Carbon Taxing: Subsystems and Alternatives are Needed

Based on the economic principle of negative externalities, a carbon tax is a way — maybe the only way — to make users of carbon fuels pay for the climate damage caused by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The carbon tax is it’s a pure price signal because it makes using dirty fuels more­ expensive, it encourages utilities, businesses, and individuals to reduce consumption and increase energy efficiency. Washington state is already on the way with Initiative-732, which is gaining more and more support. However, it’s never easy to establish a policy especially when it involves different aspects and groups. So how to make it better and contribute to its implementation? Although I don’t know everything about it, I have some thoughts that may be helpful.

  • How to decide the tax rate? The most common explanation of carbon tax is that “The government sets a price per ton on carbon”. It seems that there is a standard measurement of the carbon, however, we know that the carbon content of oil, coal, and gas varies, and here come the Btu heat units, something standardized and quantifiable — instead of unrelated units like weight or volume. There has been some research done about it and based on Btu heat units, the different tax rates reflect carbon content in each fuel, even could be categorized into multiple subsystems, which should be open and transparent to the public. These subsystems give consumers, especially households and individuals, direct monetary incentive and more alternatives if they need more time to shift their energy resources from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.

    co2

    Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal releases the most CO2, natural gas the least.

  • The compensation measures of the carbon tax is another powerful nudge. There are different ways to return the money back to the productive and innovating parts of the economy as tax breaks, and there should be a healthy system to manage that. The method can be determined by their conditions and to their best profit. For example, for individuals and households, it could be achieved through personal income tax system including tax credits, or provide cash transfers for low-income individuals. And for high-rise office, it could go toward clean energy subsidies and investment in public transportation. Or there could be a portion to support the non-profit organizations that are devoting to fight the climate change by educational programs.
  •  The carbon tax should be combined with other measures to create the best outcome. The aim is to replace fuels with renewable energies, so something has to be done about those clean energies. For example, by reducing the price of clean energies and improve the access to them would be super helpful in a state or even nationwide. For most of the consumers especially households and individuals, the biggest reason using fuels is that they are cheap and easy to get. So by cutting down the price and improving the infrastructure of cleaner energy resources, their competitiveness would be enhanced greatly. And it would also bring extra benefits such as providing more job opportunities if wind energy stations are built along the coast of Washington.

Most fundamentally, an overall framework is needed, and at the same time, several subsystems and alternatives are also needed, in order to make the carbon tax more sound and to increase the environmental effectiveness and economy efficiency.

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Are Quarters too Short?

Here we are in week eight of Winter Quarter at the University of Washington, wondering how we got here. It seems unimaginable that we’re almost done with the quarter already, yet so it goes every term. I’ve noticed a pattern emerging late in each of the eight quarters I’ve spent at UW – that of the quarter vs. semester debate.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to east each system. Quarters, in which students typically take three consecutive 10 week long terms (with summer off), is a great way to provide an opportunity to take many different courses. This structure also arguably allows for more outside experience, like internships or classes in other departments. However, a major drawback to the quarter system is how quickly time seems to pass, negating the possibility to dive deeper into subjects.

Semesters provide an arguably more stable environment, each typically 15 weeks long with summers off. This system provides a deeper knowledge of one subject rather than allowing for exposure to a wide range. Newer students may prefer semesters as they allow time to ease into the term. We come to a point where we must ask ourselves: which is a more beneficial learning environment?

This question is especially pertinent in the College of Built Environments, where many projects are design or research-based, thus making the extra five weeks afforded in the semester extremely important. Reaching a deeper level of depth and resolve in a project is largely based on the amount of time one has to complete it. Further, a larger number of high-ranking design schools are on the semester system, a variable that may very well affect the outcome of student’s work.

Many professors have addressed the issue of less time in each term period by adding work either before or after the quarter is over. This can either be accredited – through independent research, thesis prep type courses, research selectives – or entirely voluntary on the part of the student. Adding accredited coursework in bookending quarters also adds stress to a student’s current credit-load, oftentimes putting them over the maximum amount of credits, 18, before they have to pay extra tuition.

It appears on many different fronts that if the University of Washington were to adopt a semester approach to the school schedule, many solutions to tricky issues would present themselves. School rankings would increase due to the depth of projects and research, students would probably feel an elevation of time pressures, and the occurrence of overloading credits used for preparatory coursework would lessen. As far as design school is concerned, elongating school terms and dissipating the dizzying speed at which quarters pass seems to be a no-brainer.

A Gun tax: a new answer to our gun violence problem?

In the wake of last week’s school shooting, which is by some reckonings the US’s 28th mass shooting since the start of this year, the Nation is once again caught up in a debate about the sustainability of our National love-affair with guns.  It is clear when we look at the statistics on gun deaths and, particularly, mass shootings, that the USA stands far apart from the rest of the developed world in the degree to which our gun culture has compromised public health.

The US has a gun problem.  The US has the one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world—8 times higher than Canada and 27 times higher than Denmark.[1]  With casualties due to military armed conflict taken out, the US indeed has the highest rate of gun death per capita with only one exception, Iraq.

