The New York Times is loaded with important environment-related coverage. From an article about the challenges associated with building clean coal power plants to a discussion about the ongoing global debate on biofuels and food scarcity, many issues are covered today. Also of note are articles on controversies surrounding nuclear power and climate change and the results of the latest lawsuit against the Bush administration to release a synthesis report[.pdf] on global warming.
What struck me, however, was an article on recent protests over fuel prices in Europe. Much like the US, there have been political pressures for governments to reduce costs by limiting taxes. French President Nicholas Sarkozy, for example, wants the European Union to impose a cap on the amount of fuel taxes levied by member countries, while other European leaders recognize that reducing the tax burden would not necessarily result in lower prices and would likely increase social costs.
The graphic above is suggestive as it shows different levels of taxation in the EU. What is interesting, however, is the relative low percentage of taxes in the US and Canada. The article indicates that the higher tax burdens in Europe were imposed after the oil shocks of the 1970s and were dramatically successful in encouraging a decrease in consumption. Expansion of public transportation was made possible by the increased resources and consumers chose fuel-efficient cars.
In the US we have not had significant social investment in transportation alternatives. And although petrol prices are resulting in a decrease in vehicle miles traveled, comparing the US to Europe suggests that taxes are still too low in this sector. Higher prices–with the caveat that the funds generated go to public transportation enhancement–could dramatically enhance the viability of multi-modal transport systems in the US.
The Washington Post reports about the publication this week of a new study by the US Department of Agriculture that synthesizes research on the impact of climate change on US agriculture, land and water resources and biodiversity.
The report has some dramatic findings. Of over 1500 species studied, 60% have been affected by climate change. Increases in wildfires, decreases in mountain snowpacks impact species habitats while increasing temperatures have been found to have a profound impact on crop maturity.
The study was part of a series of synthesis and assessment reports that are being conducted under the direction of the US Climate Change Science Program. Generally these reports are conducted by teams of independent and government scientists, which perhaps inhibits the Administration’s penchant for toning down climate change science.
Some of the reports to be released in the next couple months should be interesting to watch. Sometime in the next couple of days a report should be issued looking at the effects of climate change on human welfare. Later in the fall the program will release a report on how the government should convey “uncertainty” in climate science reporting and policy decision making. Given the deliberate strategies on the part of the Administration to exploit the natural element of uncertainty in the scientific method, this report should be closely watched.
The US Department of Interior today announced that it would list the polar bear as a “threatened” species in line with its requirements to carry out the dictates of the Endangered Species Act. Once a species is on the list, the government is committed to insuring that the species itself and its habitat is granted a significant level of protection.
Since the polar bear is threatened because of the loss of sea ice in the arctic, and the sea ice loss is directly attributable to anthropogenic global warming, it would seem that this ruling makes it imperative that the federal government regulate GHG emissions.
Of course, this flies in the face of the Administration’s instincts, so the Secretary of the Interior basically said that GHG regulation would be off the table–even though it is responsible for habitat degradation.
I haven’t read the entire 368-page rule [.pdf] that explains the rationale for designating the polar bear as threatened, but it is significant that it cites the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other mainstream reports of climate science as authoritative. This represents–at least on a modest level–the US government’s acknowledgment of the reality of climate change in an official, legal document.
On the other hand, since the Secretary was quite clear about not doing anything about protecting polar bear habitats, the listing may not have any practical affects on policy.
The folks at Climate Progress have a similar view. It also looks like the environmental groups that initially forced the DOI to consider the listing are planning on continuing the legal battle.
Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about discussions going on in suburban Westchester County (NY) to look at office parks as potential sites for residential development.
Office parks are a peculiar product of post-War suburban zoning logic whereby suburbs segregated land uses contributing to low-density, sprawling development. People live in residential districts, work in office parks, and shop in commercial districts. The land use functions are separated, but linked by four lane arterial roads. The decentralized nature of the development makes transit uneconomical and zoning laws, in turn, require that developers provide copious fields of parking spaces.
As people have come to recognize the problematic aspects of this logic (congestion, carbon-intensive energy use, too much time spent in cars), new approaches towards reconfiguring the suburban landscape are emerging.
Thus, this article in the New York Times shows how office parks could be targets for redevelopment, with a focus on mixed-use residential. Office parks already have basic infrastructure in place and normally have a surplus of underutilized land. While green space exists, it is normally ornamental. Traditional zoning requirements prompted developers to build excessive amounts of parking.
While it makes sense to encourage mixed-use development in these spaces, as the article attests, there will undoubtedly be political resistance to these schemes. In the case of Westchester, several office park sites are being identified as places to build affordable housing–something that engenders hostility on the part of many suburban governments.
Market forces and the environmental/quality of life problems associated with sprawling suburbia, however, make it hard to discount this type of redevelopment in the long term.
(Photos from Flickr streams of Matildaben and Dystopos)
As I mentioned last week, Chicago has been promised $133 million to improve bus service in the city. Money will go to develop bus-only lanes, bus traffic signal priority, and to purchase hybrid fuel buses.
On Friday, the CTA announced that the first four routes to be enhanced will be the 79th Street, Jeffery Express, Halstead, and Chicago Ave. lines. It is still unclear just where on these lines bus only lanes will be transfigured. However, the article in the Tribune suggests that the lanes may only give buses priority during the rush hours.
Other, more promising developments, discussed in the scheme appear to be developing better bus stops at 1/2 mile intervals and with real-time arrival information provided electronically–similar to the London system pictured above.
The scheme appears to be integrating many of the best practices found in other cities where rapid bus service has been developed successfully.
