Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finding solutions - Part One - Reducing

There three different approaches to how we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit. The first approach is to do less than we are doing, to stop all manner of things we do now. The second is to find a way to reduce the impact of what we do. And the third is to find ways to remove the gasses from out environment.

The first approach is very popular with people that have a problem with the affluence of our society. They remind me of the flagilationists of the medieval era - the world is wicked and we should suffer, we need to suffer, everyone needs to suffer. There is a strong connection between the mindset of the people using this as the solution to the problem as the ones that were arguing for a strong left wing government.

In my opinion, a lot of people have jumped on global warming to use it as a tool to attack the affluence of our society. People are talking about the end to flying, end to import and export, and the end to the private vehicle. It feels to me that they are using the issue to attack the lifestyles of others, to reduce everyone to an equivalent income and standard of living. There is almost a glee among the left with respect to being able to attack the lifestyles of the rich for environmental reasons.

I see an inherent problem with this approach. First of all the underlying interest is attacking affluence and not global warming. This alone will doom this approach because they will be seen as hypocrites if they do not accept other solutions and ultimately the other solutions will be much more popular with the majority. A further problem is that using the issue of global warming for a different "true" interest is deceitful and leads to loss of respect and trust.

Using this issue to further other interests will lead to the issue losing public support.

Reducing what we do has a place in what we emit, but it is the hardest one to sell the public on and I think is the least realistic one. Fundamentally to achieve it you will have to use government ability to regulate and force people to act differently. The history of this has not been very good. It is very hard to anticipate the consequences of a regulation. No set of rules can think of all the possible outcomes. I have seen this often when negotiating agreements - you can add more and more detail on hopes of capturing everything, but as you do that the text becomes so complex as to be unworkable and in that complexity it allows all new twists to avoid the intent.

You can also reduce by increasing costs, but that also has significant problems with how it all plays out. Very rarely are the full range of socio-economic and environmental impacts considered when one adds a new tax or fee to something. Ideally it is better to let an open market set the pricing and not government fiat.

The public is also not ready to give up the things that they are most likely to have an impact with:
  • Private Cars
  • Meat Consumption
  • Home heating and cooling
The public loves their cars, to think that there is anything that can be done to really expect the majority of the public to get out of their cars is quite unrealistic. If one were to increase the cost of cars I suspect that the type of car being sold will change. In the last generation the cars sold in Canada have dramatically increased the amount of luxury to them and it would not take a lot to remove that luxury and reduce the price to make up for any rise.

In the last 30 years we have seen almost all cars having air conditioning (and this in Canada?!?!?!). The average family no longer has a sedan but a minivan - virtually no trips are taken by families that require more than four seats. In 1977 you had an AM radio and cheap speakers, now you get an expensive sound system and increasingly a video system as well. I could go on for sometime on these extras but I would prefer to not write like Chomsky. The public is willing to spend a lot more for a car than ever before and if the price rose dramatically, the car manufacturers could come out with plain jane models for the same price as a 'base' model these days.

Methane has 20x the impact as CO2 on the climate. Our interest in eating chicken, pork and beef drives a huge livestock industry, and industry that is one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gasses. The one thing any person could do that would have a positive impact on the greenhouse effect would be to stop eating meat. Imagine trying to tell the majority population that they should all give up eating meat? It is not going to happen.

Meat is also very cheap these days. If one were to double or triple the cost of meat, it would still be cheaper now than it was a generation ago. There was a time when chicken was not a cheap meat. I can buy a chicken to feed a family of five for about $6 - $1.20 per person for the protein for a meal. If I go to a fastfood restaurant I will spend about $25 to feed five. For that price I could offer a chicken dinner to the family for three nights. If a chicken were to be $15, it is still not an expensive option.

Finally, heating and cooling our homes. Energy is so cheap that it does not pay for us to conserve energy. The cost to improve the energy efficiency of a house so often outweighs the savings that it does not make financial sense. I would love to construct a geothermal heating/cooling system for our new house, but the capital cost is very high and the pay back period is too long. If I went to a geothermal system, I would have almost no external energy needs to heat and cool my home (there is a small amount needed to run the pump, but that is it).

In the last generation air conditioning has taken off in Canada. This is utterly insane - but it is happening. People want their home to be 23 degrees 365 days a year and are willing to pay the price.

Reducing emissions from the general public is in my opinion an approach that is doomed to failure.

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