The debate has been centering on laws that would regulate who can purchase guns and what kinds of guns can be purchased.  But, while I support these regulations, I propose an additional approach.  I think we should tax guns as the public health danger that they are.  In addition to reasonable gun regulation, we should also tax firearms to decrease the commerce of this product.

A tax can be effective in reducing the consumption of a product.  Studies have shown that smokers consume fewer cigarettes when cigarettes are more expensive.[2]  This nudges smokers toward quitting a habit that compromises their health, and discourages kids from starting.  Likewise, imposing a national tax on guns would dis-incentivize purchasing guns and reduced overall consumption.

A tax will be accepted better by the public if they understand the problem it is addressing and the contribution the tax can have in solving the problem.  The proceeds from gun taxes could be used to fund a national education campaign on the dangers of guns and the importance of gun safety.  This is a strategy that has also been used effectively to reduce smoking among the population.  Education in conjunction with the tax could also help reinforce the importance of having a gun tax by informing the public further about the problem.

Reducing the number of firearms currently in circulation is also an important element of the problem not addressed by regulation.    Funds from the gun tax could be used to fund a gun buy-back program.  Australia used a gun buy-back program in combination with strict gun regulation effectively to reduce the number of guns in public use.  These efforts have been widely credited with a plummeting national rate of murder and suicide in the country.

Finally, while a tax on guns will still be challenging in today’s political environment, it is easier in one respect—it does not pose a problem with the Second Amendment.  The Second Amendment is an individual right to have arms for self defense.  Nothing in it prohibits taxing the sale of firearms, educating on the safe use of firearms, and buying back voluntarily surrendered firearms.  Thus, while I’m sure there would be political resistance to a gun tax (as there is with any tax), it should fare better against legal challenges than strict regulations have.

We have been around-and-around this gun control debate for so long, that we seem caught in a place where nothing can move forward.  Maybe this is why we need new answers.  A gun tax may be a new answer that can move us forward.

[1] “Gun violence: How the US compares with other countries,” Nurith Aizenman, NPR (2017); https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/10/06/555861898/gun-violence-how-the-u-s-compares-to-other-countries

[2] “Cigarette Smoking in the US Continues to Fall,” Richard Harris, NPR (2016); https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/11/10/501589893/cigarette-smoking-in-the-u-s-continues-to-fall

Life Cycle Assessment as an Enabling Framework

Coins and green plant isolated on white

Which type of grocery bag do you think is harder on the environment to produce? Paper or plastic? Images of plastic bags washed up on the beach probably come to mind, and you might be inclined to say plastic. Surprisingly, it’s the paper bag that requires more resources to produce and contains more embodied carbon. I just offered two ways that you can measure the effect that a product has on the environment. However, different people have different ideas for how to measure environmental impacts. That’s sort of the problem. In the pursuit of something good, like saving our oceans, there’s plenty of room left for sharks. There are corporations and people that manipulate people’s understanding of what a product’s environmental impact is and prey on the ambiguous nature of the measuring systems that are out there.

So what measuring systems are out there? I would argue that Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) gets us pretty close to being able to measure the environmental impacts of different products in a more commensurate way. However, it’s not a perfect model. As major environmental issues have risen over the past 50 years, the LCA model has been refined to measure things like solid waste impact, toxicity levels, and embodied carbon. But just measuring the impact is not enough. The ultimate use of LCA should be to build it into an effective enabling framework.

An enabling framework is a construct that is built into any system that allows people and transactions to occur in a more seamless way. But how do we use LCA as an enabling framework to lessen the environmental impact of the products that we create? One way is to tie the results of a product’s LCA to its price or perhaps its sales tax. This would effectively create a framework that makes the consumption of products that have a higher environmental impact more expensive. Manufacturers would need to lower their product’s environmental impact in order to stay competitive as the demand for their goods would decrease with the increasing prices. A change like this would be almost invisible to the consumer and market forces would yield more sustainable production of goods.

The difficulty in implementing this system would come from the companies that create unsustainable products. If they couldn’t adapt to it they would lobby hard with huge financial backing to stop it from happening. They would attack the mechanics of LCA and say that that it doesn’t accurately measure the environmental impact of their products. That’s why creating a commensurate measuring system is so important, and that’s why LCA is the best one out there for the job. The more time we spend arguing about which model to use or how environmental impact is measured, the more pain that’s inflicted on our planet. Change is hard for everyone, but creating an enabling framework like this has the power to change the way we think and behave and could have a lasting impact on the earth.

Filling City Cracks with Nature

Many of the most desirable cities in the United States are facing a housing and identity problem. Housing shortages are primarily caused by limits on new construction and these policies exist in part due to the desire to preserve “desirable” aspects of the city like views or neighborhood character. But maybe it’s really the unknown that new development represents that some people are afraid of. Perhaps increasing the appearance of nature is one way to allay these fears. Nature is both a constant and changing force, so increasing the appearance of nature can help ground cities as they struggle to address urban issues.

