Equity vs. Efficiency

Efficiency is good.  Right?

Yes.  Generally speaking, assuming all else is well, you want to maximize the efficiency.  Waste is bad.  Bang for your buck/using your time well/getting the most out of your efforts is good.

In classical economics, efficiency isn’t just good.  It is everything.  Optimal efficiency is the primary goal of most economic models, analytical approaches, and policy efforts.  For those of us (author included) who question some underlying assumptions of classical economics, however, efficiency often comes at the expense of something we non-fans of Milton Friedman and company care about: equity.

In reading the early chapters of The Carbon Efficient City, I truly enjoyed some of the practical perspectives on addressing environmental sustainability: creating more systemic, process-focused strategies; not asking businesses and organizations to make unreasonable sacrifices in a competitive marketplace; utilizing existing/proven market structures rather than reinventing societal structures.  I find myself concerned, however, that the focused on market-based solutions could drive us to a very efficient but inequitable model for reducing carbon emissions.

For example: Governor Inslee has recently taken a stance in favor of “polluter accountability” legislation that will place a statewide cap on carbon emissions in our state and create a “carbon market” where emissions permits are able to be bought and sold between emitting companies/organizations.  This has generally been touted as the ideal “market solution” for climate change.  A challenge, however, is that such a market may enable the largest companies to hold yet another advantage over smaller companies.  Additionally, our heaviest polluters in Washington State are more often located in or near predominantly low-income, non-white communities.  Will their stronger financial standing enable them to purchase more emissions permits and continue contaminating the air our less fortunate neighbors breathe?  Will predominantly white/higher-income neighborhoods be able to pressure legislators and factory owners to reduce emissions further in their communities while underserved communities are ignored?

Addressing climate change should be a pressing concern.  Market-based strategies may be the most effective way.  However, I think we must maintain a vigilance about incorporating an environmental justice framework as we build out these strategies, structures, and mechanisms for change.  Efficiency is good, but only if it benefits us all.

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