How Politicians Plug Electric Cars

A new study by Bradley W. Lane, Natalie Messer-Betts, Devin Hartmann, Sanya Carley, Rachel M. Krause, and John D. Graham on why governments promote electric vehicles finds that the environmental benefits of the vehicles have little to do with politicians' motives for supporting the industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, "Government Promotion of the Electric Car: Risk Management or Industrial Policy?" (gated) finds that the economic benefits of the industry are the primary motivator for most governments. From the press release:

Contrary to common belief, many of the world’s most powerful nations promote the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles primarily for reasons of economic development – notably job creation – not because of their potential to improve the environment through decreased air pollution and oil consumption.

This is among the main findings of a study by researchers at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental (SPEA) and University of Kansas that analyzed policies related to electric vehicles (EVs) in California, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and the United States – political jurisdictions with significant automotive industries and markets for EVs.

“Billions of dollars are being invested despite doubts that some express about the viability of electricity as a propulsion system,” said John D. Graham, SPEA dean and co-author of the study. “The objective of many of these national and sub-national governments is to establish a significant position – or even dominance – in the global marketplace for these emerging, innovative new technologies.”

A Car that Gets 262 MPG

Volkswagen has designed it, it's called the XL1:

The XL1 represents the car as blue-ribbon science fair project. But unlike other megacars, which are built to maximize speed and power, this one, more than ten years and upward of a billion dollars in the designing, contains not one centimeter of wasted space or poundage. The engineers eliminated power steering because it would have added 10 kilograms. For maximum lightness, the core of its body and chassis is comprised of a one-piece molded carbon-fiber monocoque. The magnesium wheels get wrapped in custom-light Michelin rubber. The windows lower with hand cranks. There’s no radio — the sound system wraps through the Garmin GPS — and no place to plug in your smartphone, because Bluetooth is lighter.

Fighting Poachers From the Lab

Wildlife activists have a new method for fighting Africa's increasingly bold elephant poachers.  Historically, scientists and governments have struggled to determine whether a piece of ivory was poached illegally or was obtained before the 1989 international ban on ivory trading, which has left some African governments with enormous stockpiles of ivory to manage and protect.  But a team of scientists recently determined that it's possible to use the amount of radiocarbon in an ivory tusk to determine what year the animal died -- and, by extension, whether the ivory was illegally poached.  

"The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed 'the bomb-curve,'" explains a BBC article on the study.  The resulting significant variations in atmospheric radiocarbon allow for highly accurate dating.  Scientists also hope that the technique will help shed light on poaching hotspots.  Kevin Uno, the study's lead author, told the BBC that the technique "would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date."

A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.

The Best “Green” Hotel Message I’ve Ever Seen

I’m always suspicious of companies who tout how environmentally friendly they are, when being green happens to coincide with cost savings for the firm.  The best example is the ubiquitous message you see in hotel rooms asking the guest, in the spirit of the environment, not to have the sheets and towels washed during your visit.  I have a hard time believing that if the situation were reversed – that the green answer was quite costly – the hotels would be such tree huggers.  (For the record, I don’t care at all whether my sheets and towels get washed, so I cooperate.)

At a hotel in China, I finally found a “green” message that I found compelling:

Who Controls the Switch on a Geoengineering Machine?

Most discussions about geoengineering start out with the tricky scientific issues but eventually get to the even trickier issue of governance. As we wrote in SuperFreakonomics:

As of this writing, there is no regulatory framework to prohibit anyone — a government, a private institution, even an individual — from putting sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. (If there were, many of the world’s nearly eight thousand coal-burning electricity units would be in a lot of trouble.) Still, [Nathan] Myhrvold admits that “it would freak people out” if someone unilaterally built the thing.

The Cost of Environmental Regulations

The environment has taken a back seat to the economy this election season. But timely new research looks at the intersection of politics, economics and the environment: the actual cost of environmental regulations.  

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Michael Greenstone, John List, and Chad Syverson analyzes the economic cost of air-quality regulations. From the abstract:

The economic costs of environmental regulations have been widely debated since the U.S. began to restrict pollution emissions more than four decades ago. Using detailed production data from nearly 1.2 million plant observations drawn from the 1972-1993 Annual Survey of Manufactures, we estimate the effects of air quality regulations on manufacturing plants’ total factor productivity (TFP) levels. We find that among surviving polluting plants, stricter air quality regulations are associated with a roughly 2.6 percent decline in TFP. The regulations governing ozone have particularly large negative effects on productivity, though effects are also evident among particulates and sulfur dioxide emitters.

Is a Meat-Eating Cyclist a Contradiction?

In response to James McWilliams's still-reverberating post about why more environmentalists don't promote veganism, a reader named Mary writes:

I have always wondered why environmentalists are so reluctant to promote veganism, but eager to promote alternative transportation. Many residents of the U.S. are currently locked in to their car-dependent lifestyle, with large mortgages in suburbs with no safe sidewalks or bike lanes and inefficient transit. Ditching their car is logistically much more difficult to do than buying beans instead of meat at the grocery store. Currently, the infrastructure for reducing car use is lacking in many communities, though vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained.

It's an interesting point. A few related thoughts come to mind:

Evidence That Myopia Has a Strong Environmental Cause

Time reports on a new study on why Asians have a higher rate of nearsightedness:

It has long been thought that nearsightedness is mostly a hereditary problem, but researchers led by Ian Morgan of Australian National University say the data suggest that environment has a lot more to do with it.

Reporting in the journal Lancet, the authors note that up to 90% of young adults in major East Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, are nearsighted. The overall rate of myopia in the U.K., by contrast, is about 20% to 30%.

The Prius Driver’s Conundrum

For a singularly grim, if fiercely literary, assessment of the earth’s environmental fate, the grizzled wisdom of Cormac McCarthy is always there to deliver the dark pronouncement that we’re flat-out doomed. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” explains the judge in McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. “[B]ut in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” Darkness, in essence, will fall at the very moment when we think we’re out-of-our-mind brilliant. 

Brilliance in conventional environmentalism has thus far been embodied by the caricature of hybrid-driving solar evangelists with soft spots for local farms, grass-fed beef, and re-useable shopping bags adorned with inscriptions of ecological virtue. Such popular solutions to our environmental quandary come not only with the eager endorsement of a progressive political establishment, but with the added appeal of basic pragmatism. Drive a more fuel-efficient car, eat locally, seek energy-efficient light fixtures, and vote “yes!” for public transit initiatives -- such ideas simply make sense. And thus they’ve become the nuts-and-bolts of modern environmentalism.