Greater Greater Washington

Visions of an energy-efficient future

We're going to make the transition from a cheap-energy world to an energy-efficient world whether we like it or not. Will we have to suffer Kunstler-esque "long emergency" disasters or reorient our economy before it's too late?


Photo by 4563_pic on Flickr.

Ryan Avent dreams of a sensible transportation policy:

Imagine a world where the city established dedicated bus and bike lanes, free from automobile traffic. Imagine that drivers who did want to come into the city had to pay a daily toll, and that the proceeds of that toll went toward increased bus, streetcar, and rail capacity in the city and out into the burbs. Does it not seem that everyone, drivers included, would get where they were going a lot faster? That those without cars would enjoy greater mobility, and that the metro area as a whole would spend a lot less on gas?
Vanshnookenraggen sees hope and pain down the road:
Because of high energy costs, living on large lots in the exurbs will no longer be affordable to the middle class. New policies will go into effect that support infill development in older city centers. As the populations of central cities grows again this will put a strain on already fragile infrastructure. Cities will begin rebuilding mass transit systems they ripped out long ago in favor of the car. ...

This will not have come easy. Much like the riots that flamed white flight in the 1960s, new class riots will erupt as the inner city poor feel the pressures of a society that they cannot afford to live in while being pushed out by much wealthier whites.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Base your utopia on congestion charges, and all you do is decapitate the city, leaving edge cities just outside every toll gate. People end up driving *around* the city rather than through it to get to the other side. You invite urban blight and suburban development.

Why not reduce our fuel use by... dun duh duh daah.. taxing fuel.

Imagine:

In 2009, after a landslide win where the Dems pick up the presidency, 10 seats in the Senate and 30 more seats in the House, the president announces the economic threat posed by peak oil, and the environmental threat posed by coal. He announces that getting past these threats will be the biggest existential challenge the country has faced in 70 years, but that we will do it.

He announces a $20/ton CO2 tax on fossil fuels entering our economy, through mining or importation. This modest measure is sufficient to stave off the environmentally disastrous trend towards coal power. The money will go towards alternative energy R&D grants and matching funds for electric mass transit.

He announces that this is enough to spur power generation improvements, but that oil usage is a special case which requires extreme measures. One must be careful that extreme measures do not hurt the poor. So a windfall profit tax on the oil companies is brought up: a landmark $50/barrel tax on oil or oil products imported or harvested, with an extra $25 tacked on every year for ten years. At the end of the year, this is divided up by however many adult US citizens are within the tax system, and the account is emptied completely by sending out checks.

It ends up being a weakly progressive tax (because the poor couldn't afford a median oil expenditure in the first place) which creates a strong incentive for naturalization, largely fixing the immigration problem on the side. Every adult citizen gets about $2000 (the first year) that they can use either to continue their previous lifestyle, or to build a new one - the median fossil fuel consumer sees no difference if he doesn't change, only a reduction in his net earnings from the tax from one year to the next (proportional to how much oil the rest of the country stops using).

It is both a price floor for oil (protecting us from OPEC suddenly opening the spigot to kill all our green development with $10/barrel oil again), and a price buffer that protects us from sudden fluctuations of the world oil price.

Give people money to buy better cars, improve their homes, change their lifestyle, and change their transportation arrangements, and direct them (via price signals) to do so, and they'll do it. There's no force stronger than self interest. Phrase everything right ("windfall profit tax on the oil companies", "the fuel price volatility relief act of 2009"), and have Congress loan the account money so that it can offer the first year's payments upfront, and you can even make it politically popular.

We have a capitalist system, and properly directed (using capitalist measures) it can work very well. Congress can't efficiently pick the winners in technological battles, or move as quickly to change the country as is necessary to meet peak oil without resorting to coal-powered everything. Implementing effective tax measures to reduce fossil fuel usage, rather than implementing proactive attempts to develop alternatives, frees our green tech up from having to move at the speed of Congress.

by Squalish on Jun 1, 2008 4:01 pm • linkreport

I'm all for taxing gas to cover the externalities of driving. Still, a capitalist economy involves pricing scarcer goods higher, and driving space in a dense city is scarcer. Therefore, I don't see the problem with also having a congestion charge as long as the demand to drive in the city is too high for the available capacity.

Furthermore, if we implement congestion charges in those places where there are alternatives and/or use congestion money to create alternatives, it better addresses the equity argument of hurting people who have no alternative.

by David Alpert on Jun 1, 2008 10:29 pm • linkreport

Driving space in the city can be fixed through parking limitation - remove the regulations requiring a certain amount of parking (all of them), stop funding expensive parking garages, tax fuel as I said, and THEN we can start talking about congestion charges, or taxing private parking, or some of the other extremes debated around here.

Bisecting a neighborhood or city is not something you do lightly. It has thousand of unintended consequences, it's obtrusive, it's inflexible, it's unpopular, and if there is development on both sides of the 'wall,' it can actually reduce energy efficiency.

by squalish on Jun 2, 2008 6:44 pm • linkreport

Reducing driving need not depend on massive federal legislation, however changes would be nice.

Dropping the massive subsidies that the airlines get would be a good start. Putting ADEQUATE money into rails would be a nice second.

Building good neighborhoods need not depend on demand from peak oil, they should be attractive enough as things go already. Most Americans IMHO would like to live in an walkable city, town or village, but few are being built, as most architects/developers/planners are simply inept and use outdated models and ways of thinking. Changing these ideas would go much further than any gas crisis.

by Boots on Jun 3, 2008 8:42 am • linkreport

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