Think about a (political) nudge towards electric cars



Two years ago my family bought an electric car for the commutes to work as a sustainable and clean alternative to another gas fuelled car. Since last year there are also federal subsidies for purchasing an electric car in Germany which however are largely not used by the citizens. Obviously driving the own car is a big thing in the US and so I was interested how much CO2 emission could be saved if everybody would drive an electric car instead of a gas fuelled car.
So I did some calculations which are explained in the following text.
The United States are home to the second largest passenger vehicle market in the world second now to China.[1] Overall, there were an estimated 260 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States in 2014 [2] which results in about 0.82 vehicles per capita. What is the average number of miles driven per year by US drivers? The short answer is: 13,476, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Those distances are driven with an average consumption of 21.4 mpg[3] for light duty vehicles.

If we put this numbers together we come up with the following calculation:

260 million cars each drive 13,476 miles per year and hence, total 3,503 billion miles per year.Utilizing this numbers I want to estimate roughly how much gas those cars consume per year. 3,503,760,000,000 miles per year divided by 21.4 mpg shows that about 163,727 million gallons of gas are blown up into the air each year. About 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced from burning a gallon of gasoline that does not contain ethanol.  Multiplying the prior numbers the result is about 1,458 million metric tons of CO2.

Comparing this result to the data of the US Energy Information Administration reveals that we are not far away from the truth. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the U.S. motor gasoline and diesel (distillate) fuel consumption for transportation in 2015 resulted in a total of 1,545 million metric tons of CO2. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency the combustion of fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel to transport people and goods is the second largest source of CO2 emissions, accounting for about 31 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions. This number includes transportation sources such as highway vehicles, air travel, marine transportation, and rail.

Now I asked myself the question: How much carbon dioxide would be emitted if all vehicles would be electric cars?  This question cannot be answered easily since it heavily depends on how the electricity is produced. Therefore it differs strongly between countries like India that are coal based and Iceland which gains it energy mostly from renewable energies like thermal power plants. The figure below shows how the CO2 emissions of an electric car are in various countries.

Given the 13,476 miles (21,687.5 km) for 260 million cars and 202 g CO2/km we come up with 1,139,027,500 metric tons of CO2 for the entire United States which is apparently less than the emissions of gas fuelled cars. Calculating with data of the US Department of Energy provides even more optimistic numbers. Electric cars in Washington emit 1,002 pounds of CO2 per year on average whereas the US total average is 4,816 pounds. For the US that is a total CO2 emission of 567,970,000 metric tons per year. That matches an energy saving of 63.24% compared to gas fuelled cars.
Given that numbers I think it’s reasonable to think about a federal or state subsidy for electric cars and the installation of charging stations in public parking spaces. Solar energy really became popular when the German government subsidized its installation on private roofs and guaranteed the owners a certain purchase price per kWh. Now 12 years later, solar energy is popular all over the world. What I want to tell with this example is that sometimes it needs a political nudge to expedite good things.





The Brown Side of Cruising

Last year, the cruise ship industry released more than one billion gallons of untreated sewage into the world’s oceans [1]. That’s the equivalent of 19 backyard swimming pools full of human excretion – every day. And in International Waters, that’s perfectly legal.

cruiseMany nations take it upon themselves to restrict sewage dumping in their respective waters. For instance, US federal law prohibits dumping of untreated sewage within three miles of shore [2]. Beyond that point, ships are in International Waters and under no specific jurisdiction. MARPOL 73/78, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, first sought to limit dumping of oils and hazardous wastes, though has since been amended to include sewage and plastic wastes. MARPOL now echoes US law banning untreated discharge within three miles of nearest land, though allows discharge further out, so long as the “Effluent does not produce visible floating solids nor cause discoloration of the surrounding water” [3]. Full MARPOL text available here.

It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that the continued, large-volume release of raw sewage might negatively impact the world’s oceans. A 1990’s NOAA-commissioned study of a 106-mile “dump site” off the coast of New York confirmed the fears of ecologists worldwide. It was found that not only does the particulate matter released during deep-water dumping eventually reside on the ocean floor, but it causes a significant re-structuring of the deep-sea ecosystem for hundreds of miles around the dump site [4]. Bottom line, it’s bad – but with most ships registered under other flags and operating in International Waters, it’s also out of our direct control.

