Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “Carbon Strategies”

How the Charger Can Beat the Nozzle

charger v nozzleLast year, Americans consumed 385 million gallons of gasoline a day, more than in 2014.   Despite the broader selection of good electric cars, U.S. sales of electric cars declined from 2014 to 2015 to less than 0.6% of total cars sold, while sales of gas-powered cars and SUVs set records.  President Obama’s 2011 goal of 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 fell short by more than 600,000 vehicles.

As long as there is strong consumer demand for gasoline and gasoline-powered cars, oil producers and gasoline refiners will continue drilling for oil and refining gasoline and enjoying consistent profits and popular support while doing so.

By contrast, sustained and consistent reduction in the demand for gasoline will eventually cause oil production and gasoline refining operations to grind to a halt, regardless of what Congress or Shell Oil decide.

How can a major reduction in consumer demand for gasoline be brought about? Read more…


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…

Are You Secretly Invested in Oil?

resized cars platform dollarsConscientious citizens the world over are disgusted by the oil industry, hating the environmental destruction, greed, corruption, violence, and political repression it spawns. They refuse to purchase shares of oil companies because they do not want to invest in a destructive industry.  Many support the growing movement which lobbies governments, foundations, and other large shareholders to divest their oil company holdings.

Yet, most such citizens, along with 99% of car owners, have a substantial, long-term investment in the oil industry parked in their driveway.   Each gasoline or diesel-powered car represents a consistent, long-term source of cash flow for the industry.   Fueling that car (assuming the U.S. national averages of 25 miles per gallon and 15,000 miles driven per year) requires about 600 gallons a year or 9000 gallons over the average 15 year life of the car.  Those 9000 gallons translate into about $18,000 in cash flow to the oil industry and about 225,000 pounds of CO2 released into the air.

The projected cash flows from gas-powered cars underpin oil companies’ exploration and drilling.  Without the steady, long-term cash flows provided by consumption of gasoline, the enormously capital-intensive oil exploration and drilling projects would become financially untenable and grind to a halt.   The petroleum reserves of oil companies, especially in unspoiled and difficult to access areas, would become worthless and go untapped.  For the oil companies, your gasoline-powered car is money in the bank.

People who buy new gasoline cars not only prop up the income projections of oil companies, they send a message to car manufacturers that electric cars aren’t wanted.  They send a message to governments that building a charging infrastructure can be further delayed, and to oil companies that it will be business as usual for a long time to come.   They perpetuate an unhealthy and unsustainable status quo.

Until recently, conscientious citizens could fairly claim, “What alternative do we have?  We need to get around just like everyone else.”  That excuse is losing force.  Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles now offer excellent alternatives to gas vehicles.  Many fully-electric cars, including the new Nissan Leaf and Tesla, offer more than 100 miles of range.  The Chevy Bolt, which will come onto the market in late 2016, will offer 200 miles of all-electric range and the space of a Toyota Corolla, at a cost of about $35,000   For those needing more range than a fully-electric car can offer, the plug-in BMW i3 with range extender provides 80 miles of electric range (sufficient for 95%+ of most vehicle trips), backed up by a small gasoline-powered engine for longer trips.   The operating cost of electric cars is less than for gasoline cars.  Even at today’s low gas prices, an electric car in the U.S. costs about $0.03 per mile in energy cost, compared to about $.10 per mile for a gas car.  In most of Europe, the cost is about € 0.03 per km, compared to about € 0.10 per km for gas cars.

The environmental benefits of electric cars are enormous.    Most electric cars are three times as efficient as gas-powered cars per unit of energy.  Where electricity is predominantly generated from carbon-free sources, such as in France, Spain or Washington State, the electric car results in less than 10% of the carbon emissions caused by a petroleum-powered vehicle.  A small 3kW rooftop solar system (costing less than $10,000) provides sufficient energy to power an electric car for 30+ years.

The continued use of gasoline-powered cars is a major hindrance to the effort to meet the Paris climate goals of limiting global warming to 2 degrees.  Vehicle emissions constitute about 30% of total CO2 emissions in the U.S. and many other industrialized countries.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote:

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)

Pope Francis is right.  We need to use our buying power to express our values and our morals.  For conscientious people, that means disinvesting in the oil industry and buying electric cars or other non-petroleum transportation options instead.  If we are conscientious with our money, business will follow us to a cleaner, lower-carbon future.


