I’ve always nodded my head at the truth in Upton Sinclair’s insight that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” but I recently realized its importance in the quest for sustainability.
It’s clear that many people who make their living from “freeing carbon” (oil workers, loggers, car makers, beef producers, etc.) are not interested in ideas about limiting carbon (and equivalents). As a result, we’re getting climate change and damages of $100 for each $1 these “vested interests” earn.
So now I realize the sad possibility that many of these vested interests — had they saved some of their “carbon windfall” — would be ok with a decarbonising world. That would be because their savings gave them other options for earning, and enjoying, their lives.
Compare Norway and Alberta (or Alaska). Norway saved and invested lots of its oil money, so it now has $1 trillion, or about $185k per citizen. Alberta and Alaska, I know, have saved a lot less. This difference in savings is important because savings make it easier to cope with risk. Norwegians would not be so worried if the “oil carbon was turned off.” Alaskans, Albertans, and the residents of most oil- carbon-exporting countries (including the US) would be terrified, because they make their living from freeing carbon.
It is thus that I arrive at my over-simplified, one-handed conclusion: If we’re going to turn off the carbon, then we need to “take care” of those who profit from it. The simplest way to do this is pay them off. The easiest way to raise the funds to pay them off is to tax carbon. I would make the tax “dynamic” such that the burden fell for those who ran from carbon while it rose on those who strolled in the same general direction.
It’s not about the planet, the future or technology. It’s about money.
As a water economist, I am well aware of the advantages of clean water, which gives me a similar respect for clean air. The problem is that it’s hard to see air or water pollution, which is why I support visualizing technology.
In the case of water, we’re still waiting, but the technology* for measuring, viewing and recording air quality is improving rapidly, which makes it more likely that average people will change their habits and push for policy changes that can be seen on their devices. (Here’s a great podcast on how residents of a poor area near San Francisco dramatically improved their air quality. Pollution in London’s Tube is 30x street levels, so maybe it’s time to bike?)
With that preamble out of the way, let me tell you about the Air Tricorder (!) I bought for €70 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
As you can see, it’s a plastic box with fans and sensors inside that gives real time measures of the Air Quality Index (AQI) that combines measures for PM2.5, PM10 and NOx. (This video shows how quality changes as a freight train rolls through Utrecht’s central station.) The drawbacks of the Tricorder is that it does not record geo-tagged data, which means that you need to stop often and manually correlate location and time with the AQI.**
What I found to be very interesting was how AQI would change in various places, sometimes counterintuitively.
First is the fact that AQI in an alley may be lower than on a busy street, either because scooters drive in the alleys or people are cooking over charcoal (!!) in the alley. (The Tricorder doesn’t go above 500, which is labeled “ludicrous.) Those cooking habits — along with burning wood in the fireplace or smoking indoors — explain why indoor air pollution is linked to 4,000 deaths per day, worldwide.
Third, the majority of pollution comes from bad practices (burning coal) but also old, outdated and poorly maintained machines and factories. Various countries regulate this issue by banning certain practices or older models of cars, scooters, trucks and so forth, but poor/corrupt countries do not have or enforce these rules, which means that their citizens die younger and children suffer brain damage. Is that policy pro-poor? Probably not, given that their richer neighbors use more energy and travel more.
My one-handed conclusion is that you should check your personal air quality and speak out for policies and practices that will improve it.
* Note that I am talking about mobile or personal devices. You can easily get quality measurements from fixed stations (US or EU), but that information is less personal (and thus less actionable) because it’s not about you here and now.
** I was super excited to buy a Flow device that would send real time data to my smart phone, but the €180 device bricked itself when I tried to share it with my GF’s phone. (Flow was funded in late 2018 via Kickstarter.) Two weeks later, I am still waiting for a solution. Their tech support seems to be struggling. I’ll update this post if get a working device (or my money back).
*** This famous twitter account, set up by the US Dept of State in 2008 — back when we were great — forced Chinese leaders to engage with the problem.