The Bonding Bill Should Reflect Our Environmental Commitments

Date: 16 Dec 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Bonding Bill Should Reflect Our Environmental Commitments

by David Morris

December 16, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

Kyoto is behind us. Now comes the hard part, making the climate change agreement work. We can wait on Washington and watch what promises to be a truly appalling debate unfold in the U.S. Senate. Or we can begin to honor the Kyoto agreement right now, at the state and local level.

I suggest we take our future into our own hands. And so do many of my neighbors. Two weeks ago, for example, a poll taken by the New York Times revealed that 65 percent of the American public want to take steps now to cut our own emissions “regardless of what other countries do”.

Where to begin? An obvious starting place would be in the way we approach long term public capital investments. Governments borrow to build a dizzying array of facilities: sewage treatment plants, water works, power plants, airports, hockey rinks, tennis centers, schools, warehouses, hospitals and buildings of all types and sizes. According to the Securities Data Company of Newark, New Jersey more than $150 billion in new long term bonds were issued by state and local governments in 1995 alone.

In keeping with the Kyoto agreement, governments should adopt the following performance standard: any facility built or substantially renovated with government bonds must not increase the amount of greenhouse gases generated.

Happily, this standard can be met. The oil shocks of the 1970s spurred designers to improve the efficiency of their products and spurred engineers to build technologies that extract energy from renewable fuels like wind and sunlight and plant matter.

Today we can build structures that use 90 percent less energy than their traditional counterparts. Heat pumps can get most of their energy from the warmth of the surrounding soil. Boilers can be replaced with high efficiency gas fired power plants that generate electricity as well as heat. New lights use 80 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs. Sewage treatment plants can extract the methane generated in the digestion process and use it to make electricity or to fuel cars. Water companies can install small turbines in their pipelines. Architects can install solar cells in the roof or walls of their buildings.

A planet-friendly performance standard attached to government bonds would spur contractors to maximize efficiency and the use of renewable energy. If they still needed to use fossil fuels they would be required to offset any additional greenhouse gases by reducing greenhouse gases generated by some other facility in their immediate community. Thus, after minimizing its own use of fossil fuels, a Saint Paul hockey rink builder might invest in upgrading lighting in other downtown office buildings. The developer who uses government bonds to finance a project is responsible for meeting the performance standard, but he or she can meet it by minimizing the adverse environmental impact of the community as a whole.

A planet-friendly performance standard is easily monitored. Indeed, it is a simple extension of the existing state energy-related building code. And it makes for good economics. Governments finance long term capital improvements by issuing 20 year bonds. The modest increase in the cost of planet-friendly facilities can thus be amortized over the long period. And over that time frame, the savings from reduced operating costs almost always will exceed the increased first cost.

In early 1998, the Minnesota legislature will authorize about $750 million in bonding. This will largely be done outside the public eye. The final project selection will involve much politicking and horsetrading and that’s probably the way it must be in a democratic system. But at the beginning of the legislative session the legislature should invite the public in to debate the adoption of a planet-friendly standard for all bonded projects. Such a framework, if adopted, could easily be extended to local government capital projects. And other states would undoubtedly be interested in learning from the Minnesota debate.

We made a commitment in Kyoto to channel human ingenuity and creativity toward maximizing efficiency and minimizing our reliance on fossil fuels. It is a commitment most of us support. We should make that support concrete by immediately requiring that our long term public investments will not burden the biosphere. We need not wait on Washington to do what is right, without burden to taxpayer or conscience.

Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.