Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Carbon tax

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Can someone explain to me why the folks who are organizing around climate change (like  are so focused on getting colleges to divest from energy companies and aren’t pushing for a carbon tax?  Over vacation, I finally read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article in which he goes through the math of climate change (bottom line: we’re in deep trouble), and was mostly convinced that the changes we’re making now are just not going to have enough impact fast enough to really make the difference.  But I don’t see divestment moving the needle any faster.

And I do think that right now, there’s a strong case to be made that we should be looking to a carbon tax (with appropriate provisions to assist lower-income households, who would otherwise be badly affected) as solution that simultaneously address climate issues and the deficit.  President Obama is clear that he thinks that revenues need to still be on the table in the next round of deficit negotiations — the basic argument is that the Budget Control Act in 2011 was spending cuts only, the fiscal cliff deal was revenue only, and the next round should be both.  But he seems to agree that the rates, at least for personal income taxes, are not going to move further.  The White House fact sheet on the deal says “The agreement leaves substantial scope for reducing tax expenditures for high-income households, reforming corporate taxes to broaden the base and cut the rate to make America more competitive, and to take further steps to reform entitlements.”  I’m just really skeptical that he’s going to identify enough tax expenditures to cut to get to where we need to be on revenues — the charitable deduction, the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion of health insurance coverage from income all seem to be pretty much politically untouchable.  Rather than banging our heads against that wall, it seems to be time to pivot and suggest a completely different approach — a carbon tax.  (Of course, the Republicans don’t want to allow any more revenue, but that’s another story.)

But given the well financed, well organized opposition to a carbon tax, it’s never going to happen unless there’s an organized effort to support it.  And the folks who are trying to create a mass movement around climate change don’t seem to be pushing for it at all.  I really don’t get it.  If you have an explanation, I’d love to hear it.




Monday, May 25th, 2009

We had a really nice weekend camping.  We went with several other families, so there were a total of five kids, with ours the youngest at five and eight, and the oldest being twelve.  We went out to Wolf Gap, which is right on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.

I was impressed at how well the boys did hiking, since last year they were pretty whiny on a much shorter hike.  There was one section where you really needed to climb up some rocks, and both boys made it with only a few helping hands.  (They needed a bit more assistance on the downhill there.)  D whined a fair bit on the way up, but then raced down ahead of us trying to keep up on the way down.  N was a trooper for most of the time, but was clearly wiped by the end.

Other than the hike, the boys mostly spent the time obsessively poking the fire.  There were enough adults there that we were able to take turns supervising them, and no one got set on fire.  The kids all thought we should have a fire going at all times, so we told them they were responsible for collecting enough firewood to make that happen, and the older kids even each took a turn with the saw.  The adults were able to actually have some conversations, as well as reading, and staring into the fire.  We all ate far too many roasted marshmallows.

This was car camping [e.g. we could drive right to the campsite, but we slept in tents, not the car] so we were able to bring a ridiculous amount of supplies.  We had folding chairs and tables, a two burner stove, big tents, beer and soda, barbecued chicken, watermelon, coffee w/ cream, you name it.  This is the sort of camping that I did with my family when I was growing up, but as an adult I somewhere along the way decided that I only wanted to do backcountry camping, where you only have what you're willing to carry.  That's obviously not going to happen with the boys until they're old enough to carry their own gear, but this weekend made me realize that it's some sort of stupid snobbery to think that car camping isn't worth doing.

The two burner stove that my friends brought is pretty much identical to the one my parents bought at Sears 40 years ago, and a quick online search shows that Coleman still makes pretty much the identical model.  I remembered that when I was little we were able to buy the fuel for the stove at gas stations, which makes me think that car camping must have been far more popular then than it is now.* We hypothesized that it's been driven out by the combination of:

  • Camping as a cheap way to travel has been driven out by cheap motels and low-fare air travel.
  • Those who do travel and camp mostly use RVs.  (When did RVs get popular?)
  • Now that air conditioning is so ubiquitous, not to mention television and the internet, not so many people are interested in sitting in the woods and getting eaten by mosquitoes.  (My boys did complain about our not letting them bring their DSs.)
  • Those who do still camp are more likely to be the hard core folks who want to backpack and not car camp.

*I'm not entirely sure that's true — it looks like white gas was used for things other than just camping stoves and lanterns.

What do you think — has car camping declined?  Will it make a comeback in the recession?  Do you do it?  What's the one piece of gear that you couldn't live without?

Ok, I found some statistics from the outdoor industry foundation.  I think this is the trade group of the people who sell gear.  It's a little hard to read, but I think they're saying that 49 million Americans went car camping at least once in 2004, down 18 percent from 1998, and 13 million Americans went backpacking at least once in 2004, down 23 percent from 1998.  If anyone can find longer-term trends, I'd love to see them.