Thankfully, there is much power in consumer choice. Independent energy-starrating systems have proven to be a successful marketing tactic across many industries. An obvious driver of consumer choice, dozens of ratings – Energy Star, LEED, even “Dolphin Safe” tuna – have helped industries reach new customer bases by promoting long-term thinking and wholistic product awareness. Even Seattle Public Utilities has seen positive results, as customers reduce their respective energy usage 2-3% in response to stratification amongst their neighbors: a simple smiley or frowny face [5].


Therein lies the solution: a rating system. It would seem a safe assumption that much of the American population would take issue with promoting widespread fouling of the oceans. Therefore, if we create a widely-applicable and recognizable system to stratify cruise lines according to their respective environmental impacts, we can make a significant impact on the industry as a whole. While cruising is an international industry worth over $37 billion, nearly half of the passengers are US citizens [6]. The impact of a successful rating system certainly won’t be limited to American travelers, but even starting at a domestic level, we can make a huge difference.


[1] Keever, Marcie. “Cruise Ship Sewage,” The New York Times. 29 June 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[2] “Regulation of Ship Pollution in the United States,” Wikipedia. 21 February 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[3] “MARPOL 73/78,” Wikipedia. 21 February 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[4] Collie, Marsha and Russo, Julie. “Deep Sea Biodiversity and the Impacts of Ocean Dumping,” NOAA Undersea Research Program. 30 June 2000. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 21 February 2017].
[5] Sutter, John. “Energy Efficiency – With a Digital Smile,” CNN. 3 December 2010. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[6] Kennedy, Sarah. “2016 Cruise Industry Outlook,” CLIA. 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].

Taxing Carbon in WA after I-732

Last Wednesday night I drank beer with Kyle Murphy, the new Executive Director of CarbonWA. CarbonWA is the environmental organization which wrote and lead the campaign for Initiatve 732 in the 2016 election – which lost by 18 points, 41% to 59%. We discussed that election, the national political moment, the prominent role Washington state has been playing in national politics by resisting the Trump administration, and the future of Carbon WA.

The results of the election were deeply disappointing to supporters of I-732. The initiative was a revenue-neutral carbon tax, designed to financially reward consumers and producers for making low-carbon choices and to mitigate financial impacts by reducing other taxes in equal measure and funding a tax-credit for low-income families. With Washington state having the most regressive tax code in the country this element of I-732 was very important to me. Efficient as a carbon tax is, all else being equal it falls most heavily on the poor.

The initiative was crafted to have bipartisan appeal by making our economy more environmentally sustainable without raising taxes overall. Instead it was attacked from both the left and the right, with prominent environmental, social, and labor organizations endorsing a no vote and winning support from few prominent Republicans or business organizations.

CarbonWA has downsized since the election. Murphy and remaining board-members are looking for the ways the organization can be most helpful in the coming years. It is possible that a carbon-tax initiative could be placed on the ballot in 2018, but relatively low democratic turnout during mid-term elections could put such an effort at a structural disadvantage. We discussed smaller-scale actions the organization could take, with targeted ballot initiatives, state-level lobbying, or local organizing. The ballot initiatives that passed in 2016: raising the minimum wage, temporary limits on gun access for the mentally disturbed, protections for care-givers to the elderly, toothless opposition to the Citizens United ruling – all deal in a narrow way with a popular issue. 732 on the other hand was broad and sober in its attempt to remake the economy and focused mostly on the negatives – the negative effects of carbon pollution and taxation, while negating also tax revenue. In the future CarbonWA could try to identify a more narrowly defined but popular issue and to craft ballot language that would still make an impact on carbon pollution: a tax or ban on the coal- or oil-trains which frequently pass through our state, for instance.

oil train.PNG

Oil train near King County Airport

It is challenging to identify a politically popular climate-change measure that would have a significant impact on the problem, however. Burning fossil fuels for energy is deeply embedded in the way we have built our society – it affects nearly everything about how we go about our daily lives. The problem is with us, and scapegoating unpopular actors or obscure practices is simply going to delay the difficult transition that we will have to start making if we are going attempt to reduce climate disruption in a substantive way.

