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Archive for April 22nd, 2011

David Roberts at Grist has a post about underground environmentalism in East Germany. The whole thing is interesting, but his conclusion is the really important part:

First, what happened to industry under GDR is what happens when decisions are controlled by a small group of people, usually people who own — or have financial or political ties to those who own — the means of production. The focus inevitably turns to rapid growth, gigantism, pollution, and profits. The poor and defenseless (a large class in the GDR) have no voice and so they suffer while a small group benefits. Those who profit always claim to be acting in the public interest, but given a real choice, the public puts a far higher premium on health and safety.

Now, here in America we don’t live under a communist dictatorship. So that’s good. But if there’s one sector of our economy that comes closest to socialism, it’s energy. Decisions are made by a small group of owners, regulators, and politicians; there’s nothing approximating a free market and very little in the way of public participation.

Sure enough, the results tend toward the big, dirty, and hostile to regulatory constraints. This kind of centralization and gigantism has become so familiar to us in energy that we scarcely notice it. We have become accustomed to thinking of our future in terms of ever-rising demand and ever-larger power plants (despite the recent failures of that approach).

But when communities own their own means of energy production, when they live next to it, they are willing to pay extra and consume more conscientiously in exchange for cleanliness. Something new is happening in Germany now: Of all the country’s renewable energy, just 4 percent is owned by the four big utilities. The remaining 96 percent is owned by private households, small municipal utilities, rural and energy cooperatives, and people’s wind parks.

Bringing the production of energy closer to its consumption is one way to rationalize the externalities unseen in everyday life. This idea can be applied to many spheres, especially labor. The only weakness is that communities need to be well-organized and somewhat well-resourced to take the first step in owning their energy production. This financial reality necessitates policies from the top that also encourage social costs to be recognized personally.

Of course, when one looks to policy, there is a wide debate. For example, a recent NBER paper received some attention. The authors use common integrated assessment models, and find a central value of $21 per ton of CO2 emissions. Another paper, by two heterodox economists, criticize the IAMs used in this paper, because of heavy discounting and aggressive assumptions about how damages fall across countries. Indeed, they cite a UK study yielding $83 as the central value, 4x as high as the more mainstream value.

I’m not going to belabor the nuances of mainstream versus heterodox approaches to valuing carbon; the clear takeaway is that assumptions vary widely and matter greatly.

In absence of the consensus and political will needed to implement policies reflecting the true social cost of carbon (on which I tend to side with Ackerman and Stanton), one needs local action like that described by Roberts. Energy purchasing cooperatives are one example of ordinary citizens taking more ownership over their consumption. However, localizing and owning the production of energy, which is easier with renewables like solar and wind, is a definite pathway to sustainability. Local alternatives can also pave the way for broader acceptance of the true costs of dirty energy. Ultimately, we will need the local and global to align for a sustainable energy future.

Happy Earth Day!

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