Spot Shot

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

So, no sooner had I said that I wouldn’t do reviews of cleaning products, then on the same day one of our foster kitties pissed where he shouldn’t have and I got an email asking if I wanted to be on the MomCentral blog tour for Spot Shot, by the folks who make WD-40.  So here I am, eating my words.

So, the first question: does it work?  I was pretty impressed.  They sent with the sample a little square of carpet and tubes of chocolate syrup and ammonia that you can squeeze on to test it, but I tossed those and went for the real deal: the spot in N’s room where he puked blackberries all over the place last summer.  I can still see where the stain is, but it’s a lot better than it was before, and I’d tried a bunch of cleaners.  I didn’t actually try it on the cat piss, because when we tried it in a corner, it looked like it was picking up the upholstery dye, and we didn’t want to risk it.

The second question: is it really "environmentally friendly" as it claims?  I have absolutely no idea.  It didn’t smell like solvents, which I guess is good, but I don’t really know what’s in it, or how that compares to regular carpet cleaners.  I think the cleaning market is somewhere close to where organic food was 20 years ago — there are no standards, and so it’s hard to know whether what you’re getting is worth the price.  Is the fancy "green" window cleaner (which costs 4x more than the traditional blue stuff) anything more than vinegar and water and perfume?  Is rubbing alcohol considered environmentally friendly?  Beats me.

interesting odds and ends

Monday, July 28th, 2008
  • I thought this article on the growth in Fairfax school enrollment was interesting  It says enrollment is up by 2,500, in part due to a shift of 1,000 students from Prince William county.  Some hypothesize it’s due to Prince William’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants; others suggest it’s due to the high price of gas.  It’s likely that both contribute, and may even affect the same families. I wonder what the typical shifts between the two counties are.
  • Via Yglesias, I ran into this study arguing that redshirting of kindergarteners leads to reduced high school completion, since it means that kids have completed fewer years of school when they reach the age where they’re no longer required to attend school.  This doesn’t make sense to me, as it’s overwhelmingly upper-middle-class families who hold their kids back a year, but lower-income kids who drop out as soon as they’re legally able to.  Anyone want to take a crack at it?
  • I love Alan Blinder’s idea of stimulating the economy by buying back polluting clunkers for more than book value.  One of my pet bugaboos is that when people talk about "green jobs" they always focus on the sexy futuristic stuff like solar and wind power, when you could get a lot more bang for the buck subsidizing new boilers and more insulation in low-cost rental housing.  (As long as renters pay for the utility bills, it almost never makes economic sense for landlords to make those investments on their own.)

Are high food prices bad?

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Parke at US Food Policy poses the bold question: "Are high food prices unambiguously bad?"

The obvious problem with high food prices is that they mean that people on the edge eat less, and often poorer quality food.  Food is one of the most flexible part of the budget for most people — in the short term, you can’t reduce your rent, but you can skip a few meals, or see if the local food pantry can help you out.  There’s a study that shows that poor families eat less in cold winters, when utility bills are especially high.

So what’s good about high food prices?  Let’s start by thinking about the parallel question for gas.  I don’t think that high gas prices are unambiguously bad.  While I worry about the effect on low-income folks, especially in rural areas, I think high gas prices generally send the right economic signals: buy more fuel-efficient cars, use more carpools and mass transit, think about the costs of commuting when you decide where to live.  I’d like to see more of the cost of gas going into funding things like better mass transit, and less going to enrich oil companies and OPEC, but that’s a different issue.

So, is there something parallel for food?  Well, a big part of why food in the US is so cheap is that energy has been cheap.  When Michael Pollen says that the US food economy runs on corn, he could just as easily say it runs on oil — in the form of fuel for tractors and combines, in the form of fertilizer (which is largely made from petroleum), in the form of the fuel for the trucks that move the corn from farm to processing plant to grocery store.  So, it’s hard to imagine how food prices could stay as low as they’ve been in a world of higher energy prices.

It’s also likely that the relative costs of different kinds of food will change.  Bananas may be more expensive compared to apples, free range chicken may only cost twice as much as factory farmed chicken, rather than five times as much.  Some things that have been unsustainably cheap will be more expensive, and that might be a good thing.

But, none of this makes the basic problem of low-income people not being able to afford food go away.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been doing a lot of thinking about how to make sure that low-income households are protected in the context of climate change legislation that will increase energy costs — basically, the idea is that if the government auctions off all carbon permits, rather than assuming that companies are entitled to permits at the left that they currently pollute, it generates enough money to provide generous refunds to low and moderate income households.  I’m not sure what the food equivalent of that is.