Though it may not be apparent, nature always exists in one form or another—even in cities. From the weeds that sprout out of sidewalk cracks to the ants that invade an apartment, nature is all around us albeit in more subtle ways in urban settings. Unfortunately, since nature doesn’t always stand out in cities, people may feel a sense of disconnect. However, nature has been shown to have many benefits. First, there have been many studies that have demonstrated the restorative properties of nature. People who come into contact with nature have reported improved mood and stress levels. Second, nature plays an important role in the health of the larger environment which includes things like air quality and water quality which as essential to human health. Third, exposure to nature will contribute to people caring more about environmental degradation.

Though some may argue that parks are taking up potential space for housing, greening all of a city’s nooks and crannies could be the thing to ground a city’s identity, acknowledging its past but allowing for changes towards a more sustainable future. A more extreme method would be building green walls and rooftop gardens on all buildings, but it could also take the form of smaller interventions like lining all sidewalks with potted plants or investing in parklets. These help to give people a sense of joy and may help to quell anxieties about change.  Perhaps urban nature, with all its little iterations, combined with human-spearheaded nature in cities can give a greater sense of reassurance about the future of cities.

Rise with the Tide

“The Economics of Urban Grain,” an interview with Liz Dunn, is an intriguing juxtaposition to Glaeser’s “What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?” Glaeser’s article challenged some of my assumptions about height and density, yet the piece illustrates a particular history of building vertically that seems to serve his own perspective. I find myself more in line with Dunn’s observations, which also place value on a bigger picture and specific perspective, yet consider the value of things like of embodied carbon and energy used by new construction and the value of granularity. At the end of the day, I appreciate that each Dunn, Glaeser, and Hurd and Hurd (in “The Carbon Effcient City” Chapters 5-7) underscores a need to consider both qualitative and quantitative impacts alongside systems oriented implications in any design.

While I’ve been a long-time advocate of justice issues, a major breakthrough for me came in 2012, when I began to learn about “regenerative design” and the work of the International Living Futures Institute.  These were game-changers for me. In art school I was taught about the ancient debate between quality of materials vs accessibility / affordability for the masses. This dichotomy was reinforced in urban community activism, where I often found it difficult to convince peers of the value of things like organic food and locally-produced goods (not just local shops, but paying for a specific person’s actual time and the real cost of materials). The primary challenge here is definitely related to causality and correlation. Some fellow activists associated quality, and quality’s often high prices, with an elite class.  They expressed that if “we” (activists, designers, etc.)  were working alongside a others who were struggling to get by, that we should be living at a similar level of access. There was also a projection of locally made and organic goods and sustainable materials/stems as being bourgeois and hipster, which were (rightfully) perceived as gentrifying forces.

The problem for me with the above associations is the underlying reality that “all ships must rise with the tide.” How are we to get out of cycles of oppression by purchasing food, goods, and building materials from the same entities that contribute to inequity in production and employee treatment, and to other deeply unhealthy outcomes (physical outcomes from food, worker conditions, and off gassing or poison from materials)? Even in small student groups, is still a challenge advocate for things like Living Buildings and high quality local production in the face of urgent issues like a housing crisis. In light of this, I greatly appreciate the perspectives in this week’s readings, which affirm making long-term and systems oriented choices alongside our work toward equitable change.

The Flexible City

In Tokyo, the limitation of land use is always being an issue for creating the public spaces or newly developed projects similar to other Asian metropolis like Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul. Within the concept of the sustainable city, how to figure out the reusable materials and create the flexible architecture forms becoming the popular and core ideas when designers in Japan working on a project.

yygv_17summer_movie_s.jpg

(http://www.yoyogi-village.jp/)

Using the containers to be the housing materials seems not an innovative strategy anymore. However, clustering the containers to be a village could be something different for not only the community but also the city. The Yoyogi Village is an example to take a glimpse into the future lifestyle. The words “sustainable”, “sanctuary” and “natural” aren’t often used to describe Tokyo, but they aptly define the new Yoyogi Village in the Shibuya ward. The design team wants to create a comfortable and sustainable future community which environmentalism is as important as consumerism when they operated this project.

代々木VILLAGE外観.jpg (http://www.yoyogi-village.jp/)

This project is the work of the Wonderwall architecture group, landscape designer Seijun Nishihata and others. In the Yoyogi Village, it features bars, restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, groceries and even the botanical garden split between the “village section” and the “container section”, the latter of which comprises a series of upcycled shipping containers. Designers clustered and stacked up the containers to form the shape of the “village” in order to create a multiuse space.

0961551487ae2e24cf9aab3a9183ed55.jpg(http://www.yoyogi-village.jp/)

The success of this project becomes to a community hub in Shibuya is because the entire design only maintains a 70-80% completion level. The space left allows users to participate in “design and renovation.” Through these opportunities of participation, the users are given a sense of belonging and they will slowly begin to work with this place a unique feeling, began to gather more people to form a dynamic community.

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(https://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/nagano_kazuo/65355358.html)