optimal strategy is low.

MNM What are the principal political obstacles to consumer-oriented voluntary carbon-reduction strategies?  Could the left and right rally together around such a campaign?  Why hasn’t it happened yet? 

MV:  The principal obstacles to private climate governance are not political – that’s part of the advantage of this strategy.  Government, and thus politics, can be bypassed.  The fact that private institutions and private markets are involved suggests that those with a conservative worldview may be less averse to this solution than to others, and that provides some room for optimism.  Note also that consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies are only a small part of the private climate governance strategy that professor Gilligan and I outline in Beyond Gridlock. Often corporations and other private institutions reduce carbon emissions because of influences from investors, lenders, employees and others, even if consumers are not engaged.

MNM:  How would you assess the “carbon literacy” of the American public?  Is knowledge regarding the amount of carbon one emits in daily life a prerequisite for an effective private governance campaign for households?  What would a carbon literacy campaign look like? 

MV:  The carbon literacy of the public in the US and around the world varies a great deal, with some having a sophisticated understanding but many having little knowledge.  Shahzeen Attari and her colleagues have done great work on this, and they have found that people often overestimate visible forms of energy use and underestimate by many times their energy use from some household activities.  Similarly, our research team found that people think they should idle their cars for over four minutes if they want to save gas, when the right answer is ten to thirty seconds.  Over ten million tons of CO2 emissions are associated with this idling, an amount larger than several industrial sectors.  Addressing energy invisibility and correcting myths provide two areas of opportunity for private governance response, using information to drive behavior change without requiring altruism or support for climate mitigation.

MNM:  Are there/should there be limits (voluntary, moral, or otherwise) on the right of an individual to use and emit carbon?  How can the concept of limits on carbon usage gain currency?  

MV:  This is an important but complex issue, and we do not address it in this paper.  We do suggest a private climate registry as a way for people in this generation to tell future generations what they did in response to climate change.

MNM:  Should the government set a “Recommended Carbon Limit” similar to the FDA’s Recommended Daily Allowance?  Should consumers at least be advised by the government as to what a reasonable per person usage of carbon is? (Note: I just wrote a blog post on this topic  wp.me/p1yDzM-2R)

MV:  This is an interesting idea, but government action is not what we are focused on at this point.   The point of our Beyond Gridlock paper is that although there are many things government could do, most of them are not viable in the near term, and much of the population dismisses government as the messenger.  Yet we need to start bending down the carbon growth curve.  To analyze new initiatives, we suggest always accounting for the technical potential and behavioral plasticity of any action, as well as the policy plasticity of the initiatives that could induce behavior change.  A Recommended Carbon Limit probably scores well on the first two but not so well on the third.  Following the analysis we suggest in Beyond Gridlock, one approach would be for a well-respected private organization, not a government agency, to set a Recommended Carbon Limit.  That may be more viable in the near term and may allow the concept to be tested and shaped while government remains in gridlock.

MNM:  What single private governance initiative is the most exciting and has the most potential to make a significant impact? 

MV:  The increasing pressure on corporations to disclose the carbon emissions of their suppliers (often called “Scope 3” emissions) is an initiative that has a great deal of promise.  It has a large potential because a large share of all corporate emissions originate from suppliers, and if the buying firms demand carbon reductions from suppliers, the emissions reductions pressure can cross international borders to suppliers in other countries without any international agreement.  This is one of the few ways to create incentives for emissions reductions among small- and medium-sized companies in developed and developing countries.   We are also very excited about the idea of a private climate prediction market that would enable people to buy and sell predictions about the accuracy of the climate science and to say, “put your money where your mouth is” in climate debates.

MNM:  Many have written that the battle to prevent climate change is the equivalent for our generation of World War II, yet the level of complacency in this country is profound, even though 80% plus per the recent New York Times poll now understand that climate change is occurring and that it is man made.  What will it take to galvanize and mobilize the public to make the radical changes necessary to address the CO2 problem before it is too late?  Where do you see the leadership coming from? 

