Thursday, March 19, 2009
Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environmental Program, is out pushing a $750 billion "New Green Deal", an effort that would supposedly boost the world economy and help protect the environment. The program would target the building of more energy efficient buildings, renewable energy programs, better transport, and safeguards for nature and agriculture. Sounds good, huh? But I have five questions:
1) Why $750 billion?
The UNEP says this is 1% of global GDP, and I understand the attraction of round numbers, but how exactly did they come up with this number? Why not 1.2% of GDP? Or 3% of global capital spending? Call me crazy, but I always raise eyebrows at huge spending programs with very exact, round numbers attached to them. They always seem calculated to be soundbite-friendly.
2) Where's the oversight?
A major problem with throwing huge amounts of money around is that unsavory people are going to get some of their hands on it. Think about all the nonsense involved in the supposed reconstruction of Iraq. Every corrupt government contractor would come out of the woodwork looking for a piece of this. Would the UN be willing to be tough with these characters?
3) Who's going to pay for it?
Ok, the US government is throwing trillions of dollars around trying to fix the economy, tax revenues will be down, and unemployment is growing. Can we really spare 1% of GDP for a program with less-than-certain results?
4) Why should we do this with no guarantee of a payoff?
Long-term forecasts for major spending programs are usually WAY off the mark (think about any Presidential candidate's tax plan). We don't have much data on how environmental programs could pay off over the long term in terms of growth, job creation, etc.
5) So why can't we just do my lazy, easy plan?
Given my doubts about this program, I must not give a damn about the environment, right? Wrong. I just believe that being an environmentalist is less about spending large amounts of money and more about doing low-cost, basic things on a daily basis that reduce energy and resource consumption. I don't think we need to take money from ExxonMobil (XOM) and ConocoPhillips (COP) and hand it over to First Solar (FSLR) to be environmentalists.
There are a million ways to reduce energy and resource consumption TODAY with ZERO cost.
So my plan would be to simply educate the public about the financial benefits of becoming more environmentally-friendly. It might be wishful thinking, but times are tough right now, and helping people save money will get their attention more quickly than trying to wow them with big-dollar spending.
Here are five easy ways to help the environment while saving money TODAY:
1) Use Freecycle and Craig's List
There's no better way to reduce your resource consumption (and spending) than by taking someone else's used stuff - especially when it's free. I don't know about you, but to me a free bookcase is just as good as a new one, even if it is a bit scratched up. So just sign up with Freecycle and get free stuff! You can also reduce waste by donating things you don't need, or by selling them used. It's a lot more environmentally-friendly than throwing it in the trash!
2) Put your water in a pitcher and stick it in the fridge.
Sounds basic, right? But it's a damn good idea because you won't have to leave the water running until it gets cold enough for drinking. Voila, your water waste is partially eliminated (unless you take long showers...).
3) Eat smaller portions
I feel like a hypocrite here because sometimes I eat like a pig, but cutting your portion sizes is a very easy way to help the environment, and improve your health at the same time. We don't have to all go vegan, but the food industry uses tons of natural resources and quite a bit of land in manufacturing/farming.
4) Use Cloth Bags When Food Shopping
It's pretty easy to wind up with a huge pile of plastic bags in your closet, especially if you have a family. Unfortunately, those plastic bags use a lot of energy in their production and they don't degrade easily. So just use reusable cloth bags, which can be tossed in with your usual laundry load for cleaning.
5) Only Wash Full Loads of Laundry
Washing clothes uses plenty of water and energy, so wait until you have a full load before doing the laundry. If you don't, double up with a friend or roommate to make the most out of each load.
Now if the government is going to spend big things, I don't think there should necessarily be a big rush to spend it on alternative energy sources. I think the immediate focus should be on reducing consumption of oil and natural gas, because the taxpayer gets a more certain return on investment.
For example, countless apartment buildings produce enormous amounts of heat. The result is the people on the bottom floors have their windows open to stop from roasting to death. That's a huge waste of oil, gas, and money. So it would be helpful for the government to help with low-cost loans for upgrading boilers and duct systems, or for improving insulation to increase the effectiveness of heating/air conditioning.
Isn't eliminating 20% of our current oil consumption by using common sense more cost-effective than putting together renewable energy projects? That money would go directly into consumers' and business' pockets, which could then go into new investments in our economy.
My ideas aren't nearly as sexy as a big solar plan, but it's a lot easier to add up the dollars at the end of the day. I mean, our dollars!
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