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Monday, May 21, 2007

Glaeser: We are All Environmentalists Now

Edward Glaeser discusses "a policy road map for environmentalism":

A road map for environmentalism, by Edward L. Glaeser, Commentay, Boston Globe: We are all environmentalists now. ... No presidential candidate in 2008 will be able to act as if climate change is a loony leftist cause best fought with aggressive development of the Arctic.

But environmentalists should celebrate their much-deserved success with an increasing commitment to responsible policies that target climate change and weigh costs against benefits. In the early days of environmentalism, almost any action could be justified as a means of increasing environmental awareness. Now ... it is time to turn to policies that are both green and smart.

Smart environmentalism has three key elements. First, policies should be targeted toward the biggest environmental threat: global warming. Second, our resources and political capital are limited. This means we must weigh the benefits of each intervention against its costs. Third, we must anticipate unintended consequences, where being green in one place leads to decidedly non green outcomes someplace else.

These simple rules provide a policy road map for environmentalism. ... The most effective way to reduce emissions is to charge people for the social costs of their actions with a carbon tax. A significant carbon tax would be painful ... but it is never easy to change behavior...

The big challenge ... is to reduce the growth of emissions in rapidly developing economies like China and India. I suspect this will require Europe and the United States to create incentives for these places to reduce emissions. One possible course of action is for American and European carbon taxes to ... be used to reward poorer countries for cutting emissions.

New technologies are likely to be our best weapons against climate change and we should try to encourage more energy-efficient innovation. Our patent system is poorly suited to encourage these innovations... A better system might be to offer large public prizes that reward innovations, which are then made freely available throughout the globe.

But smart environmentalism doesn't just mean more government programs, it also means rethinking current policies. Our emissions policy, which requires regular emissions tests for newer vehicles, is expensive ... and poorly designed.... After all, it does nothing to induce less driving. Even more problematically, by letting owners of older cars off the hook, the current system ... exempts the drivers of the vintage gas guzzlers that create the most emissions. We should require different emissions tests and even higher emission taxes for older cars...

Our paper recycling programs cost time and money and do little to protect first-growth woodlands and rain forests. The trees used by paper mills are a renewable resource. When people use more paper, suppliers plant more trees. If we want bigger commercial forests, then we should use more paper not less. Our policies should directly protect important wildlife habitats, not try to reduce our demand for paper.

Perhaps the most environmentally problematic local policies are land-use controls. ... When we stop development in ... inner-ring suburbs, we shift development to areas with fewer people that might oppose new development. The move from higher- to lower-density development ensures more driving and energy use. Protecting green space in the inner suburbs is a form of environmentalism, but it is an environmentalism that creates local benefits by imposing costs on the rest of the world, since it pushes development into the highway-crazy exurbs.

The state should take the lead by requiring environmental impact reviews to compare the environmental costs of allowing a project with the expected environmental consequences if a rejected project is built elsewhere.

Climate change is too important for us not to consider all of the consequences of our policies. We should rethink policies that appear environmental but that actually ensure more driving and greenhouse gases.

I'm puzzled by the assertion that recycling paper does not help to protect old growth forests. There are still large tracts of old growth forests at risk in the U.S., Canada, and other places and these are the most likely places to locate new commercial tree farms - clear the existing old growth, then begin the long planting/harvesting cycles. And this is not hypothetical. Attempts to free old growth stands under control of the Bureau of Land Management from environmental protections are ongoing and have the support of the administration. Here's one recent example:

Spotted Owl Plan in Jeopardy, Seattle PI, April 27, 2007: A high-level team of Bush administration appointees in Washington, D.C. -- including a former timber-industry lobbyist -- ordered changes in a plan produced by scientists and other experts to save the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl. The result, revealed Thursday, could whittle away old-growth forests protected on the owl's behalf....

There are commercial interests that would love to get their hands on old growth timber, and while old growth is unlikely to be used in a pulp mill, increased paper demand from less recycling would only help their case by increasing timber demand overall. Glaeser says "Our policies should directly protect important wildlife habitats, not try to reduce our demand for paper," but I think the protections themselves are partly endogenous and a function of the level of demand (e.g. as the demand for energy goes up we are more likely to accept or rationalize the costs of drilling for oil offshore or in wildlife preserves). Maybe I'm sensitive to this issue because I live in Oregon and have seen what happens when an old growth forest is ripped out, but until you've been in one of these forests, it's hard to appreciate just how magical they are, or were.

    Posted by on Monday, May 21, 2007 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Environment, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (34)

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