Acting Locally to Stop Global Warming

Leslie Carlson

To me, one of the most potentially devastating things about GW’s second term will be the outright neglect—if not actual harm to—the environment. While the environment was a virtual non-issue in the campaign, there are plenty of big issues to be tackled, not the least of which is the problem posed by global warming.

Last week's news about the Arctic ice caps melting much faster than anticipated was grave news indeed. Huge die-offs of animals and plants are likely. Entire bioregions could change from temperate rain forest (like Western Oregon) to hot, dry desert sagebrush country. Large portions of low-lying cities like New York and New Orleans may be under water in 100 years. The Bush Administration’s response? They trotted out State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to say: “We support those recommendations that are both consistent with the Administration’s broader climate change policy, and that are appropriate for the unique attributes of the Arctic Council as a regional forum.”

Huh? This gobbledy-gook is just doublespeak to cover up their real motives, like the “Clear Skies Initiative,” which would rollback air quality standards to pre-1990 levels…and do absolutely nothing about CO2.

So, in the absence of any national leadership, I say it’s time for the states and cities to take back the reins. Oregon, long considered an environmental leader, should begin immediately.

So what can Oregon do to stop global warming? Here are just a few ideas:

1. Adopt Californian’s emissions standards for vehicles. California currently has the strictest car emission standards of any state (and far stricter than the federal government). These standards drastically cut the amount of carbon and other chemicals that come out of vehicle tailpipes. Car manufacturers currently manufacture two kinds of vehicles for the U.S.: those for California, Massachusetts and New York that meet the strict pollution standards, and those that don’t, which are reserved for the rest of us. Other New England states are currently considering adopting the California standards. Oregon should do so as well. (Recent upgrades to the California standards were just signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

2. Establish CO2 standards for all electricity delivered to Oregon customers. This would require that utilities upgrade their existing plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and invest in cleaner energy, including natural gas, wind, biomass and geothermal power rather than coal. Seventeen states currently have minimum standards for renewable energy. (Ironically, while Oregon does not have such a standard, the state of Texas has a similar one that was signed into law by none other than Governor George W. Bush.)

3. Publicize tax credits and financial incentives that help fund energy efficiency. Oregon has business tax credits that pay up to 35 percent of the cost of energy efficiency upgrades and residential tax credits that help pay for energy efficient appliances, yet they are little known and little used. The Energy Trust of Oregon will send an expert to your home to make recommendations and provide information on financial incentives for free.

4. Stop using the gas tax to fund roads. This is a politically sticky wicket, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix it. Because a gasoline tax funds road improvement projects, any decrease in the use of gasoline means we run out of money to fix roads. But we have to cut gasoline use in order to reduce emissions. Why not charge people per mile driven to fund roads? I know rural folks, trucking companies and long-distance commuters hate the idea, but we’re never going to reduce driving if we don’t build in some kind of incentive to drive less.

5. Bigger tax breaks for hybrid cars. Currently, Oregon buyers of hybrid cars get a $1,500 tax break for each one purchased. This isn’t enough to motivate the average consumer (the green consumer doesn’t need the help). A tax break of say, $5,000 might help put hybrids in the garages of average families across the state. (And for you sports car, SUV and light-truck fans, models are in the pipeline with the horsepower and performance of traditional combustion engine models.)

Fortunately, in Oregon, little-known efforts are already underway at the state level to design a global warming policy, though nothing has been adopted yet. These kinds of efforts—and the efforts of cities like Portland—just need public support and a little political heft to get moving. Governor Kulongoski, Mayor-elect Potter and mayors of Oregon cities: please give it your best shot.

  • Becky (unverified)
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    I see no harm in tightening emission standards, upgrading utility plants, creating anti-pollution "carrots", and all that, but the gas tax/mileage tax thing is awful. The reason I say that is it won't encourage the use of energy-efficient cars. Why not get a gas guzzling air-polluting SUV for your 2-mile commute if your tax will be based on mileage rather than the amount of gasoline burned? Meanwhile, those who have to commute long distances and go economy to avoid going broke on gasoline can get the economy cars - and pay for cleaner air. I'm also not sure that the hit our mobile society & mobile culture would take would be worth it for the relatively small reduction in greenhouse gases. Our entire retail system is designed for a mobile society. Mobility allows for larger trade areas, greater volume of sales per store, and scale economies that benefit us all. I'm no expert in this area, but I am very concerned that this is just part of the "Smart Growth" movement, which seems to me to be all about sending our culture back to the 1950s, cramming us tightly into cities, removing mobility options, undermining consumerism, and over-managing our personal lives. You can't look at these things in isolation; they have a cumulative effect.

