One siren, 3 billion cups

I won’t defend Starbucks for burning their coffee, but I will defend them against the charge that they don’t do enough to promote recycling of the 3 billion paper cups the company goes through each year. Over at the Examiner I take a look at some of the obstacles to finding uses for all those cups and wonder whether it’s worth making the effort.

A liberaltarian alliance against LEED?

Portland has more LEED certified buildings than any other city in the US and, as long-time readers know, I’m not a fan of this. Lately there’s been some backlash from other quarters as well. Architect Frank Gehry commented this week that the certification is awarded for “bogus stuff” and is primarily political. Progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias also linked recently to a post about a new book from New Yorker writer David Owen that slams LEED certification as a form of greenwashing:

It’s a little known fact that most architects, particularly the ones who take sustainability seriously, all hate LEED. With its prescriptions and brownie points for bike racks and proximity to alternative fueling stations, LEED is — in Owen’s estimation — both too difficult and too easy. Too difficult because the process is stupifyingly bureaucratic, requiring even LEED accredited designers to hire expensive LEED accredited consultants to manage the paperwork. And too easy because even after much refinement, many designers and developers still game the system with a few cosmetic changes to achieve LEED certification with a minimum of effort, expense, or innovation.

My own objection to LEED certification stems from its politically correct hatred of smoking, even when conducted outside the building:

It turns out that LEED certification considers six categories of evaluation, one of which is indoor environmental quality. If tobacco smoke is considered a pollutant, banning smoking is one way of addressing it. One could make a plausible case that LEED certified buildings shouldn’t allow smoking indoors, where habitual smokers could pump a lot of smoke into the ventilation systems. But in proximity to an exterior door? Or on a balcony? There’s absolutely no scientific justification for banning this. Walking by a smoker on the way into the lobby is not going to kill anyone. It’s annoying, perhaps, but it’s not a matter that needs to be addressed by green building codes.

It is technically possible to allow smoking in or around LEED certified buildings, but in practice certification is often used as a reason to ban it. The demand for LEED certified residences has made it harder for smokers to find accommodation in cities like Portland and DC. This could be an acceptable trade-off if the program led to demonstrably greener construction, but if its benefits are merely cosmetic we shouldn’t place much value on it.

Ball-o-nomics

If I were to add a fourth item to my Guide for Good Blogging, it might go something like “Always link to stories about mountain oysters.” I’m not going to adopt that rule but I will link to Ian Knauer’s Atlantic piece in praise of partaking of the testicle and of offal meats in general:

But who really practices true nose-to-tail eating? How many among us delight in brain, or tendon, or testicles? These nasty bits, although they have a small following, often go ignored. But in the religion of head to tail, it’s the brains and balls that promote the eater from politically correct do-gooder to enlightened food guru. And, for the record, balls (when cooked the right way) are delicious. [...]

Here’s a video demonstrating the peeling, puncturing, roasting, and slicing of a pair of deer testicles. It features Trent, Steve, Greg, and Elvis.

If you’ve come as far as where the video begins, then the hard work is done. Bread and fry the slices of balls as you would prepare fried green tomatoes. Most importantly, you can feel good about yourself as an eater knowing that none of an animal has gone to waste. Welcome to true food enlightenment; feel free to bask in the salinity.

Be sure to read the whole thing for expert advice on how to avoid the unpleasantness of mountain oysters exploding in your oven, a terrible mess to have to explain to one’s life partner, roommate, or maid.

I agree with Knauer that eating offal is a fine thing. Seared fois and crispy sweetbreads are two of the most delicious foods on Earth; I wouldn’t put either of the testicle dishes I’ve had on the same level, but they can be tasty too. However, should one really feel virtuous about eating offal?

These odd parts of animals are not often eaten by humans in the US, but that doesn’t mean they go to waste. I’m not an expert on meat processing, but my guess is they’re sold off for secondary uses like dog food, industrial feed, and lots of other products. Modern farms are anything but inefficient.

