Good news Monday: US emission projections drop for a fifth year running

Maybe we won't all die?

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal highlights some good news to start the week. Projections of US CO2 emissions in 2030 at the lowest they've been in five years, according to the 2013 Annual Energy Outlook, the long-term predictions of the US Energy Information Administration.

This chart, from the EIA, shows the changes:

The administration gives five reasons for the decline in expected CO2 emissions between 2009 and 2013:

  1. Downward revisions in the economic growth outlook, which dampens energy demand growth;
  2. Lower transportation sector consumption of conventional fuels based on updated fuel economy standards, increased penetration of alternative fuels, and more modest growth in light-duty vehicle miles traveled;
  3. Generally higher energy prices, with the notable exception of natural gas, where recent and projected prices reflect the development of shale gas resources;
  4. Slower growth in electricity demand and increased use of low-carbon fuels for generation;
  5. Increased use of natural gas

Sober Look ties the news to the continued failure of the US to enact a successful cap-and-trade programme, writing:

One of the reasons for the failure of the so-called cap & trade program in the US (other than political), has to do with the fact that carbon emissions have declined on their own - without any caps. And why would a company pay for an emissions "allowance" if it can stay under the cap without it. Of course politically it made no sense to force companies to pay at the time when they were emitting materially less carbon on their own. Furthermore, there was no incentive for investors to hold these contracts because each year the long-term projections for carbon emissions in the US have declined.

That analysis is undoubtedly correct; the US cap and trade system was predicated on limiting the growth in emissions, and if they are naturally falling then clearly that limit will be moot.

That said, all it really does is highlight the appalling lack of ambition of the American climate programmes – not that the European cap-and-trade programme is doing much better. This is another argument in favour of carbon taxes versus cap-and-trade programmes; if you get the cap wrong on cap-and-trade, your programme is useless, but no matter what the value of a carbon tax, it will always have some effect.

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.