Latin refresher: Efflato ergo sum, ceteris paribus

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Yes, you too emit greenhouse gases. (Source: http://www.zazzle.com/)

Surely a sage comedian has said: I flatulate, therefore I am. Boorish, I know, but this is how far my thoughts went while considering carbon taxes and cap-and-trade frameworks. Where do you draw the line? Some sources say you must tax emissions at the source, but surely they mean industry, not my internal 1kW cogeneration plant. Okay, maybe human enteric fermentation does not contribute much greenhouse gas, but agenda topics for taxing similar anthropogenic emissions are not altogether extraordinary (e.g., USUNNew Zealand).

Hopefully we are a long way from taxing personal bodily greenhouse gas, so I pose the following more realistic scenario. As a bike commuter in the cities of San Francisco and Seattle, I have more than once been drawn into a discussion concerning the greenhouse gas emissions of car commuters vs. bike commuters. In fact, just a year ago, Washington’s own state legislator Ed Orcutt proclaimed a commuting cyclist produces more carbon dioxide than a car commuterceteris paribus (all things being equal). Does he have a point? Of course he does. the respiration rate of a cyclist is higher than someone sitting in traffic (normalizing for any road rage and whether Rush Limbaugh or Lady Gaga is on the radio, of course). So, at a very fundamental level, Representative Orcutt is correct.

This is a classic case of setting system boundaries. It seems Rep. Orcutt failed to include the car in the equation. And as would be expected among rational human beings, Rep. Orcutt retracted his “analysis” in later press releases. That said, I’ll truncate and paraphrase arguments I have personally heard:

  • “Cyclists breathe more carbon dioxide than drivers.”
  • “Bikes have just as high a lifecycle carbon cost as cars.”
  • “Cyclists ride the same roads as cars, and those roads didn’t get there without carbon.”
  • “Cyclists need to eat more food than drivers, and food has a high carbon cost.”
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    Bikes must be different in Europe. (Source: http://www.ecf.com/press_release/5056/)

I don’t see the issue being cars vs. bikes. Rather, I see the issue one of fuzzy boundaries regarding greenhouse gas emissions. Where do you draw the line on greenhouse gas sources? Is the person the emitter in the above scenario? Or is the car the emitter and the person just an intermediary stuck in the system with no other feasible options? Or is the car manufacturer to blame for producing cars instead of bikes?

This may seem extreme, but industry, the target of most carbon tax proposals, is very good at deflecting finger-pointing. I think Rep. Olcutt’s example is an anomalous case of utter misinformation with no quantified basis, but industry has a rich history of producing contrary studies (e.g., how many Tobacco-funded studies show cigarettes have no adverse effects?).

Before we embark on a carbon tax, we need to sharpen the boundaries of the greenhouse gas picture. Yes, let’s tax at the source. The big, industrial sources. At the very least, it will give industry a choice: lose money, raise prices, or innovate. And it will give consumers a choice: pay more or make more conscientious decisions. I think a mature economy like ours can handle a tax on carbon. Our hesitation to implement certainly isn’t making things better. We are all sources, and it’s time we all took responsibility for our warming planet. Perhaps some of the resistance stems from fearing the day when we have to pay carbon tax because we ate a can of beans.

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