When Environmental Regulations Promote Ecological Devastation

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 17 2011 10:02 AM

When Environmental Regulations Promote Ecological Devastation

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San Jose, where the living's green but very expensive.

Wikimedia photo

I think most people would be surprised by the extent to which misguided local environmental regulations have become a major source of environmental damage in the United States. The main problem that you see in many places is rules that fail to properly specify the counterfactual against which some project should be judged. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, features the highest housing costs in the country and the second-highest wages so it's a natural target for developers looking to add housing. But the California environmental review process implicitly compares the impact of adding housing to a baseline scenario in which the people who would live in the new housing just kind of vanish. But of course that's not what happens. When people can't afford to live in Los Angeles, they move to the Inland Empire instead. When people can't afford to live in the Bay Area, they move to Houston instead. Tha trouble here is that coastal California is one of the most ecologically sustainable places on the planet for a person to live. California's sources of electricity are fairly green and California's weather is amazing so people who live there burn way less fossil fuels heating and cooling their homes, shops, and offices than do people in most of the country.

That's why it's excellent news to see Kai Benfielf of the Natural Resources Defence Council recognizing the problem and I'm very glad to see through him that the evaluation of the new plan for Mountain View in Silicon Valley is based in part on the recognition that "if you don't build it, they will go somewhere else, which might be worse."

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Still, this is only a baby step in the right direction. The average California resident emits a bit over half the national average in CO2 emissions. Under the circumstances, we should be trying to make it as easy and affordable for as large share of the American population as possible to move to California. When you consider that per capita emissions fall with density, the case becomes even more compelling. If California were as densely populated as New Jersey, it would hold 185 million people. The state itself would naturally be much dirtier with 148 million extra residents. But the country—and the planet—as a whole would be substantially cleaner.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.