Green is in. Al Gore has an Academy Award resting on his mantel. More than 1,000 groups rallied on Saturday for Bill McKibben's Step It Up 2007 campaign to limit the damage of climate change. Glossy magazines from Glamourto Outsideto Business 2.0 are releasing eco-editions. Even the Supreme Court has gotten into the spirit, with a landmark ruling this month that the Environmental Protection Agency has—and probably should use—the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases from car and truck emissions. With Earth Day around the corner, it's the right time for an updated version of the Slate/ treehugger Green Challenge.
If you're new this time around, welcome. If you're a second-timer, you'll notice some differences. Readers told us after the first Green Challenge in October that we didn't give enough credit to the already CO2-conscious and that we were skewed toward people who ride trains instead of buses, live in houses rather than apartments, and use a lot of heat (that is, residents of the Northeast). Thanks to your feedback, we've made some changes.
This time, the Green Challenge will take place over seven weeks. You'll take brief weeklyquizzes about your carbon load for each week's topic (transportation, food, clothing, etc.). You can then pledge to shed topic-related carbon pounds. At the end of the Challenge, we'll compile your overall results. (Though unlike last time, we won't ask you to take a monster quiz at the end.) You can think of the new and improved Challenge as a diet—if you have a heavy carbon load—or as an upkeep program to keep you committed to staying slim.
The United Nations says that the average American is responsible for about 22 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions every year, compared with an average of six tons per person throughout the rest of the world. Scientists are sure those emissions matter: Even a small rise in global temperature could significantly change the climate, potentially resulting in major storms and droughts, disruption of the food supply, and the spread of disease.
When we ran the Green Challenge last fall, some readers noted that individual carbon diets can go only so far in addressing climate change and that it's even more important to change the menu of options that individuals—and businesses—have when they're making choices about energy use. Along those lines, here are three ideas from the nonprofit Environmental Leadership Program.
- Create a market: A tax on carbon, or a cap-and-trade proposal like the ones before Congress, would lead to price-setting for carbon dioxide emissions. That would cause a ripple effect throughout the economy, giving us an incentive to factor in CO2 emissions and energy efficiency as we make choices.
- Raise standards: Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents in one's own house is great, but what about retiring all the incandescent bulbs in the country? Australia recently set a phaseout date of 2010, and the European Union appears ready to follow suit. Similar proposals have been introduced in several states, including California. There is precedent for this kind of eco-mandate: When California set efficiency standards for refrigerators, gas furnaces, and other appliances in 1977, the state reduced the growth of electricity demand for the next generation. Fuel-economy standards and emissions limits for cars and trucks are more critical versions of policies that force technology changes.
- Cut commutes: Transportation is a major source of emissions. What if we cut the travel out of work? Senators Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently introduced a bill to make nearly all federal employees eligible to telecommute. Alternatively, could we bring jobs and people closer to each other? "Smart growth" policies spur mixed-use development around transit hubs and revitalize urban centers.
Choosing among the old menu of energy-use choices, it's hard for most of us, acting individually, to reduce our carbon output drastically. These sorts of changes would give us all a head start on our carbon diet.
(Click hereto start the Slate Green Challenge.)