Per Capita Davis: Sustainability is not a four-letter word

By From page A4 | August 07, 2014

This column has, at various times, struggled with the question of whether individual action or broad governmental policies and regulations represent the best path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, it’s a false premise that we have to choose one or the other. We need both. But the interplay between the two continues to illuminate where an appropriate balance may lie.

Consider a spate of recent articles. First, a description of a report issued by the Public Policy Institute of California describing the results of a poll on how people respond to the upcoming (scheduled for January 2015) inclusion of fuel producers in California’s groundbreaking “cap and trade” program, the cornerstone of the state’s efforts to reduce emissions to reach statutorily required targets.

The good news is that, when asked, just over three out of four of us (76 percent) support the proposed regulation. The not-so-good news is that this support drops to 39 percent if it means individuals will have to pay a bit more for gas at the pump. This precipitous decline in support when individuals are actually asked to do something that could affect their pocketbook argues in favor of the policies and regulations path.

The bulk of progress to date toward reduced carbon emissions in the United States has resulted from actions taken by the federal and state governments, such as increased miles-per-gallon standards for cars, requirements for utilities to generate power from renewable sources, and energy-efficient standards for appliances, lights and homes.

Though these laws and regulations can result in increased costs, they don’t directly require individuals to do anything; we just buy more fuel-efficient cars, trucks, light bulbs, appliances and homes.

Not so with gasoline. Everyone not driving an electric vehicle knows when the price of gas goes up. State regulators say, for lots of reasons, adding fuel producers to the cap-and-trade program will not increase the cost at the pump. The Western States Petroleum Association, on the other hand, estimates an increase of anywhere from 14 cents to 69 cents a gallon, while a UC Davis economist predicts an increase of about 9 cents a gallon.

A couple of items were in the news about the possibility of an increase. Some state legislators, claiming they’re worried that an increase in gas prices will erode public support for climate change efforts across the board, want the state to delay adding fuel producers to the cap-and-trade program. Meanwhile, the petroleum association is one of many sponsors of the California Drivers Alliance that is taking out nearly full-page ads in newspapers with headlines that scream, “Stop the Hidden Gas Tax,” and urging readers to sign an online petition.

It’s worth considering how a couple of key words in the climate change discussion have come to be defined.

The word “tax,” rather than describing something we all contribute to the general good, has become freighted with negatives while a “hidden tax” is sneaky and even worse.

Consider something as simple as the “gas tax.” The effort to provide dollars to the Highway Trust Fund is mired in congressional distrust by some who reflexively consider anything that costs money a tax and a bad thing. The trust fund is scheduled to go bankrupt this month, even though the funds generated from this “tax” are used to maintain the roads on which cars and trucks that use gasoline are driving. It has not been raised, even to adjust for inflation, from the 18.5 cents per gallon established in 1993.

The term “sustainability” has become a part of the “green” lexicon. As currently used, it primarily describes a shift from a fossil fuel-dependent economy to one based on renewables in which “fuel” is virtually inexhaustible into the future.

Arguably, this is too narrow a definition. “Sustainability” also should apply to roads, schools, libraries and other pieces of the infrastructure of our lives. Just as we collectively need to come up with an estimated trillion dollars to sustain and enhance our streets and highways, we should expect to pay a share of the cost to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sustain a livable planet.

Absent broad public acceptance of such a notion, and given that “tax” has become a four-letter word in our public discussion, efforts to encourage individuals to reduce emissions are not only important on a person-by-person, house-by-house, business-by-business basis, it is also critical to building support for policies and regulations that can underpin large leaps toward “sustainability,” which is not a four letter word, so far.

The current drought also offers some insight into what works and what doesn’t work when resources get tight. The call for voluntary water conservation measures has thus far fallen on mostly deaf ears. It’s true that there are a lot of brown lawns around but, in general, statewide, requests for voluntary reductions in water use have resulted in a reported 4-percent increase instead of the desired 20-percent decrease.

Areas where water conservation is mandatory, on the other hand, reported an average 14-percent reduction.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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