Conservation and savings

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

We’ve been in this house for a bit more than a year now, so now we’re able to do same month year-to-year comparisons of our energy use.  We’ve been steadily working on making the house more energy efficient, so I’ve been curious to see what the impacts are.  We’ve replaced the windows, one of the toilets, clothes washer, dryer, boiler, fridge, dishwasher, and stove.  Basically, the only things left to do are the hot water heater and the air conditioner…

So, the envelope please…

  • Electricity — Dominion Virginia Power has a handy-dandy button on its site that generates various comparisons for you once you’ve logged in.  It shows how much you paid in a given month compared to the previous month and the same month the year before, and divides the change out among different temperatures, different number of days in the billing cycle, change in prices, and "customer-controlled use."  So, we paid $71.20 in May 2008, down from $95.02 a year previously.  And the rates went up in that period, so they claim that customer-controlled use saved us $27.28.  So, a decent percentage savings, but not that impressive in absolute dollar amounts.  Even with the forthcoming 18% rate hike, it’s going to take us a long time before the improvements pay for themselves.  (Obviously, the energy savings were not the primary reasons we made these changes, so we’re not upset by this.)
  • Gas — Washington Gas doesn’t offer this kind of comparison, so I have to sort of eyeball things.  We used 13.2 therms last month, versus 63 therms a year ago.  That’s because it took us a while last year to figure out how much energy our old boiler was using keeping water hot even when it wasn’t sending any into the baseboard heaters.  Once we figured out that we needed to shut the boiler off in the summer, it dropped down to 32 therms. (The remainder is for the clothes dryer and water heater, both of which are gas-powered.  Our new stove is also gas powered, but you’d have to work really hard to spend more than a few dollars that way…)  The more impressive comparison is February to March, when our use dropped from 258 therms to 151 when we installed the new boiler.  That improvement clearly is cost-effective, since our February bill was close to $400.*
  • Water — We get billed quarterly for water, and haven’t paid more than $100 per quarter.  While the washer and dishwasher use less water than the old ones, I don’t expect it to make a noticeable difference on our bills.  We put in a low-flow showerhead but I’m guessing that it impacts the gas bill more than the water bill.

Dominion is making a big deal out of their new conservation plan, but I’m pretty skeptical.  Based on my results, my guess is that just showing people how much their energy use costs won’t significantly affect usage unless they also adopt variable rate pricing, where electricity costs a lot more during peak usage times. (Dominion does not appear to be doing that, since their demo says you’d be entering the rates from your bill.)  I think this is mostly an attempt to convince politicians to give them approval for the transmission lines and coal-burning plant they want to build.

* When I see stories like this one about people with $400 monthly electric bills, I have to assume that they have electric heat, and very poor insulation.  I’m not sure I could run up a $400 electric bill in this house even if I ran the air conditioning with the windows open.

Cross-posted to my home blog.  Also, note the new "Environment" category — I’ll go back when I get a chance and add the tag to some of my older posts. 

How are you adjusting?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

With energy and food prices both climbing, one of my regular readers suggested that I ask all of you all what adjustments you’re making.  Are you reducing your driving?  Cutting coupons?  Reducing meals out?  Saving less?  And how much are these adjustments hurting?  Do you feel like it’s a big sacrifice, or something you hardly notice?

In our household, I’d say we’re making relatively minor adjustments:

  • Trying to consolidate errands, do fewer grocery runs.
  • Doing more shopping at the less expensive grocery stores, and buying less convenience foods
  • Really paying attention to turning out lights, unplugging appliances when not in use.
  • Taking the bus to NYC instead of driving (the parking costs in NYC were killing us)
  • Generally asking "do we really need this" before buying stuff — especially in the $20 to $50 range, which doesn’t feel like big spending, but adds up fast.

I can’t say we’ve really cut back on our day to day driving — I was already driving to the metro, rather than downtown, and the bus is really more of a hassle than the additional savings justify.  (It’s a bit slower than driving, but real problem is that the low frequency makes missing the bus a disaster, so you have to build in huge margins for error.)  I’m actually sort of dubious about these stories about how so many people are shifting from cars to buses.  I’m not disputing the fact that public transit systems are seeing big percentage increases in ridership — but we’re starting from such a low base that if only a few percent of drivers shift to buses, that can be a 30 or 40 percent increase in bus ridership.

I just put in a low-flow showerhead, but that was really an environmental choice rather than a frugal one.  Overall, we’ve done a lot to improve the efficiency of our house — new windows, new boiler (we have baseboard heating), high efficiency washer and dryer, high
efficiency kitchen appliances.  Over the long run, these will save money, but for now, we’ve been writing a lot of big checks for them.