So what happens when more people start eating mountain oysters and such? One effect is that demand for offal goes up, raising its price and therefore raising the value of the entire animal. And when demand goes up, so does production. We’re reducing waste in one sense of the word, but we’re also sending more animals to slaughter, using more resources to feed them, and putting more of their methane into the atmosphere.

However there could be an offsetting substitution effect too. If people are eating offal instead of more expensive cuts of meat, that could reduce the value of whole animals, resulting in fewer animals being killed and less resources used in their production. On the other hand, the substitution effect could work the opposite way if people are choosing an offal-based appetizer to their steak dinner instead of the salad they used to eat.

I don’t know which of these effects will outweigh the others (and if anyone has any hard data, please let me know, because I’m genuinely curious). If consumers substitute unwanted offal for more expensive meats that would almost certainly be a good thing, but is that what they’re doing? Or is our new love of offal going to make our society more carnivorous, not less? If the latter we can enjoy foods like mountain oysters because they’re tasty and different, but it would arguably be more virtuous to simply eat less meat in general.

Previous ball blogging:
Great balls of fryer
The Mystery of the Five-Inch Bull Balls

A brilliant transit idea

The Oregonian on the streetcar plan:

This eastside route poses a much different transportation and economic development challenge than the existing streetcar that links Northwest Portland, the Pearl District, Portland State University and the South Waterfront. The first line ran through a route that was, for the most part, already developed, including the dense housing in Northwest, the vibrant Pearl District and the condos and apartments west of PSU.

Much of the eastside line, in contrast, will travel parts of the city — the Rose Quarter, the Lloyd District, the Central Eastside — where few people live and where commercial development has struggled. This won’t be a streetcar coming to the people, but, the city hopes, people and development coming to the streetcar.

Again, that’s going to require patience. The slow emptying out of the Rose Quarter neighborhood took decades, and it will take time — and more than vague ideas about developing Memorial Coliseum — to bring people and development back. It will take time, creativity and money, too, to mold the Lloyd District and the Central Eastside into strong, inviting and walkable 24-hour neighborhoods. The shelved plans for a convention center hotel pose another serious challenge.

Believe it or not that’s from an editorial in support of the expansion! And have I mentioned that my neighborhood is already served by multiple bus routes and an existing light rail line?

A later paragraph explains why this is such a good idea for Oregon:

This is a small but important start for Portland and for streetcar development nationally. More than 80 cities have plans to build streetcar lines and a few have begun construction. All these rail projects could have critical ties back to Oregon, where United Streetcar, a unit of Clackamas-based Oregon Iron Works Inc., is poised to be the domestic manufacturer of streetcars for cities all over the nation.

See, by wasting $150 million on this streetcar Portland can set a shining example for other cities who will follow our lead in wasting their own millions on streetcars that we sell to them. In the long run it’s a brilliant, devious plan.

Thanks for the ride

I’d like to thank all my readers living outside of Portland for buying me a streetcar:

Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, today signed a contract dedicating $75 million in federal money for the Portland Streetcar eastside loop extension and promised similar federal efforts across the nation.

The contract guarantees the money Portland-area agencies have been anticipating for the project, which started construction during the summer. As The Oregonian has reported, the money was delayed for years by the Bush administration, which funded bus rapid transit projects but blocked streetcars. [...]

[U.S. Rep. Earl] Blumenauer praised the eastside loop project, which will extend from the Pearl District, across the Broadway Bridge to the Lloyd Center Mall, and south along Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

They’re not paying for it but local politicians are quick to claim credit:

“It’s an important down payment on our future in Portland, creating over 1,300 high wage jobs, spurring development and helping jump start the economy for the entire state,” Blumenauer said.

And to hand out contracts to favored constituents:

United Streetcar, a unit of Clackamas-based Oregon Iron Works, Inc., has a contract to build the streetcars needed for the new line.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat, wrote legislation that made it nearly impossible for anyone but United Streetcar to bid on the work.