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

james turner photo

 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.

The Gasoline Purge

gasoline guy super slim

Many people don’t like using gasoline, but feel that they are unable to live their lives without it.  Is it possible to wean oneself off gasoline?

Most people can’t stop using gasoline overnight.  A realistic goal for most everybody is making a consistent effort to cut gasoline consumption, and to buy a plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid car when replacing one’s current car.

The average American drives about 13,500 miles per year in a gas-powered car, and consumes about 540 gallons of gas and emits about 10,500 pounds of CO2 per year doing so.

If one has a gasoline car, the best way to cut gasoline consumption is to drive less.  Avoiding the use of one’s car by taking the bus, bicycling, and carpooling are the best strategies for reducing one’s gasoline use.

For most drivers, the biggest opportunity to reduce consumption comes when one is ready to trade in one’s old car. Electric and plug-in hybrid cars are rapidly improving, and offer solutions for most budgets and driving needs.  Chevy Volts offer 40 miles of electric driving with a gasoline motor that provides effectively unlimited range when the batteries are drained. Used Nissan Leafs now start at about $10,000 and offer about 75 miles driving range, sufficient for a commuter or second car.   New options, including plug-in SUVs, are coming into the market in almost every segment, providing for a wide range of choices.  Switching to an electric car or a plug-in hybrid can reduce one’s gasoline consumption by 75-100% in one shot.  Getting an electric car and solar panels at the same time can allow a person to drive without polluting and without paying for fuel.

By contrast, buying a new gasoline-powered car is buying into years of throwing 10,000 pounds or more of CO2 into the air every year and to handing over $1500 or more every year to the oil companies.

The key is to make a consistent effort to reduce one’s gasoline consumption, especially when purchasing a car.   If we can make large reductions in our gasoline these changes, and lead our friends, neighbors, and co-workers to do so as well, we can make an important contribution to reducing the climate crisis.

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 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


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


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 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

2013 Vandenbergh headshot cropped

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

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.

“Beyond Gridlock” Finds Enormous Potential in Private Emission Reduction Efforts

Beyond Gridlock2

Vanderbilt Professors Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan’s new article “Beyond Gridlock” (advance version available here, publication in the Columbia Environmental Law Journal in Summer 2015) finds enormous potential for carbon emissions reductions from voluntary private actions by businesses and households despite governmental gridlock.  Mobilizing such private initiatives could buy additional years to enact comprehensive national and international climate legislation and agreements before we reach a 2oC rise in global temperatures.

The authors examine a wide array of private initiatives, ranging from corporations requiring carbon-emission disclosures from the suppliers in their supply chain (as Walmart, Cisco, and Dell have done), to drivers shutting off their cars when they idle for more than 30 seconds, to a private climate registry wherein individuals can register their actions to prevent climate change for future generations.  They conclude that these and other private initiatives together could lead to a reduction in annual CO2 emissions worldwide of a gigaton or more.

Beyond Gridlock is an important counterweight to the excessively narrow focus of many in the climate movement on carbon pricing and other forms of governmental action.  Many sectors of society are ready, willing, and able to make major reductions in their carbon footprint without any governmental involvement whatsoever.  Corporations, foundations, and people concerned about climate change should deploy their creativity, resources, and energy towards voluntary efforts now, regardless of what our politicians are doing (or not doing) on climate.

The authors suggest that private action may accelerate the likelihood of government action, by enlisting broader participation in the climate mitigation effort, and by reducing the negative impacts of a carbon tax on businesses and individuals.

Beyond Gridlock points the way to further research.  What conditions activate dormant citizens and corporations to reduce their carbon footprint? What can foundations, universities, advocacy organizations, and others do to promote and support private action?  What role can local, state, and even the federal government play in expanding it?  How can a culture of private action be fomented?

Beyond Gridlock is an important work because it marks a path for citizens and organizations to realize major reductions in CO2 emissions despite a gridlocked political system.

(Coming soon: Interview with Beyond Gridlock author Michael Vandenbergh)

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