It’s not easy being green

By Alec Brandon

The stars arrived in style at last night’s Oscars. Every performer and presenter was offered a free ride in the Green Car Journal’s green car of the year: GMC’s new line of hybrid SUVs.

Over the past few years, being green has become a way of life in the city of angels. Hollywood stars have traded in their Ferraris, Mercedes, and Escalades for Priuses and electric cars. Buying bottled water has gone from being a sign of healthy living to being possibly illegal in some cities. Trading carbon credits—to offset an individual’s sometimes large carbon footprint—has become big business; The Financial Times reports that carbon markets are expected to double in size by 2010.

Heck, being green has even managed to make Al Gore sexy.

The green fad is sweeping college campuses as well. Oberlin recently installed energy tracking devices in its dorms to cut down on energy use, Stanford has announced plans to build a “green dorm”—the first of its kind—and Smith College has banned the sale of bottled water on campus.

The U of C jumped on the bandwagon last year when the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) held the Battle of the Bulbs and Earth Week. This month, the Battle of the Bulbs—a great idea in principle—began for the second year.

In many ways the GCI people get it. They have succeeded where those insane Coke activists failed: They aren’t trying to tell us what to do; instead they are using public shaming to encourage better behavior (did you know that the morons who live in BJ have actually upped their energy consumption this week?).

The problem is that the “bulbs” part of the Battle of the Bulbs is, at best, a murky issue. On the Battle’s website GCI encourages the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which “use about a quarter of the energy a traditional incandescent bulb typically sucks up, and last 10 times as long.”

This is all true, but there’s a bit of a catch: CFLs can burn so long because they contain mercury. The disposal of CFLs presents a significant long-term threat to the environment—in particular to the water supply. An entire recycling system is needed to properly dispose of CFLs; this will only work if people actually recycle them.

CFLs pose a threat to people. If you break one, the first thing you should do is evacuate the room for 15 minutes while the mercury vapor escapes. Then you need to get on your thickest rubber gloves (or hazmat suit) and clean like you’ve never cleaned before.

But, the biggest lie from the GCI people is that being green is easy. The truth of the matter is that even if you stop driving, drink water from the tap, and read only by candlelight, it isn’t at all clear that you’ve done anything to help the environment.

Huge amounts of carbon emissions come from all sorts of unexpected places. In fact, a recent study argues that it is better for the environment to drive than to walk. This seems counterintuitive, but it turns out that food production creates a lot of greenhouse gases. The planet would actually be better off if you took the car and skipped a meal.

A New York Times article in January reported that if the United States reduced consumption of beef by 20 percent, it would have the same effect as if everyone switched from a standard sedan to a hybrid car.

This sort of evidence isn’t meant to be purely destructive to pro-environmental policy. But if scientists, politicians, and every conceivable think tank can’t figure out how to cut carbon emissions (or mercury pollution) perhaps we should acknowledge that the only way to really deal with this is for the governments to cap pollution. This would let price dissuade people from polluting the Earth with tradable permits.

I’m not blaming the GCI for trying to do something positive in the absence of a cap-and-trade carbon market, but events like Battle of the Bulbs creates a world in which it seems reasonable for Congress to all but ban incandescent bulbs by 2014.

Talk about a waste of political capital that is sorely needed for real environmental issues.

Alec Brandon is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.