Monday, April 23, 2007

Half Measures

Friday I wrote about the prospects for achieving significant emissions reductions in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020. After watching the 38th Earth Day pass almost without notice, I'm a little more pessimistic. My local paper, the Washington Post, hardly mentioned the event. Included in their limited coverage were some blog excerpts from a pair of entertainment personalities who seem to think the solution to our environmental problems might be found in steps such as rationing toilet paper. Even the Post's list of ten things we can do to help the global and local environment, while entirely sensible, was hardly consistent with the scale of impending catastrophe that is conveyed elsewhere in the media. If climate change is as serious as the scientists are telling us, it won't be solved with a few well-intended and painless half measures.

The second item on the Post's list, for example, related the following "fact" about energy-saving light bulbs: "If every American home (114 million of them, at latest count) replaced one standard bulb with an energy-efficient one, it would save enough electricity to light 2.5 million homes for a year." Actually, some reasonable assumptions yield a much more impressive comparison, along the lines of lighting 12 million homes, based on the national average of 940 kW-hrs of electricity for lighting per year. However, these savings pale to insignificance at the national level, where they represent only 0.3% of the electricity we use. That doesn't mean efficient light bulbs are a bad idea, though a recent story about the hazards of cleaning up the mercury from broken ones gives pause for thought. But instead of simply jumping on board the compact fluorescent bandwagon, why didn't the Post think to admonish us about the impact of all those households buying plasma TVs, with their average 180 watts of extra power use versus the cathode-ray TVs they are replacing? At 8 hours per day of average usage, that would amount to 1.5% of annual electricity generation, or five times as much power as one efficient light bulb per household would save. That also equates to an additional dozen or so power plants, most likely burning coal or natural gas.

Compare this to the announcement yesterday of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ambitious plan for a 30% reduction in NYC's emissions footprint, based on the city's recently-completed greenhouse gas inventory. Including such measures as congestion fees and expansion of the already extensive mass transit system, the mayor's plan at least conveys the right sense of proportion.

We've heard a lot of criticism that Americans weren't asked to make any sacrifices after 9/11. So far, though, requests for sacrifices to avert a global "climate crisis" are thin on the ground, despite the fact that this problem results largely from the aggregation of billions of choices by individuals. The Congress is considering a national cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, and California has already enacted such a program, with a target of reducing emissions by 25% by 2020. While I generally favor this approach, I recognize that it will lead to profound and potentially costly changes in our economy. So if we're seeking voluntary measures to help mitigate climate change, shouldn't we ask people to do something that might actually matter, or even reduce the scope of regulations that will be necessary to address the problem?

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