DeFazio and the Obama administration see domestic production of streetcars as a way to shore up the nation’s heavy manufacturing employment while creating more walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.

This street car line would run right by my current apartment, though by the time it’s built I hope to live somewhere else. Will it be an efficient use of resources? Possibly, but given the political incentives at work it would be a huge leap for me to believe so. Streetcars are grand, sexy projects. They give politicians a great deal to take credit for. Buses aren’t sexy. However they are cheap and adaptable to changing traffic patterns. If Oregonians paid for their own transit we might be funding those. But since the rest of you are paying, sure, let’s build a streetcar!

Transit contrarian Randal O’Toole takes on this sort of thing in his Cato paper “A Desire Named Streetcar.” His analysis seems apt for the current situation.

I’ve had only two experiences with the Portland streetcar. When I first moved here I enjoyed a gin-company sponsored ride around town with Pegus in hand. Last week I almost wrecked my bike slipping a wheel into its rails. Aesthetics aside, I don’t know what purpose the streetcar fulfills that couldn’t be served equally well by buses driving the same route.

Bunnies as biofuel

A couple years ago I suggested using cats as biofuel. Leave it to the Swedes to actually do it. Mostly with bunnies, but with some kittens too.

Greening the green giant

Starbucks’ new “Global Responsibility Report” is now online. It’s an interesting example of corporate transparency (or greenwashing depending on your level of skepticism) and provides some insight into how difficult it is for a company that size to go green, even when it wants to. Encouraging recycling, for example, isn’t as simple as just putting out proper bins:

The world of garbage and recycling is complicated. We’d like the solution to be as simple as putting recycling bins in all of our stores. Unfortunately, residential garbage collection and recycling is usually controlled by city or county governments who either manage it directly or contract it out to private haulers. These local authorities can provide subsidies and sometimes mandate whether or not the haulers have to collect paper, glass, plastics or compostable waste.

For commercial recycling (such as at a Starbucks store), the items that get collected are almost always driven by the open market. This means that if the haulers can get a good price for recyclable materials (cardboard, glass, plastic, food-contaminated paper products), they’ll collect it from local businesses. But if they can’t get a good price – or when there’s not a critical mass of materials to collect – they may not collect them because there’s no financial benefit for them.

One other significant challenge is the fact that half of our stores are located in leased spaces where we don’t control waste collection and recycling. Our landlords often determine whether tenants can recycle based on space availability and commercial recycling services.

Paper cups are another difficult problem. According to the report, they make up half the paper the company buys in a year. An easy change is encouraging stores to return to using ceramic mugs for in-store drinks, which would be nice regardless of the environmental impact. A harder change is making the cups themselves more environmentally friendly. Starbucks deserves from being a pioneer here, putting a lot of effort into innovation to get cups with recycled paper content approved by the FDA. From an old Marketplace story:

So Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

GEORGE MATTHEWS: We worked on this for about four years.

George Matthews is executive VP at Mississippi River Corporation, one of Starbucks’ suppliers. His pulp company had to prove to the FDA it was safe to drink from a recycled-content cup. That meant eliminating any potentially harmful substances from the high-grade office paper in recycled pulp.

MATTHEWS: The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

The FDA finally approved. Starbucks is now selling coffee in paper cups with 10 percent post-consumer fiber.

The cups themselves are often not recyclable though because of their plastic liners. According to the report, that’s the next technological hurdle SBUX is trying to overcome.

A technological advance I’d like to see? Not using a stupid Flash webpage that I can’t link to directly. So if you’d like to customize your own report, go here and start from scratch.

[Via Starbucks Gossip and Coffee City.]

Previously:
Cups and councils

Criminal composting

Oregon’s recently implemented indoor smoking ban has had the predictable unintended consequence of causing more cigarette butts to be dropped on the ground. Littering butts is already against the law, but the Oregon legislature is considering singling out smokers once again for special treatment:

The environmental consequences are much serious than I realized. Still, the answer isn’t House Bill 2676, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie. It’s already illegal to litter in Oregon. The new law would make it a Class B misdemeanor to toss a cigarette, cigarette butt or cigar. Anyone found guilty would have to pay a fine or do community service neatly in symmetry with the offense (Learn called it “karmically consistent”):

Pick up litter, of course.

