The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

Zero the Carbon

A colleague at Flagpole pointed me to this, a partially, if unintentionally, hilarious article in the ATL newspaper about a shopping district billing itself as the nation’s first carbon-neutral zone. Excellent. A local firm is auditing the businesses for the their carbon footprint to tell them how much they should pay in off-sets to 1)feel better about it and 2) use the good feeling to advertise the district so that shoppers can feel better about spending money there. Rinse, repeat.

While this could be seen as the latest chapter in the annals of green marketing — another emission in all the talk about global warming — there’s actually substance behind the boast.

Is there ever. It’s paper-like, six inches by two-and-a-half.

The carbon-free zone is the result of a pilot project engineered by a local environmental company — an intricate transaction linking 18 merchants, a trading exchange in Chicago, a charitable foundation in Atlanta and thousands of acres of forest in rural Georgia.

Okay, so the landlord, seeing the genius of the plan, actually takes up paying for the audits if the tenants will pay their own offsets. Fair enough. But you see where this is going, right? No? Okay, try this.

Sandor[father-in-law of the auditing company founder] started the Chicago Climate Exchange, a market where carbon credits and offsets are traded like pork belly futures in the interest of fighting climate change through capitalism. Time magazine called him “the father of carbon trading.”

So… will off-sets allow us to just put our carbon-conscience on the credit card and otherwise continue with our as-you-were sets of priorities? It sort of answers itself. The reporter, before providing some glorious quotes from the business owners, does site the precedent of Papal Indulgences as a reasonably-related precursor. But… those quotes:

“The carbon thing wasn’t the issue. People were more concerned about the cost,” says Brian Jolly of Half-Moon Outfitters, a store on North Highland.

The price of the offsets ranged from $10 a year for Lulu Blue, a petite sweet shop, to $600 for Highland Tap, a steakhouse. Restaurants inevitably leave a larger carbon footprint with their sizable staffs and higher utility use.

“I’m the biggest polluter over here,” says the Tap’s general manager, Ron Haynes, who commutes 30 miles from Peachtree City [emphasis mine] and employs 35 people.

He’s still unsure whether his check bought anything more than a fuzzy feeling of virtue.

“It sort of made sense to me when they explained it,” he says. “But I do wonder what I’m doing to curb global warming. It feels like I’m just spending money to make up for the damage I’m doing to the environment. I guess it’s better than doing nothing.”

Is it? Inquiring minds want to know – not necessarily the answer to that question but, as comes up oftener and oftener these days, whether these are the only two choices. Especially when you have to live 30 miles from work.

Shovel-ready

NYT reports that Obama is paving the way for a major change for vehicle emissions.

President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday.

Mr. Obama’s presidential memorandum will order the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration’s past rejection of the California application. While it stops short of flatly ordering the Bush decision reversed, the agency’s regulators are now widely expected to do so after completing a formal review process.

Once they act, automobile manufacturers will quickly have to retool to begin producing and selling cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies have lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court.

Anyone can correct me on this but, I’ve been in the market for a new car, trying to make the right decision based on a few variables discussed here at length. The trail is leading us to a very short list of extremely expensive vehicles, especially as I’m trying to buy a diesel for a family of four + dog. My understanding of the paucity of available models is that these particular kinds of cars must be 50-state compliant in a couple of environmental categories, to which most car makers simply say, “no thanks.”

This sort of opt-out posture had the effect of making California standards the de facto standards anyway, though it allowed car makers not to bother with any adjustment to their SOP. Again, the article

But the centerpiece of Monday’s anticipated announcement is Mr. Obama’s directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin work immediately on granting California a waiver, under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state, a longtime leader in air quality matters, to set standards for automobile emissions stricter than the national rules.

The Bush administration denied the waiver in late 2007, saying that recently enacted federal mileage rules made the action unnecessary and that allowing California and the 13 other states the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law.