It is very likely that a carbon-tax will be on the ballot in 2020, either sponsored by CarbonWA or a coalition of environmental groups. That ballot measure should preserve the best parts of 732, the low-income tax credit and statewide sales tax reduction that reduce the regressivity of our tax code. However, it should abandon strict revenue neutrality – this failed to win many Republican votes and was unpopular among Democrats. It could front-load subsidies for energy retrofits and job-training and delay the imposition of the tax by several years. These could be paid for on credit by future positive tax revenues and would give those negatively affected by the change time to make changes to reduce their costs. Ideally such a measure could pass in a state where our legislature will have finally achieved an agreement to adequately fund education, taking the pressure of any potential tax to compensate for an unrelated budget hole.

In the early months of the Trump administration our state is taking on a higher profile role in progressive government than it has traditionally played by standing up for immigrants and refugees.  In fact, this role builds on recent Cascadian leadership in marijuana legalization and marriage equality, and is buttressed by our states’ economic strength in technology and international trade. I am hopeful that our state will rise to the challenge of leading the way in dealing with climate change in a serious and just approach.

Taking Responsibility for Climate Change

As much as I want to help curb climate change by recycling and using less energy, the fact is that big business is at the epicenter of climate change. Nearly all political discussion surrounding the climate is motivated by corporate interests and economic output, and in turn by the groups and lobbyists those companies employ to fight for or against climate policy. The NY Times article Industry Awakens to the Threat of Climate Change was encouraging in the sense that companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola are now accounting for climate effects (albeit because they are affecting the companies bottom lines). So I was curious what other companies are taking initiatives to reduce their climate impacts, and who are the biggest climate effectors? This lead me to the work of geographer Richard Heede. Mr. Heede “spent years” researching the annual production of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world and using those numbers to create a record of their carbon emissions. His research found that nearly two thirds of all carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution (1751) are accounted for by only 90 companies (either directly or indirectly i.e. selling gas to consumers like myself), half of which has been emitted after 1988. 90 companies! That was amazing to me. Obviously, the ExxonMobil’s and Chevron’s of the world cannot and should not be held responsible for the entirety of climate change. But at the same time, it makes clear that huge steps could be taken in reducing global carbon emissions by the action of a few key players. By encouraging these companies to invest in, share, and create/expand practices for energy efficiency and renewable technologies, not only would they more quickly move to renewables, but would protect their bottom lines when fossil fuels inevitably become highly regulated or simply exhausted. Some fossil fuel giants such as ExxonMobil and BP have, in fact, launched their own initiatives to create more sustainable business practices and invested in research and development to reduce their carbon impact. However, I have to imagine that if they spent half as much money on sustainable technologies as they do on lobbying and protecting their practices of old, we could move much more quickly on achieving goals related to reduced carbon emissions. At least, I would propose a council of the leading fossil fuel company executives in which they could outline promising technologies or techniques for a sustainable future, create open information sharing, and create a competitive marketplace for adapting and implementing such practices. It should also be illegal to hire scientists who have no academic background or qualifications and have them lobby the government and American people in the sole interest of corporate profit… But that discussion may be for another time.


The Carbon Band-Aid

A carbon tax makes complete sense to me. It taxes the activities that have a direct connection to increased atmospheric carbon, allowing a natural movement away from those activities due to cost. I like that this inspires innovation and the tax generates the revenue to allow citizens and business enough rebate to discover alternatives. However, in coal dependent states far from Washington, the reality on the surface looks very different. But what if it isn’t? My home state of West Virginia has severe economic and environmental needs right now. Could a carbon tax be the solution?

While I’m not an economist, economic theories posit that the market will support the most cost-effective solution. When extracting and burning coal becomes more expensive than the revenue it creates, the state and its businesses will be forced to determine an alternative. This is a change that must happen, regardless of whether or not there is a carbon tax. West Virginia can–and should–be more than just coal.

It would not be effective if only implemented at the state level in West Virginia, but a federal carbon tax mandate might level the playing field enough to support some innovation. While our neighbors to the north in Pittsburgh are testing self-driving cars, and the tech industry’s innovation is evident in cities all around us, West Virginia is stagnating, and falling way behind.

In my estimation, there are already too many casualties. A carbon tax could be like ripping off the band-aid and starting the potentially painful process of healing.

