Put a Price on Pollution
Being green is easy, but it’s hard being green enough.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
T he Monterey County Business Council’s new StepUp2Green building certification program promises a range of easy steps we can take to reduce energy use. If StepUp2Green is modeled after the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, these steps will pay for themselves through lower utility bills. But they will not, in themselves, be enough to offset the climate-changing impacts of buildings and land-use decisions, which produce one of the economy’s largest shares of greenhouse gases.
When I was in charge of energy and climate policy at the Environmental Protection Agency, our Energy Star program ran a campaign called “Change a Light, Change the World” to encourage more use of compact fluorescent lights. For a product to receive the Energy Star label, it must not only be better for the environment but also save the consumer money by reducing energy costs.
WE’RE NOT GOING TO GET WHERE WE NEED TO GO WITH EASY STEPS ALONE.
The “Change a Light” campaign, along with cost-cutting and aggressive merchandising by businesses, helped people switch from old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents. You already know this because, if you’re like most Weekly readers, you’ve bought a few recently. If every American household switched out one old light with a new one, we’d collectively save over $500 million per year and reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by almost 5 million tons. Because carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to the unacceptable risk of catastrophic climate change, changing out a light is a gift to our children in the form of a safer climate. Since we’d save money in our utility bills, we’d actually get paid to give this gift.
For this reason, the “Change a Light” campaign and Energy Star program are among the easiest ways to move us towards a lower carbon economy. But we’re not going to get where we need to go with easy steps alone. Any serious effort to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change will be a race against time. The first steps may be easy but we’ve got to be ready to run the whole race and we’ve got to start now. Five million tons of carbon dioxide per year would be a solid step forward in our race against time. Now what if EPA permits a new coal-fired power plant somewhere in the U.S.? At 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, that’s two steps backward. Oh, and China is building coal-fired power plants at a rate of one every week or two. Now we’re jogging backwards. Because of our inaction over the past decades, we now must play catch-up just to make it back to the starting line.
A lot of this inaction has resulted from an undue reliance on voluntary measures like Energy Star. Properly designed voluntary measures are an important part of the solution but alone they’re about as useful as a voluntary tax code, or voluntary oversight of Wall Street.
The Bush Administration relied on voluntary climate programs as a “greenwash” to avoid meaningful regulatory programs. To make a real impact, we need a combination of tools in our toolbox. Voluntary measures are a great tool when they save business or consumers money. But unfortunately, polluting is often more profitable than being clean; we need new rules to reorient market incentives so that it’s more profitable to build a solar array or wind farm than a coal-fired power plant. The simple, incentive-based way to make polluting unprofitable and clean energy a money-making machine is to put a price on pollution. We already pay dearly for our “cheap” energy: asthma, heart attacks, and the risk of catastrophic climate change. A price on pollution will reduce these tragic consequences – and make energy more expensive. Voluntary programs are good complements for mandatory programs; as energy becomes more expensive, saving energy becomes an even better deal.
This same logic – using sensible regulations to make clean development profitable – can be used in Monterey County. Imagine how land-use debates would change if it were more profitable to build in a way that reduced greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion. Wouldn’t it be great if developers competed to build more walkable communities?
StepUp2Green purports to help us reduce our energy use but it only speaks of voluntary action. That may help, but don’t grow complacent after changing out a light bulb or two. It remains to be seen whether StepUp2Green will be used like Bush-era “greenwash” to delay mandatory action or as a complement to sensible rules and laws.
StepUp2Green should engage a wide range of stakeholders in the business and environmental communities and show that it is designed to work with, not impede, the legal and regulatory changes we need.