Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.

Elections are over; what’s the score?

The 2010 mid-term elections are complete. I’ve always hated that term: “mid-term”. I don’t like that the election cycle is defined by the president’s time in office. It somehow dumbs-down the legislative elections in the same way that a mid-term exam might not be worth as much as the final when in fact the legislative elections are worth much more.

This is the election cycle that has the potential to drive and shape policy, most accurately voice the will of the voters, and generally set direction for the country in terms of what is likely to be debated. It’s a huge deal. I prefer we go with the term “general elections” and “presidential elections”.

The democrats finished badly — though not as badly as some had said — and it looks like we’re in for an interesting and corruption-filled two years before we try and fix this. I can’t believe you all voted for republicans. What were you thinking? Do you seriously think we’re better off with the same people who supported Bush for eight years? Really?! Why do you think we’re in the mess we’re in. The debt, unemployment, financial crisis, wars, pollution: all of them were inherited by the current administration. Left as a legacy by Bush.

So that’s the national picture, and I’m unpleased. While I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a democrat, I’m certainly not in the fold of the current republicans. Locally, things look a bit better.

My county district voted back in our long-standing representative at the state level — Lucy Leriche — over a former schoolmate of mine, Nicole Ling. I had to learn quickly about the two, and found out that Leriche would be my choice. For one, she’s experienced and has actually accomplished stuff. Secondly, she can spell her position. Thirdly, she’s not republican and doesn’t seem to let religion or morality interfere with her political work. I’m happy there. I don’t know that much about our state senators, but I will find out.

As the dust settles, I’ll be posting data on the turnout and who voted for whom. We’ll see exactly how many people have just decided upon fate for the rest of us, eh?

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduces extension of Patriot Act sunset

GovTrack: S. 1692: Text of Legislation, Introduced in Senate.

With the bill linked above, Patrick Leahy is attempting to move the end date of the USA Patriot Act from December 31st 2009 to December 31 2013. On October 8th the bill was read twice and submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Leahy is chair.

Specifically what S. 1692 will do is amend the USA Patriot Improvement and Re-authorization Act of 2005 by changing ‘2009’ to ‘2013’ in various sections of the law which reference the bill’s “sunset”, a fail-safe date placed into the law in order to make it more palatable to its detractors. The next step for Leahy’s bill is for it to leave the Judiciary Committee and enter debate on the floor of the senate.

If Leahy’s amendment goes through, the USA Patriot act and all that it allows will stay with this country for another four years. This law needs to run its course and end this December.

For eight years now we’ve lived in a shadow of fear brought on by first the destruction of the World Trade Center, the fall-out caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and — not the least — the fear-mongering actions of our representatives in congress, of which the Patriot Act is one.

The structure of the United States is such that we can either entertain personal and civil liberties, or we can give all of that up for the illusion of perfect safety. We can’t have both. The Patriot Act represents the latter. It’s time for the former. There is still time for us to contact our senators and representatives and let them know that we’re done with the Patriot Act and the fear it represents.

Our new kitten, Tucker

This is Tucker, our new cat. We just picked him up tonight. He’s about ten weeks old and just about as playful as he is cute. I don’t really have anything else to say about him, other than the announcement that he’s here. Oh. And that he’s god-awfully cute.

Danielle will get a chance to spend some quality time with him this weekend, as Gabe and I are headed to Vermont for some garden work.

Garden Diagram

This year we’ve decided to replant the family garden. The plot my mother, father, and I used to use is about 3,000 square feet and should be plenty for my father, sister, and the three of us here in MA. There’s something phenomenally exciting to me about this plan. Not only does it involve more trips to Vermont — which are never bad — it also is a start towards what I think the future will be like: a further reliance on the land for survival. Because for everything this garden is — educational, an excuse for weekend VT trips, a supply of food — it is also about survival: ours and that of the food itself.

There will be a point at which the cost of fresh food will be so hampered by the cost of delivery and logistics that unless people grow their own or purchase extremely locally, it will be unaffordable for most families. People will be forced into buying the less-nutritious, more genetically-altered veggies in the local frozen or canned goods aisle. While I don’t necessarily believe that frozen or canned food is poisonous or will be in the future, there is something to be said about eating food that hasn’t been engineered. Engineering food changes its relationship with the ecosystem, introduces unknowns into our diet, and otherwise messes with Mother Nature. Engineered food may or may not cross-pollenate with un-engineered varieties and could limit our chances of preserving seeds for the future. And even if that’s not likely, why would we take the chance?

Anybody with a small bit of grass, window space, a porch can start a garden for themselves. Even if you live in the middle of a city, there is probably a chance to start a neighborhood plot somewhere. Anytime humans can do something for ourselves that keeps us in touch with the way the earth works, we gain a little something out of life. It’s not tangible nor measureable, but I do feel it’s noticeable.

I designed the garden with not only work in mind, but also with the idea that it could be relaxing place to laze away a few hours. There’s a central circle with some benches and plenty of paths. The patches are all raised beds, and the paths are covered in straw or compost to keep the weeds down. Around the garden is a fence to keep the dogs from romping around willy-nilly. We plan on putting some pleasant chimes on the posts to hopefully kepe the deer away, too. There are animals, however, that we do want in the garden.

The grey circles are piles of stones for snakes, and the tan/sienna circles represent toad homes: clay pots on their sides. Both toads and snakes will help keep the nasty bugs to a minimum. Milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and other wildflowers around the outside will attract butterflies, ladybugs, and bees.

All-in-all, I think we have the potential for a pretty good space, and I’m looking forward to getting a start on it. First planting should start on the 15th of May, with the second one being the week after.