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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.

12 Responses to “Looking for Something to Do”

  1. Alex says:

    This seems like a straw man. I think the point to get across is that just looking at the benefits of something isn’t enough. You’ve made very clear that banning cars or instituting a carbon tax on miles driven is not worth the costs at all. You’ve indicated the ineffectiveness of banning water bottles and curbside recycling in this and other posts, and you make good arguments against them; maybe that’s enough. But can you show similar calculations for how recycling, banning water bottles, or those water refill fountains around campus that tell you you’ve saved some amount of plastic from a certain number of bottles, aren’t worth the cost? I suspect those are calculations that could change minds, whereas this would just prompt the response “well, then, we won’t ban cars. But we should not take your word for its “unsustainability” and still ban water bottles (and recycle).”

    • aarmlovi says:

      (N.B. it’s clear a privately administrated carbon tax would have excessive transactions costs because of monitoring difficulties; this is why a serious proposal would have to be along the lines of a public excise tax. An individual organization can’t efficiently track miles driven, while taxation authorities already have the scale and the infrastructure in place for a simple fossil fuel tax with no end-user monitoring required.)

  2. wintercow20 says:

    I need to be less subtle I think. Your first sentence and the title of the post are intentionally identical.

    • Alex says:

      But is there way to show with similar calculations that banning water bottles and recycling are JUST “something to do”, or that they are actually harmful on net?

      • Scott says:


        Is there a way to show that banning these bottles is beneficial on net? So far, I haven’t seen anything convincing.

        But if you can’t justify the implementation of a program using a cost/benefit analysis, then why bother implementing the program at all? Just something to do I guess.

        “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.”

      • wintercow20 says:

        We’ve done it with recycling already, and recycling of residential materials, the stuff that the U of R goes nuts about, destroys resources. No study I know of on bottle bans, but two points I’ve made time and again are that (1) they are likely to have other unintended consequences and more important (2) they are “solving” a non-problem, or a small one at best. Even the size of the floating trash heap in the Pacific has been wildly exaggerated, and does very little damage. And if we were to write down an economic model of course it is plausible that such trash is efficient, despite the unseemly nature of it. All of the other concerns about plastic bottles are not serious. Landfill space? Running out of oil? And then there’s the doozy: bottled water is bad because they companies take water from people that “need” it. That does of course have anything to do with bottled water.

        I’m sorry, but the burden of proof ought to be on the folks in favor of the ban. But there is no such burden asked of them, and I’ve spoken with many of them – there is no interest in even asking aside from perhaps one person. It is just “something to do.” And then once this gets done, what will be their “something to do” next year. Because, as you know, you have to always be “doing something” to be sustainable. And as you know, this is, if anything, about “social justice” and some muddled notion of anti-capitalism. I think folks ought to prove to me that I am wrong about this. I used to think otherwise, until I actually met the people responsible for it here and elsewhere.

        • Alex says:

          So if we take at face value the “science” that talks about the harmful effects of BPA and PET on health or the effects on other species (and I know there are some), how do we compare these to the costs of banning. Thinking at the margin, “solving” a small problem cheaply is better than solving a big one at great expense.

          • wintercow20 says:

            Go check out the EPA’s own information on those chemicals. Ill share them if you stop by one day.

            But the comparison is not correct into view. This is where the impetus to solve big problems comes from. Funny given that economists and capitalists are the ones claimed to be short sighted.

            But the comparison you suggest is easy enough to do. Do we think anyone has tried it? A bottle tax would still dominate as a policy choice.

            But as I said, without proof that my production and consumption of water is causing harm to non-transactors then the conversation ought not even be started. What’s next?

  3. Harry says:

    Alex, I wish “they ” would ban cars and try to tax us $60 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted, plus a dollar per twelve-ounce plastic bottle. The UN could then have plenty of money to reimburse the West African anchovy fishermen for their losses.

    All claims would be settled in a court in Brussels, solving the problem of too many lawyers, while giving justice to the aggrieved.

  4. Greg W says:

    If the UR were serious about environmental issues, it would buy food from non-factory-farmed sources and serve meat only a few days a week.

    But it’s just easier to ban plastic bottles.

    • chuck martel says:

      Hey, UR can raise its own cattle, pasture them in various locations on campus, assign a cow to a dorm room, the residents of which would be responsible for its upkeep, breeding, milking and ultimately butchering it. Same deal with chickens. And the fruits and veggies, too. We have the technology to raise bananas in upstate New York, no need to exploit Salvadoran peasants and enrich ship lines. It’s possible that such a strategy might increase costs per calorie a little but nothing comes free. And the variety might be somewhat restricted. But then again, the whole thing might bring the scholastic community together, kind of like the medieval manor of the Middle Ages with its adjacent monastery. No more trips to Mazatlan or Cancun on spring break, though.

      • Harry says:

        Good point, Chuck.

        I have pictures of the chicken coop, across the road, and when I was a kid I can remember going in there with my grandmother.

        This is a dim recollection, but I think weasels went into the chicken coop and ate everything. Some time later, before I was ten, the chicken coop was demolished, probably by the folks who had to clean out the coop. I believe this was my father’s decision.

        These fantasies of communes tending farm animals is more ambitious than giving Yale graduates forty acres and a mule. Among other duties, there is the problem about finding someone to make the effort to spread the manure and producing and hauling the feed and water to the manure producers, bedding them down, paying the vet to keep the rooster and the bull healthy, filling out the USDA annual census forms, paying the bills for employee health care, paying the real estate taxes to finance the government-run school system, et cetera.

        But then much livestock has been brought into college dorms before.

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