Like the author of the piece quoted, I think a new law is overkill here. But as long as we’re taking the idiots in Salem seriously, it’s worth pointing out that the legislation’s logic should exclude cigars. Unlike filtered cigarettes, cigars consist of entirely of leaves and a tiny bit of pectin or other natural glue to hold them together. They’re entirely biodegradable as long as the band is removed. If a cigar butt is litter, a single tree litters several hundred times more than any stogie smoker.

Being a cigar smoker in Oregon is hard enough as is. Let’s not make it an even more criminal past time.

Battle of the bulbs

Michael Siminovitch, an advocate for compact fluorescent light bulbs, had an illuminating (sorry, couldn’t resist) interview in The New York Times yesterday:

[...] there was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration. Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.

By and large the average consumer is buying a light source to provide the right quality of light. In this continuing trend to reduce cost, which is an important driver, we compromised quality.

We’ve gone too far on this thing, and what’s happened is some of these compact fluorescent technologies have become so inexpensive [that] at the same time they’ve lost a lot of their intrinsic quality. And they don’t last very long. And this is bad because the end result here is that yes, we have a very inexpensive technology, consumers will buy it, but they have a long memory.

Product failures instill a lack of confidence in the technology. [...]

When we only encourage energy efficiency, which is very important, we compromise other issues. The market penetration for compact fluorescents in this country, while we’re making good strides, is not very impressive. There’s no reason today why we shouldn’t be using all energy efficient technologies in the home. The reason we’re not is consumers don’t like this technology.

We need to get past that. We need to develop a lighting technology that people really like. They like the color, they like the quality, they like the delivery, and, by the way, it’s energy efficient.

It will be illegal to sell traditional incandescent bulbs in the United States come 2012, sooner in Canada, the EU, and Australia. By then, hopefully, CFLs and perhaps some LEDs will have overcome their current flaws to become perfect substitutes for incandescents. Yet the bans work against this goal. CFL manufacturers will have to compete against each other, but they’ll be protected from competition from ordinary bulbs. Why be surprised that they’re not putting products on the market that can stand up?

My current apartment is a mix of CFLs and incandescents. The CFL in my closet is really terrible. It flickers and makes noise as it powers on and the light is of poor quality. I don’t care though because it’s just a closet. The lamp by my couch where I curl up with a book and a drink at night is lit by a 40 watt GE Reveal incandescent. It puts off a wonderfully warm light and I’d hate to see it go. The same is true for my bedroom lamp, one my cousin and I made from Michigan birch wood when I was a kid. With a CFL the clip-on shade, at least, would have to be replaced.

As CFLs improve I’d gladly transition more of my apartment over to them. I might even switch entirely. Or I might not; old technology has its charms. A country in which people switch nearly all of their light fixtures would be slightly less energy efficient than one in which they’re forced to replace 100% them, but it would also be marginally happier.

If CFLs and LEDs become as good as their boosters claim they will, there will be no need to ban their century old competitor. And if they don’t, it’s not the government’s place to tell us we can’t keep the cozy corners of our households.

Update: To clarify, by “traditional incandescents” I mean the kind widely available on the market now. The energy bill didn’t ban incandescent technology explicitly, it just set new energy standards that it does not meet — effectively banning it. Some incandescent manufacturers may adapt.

Vilsack, for reals this time

On November 13 I lamented speculation that Obama would name corn-loving former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. On November 25 I mentioned that Vilsack said no, actually, that’s not going to happen. So for the sake of completeness, here’s today’s news:

President-elect Barack Obama, a backer of tighter farm subsidy rules and new-generation biofuels, selected Tom Vilsack from the major U.S. farm state of Iowa to be agriculture secretary, said a Democratic official on Tuesday.

