Leveraging social norms to save the environment

The sacramento municipal utility gets you to conserve energy by comparing you to your neighbours.

This fascinating article form the NYT (Utilities turn their customers green, with envy) discusses how the Sacramento Municipal Utility has had great success in achieving their energy-reduction targets by informing their customers on how their energy usage stacks up against that of their neighbours.
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Canada: a brief history of failed GHG reduction policies

Attended a talk entitled Getting Climate Policy Right yesterday, presented by Mark Jaccard and co-sponsored by University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and the Centre for Environment. Jaccard is a leading expert, not just in Canada but internationally, on climate change policy and economic modelling, and delivered an informative, stimulating and engaging presentation.

Some of the key take-aways:

  • Energy efficiency is expensive – economists who model energy efficiency policies and programs often still fail to take into account a variety of factors that make investment in energy-efficient technologies much more costly.
  • Information programs are not enough – governments have 4 (or five) policy levers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: information campaigns (e.g. the Rick Mercer one-tonne challenge), subsidies, regulations, financial penalties (taxes), and cap and trade schemes (a combo of numbers 3 and 4). We need to see much more of numbers 3-5.
  • Offsets are not working the way they’re supposed to – in the EU cap and trade scheme (or at least ETS1), companies can achieve 15% of their targets via offsets which go to clean development mechanisms as subsidies to developing countries for advanced, cleaner technologies from developed countries. Jaccard showed the audience a slide demonstrating how China is taking advantage of this as a “free-rider,” using the CDMs for hydroelectic projects that would already have been done anyway, and thus failing to have any mitigating impact on their GHG emissions from coal-fired plants.
  • Targets don’t matter – while I think the language used here is a bit too strong (of course targets matter), what Jaccard is saying is that we’ve been setting great targets for years, but have consistently failed to meet them. According to Jaccard, we need clear plans for meeting our targets, absolute caps and minimal or no offsets. Which brings me to…
  • Canada has been failing at greenhouse gas reduction policies since the late 80s – first introduced by the Mulroney government, Canada has gone through more than five policies to reduce GHGs, all of them failures. By the reckoning of Jaccard’s team, the current plan under the Conservatives will have some effect (good news) but not nearly as much as is claimed or needed.

As Jaccard said, Canada has clearly demonstrated it is a follower and not a leader in this area. We should expect to see more action once the US has got implemented some serious GHG reduction policies, which will hopefully be happening soon.

Ontario launches anti-poverty plan amidst economic turmoil

The Ontario government has launched a comprehensive anti-poverty plan that is receing warm reception from advocates like the 25in5 Network for Poverty Reduction. The fact that this has taken place during particularly bad times for Ontario’s economy is all the more impressive, and makes me proud to be an Ontarian–not something that happens every day. As is recognized today by nearly everyone, from economists to G20 leaders, now is actually a fairly auspicious time for large-scale government investment, not just in physical infrastructure but also in “social infrastructure,” of which poverty reduction is a key componenent.

In related news that makes this development even more timely, a study from UC Berkeley has found that the negative effects of poverty on children’s brains can in some cases be so severe that they resemble the impact of a stroke.

Compelling graphs from the WHO Report on Social Determinants of Health

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Commission on the Social Determinants of Health has just released its final report which, though I have not read it in detail (it’s pretty long), seems to have some powerfully-worded recommendations and calls-to-action with regard to improving health outcomes across the globe. I appreciate how they don’t shy away from topics like “The Relationship Between the Market and Health Equity.”

Since information is so strongly communicated through visualizations, here are some graphs from the report. I find the first two particularly interesting.

Health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE) and private spending as  a % of total health spending in 2000.
Health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE) and private spending as a % of total health spending in 2000.
First Nations youth suicide rates, by cultural continuity factors
First Nations youth suicide rates, by cultural continuity factors
Fast food consumption (1995 and 1999) in selected countries.
Fast food consumption (1995 and 1999) in selected countries.
Changes in spending allocation under the President’s Emergency Plan  for AIDS Relief, 2004–2006
Changes in spending allocation under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, 2004–2006