Our home is 14.2 miles from driveway to parking lot where we work. This means each time I come to campus I drive 28.4 miles. After driving my car for a full-year now, I have averaged 29.5 miles per gallon. Therefore each day we drive to work we use 0.96 gallons of gas. According to the E.P.A. each gallon of gas we burn releases 19.4 pounds of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. Therefore for every trip we make to campus, we are emitting 18.7 pounds (0.00935 tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere. I drove to campus 180 times in 2012. Therefore my total (marginal) carbon emissions from driving to work were 1.683 tons of CO2. Now this is an overstatement since a good portion of my trips to school are coupled with trips to Wegmans, the post-office, jogging, etc. But to make life simple let’s just attribute all of this damage I am doing to my work commute.
If one takes a fairly aggressive approach to the “social cost” of carbon, at double the “consensus” estimate from the IPCC, at $60 per ton emitted, then by commuting from Bushnell’s Basin to the campus for an entire year I am responsible for $100.98 of climate related damages to the people of this great planet (56 cents per round-trip). More realistic estimates are probably closer to $40 (or about a quarter per round-trip), and this of course is taking the IPCC assessments at their face value, an increasingly laughable proposition.
I jokingly recommended to the 5 people on campus responsible for all of the green initiatives on campus that instead of promoting ineffective things like bottle bans, they could get “serious” and propose banning cars for a few days, or altogether. Well, let’s think about this. Even ignoring the fact that something must get people to campus, if I never commuted a single day to work at best I would be preventing $100 of climate damage. In thinking only of the time cost of getting to school just for a few days of having my car banned, the loss of productivity would so overwhelm this savings as to be laughable. I imagine my commute times would increase by at least 30 minutes per day. So for a week of this, I guess I could reduce my office hours by 2.5 hours and see how our $60,000 per year paying parents and students react to that. Or I could spend 2.5 hours less prepping for class and generally just wing some additional lectures.
Incidentally, I decided this semester to spend two additional days per week at home and not on campus. At best, over 16 weeks, this will save $15 of climate catastrophe.
If you consider the overall reduction of productivity of workers as a whole, any climate savings would be wholly and entirely swamped in a matter of hours, not even days. There are possible climate benefits that are going unnoticed here. I suppose that if we really did ban cars, we could plant grass and trees where some blacktop currently is and get some climate benefits from that, but that would also rule out the possibility of people driving to campus ever, which I don’t think folks find an attractive idea (how else could we come to a Recyclemania event that is held on a weekend? I suppose we could all bicycle through 6 degree snowstorms in February, or hope that buses run frequently on Sundays).
Ignore that. Banning cars seems unlikely. Perhaps our campus could institute their own carbon tax that is applied based on the number of miles people drive to campus. An “optimal” tax would end up costing just a fraction of what the cost of parking is right now (I think I pay something like $400 each year) and so it is highly doubtful that such a tax would do much to alter behavior (indeed, I would just switch to a cheaper lot that is further away, which ironically, would require MORE miles driven from my home to the lot). It would be fun to also consider how such a tax would be monitored and enforced. Would I have to take a photo of my odometer each day before and after I return from work and then send it in? Would we have EZ-Pass systems in our cars? Who knows. Surely the costs of monitoring that for a campus of 20,000 employees and 8,000 students would cost more than $100 per person per year. And remember, the real carbon costs are well less than that per person. I live farther away from campus than most folks, and also have doubled the conventional estimate for our damages.
And finally, even if we all were willing and able to make this “amazing change” it would of course do nothing for the planet except maybe make a few dozen people feel better about the pretense of doing something. China and other developing nations will smartly chug away and grow with cheap and abundant coal, and drive their cars powered by cheap and abundant oil while we hamstring ourselves into pretzels.
The great irony of course is that as a research university, rather than doing stuff like this we could actually be dedicating our time doing research into things that might actually make a difference, or studying seriously whether anything need to be done in the first place. But on the modern campus that would be so gauche.