MV:  We think it is a mistake to assume that this mobilization must occur in the near term only through the traditional political processes that affect governments at the state, national, and international levels.  It is also a mistake to start with radical change.  When concern about a problem, such as climate change, is widespread but a low-priority preference for many people, the best response may be to try to buy time while a sufficient consensus develops and the barriers to government action are overcome.  We can achieve more than a billion tons of emissions reductions annually over the next decade by using private initiatives to address market failures and behavioral failures that are widespread around the globe.  The principal message of Beyond Gridlock is not that government action is not necessary but that it is a mistake to wait for the optimal government response.  Instead, we should be pursuing emissions reductions through public and private initiatives to buy time for a more comprehensive response.   The leadership to pursue a private climate governance strategy could come from advocacy group or corporate managers, philanthropists, or pundits, or it could emerge from people who are on the sidelines now but become motivated to do something about the issue.

MNM:  Where is your research and writing headed next in relation to carbon emission reduction strategies? 

MV:  We are continuing to identify new initiatives around the world that are reducing carbon emissions despite the government gridlock at the national and international levels.  Once you make the conceptual shift to understanding the role that private governance can play in reducing carbon emissions, it is remarkable how many examples you can see around the world, and how many new possibilities emerge.

Can a Recommended Carbon Limit Do for Carbon what Recommended Daily Allowances Do for Food?

Carbon DietWhat policies can bridge the divide between the public’s concern about the climate crisis and their unwilling-ness to pay additional taxes on energy?

Recent  New York Times polling found that 83% of Americans (including 61% of Republicans) believe that global warming will be a serious world problem if nothing is done about it.    The public’s high level of concern about global warming does not translate into willingness to pay more for carbon.  The poll found 63% of the public opposed to higher gasoline taxes, and 74% opposed to higher electricity taxes.

One low-cost, high-return approach would be for the government to set and promote voluntary guidelines and targets for individual carbon emissions limits similar to the “recommended daily allowances” the FDA sets for calorie and sodium intake.  The Recommended Carbon Limit (RCL) for Americans could be set, for example, at 27,500 pounds (12.5 metric tons) of CO2 emissions per year (30% below the existing U.S. per capita average or more than 50% above the European average), and could be reduced 5% annually from there.   Just as with food’s “nutrition facts” box, the RCL could be paired with a labeling campaign, which could, for example, inform consumers at the gas pump that using a gallon of gas emits 20 lbs of CO2, or state on their electric bills how much CO2 was used to generate their electricity.

The purpose of the RCL would be to raise consumers’ awareness of their carbon emissions and how those emissions contribute to the world’s CO2 problem, and to encourage consumers to set limits on their emissions.

Establishing an RCL would generate enormous controversy and debate about the individual’s duty to conserve carbon, the role of government in setting carbon limits, what the appropriate carbon limits should be, and whether there should be different limits depending upon where one lives.  These debates would highlight the consumer’s role in carbon reduction and raise awareness of key carbon-reduction issues that receive little public attention.  The debates would also highlight key issues hindering carbon reduction efforts, such as many communities’ dependence on coal-generated power, poor mass-transit in suburban and rural area, and the difficulties of financing home weatherization and solar panel installation.

The RCL would likely be more politically popular than carbon taxes.  Americans’ visceral opposition to higher taxes would be avoided.  The limits would be set without regard to personal wealth, and would therefore be more egalitarian than gas taxes, which fall harder on the poor than the wealthy.  The limits would be completely voluntary.

RCLs would bring out into the open the issue that has long been obscured in public debates—whether individuals’ use of carbon should have limits.  Carbon limits should have the imprimatur of government, because of government’s unparalleled reach and credibility, and because it is important that the entire population understand that everyone needs to do his or her part in solving the CO2 problem.

We are running out of time to deal with the climate crisis.  A clear message from the government to consumers about their role in addressing their carbon emissions is both critical and long overdue.  Just as the FDA’s recommended daily allowances help people establish a healthy food diet, RCLs are necessary to help us establish a healthy carbon diet.

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