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    Becky, for me this isn't about smart growth or anything other than reducing carbon dioxide. Here's the problem: cars emit about 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide, so they are a big target. You can reduce emissions by incenting people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, such as hybrids. These use less gas and emit less carbon dioxide.

    However, if you increase the fuel efficiency of cars on Oregon roads, then people are consuming less gas. And if people buy less gas, there's less state gas tax money for repairing roads. You have to fill that hole somewhere.

    I am concerned that if we get more fuel efficient vehicles and don't find another way to fill the funding gap that rural areas could be hardest hit. It would undoubtedly be easier for cities to pass other local taxes to fund roads, but rural areas may not be able to do so and therefore couldn't afford to fix their potholes, not to mention build new roads.

    I don't know the answer either, but I believe the way the gas tax is structured now is not going to work for the future.

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    Oh, and one other thing. If you're driving a big gas guzzler over long distances, you're already paying more, because you consume more gas. It's just hidden in the cost of a gallon of gas.

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    Recently I discussed how liberals need a "vision." I believe environmentalism could function as a kind of unifying theory for liberals in the 21st century (despite Kevin Drum's claim that the liberal agenda has already been accomplished).

    All your suggestions are spot on, and if we stepped back to a 10,000-foot view, we could see how they could begin to form a vision. Obviously we will not be driving internal-combustion cars in 50 years--we don't have the oil. So the country that pioneers the technology of the future cars will benefit from a fantastic 90s-style tech windfall. That's a vision almost no one could dispute.

    Add to it a post-environmentalist view of engaging natural spaces. Now that farmers are being edged out by agri-business, it's a perfect opportunity to marry environmentalism with small farming. Hunters and fishers have as much interest in healthy forests as the tattoed city hikers. Environmentalists can stand against timber robber-barons like Weyerhauser with these groups.

    I believe environmentalism is the basis for the next liberal agenda. And I believe the GOP will have no reasonable counter.

  • Haley (unverified)
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    i want more info on this topic please! I am doing a report on it so please send more info on whateer you can an di will appreciate it. thanks

  • Becky (unverified)
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    I'd love to see environmentally responsible transportation that paid for itself. I can't think of a politically acceptable tax to replace the gas tax, though I'm going to keep thinking about that. Anyway, when we do switch to non-fossil-fueled cars, we'll probably only then have the incentive to reinvent our transportation taxes. I think part of the problem is taxes on gasoline go to pay for alternative transportation (light rail, bicycle paths, etc.), all of which are important, but perhaps not appropriately funded by taxes on vehicles running on gas and using roads. If these other transportation methods can't pay for themselves even now, what will we do in the future when we have to move completely over to forms of transportation that don't rely on internal combustion? It is a fascinating puzzle, but I think we need to remember how decisions will impact the marketplace.

    Leslie - My point about the SUVs was that we all know cars pollute more in the first couple miles, and when people aren't using much gas because they have short commutes, gas prices are little incentive to buy a more efficient car, so there is no incentive for these people under a mileage-tax system to worry about the pollution they're creating with their short-commute SUVs. Meanwhile, those who have longer commutes would have an incentive to buy more fuel-efficient cars which would also produce less pollution, yet they would be the ones bearing the burden of the mileage-tax. It doesn't seem to me the tax would hit the right people the way a gas tax does. If the gas tax isn't high enough because of fuel efficiency, we need to work harder to increase the gas tax.

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    I'm surprised how so many, including the environmentalists I get the chance to see with my media choices, have forgotten about hydrogen-fuel cells and their possibilities in motor vehicles.

    I wish I knew all the current science about this, but from my obstructed viewpoint on the topic, it sure sounds like a win-win. Your car would run on water, filtered for impurities (I suppose), and converted in the vehicle to its component atoms - hydrogen and oxygen. The H makes your car go - the O-two gets exhausted into the atmosphere, etc.