I guess we can take comfort in the fact that subsidies will only go to “new-generation biofuels,” which won’t be wasteful and counterproductive like the old-generation biofuels of, say, right now.

[Via Maureen Ogle.]

And out of hope, cynicism

Ezra Klein notes disapprovingly that Obama will likely appoint former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to Agriculture Secretary:

If the Department of Agriculture sees large farmers and farm producing states (like Iowa), rather than individual eaters, as their primary constituency, then we’ll have a farm policy geared towards those interests. But eaters have interests here too, as do taxpayers, and parents, and energy advocates, and the public health community. They, however, are not well represented in Iowa politics. The fact that Obama is already signaling that his chief agricultural appointment will hail from the land of corn, and whose agricultural experience will mainly have been keeping powerful corn interests happy with him, is not a good sign. Vilsack could surprise, of course. But the indication here is that Obama will not upend the ag subsidy apple cart.

This is not surprising. All you had to do was look at Obama’s consistent support for subsidies, his campaigning in the Midwest, or the prominent New York Times article discussing his advisors’ ties to the ethanol industry to know that his mantra of change is not going to extend to our wasteful agricultural policies. Klein, to his credit, was not unaware of this, though he hoped for better once the pressures of the election were removed. But why? The fact that Obama reads Michael Pollan and buys arugula at Whole Foods doesn’t mean he’s going to pursue the kinds of policies preferred by people who also read Michael Pollan and buy arugula at Whole Foods.

If Vilsack is indeed the nominee, that doesn’t bode well for Obama’s willingness to challenge conventional politics. A week after the election we’ve already seen signs of continued subsidies to corn growers, support for corporate welfare for automakers, and a more conservative approach to halting intelligence and civil liberties abuses than many were hoping for. I never had high hopes for Obama, but even I’m surprised at how quickly he’s managing to show that, however inspiring he may be, he’s still just another damn politician.

That said, I’ll forgive the rocky start if he throws us civil libertarians a big bone to chew on sometime soon.

Taking the LEED on smoking bans

My apartment hunt in downtown Portland yesterday brought unexpected frustration. As I strolled among modern high-rises with big balconies, surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops and independent specialty stores, I thought I’d found a perfect city for me. Yet time and again I was told that my kind are not welcome in these apartments: the residences are completely smokefree, inside and out.

I’m not a frequent smoker but I do think that enjoying a good cigar and a glass of whiskey with a close friend is one of life’s great pleasures. With Oregon’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants coming into effect soon, my home will be one of the few places that I’m allowed to light up here. Being forbidden from enjoying a cigar or pipe even on my own deck or balcony is close to a deal breaker for me. Walking around the Pearl District yesterday, passing block after block of apartments where I would not be permitted to pursue my hobby, I felt for the first time what it’s like to be a minority facing discrimination. Admittedly I suffer for a lifestyle choice rather than for an immutable characteristic of my being, so I won’t pretend it compares to racial or sexual discrimination. But still, it was a new experience for this middle class white guy.

I assumed that these anti-smoking policies were how apartment buildings cater to West Coast nanny state types who have fantastically misinformed beliefs about the dangers of secondhand smoke. However much that might irk me, it would be hypocritical of me to deny them the right to live in the kinds of communities they prefer. I respect their rights of property and freedom of association, even if they won’t extend the same courtesy to smokers and business owners.

Then at one of these properties I learned that there’s actually another force at work. LEED certification, the seal of approval from the United States Green Building Council, now mandates that buildings be completely smokefree and ban smoking near doors and windows.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In eco-conscious cities like Portland, it’s a marketing advantage to have a building LEED certified. Builders submit their designs to the USGBC, are given a checklist [pdf available here] of features the council looks for, and the number of items they can check off determines their LEED rating: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Most of these items involve matters like energy efficiency, reusing materials, reducing water use, and other goals clearly related to environmental purposes. You might wonder what controlling residents’ smoking habits has to do with any of this. I certainly did.

