How One Person Might Slash His or Her State’s Emissions (and Expenses)

If my interrogations of startled passersby reflect reality, huge numbers of us are frightened of climate change but do little about it.

We almost always give one of two reasons:

  1. The problem’s huge. I’m tiny. Effort’s pointless.
  2. I don’t know what to do.

We’ll call these groups the Tinies and the Baffles, respectively. This post is for the Baffles. The Tinies are tougher, requiring for inspiration oratory that’s hard to muster unless you’re named King or Gandhi. Maybe someday I’ll try to lob something inspiring at the Tinies, but not today.

Back to the Baffles. I have 2 ideas for you. I’ll lead up to them:

The ideas came from pondering the Return-On-Investment (ROI) of different climate actions. ROI, used in business and everywhere piles of money gather, requires us to answer: how much effect will we have for each dollar spent?

We can use ROI to understand how to reduce our carbon emissions. For example, if you’re a state with limited funds (redundant!), where should you direct money: Solar Panels or Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs? ROI analysis reveals that every dollar spent on CFLs saves 50 times more CO2 than every dollar spent on electric solar panels. Likewise CFLs turn a profit after a few months, while solar panels do so only after many years. The choice is clear: forget solar panels until you’ve replaced all your state’s CFLs.

CFLs are good, but I’m on a quest for the best. What energy policy is the ROI champ? I recently discovered what I believe is a contender for the crown. It comes from Elton B. Sherwin, a venture capitalist whose book Addicted to Energy drips with golden ideas. This particular idea, which is directed toward state governors, has two parts:

  1. Print “Grades” (A,B,C,D or F) on every building’s utility bill. A building’s grade will reflect its carbon footprint per square foot. In addition, on each bill, print the money that would have been saved if the building were as efficient as the highest-scoring buildings of similar size in the same area.
  2. Make all buildings’ utility bills and grades publicly available online.

The benefits of this policy:

  1. It’ll reduce the energy used in buildings by making us aware of how much we can save (that is, a lot).
  2. It’ll give builders feedback (which they don’t often get now), and help them build better in the future. BTW, how dumb is it that builders don’t automatically get performance reports on their buildings already? What if airplanes were made this way? We’d all be dead is what.
  3. Buyers will be able to better know expected utility costs when deciding which buildings to purchase and how much to offer.
  4. Energy-efficiency businesses will be able to spot the prospects they can most help (owners of the least efficient buildings), and offer services.
  5. Once the data is available to third parties, new businesses and applications will be invented around it.
  6. It’ll create a buzz. Over time, it’ll lead to permanently heightened energy awareness.

All these factors would reduce energy use. The cost would be trivial; the state wouldn’t have to levy new taxes or fund new infrastructure, and all the needed information is readily available (electricity, water and gas bills, plus square footage from real estate records).

Since buildings are a big source of energy waste, the return in CO2 might be great. Low Cost + Big Return = Astronomical ROI.

The main challenge is that many of us won’t want our utility bills public, which is exactly why it’s a powerful idea: we care what others think and will change to preserve our reputations.

This is a killer policy idea, but what has this got to do with you? Now we come to my reason for writing. I’m not satisfied floating around in the floaty world of ideas. What can I do with this information to make the world better? I have two suggestions:

  1. For persuasive types: Create a presentation which makes the case for this policy, and start giving it to everyone in your state who’ll listen. Make the presentation your hobby. Start with the argument above and refine until perfect. A reasonably keen presenter/networker might get to those who have enough power to make the policy happen. It’s a rare chance for one person to make a real difference.
  2. For hackers: a hacker might be able to obtain utility records and publish building grades online, without the state’s permission, as an act of civil disobedience. Gandhi might have endorsed this one, because it would create a stir without harm. In keeping with Gandhi’s principles (to which I am a devoted adherent), the hack should only be done if attempts through official channels fail. And presentation is key: the hacker must confess his guilt, must present himself with humility, without grandstanding or gloating, must explain with care his reasons for the hack, and emphasize that he doesn’t break the law lightly. If he’s taken to court he must admit his guilt without delay, explain why it was necessary to break the law, and accept his sentence without malice or regret. A tall order. Civil Disobedience always is.

I’m keen to convince adventurous readers to try some of my action ideas. Though I try to stay light, my heart’s heavy, because the prospects for climate change look bad and we’re complacent. On our current path, I may live to see unspeakably poor conditions. I don’t want to. If you subconsciously dismiss the possibility of cataclysm, I beg you to push your instinct away long enough to study the problem as we now know it. It is not what most of us think. Our media doesn’t convey forcefully what’s happening.

-From the Sea

Posted February 09, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | No Comments

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