Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On the costs and benefits of legislation on emissions....

Today's post is by PRI's Education Research Associate, Don Duggan-Haas

On Monday, May 17, I attended the Climate Change Roundtable Discussion on New York State Senate Bill 4315. The purpose of the bill is to require the State Department of Environmental Conservation to institute rules and regulations establishing limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The bill sets out stepwise targets between now and 2050 where the goal is to have emissions 80% below those of 1990.

The Roundtable was sponsored by Buffalo's State Senator Antoine Thompson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation. It's purpose was to elicit feedback from variety of stakeholders. There were representatives from the New York Farm Bureau, The Sierra Club, NYSERDA, the New York State Chemical Alliance, the New York State Apollo Alliance, National Grid, National Fuel Gas, The Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York Public Interest Research Group, The Business Council of New York State, and many more business, environmental and government organizations. (I'll note that of course we’re all stakeholders).

I was there representing both PRI and WNY Climate Action. I’m a Steering Committee member for WNY Climate Action, a loose-knit all-volunteer community organization whose mission is to organize, facilitate, catalyze, and support personal and collective action in the Buffalo and Western New York to address global climate change. I expect to write more about some of the work I’ve done with this organization in future posts, especially as related to helping folks in Western New York join in coordinated greenhouse gas emissions reductions through a program called The Low Carbon Diet.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share observations and related commentary on two issues from the Senate's Climate Roundtable. The first is that no one who spoke during the two hour meeting in any way denied the reality of human contributions to global climate change. The second, which I’ll spend a bit more time on, has to do with considerations of costs and benefits of action and inaction related to greenhouse gas emissions and the connection of those costs and benefits to innovation.

While support for the bill was not unanimous, no one denied the need for action on emissions reductions and several of those representing business described ways they are working to reduce emissions. The Farm Bureau representative noted that NYS dairy farm GHG emissions are lower than those in most industrialized nations. National Grid's representative spoke of their reward program for executives whose divisions or departments reduce their carbon footprints. I found the agreement on the basic science absolutely refreshing and I hope it's truly indicative of the groups these individual's represent.

Many who talked about their business's initiatives to reduce emissions also noted that the costs for businesses of emissions reductions will be passed along to consumers. I have no doubt that this is true. There are costs to action, but there are also costs to inaction and in both cases costs are economic and environmental. And, I think at least as importantly, the benefits of action will be the consumers' to enjoy.

Certain benefits, in the form of avoided environmental costs are likely obvious to readers of this blog. How much is it worth to not have sea level rise by a meter? To reduce severe weather incidents? Benefits in the form of avoided catastrophe are indeed important, but avoiding something that's predicted but hasn't happened yet might be hard to really appreciate as it is an abstraction. Benefits of emissions reductions also help to reduce unpleasantries right here, right now. Stopping buses from idling while our kids get on and off school buses reduces asthma. If there was fast, frequent and reliable mass transit between Albany and Buffalo, I'd have had a much more pleasant and productive commute to Albany. I wouldn't have had to shell out $10 to park or put in nine hours behind the wheel.

Perhaps most conspicuously in the spring of 2010, if we were living in a world less fossil-fuel dependent, we wouldn't have lost 29 lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster just over a month ago, or lost 11 lives and unleashed the epic and still growing environmental catastrophe that began with the explosiion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform.

To move us away from our fossil fuel dependent lifestyles will require real, large-scale innovation. Senator Thompson used the cell phone to highlight the possibility of sweeping technological change. Very few of us had cell phones in our pockets twenty years ago and now many of us can hardly fathom life without them. What technologies (or what lifestyle changes) will we depend on twenty years from now that we can't imagine today?

Related to the Senator's comments on cell phones, I'll close by raising some SAT-style analogy questions (that I also raised at the Roundtable):

  • Typewriters are to computers as cars are to:___________________
  • Typewriters are to computers as coal-fired power plants are to:___________________
Legislation can help nudge us toward answers to these questions and answers to these questions can lead us to an array of benefits that go beyond avoided catastrophe. Imagine the possibilities. Then do something to move toward those possibilities.

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