The best way to fix the long term is with more short-termism

People don't like thinking about hard problems while the economy is a mess.

Just in case you aren't convinced that things tend to get worse before they get more worse, here's another example of why it's incumbent on us to solve the short-term problems in the short term because, not despite, of the long-term problems plaguing us.

The Washington Post's Brad Plumber writes about building the support needed to tackle climate change:

A new study finds that U.S. senators are far less likely to take green votes when the unemployment rate in their state is high…

Grant Jacobsen of the University of Oregon took a look at the voting records of 296 senators between 1976 and 2008. He then checked the local unemployment rate in each senator’s state, and matched them up to the “green scores” that were given to each senator by the League of Conservation Voters.

The result? “A one point increase in the [state] unemployment rate leads to a statistically significant 0.48 point decline in the LCV score of the average senator.”

Doubtless politicians – particularly right-wing politicians – wouldn't agree that Making Tough Choices about climate change is the same as Making Tough Choices about what we're used to euphemistically referring too as "much needed structural reforms", but they are. In both cases, the move would be unpopular, painful for a number of entrenched interests, and probably necessary in the long term – but the idea that we ought to take difficult steps in the middle of the biggest recession Britain has ever seen, and then start fixing the recession, is madness.

Of course, the problems with fixing climate change in the middle of a recession aren't identical to the proposals to cut employment protections, corporate tax rates and financial regulations. For one thing, there's a chance that efforts to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere might actually do what they're intended to do, while the evidence that businesses are just straining at the bit to give us perpetual 3 per cent growth were it not for those pesky unfair dismissal laws is slim.

But also, of course, many efforts to fight climate change are also ones which would end the damaging austerity keeping us in this economic crisis in the first place. So while politically, we may have to solve the short term problem – and end the depression – before we can move on to fixing the climate, economically, they're one and the same.

Still, what we should take away from this is that something which can end the depression is something which should be done. It doesn't matter if it's "kicking the can down the road" – once that can is kicked, we can start thinking about the long term solutions which might eliminate the can altogether, or maybe power it with wind, or solar energy. (That metaphor ran away from me somewhat)

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.