    Less pollution, less noise pollution, less possibility of explosion during a wreck, less dependence on fossil fuels. You could even mount a little collector on top of your ride and drive endlessly in Oregon! (OK, maybe not.)

    What's not to love? Hell, I'd just about die laughing if the "problem" was people going dizzy from oversaturation of oxygen...

  • Adam (unverified)
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    I think the last thing we need to worry about is running out of money to pave more of our green earth with asphalt. There's no reason to get rid of the gas tax and replace it with a bureaucratic milage tax. Imagine everyone having to file monthly milage reports on their driving to the state of Oregon. It's not going to happen.

    Nor is it necessary. The problem isn't driving per se, it's the fact that we use internal combustion engines burning fossil fuels to propel our vehicles. So a gas tax is apropriate to raise the cost of fuel and the cost of driving. Just keep raising the gas tax higher as gas consumption goes down. But gas consumption has never gone down. As fuel efficency goes up, people drive more and consume more gas to make up for the increased efficency anyways. The only solution is to get away from gasoline completely and move towards hydrogen, created from renewable sources. Find some other funding source to pay for asphalt. We can solve that problem if and when we come to it.

    Better than a gas tax would be a carbon tax that applies to all fossil fuels, not just gasoline. That would encourage the use of all renewable fuels. But unless the entire country passes such as tax, it would make Oregon much less competitive economically.

    I like all of Leslie's other ideas, and I especially would like to see Oregon adopt a renewable energy portfolio standard, similar to what was just passed via ballot measure in Colorado. Let's start gathering signatures now!

  • Mike (unverified)
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    What about having Oregon becoming a center for environmental friendly technologies? The economic growth potential is huge.

    As for the gas tax, we should adopt a similar approach to industrial waste; pay for the pollution you cause. SUVs create 2x the amount of ozone pollutants in addition to the gas mileage problem.

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    "I'm surprised how so many, including the environmentalists I get the chance to see with my media choices, have forgotten about hydrogen-fuel cells"

    John, my understanding is that hydrogen fuel cells are decades away from being commercially viable. It's widely accepted that hybrids are a "bridge" to hydrogen fuel cells (or any other emerging technology.)

    However, there is one other problem with hydrogen - it takes lots of electrical energy to create it in the first place. The Bush Adminstration made a big splash early on talking about converting to a "Hydrogen Economy," the only problem being that their hydrogen is still going to be created with fossil fuels. In Europe, however, they are working on a hydrogen economy that will run on renewables.

    My point being, you've got to do more than just develop the fuel cells - you also have to cleanly create the fuel for them.

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    Leslie, I'll add a note of disagreement. You say, "My point being, you've got to do more than just develop the fuel cells - you also have to cleanly create the fuel for them."

    The problem with cars is that there are millions of source-points for the pollution, so it's real hard to control. If cars were pollution-free, but the fuel-creation sites were not, that's still an improvement -- even if initially the total pollution generated is the same.

    Over time, we could find modest improvements (both technical and regulatory) to reduce the pollution generated by those fuel-creation sites. For example, a 5% reduction in pollution via tech-improvement would probably result in pretty close to a 5% reduction in overall pollution - since we could mandate its use, provide incentives to a small number of fuel-creators, etc. A 5% reduction in individual-car pollution doesn't help much -- it's too modest to bother rapidly deploying, consumers are unwilling to pay even a 5% increase in cost, and thus the slow deployment tends to defeat the purpose.

    Shifting from a millions of pollution sources model to a hundreds of pollution sources model is a good and necessary first step to actually reducing pollution. Get consumers out of the pollution producing business - and make it the exclusive purview of big companies and governments, where we can attack it.

  • Patrick Mazza (unverified)
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    At Climate Solutions we have exactly been working on local, state and regional solutions to global warming since 1999. Our mission is to make the Northwest a global warming solutions leader. We work in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, as well as British Columbia and, through the West Coast Governors Climate Initiative in which Oregon is participating, in California. To learn more come to our website, www.climatesolutions.org, and to sign up for our monthly e-bulletin which provides action opportunities, send a request to [email protected]

    Definitely Oregonians should support the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Global Warming which calls for carbon dioxide limits. Also, this is federal, Gordon Smith should continually hear that he should support the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.