It turns out that LEED certification considers six categories of evaluation, one of which is indoor environmental quality. If tobacco smoke is considered a pollutant, banning smoking is one way of addressing it. One could make a plausible case that LEED certified buildings shouldn’t allow smoking indoors, where habitual smokers could pump a lot of smoke into the ventilation systems. But in proximity to an exterior door? Or on a balcony? There’s absolutely no scientific justification for banning this. Walking by a smoker on the way into the lobby is not going to kill anyone. It’s annoying, perhaps, but it’s not a matter that needs to be addressed by green building codes.

Apparently LEED used to allow indoor smoking as long as adequate ventilation and filtering was provided. I’m not sure what led to the change, but an absolute prohibition on smoking is now a required item for certification. To put that into perspective, of the more than 70 items on the LEED checklist, only 7 are necessary prerequisites. In the indoor environmental quality category, increased ventilation, low-emitting materials use, thermal comfort, and outdoor air delivery monitoring are all optional. In other categories things like materials reuse, building with certified wood, managing refrigerants, using renewable energy, reducing water use, and minimizing the heat island effect are optional. For a project that’s primarily concerned with environmental protection, prioritizing outdoor smoking bans over these other concerns is strange indeed.

As I said before, I don’t object to leasing companies forbidding smoking if that’s what their customers want them to do. I do object, though, to the USGBC forcing bans onto anyone who wants to advertise their green building practices. Most people don’t know the details of what goes into the LEED checklist; they just want to know that a building is energy efficient, clean, and doesn’t waste resources. Banning smoking outdoors has nothing to do with that and muddles legitimate environmental concerns with restrictions on people’s personal behavior. Worse, it casts doubt on the merit of the USGBC’s other standards. If the organization has so little respect for scientific validity when it comes to smoking, it makes one wonder about the entire checklist. Is it guided by respectable science or by political correctness? Not being an expert in design, I have no way of knowing.

Update: In the comments, Matt D tracks down the full guidelines [pdf] and notes that LEED certification does allow for smoking in residential areas in certain proscribed circumstances:

OPTION 3 (For residential buildings only)
– Prohibit smoking in all common areas of the building.
– Locate any exterior designated smoking areas at least 25 feet away from entries, outdoor air intakes and operable windows opening to common areas.
– Minimize uncontrolled pathways for ETS transfer between individual residential units by sealing penetrations in walls, ceilings and floors in the residential units, and by sealing vertical chases adjacent to the units.
– All doors in the residential units leading to common hallways shall be weather-stripped to minimize air leakage into the hallway.
– If the common hallways are pressurized with respect to the residential units then doors to the residential units leading to the common hallways need not be weather-stripped provided that the positive differential pressure is demonstrated…

The third one seems like it might be the most restrictive, perhaps impractically so for high rise buildings with lots of shared ventilation. The priority given to anti-smoking measures by LEED standards still strikes me as out of touch with its mission. But it is in fact possible to get around a complete ban, and I thank Matt for the correction.

Teach a man to fish

A post last week touched on assigning property rights to overcome the tragedy of the commons issue that threatens to destroy world fisheries. Today’s New York Times reports on a new study explaining how this can work. John Tierney comments:

A global survey of more than 11,000 fisheries points to a profitable system to protect fisheries from collapsing. The bad news is that this system, called catch shares, is used in only 1 percent of the world’s fisheries and is still controversial, but the researchers hope the new evidence of its success will win over some opponents — a group has included both local fishermen and some environmentalists.

Under this system, a fisherman owns the right to a certain percentage of the annual allowable catch in a fishery. These shares, sometimes called Individual Transferable Quotas, can be bought and sold on the market, and their price goes down if the fish population declines. So fishermen have a direct incentive to protect the fishery along with their investment: that way their share will be worth more when they retire and sell it to someone else.