In the short run, things will be better for the next few months, as we won’t have to pay for N’s preschool, and have already paid for camp for the boys.  But then he’s going 5 days a week instead of 3 next year, so that will cost about an extra $200 a month.   But then
after next year we’ll be done with preschool and will feel rich.

Several years ago, I read an article on called the "60 percent solution" in which they argue that you should keep your fixed expenses down to 60 percent of your take-home income.  (I see I wrote about Warren and Tyagi’s version of this plan two years ago).  If you were doing that before the recent run-up in prices, you’re probably giving up some of your extras, but you don’t have to do anything drastic.  If 80 or 90 percent of your paycheck was already allocated to fixed expenses, there’s not a lot of room to adjust.

The reason I thought the 60 percent solution article was interesting was that it recognized that it’s really hard to save significant amount of money by shaving your grocery bill.  Some of us never spent $5 a day on fancy coffees in the first place, and so can’t find savings by giving them up. Instead of squeezing at the margin, it may be better to bite the bullet and look for big changes to make — a smaller house or apartment, taking in a roommate, finding a second job.

LED lights

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to post about the LED lights that we’ve put into our new kitchen. They’re LR6 lights, from Cree Lighting.  If you walked in, you wouldn’t notice them — and that’s the point.  They look like standard lights, are even more energy efficient than CFLs, don’t contain mercury, and can be dimmed (although they require a digital dimmer). 

So, what’s the downside?  Well, for now they’re somewhat overpriced.  If they last as long as the company claims (on the order of 20 years), they’ll more than pay for themselves, but that assumes that we don’t discount the future stream of savings.  And they’re fairly new products, so no one really knows that they’ll actually last that long.  But we decided they were worth a try.  And they look good enough that we’re probably going to use them in our living room as well.

I was more than a bit nervous about buying these without being able to see what they’d look like in practice.  (Amicus Green has them, but as part of a display with a bunch of other lights, so it’s hard to see what the light looks like.)  So, if you’re in the DC area and you’re considering these lights, feel free to email me if you want to come see them.

standby energy tax

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Last night on the way home, I heard David Frum on Marketplace.  Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, so I pretty much assume that I’m going to disagree with everything that comes out of his mouth.

But this is part of what he said:

"OK, the price [of energy] is high again. This is the perfect moment to pass a
standby energy tax, a tax that would kick in when the price of oil
falls below say $60 a barrel. Consumers could feel secure that if they
make the investment in a hybrid car, or a smaller house with a shorter
commute, they won’t feel like fools in four or five years…"

This makes a great deal of sense to me.  I think we’ve talked about it here before, but it’s pretty hard for most people to significantly reduce their driving in the short run in response to increased gasoline prices.  As a recent CBO study shows, the highest response is in those areas where there is existing mass transit as an alternative.  And if the price gets high enough, people start limiting leisure travel.  And indeed, there’s some evidence that gas consumption is finally starting to drop a bit.  But most people can’t just decide not to drive to work or the grocery store.  However, if people know that gas prices are going to stay high for long periods, they’re more likely to make the sort of big changes that Frum mentions.

So, what am I missing?  Is there a hidden problem with it that I’m not seeing?  Or if it’s really something that a libertarian true believer like Frum and a green progressive like myself can agree upon, why aren’t any politicians talking about it?

Plastic bags

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

One of the sections of The World Without Us that caught my attention is the description of the gigantic collection of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific ocean.  It was running around in the back of my head last week when I read the NY Times article about how Ireland has essentially stopped using disposable shopping bags, driven in large part by a 33 cent per bag tax.  Meanwhile, D has been learning about recycling at school, and I’ve been trying to use that as a starting point for a broader lesson about the environment (and turning off lights when you leave the room, please).

So we’ve decided to see if we can break the plastic bag habit.  We’ll keep track of how many we take in each month, and see how low we can get the number.

I understand that giving up plastic grocery bags isn’t going to save the world.  And there are plenty of things that involve plastics that I have no intention of giving up.  But it strikes me that using disposable plastic bags in no way improves my quality of life.  It’s just a habit.  And one that we can choose to break.

We’ve got some canvas bags already, and I went ahead and ordered some folding ones that I can keep in my purse so I always have one with me.  We’ll see how it goes.


So far, so good.  We’ve had some slip-ups, but have been using them more often than not (and often forgoing the plastic bag even when we didn’t bring the grocery bags).

Jo(e) has a great post up about reusable bags.  She argues that the problem is that they’re so convenient that they get used for everything BUT groceries.  But if you buy enough of them, they become ubiquitous, and you stop having to worry about what you did with them.