Patience Is a Virtue

It’s gotten to the point that no one can agree on anything. It’s widely reported that ninety-five percent of climate scientists affirm that mankind is the cause of climate change. Yet, 31% of Americans still don’t think humans are responsible. Only 27% of Americans believe that 95% of climate scientists think that humans are responsible. How will we ever be able to agree on the facts?

Maybe climate change needs a rebranding. Could whoever got smoking cigarettes to be “cool” make climate change uncool? I don’t know. Could shorter showers and a low flow valve ever seem cool? Maybe if this was country a country full of nerds. What about appealing to our better angels? Could living more sustainably ever be the equivalent of giving up your seat to an old lady on the bus? I still see a lot of old ladies standing on the bus.

My friend’s mother-in-law once asked me, Why worry about climate change if we’re all going to be dead anyway? Questions like these make me think it would be better to drop the whole thing and start over.

Break it down. Selling milk in bags is more sustainable than selling it in cartons. Do people buy milk in bags because they want to be more environmentally friendly? I doubt it. Buying milk in bags is cheaper and it’s available. Do people use coal power because they like burning polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels? Probably some, who are jerks. But most people do it because it’s cheap and available. People don’t buy Teslas because they want to offset climate change.

The key to reducing mankind’s negative effect on the climate might be patience. Money is pouring into renewables like wind and solar energy. In many places, you can put solar cells on your roof for no upfront cost and pay a lower energy bill than if you were relying on the grid. As renewables gain traction due to their lower marginal cost, oil and coal will lose economies of scale and become more expensive. It’s just a matter of time before the technology is there. Hopefully it’s not too late.

Keeping America Great

America has always been a country of innovation and inspiration. Whenever we are told a task is too great we have proved the world wrong. From putting a man on the moon to developing a polio vaccine, we have always stepped up to the challenge. Because of this we have become a prosperous country and our global influence has greatly benefited us at home. However, the world is still extremely reliant on fossil fuels that are finite in their amount. Eventually we will start to spend a more significant proportion of our GDP on fossil fuels inherently taking away funds normally spent in other areas. Whether you believe in climate change, or whatever political party you side with, I think everyone can get behind the idea of promoting a more prosperous America while also improving our national health level at the same time. Shifting away from fossil fuels now before the rest of the world will allow the United States to continue to be a global superpower and I think the first step in the right direction starts with a carbon tax.

We cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels forever because they will eventually run out. For example, oil is expected to be depleted in the next 50-100 years.  This is a great opportunity for American creativity and ingenuity to thrive again. We are starting to see signs of this happening already. In 1954 solar cells had an efficiency of only 6%, now solar cells are up to 34.5% efficiency, showing that as we continuing to refine our technology as at the pace of current necessity. Imagine if we encouraged this sort of innovation what the possibilities could be. Encouraging this sort of innovation though a carbon tax will make it easier to make the transition to a more sustainable source of energy before the rest of the world does. While the rest of the world would be struggling to change from fossil fuels, the United States will be spending that time and effort in other areas improving the lives of our citizens or improving our national security. This will allow the United States to continue to be a significant global influence and I believe a carbon tax is the first footsteps in the right direction for a prosperous America in the future.

A common argument against a carbon tax is that it is detrimental to business and cost will ultimately trickle down to the consumer which is bad the average person.  While this is true to an extent, there are many things that are taxed that both republicans and democrats are okay with.  The first thing that comes to mind is tobacco.  The reason we are okay with taxing tobacco is because it is harmful to the user and also because of the second hand smoke effects that are detrimental to others as well.  I think these are two very similar attributes between tobacco and fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels have been proven to produce toxic pollutants that are detrimental to human health.  For example, in a study by the University of Washington under professor Timothy Larson faculty studied pollution levels and their correlation to emergency room visits for asthma attacks.  The study concluded that they were directly correlated.  In addition to this the study also found that children born without asthma that moved closer to a high density freeway were significantly more likely to develop asthma.  These adverse effects justify a tax to protect the people that are affected by the decisions of others and to themselves, just like smoking.

The world will eventually have to shift away from fossil fuels. The question is how long are we going push off the inevitable. Einstein once said “Necessity is the mother of invention” and a carbon tax is nudging necessity closer in a healthy manner allowing for American ingenuity and creativity to thrive once again.