Neither of the articles mentions how valuable these shares can be or how big an effect they have on fishermen’s willingness to enforce rules against each other. They do have other positive side effects though:

One of the authors, Steven Gaines, a marine biologist at U.C. Santa Barbara, noted that after the system went into effect for sablefish in Alaska, the fishermen used many fewer hooks and therefore reduced the “bycatch” — the incidental killing of fish of other species. The traditional system, in which the catch was limited only by the legal length of the season, had encouraged a “race to fish” as fishermen flung down as many hooks to catch as many fish as fast as they could. But the catch-share system enabled them to work at a slower, more efficient pace until they reached their guaranteed quota.

Tierney has reported previously on research suggesting that the profit-maximizing fish population under private ownership is greater than that needed for sustainability for many species of fish, giving fishermen an incentive to restrict catches.

Labels for everything

This is a monumentally bad idea:

A universal system of food labelling which takes into account everything from nutritional information to the product’s impact on the environment should be established to guide consumers, according to a food policy analyst.

Tim Lang, of City University, London, said a set of “omni standards” for labels could overcome public confusion over food. The labels could provide information about such things as food miles – the distance an item has covered to reach the shops – and the amount of water used in its production, as well as health information on fat content and nutritional benefits.

It would help to overcome confusing recommendations to the public, such as the health advice to eat more fish, which conflicts with environmental concerns about declining stocks because of overfishing, Professor Lang told the British Association’s science festival at Liverpool University yesterday.

“Whilst governments continue to let the market take its course, ill-informed consumer choices are contributing to massive crises in human health, food security and environmental degradation,” he said.

“Evidence from water use alone suggests that we need to think more about ‘hidden’ impacts. Each bean from Kenya has four litres of potable water embedded – this from a water-stressed country.”

Where to even begin with this? Assuming it’s possible to get accurate numbers for all these things — a huge assumption — there is no way this would help “overcome public confusion over food.” Take the Kenyan coffee example. Yes, Kenya is water stressed. But Kenya is not one big desert. The parts of Kenya where they grow coffee are lush and tropical. That’s why they grow coffee there. A customer at Tesco is in no position to decide if Kenyan rainfall is best used to grow a valuable export or collected and transferred to the more arid parts of the country. So what’s the point in telling him how much water goes into a coffee bean? If the label works, supposedly, he will choose not to buy it. I don’t see how this would be helpful to Kenya.

The same goes for food miles. It’s actually possible to grow coffee in Cornwall. Researchers at the Eden Project managed to coax enough beans for 50 cups out of their greenhouse this year. Going solely by distance traveled, it would seem that British consumers should drop their African coffee and ramp up production at home. But of course that’s ridiculous. It would be far more resource intensive to grow coffee in England than it would be to simply have it shipped from a suitable climate. This an extreme example, but the same logic applies to countless other goods. Putting food miles on a label tells consumers just a very small part of what they would need to know to make an environmentally conscious purchasing decision.

Trying to bombard consumers with all the relevant information they need to make the right choices is a futile effort. There are far too many factors to balance. That’s what prices are for. Rather than putting ever more information on food labels and hoping buyers pay attention, we should try to make the prices better reflect the costs of the inputs. Is water underpriced in Kenya? If so, we can look for ways to improve water markets there. Are greenhouse gases your concern? Fine, tax CO2 emissions. This will be much more accurate than measuring food miles. Declining fish stocks? That’s a tragedy of the commons issue. Assign property rights or enforce caps on harvesting.

Putting all this information on labels might make people feel morally upright, but even if they pay attention to it they likely won’t make the decisions that are truly good for the environment. Markets and pricing get the job done without people even having to think about it. And perhaps that’s the problem: sometimes thinking about doing good is more pleasing than actually doing it.

[Via Coldmud.]

Greener tax pastures?

Ford has a new, fuel efficient diesel car going on the market called the Fiesta ECOnetic:

If ever there was a car made for the times, this would seem to be it: a sporty subcompact that seats five, offers a navigation system, and gets a whopping 65 miles to the gallon. Oh yes, and the car is made by Ford Motor, known widely for lumbering gas hogs.

