October 23, 2007

Environmental Improvement Strategies

Although I sometimes think that the focus on global warming risks focusing too much on one environmental issue, reducing carbon emissions, to the exclusion of others with an extremely high urgency, like environmental pollution that contributes to water-borne diseases in third world countries, or toxic chemicals in soils around the world, there are many opportunities to deal with both environmental pollution and global warming issues.

The biggest opportunity to address both in one strategy is the reduction of carbon from vehicle emissions into the air. Better fuel economy, reduced driving, and reduced emissions improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion, reduce asthma from bad air, and reduce the carbon footprint of driving.

That is one of the reasons we have advocated substituting remote commerce for face-to-face commerce relative to citizen interactions with government and other private sector transactional activity that reduces unnecessary vehicle trips. What are some of the “no-brainers” here?

  • Why not eliminate all toll plazas and substitute either E-Z-Pass-type solutions or photos that capture a driver’s license plate number and result in a bill being sent to the driver? The highest emissions come from car engines running at low or idling speeds, as opposed to 55-mile-an-hour travel. Why do we keep toll plazas in place? For example, Ireland, which I visited this past week, is on the way to eliminating them.
  • Why not substitute photo capture of speeders and motorists who violate other traffic rules for stationing policemen with idling engines? Everywhere photo enforcement systems have been used, they reduce accidents, reduce incident-related congestion, and increase fines and penalties revenues.
  • Why not give many more voters the chance to vote by mail? California offers voters the choice of voting by mail or in person. 35% of the voters have chosen to vote by mail, reducing those vehicle trips.
  • Why not have more government license acquisition transactions done by mail or over the Internet?
  • Why not have more pharmaceuticals delivered by mail or through a local delivery system serving a number of small merchants, particularly to elderly citizens?

Beyond these obvious carbon-reducing actions, governments need to change other policies that discourage or fail to encourage private decisions that reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions:

  • Connecticut levies a heavy tax on new vehicles and very little on old ones. This discourages new vehicle purchases, and keeps higher-polluting older vehicles on the road longer. It is justified as a device to help lower-income residents who are driving older cars, but the system could be altered to provide tax credits for lower-income citizens who drive old vehicles. The taxes on wealthier families who keep an older vehicle, particularly a gas-guzzling SUV, could be increased to cover the revenue shortfall.
  • Parking fees and taxes should be far greater for larger vehicles, particularly SUV’s, than for smaller or energy-efficient vehicles. New York City does this to a degree with its higher parking fees for oversized vehicles, but it probably needs to have an even steeper differentiation than it does today. Most states or localities that have parking taxes and fees have no incentive for reducing vehicle sizes. The Gristmill blog discusses some relevant points related to the connection between congestion pricing and carbon taxes.
  • I am on the Board of Directors of Eaton Corporation which provides cutting-edge engine air management technologies for automobiles that reduces emissions, while maintaining vehicle performance. Governments do not provide sufficient incentives for adoption of that technology or others that may attempt to accomplish the same goal a different way. Hybrid cars, for instance, are a great alternative proven to reduce carbon emissions, as cited in the BioStock blog.
  • New Jersey has started to allocate its transportation capital projects dollars to favor smart growth planning and zoning which discourage unnecessary uses of motor vehicles. Many other states have not followed that path.
  • Too many states and localities address traffic congestion with a focus on increasing road capacity and, even with a focus on public transportation, increasing railcars and buses. There needs to be an equal or greater emphasis on eliminating unnecessary trips by individuals and substituting telecommuting or other ways of keeping the individual off the road. By the way, while rail is certainly better than driving because it is group travel alternative, there is still a trip, often by car, to the train station, and the railcar has a carbon footprint, although a smaller one per person.

The Carbon Clear Blog outlines some additional good low-carbon strategies to fight global warming. I specifically agree with the “Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Part III” post, which touches upon ways to reduce driving-related climate pollution.

Ultimately, we need to look at all of our governmental and private sector actions through a different set of lenses. These are just a few examples.