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Burn Carbon Responsibly


One thing that Elizabeth Kolbert's broadside against eco-stunt literature (the books about going green by living without carbon, or electricity, or trash, or toilet paper) didn't do a very good job of explaining is that making sensible decisions about how to reduce carbon emissions is really, really hard. It's intuitive, for instance, to eat local foods. But it's less intuitive to eat foods that are shipped rather than trucked. And few people know that it's much more important to reduce meat than reduce miles. How much carbon does Styrofoam use? Is that more or less than an aluminum can?

Lots of activities burn carbon. Some, like driving, have been hyped, and everyone knows about them. Some, like raising large numbers of animals to feed to humans, have not been hyped, and so people don't know about them. Some, like whether to take the bus or the metro, are simply unclear to people who haven't studied the issue. Asking people to be carbon calculators is a silly way to reduce their carbon output.

The problem is not that we burn carbon. It's that we don't price the harm of the carbon we burn into the products we buy. To put it slightly differently, it's that we don't burn carbon responsibly. That's why something like cap-and-trade, or a carbon tax, makes sense. The point isn't to have me running a thousand calculations about whether I should drive, walk, metro or bike; or whether I should eat a local chicken or buy a spinach salad. It's to have me simply go about my day and let prices make those decisions for me. Goods or services that burn more carbon will be more expensive. Goods or services that burn less will be less expensive. That's information I actually know how to use.

Photo credit: American Electric Power

By Ezra Klein  |  August 28, 2009; 5:34 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Why is it so taboo or difficult for us or government to do some real educating on this subject as well. Must it all be voluntary? Do we all have to figure it out for ourselves while news organizations, politicians and marketers present differing views and methods as if any is equally valid or desirable?

Posted by: bcbulger | August 28, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

You've made the cars vs. hamburgers argument before, but the math doesn't pan out. According to your numbers, one SUV is worth several million hamburgers. At that rate, me riding a bicycle to work has more effect on the climate than all of Albany, NY going vegetarian.

Please do the math over and write on this subject again. How many hamburgers equals one year's worth of SUV emissions?

Posted by: dpaigen | August 28, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Of course all of those decisions also have factors in play besides emissions (a price on carbon won't tell me whether my produce is endangering a local ecosystem), but Ezra is exactly right that cap-and-trade will eliminate most or all of the guesswork and over-generalization when it comes to calculating the GHG footprint of individual products or activities. Just cap it all and let the market sort it out.

Granted, the people determining how emissions will be calculated are still going to have to rely on some degree of approximation and over-generalization to create measures that are practical, but at least this can be done by experts with direct access to lots of empirical data whose job is to get this right, rather than the general public that has better things to do than, say, determine how much methane a cow farts as a function of its diet.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | August 28, 2009 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Cap and trade as actually proposed isn't really a market mechanism because it doesn't treat all carbon equally. It sets one standard (specifically, none) for carbon emitted by biomass fuels, another for coal, another for domestically-refined gasoline, and yet another for imported gasoline. It may set an overall cap, but in detail it's more about political horse trading and posturing than arriving at a "most bang for the buck" solution.

Posted by: tl_houston | August 31, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

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