The bad news? It’s only for sale in Europe, not the US. Though there are multiple reasons for this, the Business Week article claims that taxes are a big one:

Diesel vehicles now hitting the market with pollution-fighting technology are as clean or cleaner than gasoline and at least 30% more fuel-efficient.

Yet while half of all cars sold in Europe last year ran on diesel, the U.S. market remains relatively unfriendly to the fuel. Taxes aimed at commercial trucks mean diesel costs anywhere from 40 cents to $1 more per gallon than gasoline. Add to this the success of the Toyota Prius, and you can see why only 3% of cars in the U.S. use diesel. “Americans see hybrids as the darling,” says Global Insight auto analyst Philip Gott, “and diesel as old-tech.”

The New York Times’ Ideas blog repeats the part about taxes making diesel so much more expensive than regular gasoline. But do they? The American Petroleum Institute says that diesel excise taxes averaged only about 7 cents more per gallon than those on gas. The federal government’s Energy Information Administration suggests that a rise in global demand for diesel fuel and stricter environmental standards in the US have done more to contribute to the higher price:

Historically, the average price of diesel fuel has been lower than the average price of gasoline. However, this is not always the case. In some winters where the demand for distillate heating oil is high, the price of diesel fuel has risen above the gasoline price. Since September 2004, the price of diesel fuel has been generally higher than the price of regular gasoline all year round for several reasons. Worldwide demand for diesel fuel and other distillate fuel oils has been increasing steadily, with strong demand in China, Europe, and the United States, putting more pressure on the tight global refining capacity. In the United States, the transition to ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel has affected diesel fuel production and distribution costs.

The Business Week article is correct to note that diesel taxes are higher than for gasoline and that the cost of the fuel is much higher. But it’s not clear that the first is causing the second. If there’s evidence for this, I haven’t found it.

It might be true that, given improvements in technology, cutting diesel taxes would be an excellent spur to green innovation. I’d certainly prefer that to the doling out of favors politicians usually engage in. However it looks like Ford’s decision not to sell the Fiesta ECOnetic here might have more to do with other business factors, not anti-diesel tax bias. Note also that Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Honda all plan to introduce diesel models to the US despite the higher tax.

Think globally, eat globally

Those of you who’ve been wanting more of a smackdown between Paul Roberts and I won’t find it in today’s exchange, where we agree that there are plenty of reasons to enjoy eating natural, locally grown food — as long as you’re not kidding yourself about the health and environmental benefits. Read it here.

Tomorrow’s topic is foods that need to be banned, so things could get a little more heated then.

Beach bums

Perhaps because I’ve always thought that beach roasting Seattle coffee is the coolest thing ever, this headline about beach bonfires being banned at two Seattle beaches caught my eye. I foolishly assumed that, however sad it might be to lose bonfires, there would be some plausible reason for it: safety, overcrowding, etc. But no:

According to a memo to the park board from the staff released Thursday, “The overall policy question for the Board is whether it is good policy for Seattle Parks to continue public beach fires when the carbon … emissions produced by thousands of beach fires per year contributes to global warming.”

Unless Seattlites build their bonfires with barrels of oil, this is the stupidest idea ever. Wood isn’t a fossil fuel. Its carbon isn’t sequestered deep in the earth. Trees live, they die, they rot and put CO2 into the air, and then new trees grow and turn the carbon back into wood. Over the long-term, burning wood is essentially carbon neutral.

Not precisely neutral, of course, but enough so that this guy is clearly facing a false dichotomy:

But at Alki, Nguyen said he’d be OK with banning bonfires. “By all means, I’d rather not have bonfires than have global warming,” he said.

The only way banning bonfires could significantly lower carbon emissions is by making a trip to the beach so much less enjoyable that nobody bothers to drive out to it.

Update: This reminds me of the Flanders, Belgium decision to tax backyard barbecuing because of the activity’s CO2 emissions. The difference is that the Flemish meant the idea as an April Fools Day joke.

Update 6/8/08: Devi points out in the comments that this plan didn’t last long.