    On hydrogen, take a look at my study, "Carrying the Energy Future," www.ilea.org. Hydrogen is fairly inefficient from an energy lifecycle standpoint. Personally I favor plug-in hybrids powered by windpower from the grid and biofuels from the on-board engine.

  • Michael (unverified)
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    I think Leslie’s point is not that the gas tax is bad, but that it’s a lousy mechanism for funding state and local transportation infrastructure.

    The gas tax serves a great purpose in capturing some of the damage caused by burning fossil fuels (air pollution, global warming, etc.). Since it’s the primary source of revenue for state and local transportation agencies, though, the gas tax also provides a perverse incentive for public agencies that should be working to reduce gas use.

    We need to keep the gas tax--and increase it, as far as I’m concerned--but also find ways to fund transportation improvements outside of the gas tax. Maybe it’s a mileage fee, maybe it’s something else, but we need to find a new approach.

    And we absolutely should do all the other things Leslie has identified: Oregon is on the verge of pursuing some really constructive policies on global warming, but we all need to help the state put those policies in place.

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    I appreciate the well-considered discussion of hydrogen fuel as a way to reduce oil dependence. Thank you all for informing me, on both sides.

    It also clears up a misconception I had, which is that the fuel would be generated inside the car, where your water tank would have battery-fed electrodes running through it to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The combustion would turn the alternator, which would recharge the batteries, and so on.

    To that end, does anybody have a site or two that would help me learn more about this? I'm thinking "Where We Are Now with Hydrogen Fuel: A Primer for Non-Scientifics."

    Thanks in advance.

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    Oh, jeez. Thanks, Patrick - that'll teach me to skim posts.

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    "Get consumers out of the pollution producing business - and make it the exclusive purview of big companies and governments, where we can attack it."

    Kari, I agree with you on this point that it's better to have consumers using hydrogen vehicles (or other clean fueled cars) even if the fuel is made by using oil or natural gas.

    However, I do think that the European model has a built-in advantage to the Bush administration plan: should we ever start to run out of oil in the near-term, as some experts predict, they will be that much farther ahead and experience less of a shock to their economy.

  • Simp the Biodiesel Pimp (unverified)
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    Great topic!

    However, these discussions drive me batty. The title of the post is Acting Locally, yet there is no talk of the single easiest solution that individuals can do, on their own and immediately.

    I got tired of being frustrated with the lack of progress and discussion all the time so I did something about it. I went biodiesel. I have a 2003 vehicle that I've been running on 100% biodiesel since day 1. This is a fuel that empowers individuals to virtually eliminate their dependancy on petroleum for transportation and house heating (those of you with oil heaters). Additionally, I replaced my engine oil with a high grade synthetic (Amsoil) that only needs to be changed about every 15 to 20k miles.

    We have a local co-op that collects waste vegetable oil (WVO) and processes it into biodiesel. As well as there being 2 retailers that sell it as well (Albina and Sequential Fuels).

    No modifications are necessary. Some salient points:

    • Runs in ANY diesel vehicle

    • Deisel vehicles are a much more efficient engine than combustion. I hear a lot of talk about hybrids and they are great getting 50 to 65 mpg. However they STILL emit greenhouse gasses. Why not get a VW TDI diesel, get 50mpg and eliminate all net greenhouse gasses? (note: no NET greenhouse gas emissions as all the CO2 emitted has recently been extracted from the air by the plants that you are burning, so it is a closed, short-cycle carbon loop).

    • Biodiesel has no sulphate emissions (primary low level ozone pollution: e.g. smog)

    • Biodiesel, being such a clean and high lubricity fuel, it makes the engine last longer. In fact there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that a diesel engine will last TWICE as long as running on petro-diesel.

    • most other emissions are reduced 40% - 60%!!

    • If you have a small amount of space and an investment of about $500 you can even make your own fuel for about $.60 a gallon (sans state and federal road taxes, which are $.24/gal atm)

    Is Biodiesel the perfect fuel? No, of course not, but it is something that can be used NOW and have DRAMATIC effect on overall emissions and air quality.

    I would highly recommend checking out our Co-Op website and even if you don't have a diesel vehicle, come to one of our general meetings and learn more about our favorite fuel!

    simp

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