Splitting America three-ways

If you refounded North America, how many currencies would you go for?

If you refounded North America, how many currencies would you go for? Whatever the answer, you probably wouldn't insist on Vancuver and Seattle being different.

The whole thing is reminicisent of the debate around Europe. In May, a JP Morgan research note revealed that the Eurozone was more diverse than pretty much every other possible monetary union:

The x-axis is a measure of similarity between countries. It measures over 100 economic, social and political characteristics. Michael Cembalest, the report's author, then applied this measure to 11 hypothetical monetary unions, as well as to the major countries of the Eurozone (he excluded smaller countries like Cyprus and Malta, but the results aren't that different if they are included; nor does the inclusion of Greece affect the results all that much).

What he finds is that many monetary unions that came close to existing exhibit far more similarity than the Eurozone. This includes Latin America, the Gulf states, and Central America. He then pushed it further: reconstituting several former empires, including the USSR, Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire in Africa, would also result in unions with more similarity than the EU.

Now, three academics from the Democritus University of Thrace have performed a similar analysis on the US and Canada, and found that – economically, at least – the present borders make little sense. E. Chrysanthidou, P. Gogas, and T. Papadimitrioy apply Robert Mundell's theory of Optimal Currency Areas (OCA) to the hypothetical issue of a north American currency union.

An OCA is an area where the macroeconomic conditions between two or more regions are suitable for creating a monetary union. All such unions have potential benefits – eliminating currency risk means that conditions are much more favourable for trade within the union – but they also have potential downsides, as the eurozone is demonstrating presently. If the various involved regions are similar enough, the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks.

The theory, which stems from the 1960s, was originally based on an examination by Mundell of the US and Canada, but it took on a more practical bent with proposition of the European Monetary Area. Since then, it has been largely applied to Europe and similar cases of actually-existing, or at least widely proposed, currency unions.

The authors return to the source, and attempt to work out, using two different methods (Correspondence Analysis and Hierarchical Cluster Analysis), what the groupings between the fifty US states and ten Canadian provinces ought to be.

The conclusion is not two, but three different countries, one on each coast and one in the middle:

The authors describe the differences:

The first one includes regions mainly from the East that are industrialized, and characterized by high levels of economic activity as this is measured by the macroeconomic variables used in our analysis.

The second part includes regions mainly from western US and Canada with diverse levels of economic activity and prosperity.

Finally, a third group of regions can be identified. This group includes a geographically diverse set of regions as it spans from east to west. The common factor though that links these regions is the relatively low level of economic prosperity as it is measured in our study in terms of income, growth, imports, exports, etc.

It would be rather awkward, to be sure – but no less awkward than the current arbitrary line drawn along the 49th parallel.

The US-Canada border. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.