Yesterday’s New York Times reported on one of the perceived consequences of the incresase in petrol prices in the US: ridership increases on the country’s public transportation systems.
The increases are most dramatic in Sunbelt cities where lower density development and bus-dominated systems are the norm. While the article doesn’t offer a statistical analysis to isolate high gas prices as the key variable in explaining ridership increases, the fact that these increases are occurring during a period of stagnant economic growth is telling.
Normally ridership figures mimic boom and bust economic cycles; but this has not been the case this year.
Although transit agencies are undoubtedly glad to see more people using their services, they are still experiencing strain as they are also affected by high energy prices and (in many places) dilapidated fleets.
Nevertheless, more exposure to public transportation could result in a greater appreciation of it as an essential public good.
Keith Johnson at the Wall Street Journal’s excellent Environmental Capital blog gives a great rundown today on debates brewing over “clean coal.”
Industrialized countries like the US and Australia (as well as “developing” econmies like India) have extensive domestic supplies. However, coal is not only the dominant fuel for generating electricity in these economies, but it is also a major source fo greenhouse gases.
The push for clean coal–much like the push for biofuels–is regarded by many environmentalists as a quixotic attempt to find a technological fix out of a serious global problem.
Others are more pragmatic, feeling that if it is possible to capture the carbon when it is burned and inject it into the earth or sequestering it another way, it could be a viable way for minimizing global carbon emissions.
The problem, of course, is that the technologies for clean coal are still imperfect; but also coal fired power plants are continuing to be built in the US and throughout the developing world without regard to the effects of GHG emissions.
Perhaps as a recognition of Compost Awareness Week, the New York Times has three articles today dealing with the issue of urban garbage.
The first is a success story of the various policies underway in San Francisco to encourage recycling. The article asserts that 70% of the city’s waste stream is diverted from landfills and recycled or composted. This figure is pretty remarkable, especially considering recycling is not mandatory. The norm in the United States seems to be the reverse, with around 30% of the waste stream being recycled.
The city has been successful at selling its waste to Chinese companies that use some of it for packaging (no discussion of the carbon footprint involved in this process!) They also appear to have a policy that charges more for the larger amount of waste produced for each home. According to Mayor Gavin Newsome, the city is considering a target of 75% waste diverted from landfills by making recycling mandatory.
The other two garbage-related stories today are not so positive. The Times reports on yesterday’s lawsuit filed by the European Commission to make Italy clean up the garbage in Naples. Apparently the mafia controls the waste distribution system. Legitimate dumps are filled to capacity and are improperly used for dumping hazardous waste. To compensate for the capacity issues, it appears the mafia either doesn’t pick up the garbage or dumps it illegally in the countryside.
It will be interesting to see how the EU lawsuit unfolds since the European Court of Justice could levy serious fines if Italy doesn’t come up with a solution to the problem. It may not come to this since new Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made the Naples cleanup a central part of last month’s election campaign. Berlusconi, however, is a bit of a euroskeptic, so he may not take kindly to EU sanctions.
Finally, to complete the urban garbage hat trick, the Times has a story on efforts to combat crows in Japan. Apparently crows feasting on urban Japan’s copious supply of garbage are becoming aggressive. According to the article, efforts to control crow populations are conflicting with a conservation ethic predominant in Japan.
“Cynical voter pandering” is the only way to describe the McCain-Clinton proposals to hold a “gas tax holiday” this summer. Suspending the tax will unlikely have a significant effect on price, it would reduce the amount of money for road maintenance in the already-troubled Highway Trust Fund, and (if the tax cut did spur consumption) have negative environmental consequences.
Clinton’s promotion of such a questionable scheme can lilkely be chalked up to desperate self-interest to shore up her increasingly-dim prospects for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, her response to a query on this morning’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos raises even more questions about her capacity for governance.
When asked by Stephanopoulous to name an economist who supports her scheme, she replied that “I’m not going to put in my lot with economists because I know if we get it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively.”
As Mark Kleimen describes her rejection of expert knowledge, the response is positively Bush-like. Making claims for policy based on delusion and wishful thinking are unlikely to serve Clinton well after eight years of the same model of governing.
Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, makes a similar argument. He also apparently called economists he knows who are advising Hillary for comment–none gave very satisfactory answers.
(photo credit: Great Taco Hunt)
The front page of today’s New York Times features an article about the recent strengthening of regulations on taco trucks in unincorporated Los Angeles County. Proponents of taco trucks highlight how they contribute to a creative and vibrant use of public space, the availability of a cheap source of food, budding immigrant entrepreneurship, and an assertion of cultural identity. Critics charge that unregulated trucks have questionable sanitation, generate litter, and are unfair competition to mom-and-pop neighborhood restaurants.
While taco trucks have always been subject to regulations relating to the places where they can park and the duration they can stay in any one place, according to the article penalties have been mild and violators are rarely pursued. The new ordinance criminalizes violators by requiring jail time and upping the fines for violations.
I am a great proponent of street food. Here on the north side of Chicago, one of the signs of spring is the appearance of the La Monarcha paleteria bike/carts and the mobile elote stands. While the issues of litter shouldn’t be discounted, these vendors generally contribute positively to the street culture, bringing out all sorts of people for a bit of nourishment. Their presence will likely to continue to be under scrutiny–primarily, I think, because of more established businesses wanting to quell competition. But regardless, this type of legislation passed in Los Angeles is unwise in its severity.
See the Great Taco Hunt blog for more information on the LA street food scene and the controversy over the new taco truck legislation.
(Chicago elote cart; photo: Payton Chung)