The auto companies had advocated a denial, saying a waiver would require them to produce two sets of vehicles, one to meet the strict California standard and another that could be sold in the remaining states.

Those last eight words are/were what the car makers (such as they still exist) were aiming for; producing that other set of cars is their last ditch effort to play hard ball with the environment (!), I’m sure. The tactic, as in trying to isolate California and its inordinately stringent regulations, is typical yet nonsensical when you think about anything being at stake other than profits and business-as-usual, though one would think that what this strategy has done to both would cause the car makers (such as they still exist) to reconsider their position.

Anyway, serious news that the new administration should and will trumpet.

Expensive-r gas

I saw this article in the Guardian UK over the weekend, which features Dr. James Hansen of Goddard Institute of Space Studies waxing darkly about green:

Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.

Only the US now had the political muscle to lead the world and halt the rise, Hansen said. Having refused to recognise that global warming posed any risk at all over the past eight years, the US now had to take a lead as the world’s greatest carbon emitter and the planet’s largest economy. Cap-and-trade schemes, in which emission permits are bought and sold, have failed, he said, and must now be replaced by a carbon tax that will imposed on all producers of fossil fuels. At the same time, there must be a moratorium on new power plants that burn coal – the world’s worst carbon emitter.

It’s a cheeky lede and all, but the point is taken. All you Nether-philes out there, get serious about getting serious. But then the chorus about a global economic slowdown and its effects on measures to counteract rapidly-advancing climate change pipes in.

Governments are putting plans aimed at mitigating carbon dioxide emissions on hold at a time when concerns are focused on finance rather than ecology and when the collapsing price of oil and gas is undermining incentives to invest in renewable energy.

Another blow to the sector is the tumbling price of permits for emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In countries where emitters must buy these permits, like those in the European Union, low prices mean emitters have fewer incentives to make their production process more efficient or move to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels.

So… let’s say we have identified a dependable correlation between the price of gas (natural or petrol) and the value of carbon-emitting permits, such that as the price of gas falls, efforts to raise efficiency AND demand for carbon permits also flag. What to do? Call the psychic hotline? Follow your heart?

How about we look into this conundrum and… wait for it: raise the price of gas ON PURPOSE!

Brilliant. villainous. sneaky. shrewd. under-handed. UnAmerican. Exactly.

Carbon-free city, sea view

Via, the United Arab Emirates capital of Dubai is planning construction of the world’s first ‘zero-carbon’ city in the middle of a petroleum-drenched desert. It sounds like offering pony rides in the middle of a zombie theme park, but also looks like they’re serious.

Using the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies to achieve sustainable development, this six sq km expanse will house an energy, science and technology community.

Called the Masdar (meaning ‘source’ in Arabic) Initiative, this ambitious plan for a ‘Green City’ is being driven by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a private, joint stock company established and wholly-owned by Mubadala Development Company.

‘‘As the first major hydrocarbon-producing nation to take such a step, Abu Dhabi has established its leadership position by launching Masdar, a global cooperative platform for open engagement in the search for solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues — energy security, environment and truly sustainable human development,” Masdar chief executive Sultan Al Jaber said.

Abu Dhabi accounts for more than 90 percent of the UAE’s oil resources, and the country’s reserves, exceeding 100 billion barrels, ranked third largest in the world.

The ‘Green City’ will house the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate science and research institute that will be established in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; world-class laboratories; commercial space for related-sector companies; light manufacturing facilities and a selected pool of international tenants who will invest, develop, and commercialise advanced energy technologies.

There is also a lark in there about ‘rapid personal transport systems’ and reference to the fact that Abu Dhabi sees temps north of 50C in July and August, so  like any good theme park brochure there’s a little something for everyone.

Even with petroleum reserves of more than 100 billion barrels, the Sultan is seeing the writing on the wall. From the time of Aristotle, scientific knowledge has profited from time spent in Arab hands, so we’ll see. It’s not like we’re trying anything similar outside of Indianapolis or anything. Imagine the headlines if that were the case.