June 19, 2006

The price of good driving karma

I help organize a conference on atmospheric chemistry each June, and every year one of the guests is a very talented scientist from Ford Motor Company. He gives the greatest talks. For example last year I learned that the 'discount rate' is a powerful economic incentive that confines business planning to the near future. The discount rate means that the promise of me paying you a dollar may be worth a dollar now, or 75 cents if I promise to pay you a year from now (how do you know you will still be able to find me or that I won't be broke?), or a penny if I promise to pay you in 10 years (we could forget or may no longer be here). It is not easy to define the 'true' discount rate but one guess is the Fed's prime rate, and another is a textbook that says that businesses typically use a discount rate of 15% in their planning. A discount rate much higher than 1% means you can 'safely' ignore phenomena such as climate change that have long-term consequences; economics says there is no need to take preventive action. These timescales are not part of the business culture.
A couple of years ago he told us about the history of vehicle emissions. He showed the emissions data from Ford vehicles, starting with the Models T and A, and extending to the current day. Did you know that the Ford F150 pickup gets the same gas mileage as the Model T? Of course it emits much less carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides and the performance is better, but still...
This year he happened to mention an interesting product, Terrapass. You can go to their website and type in the model and year of your car and how much you drive. The program calculates how much carbon dioxide your car emits, and then you can choose to purchase a certificate for taking that amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, by investing in clean energy, biofuels and industrial efficiency. I learned that our 1992 Saab 9000 emits about 8000 pounds of CO2 a year (!). I was so caught by the idea that I forked over 40$ to have this mass of emissions removed. My receipt declares, Be it known unto all kindreds, tongues and people, nations, principalities and governments, the above listed individual has offset this car's CO2 emissions for a year and thereby lays claim to all the privileges associated therewith, i.e., peace of mind, satisfaction and general good driving karma.


At June 20, 2006 5:21 PM , Anonymous Tim said...

I can't get my head around 8000 pounds! 23 pounds per day? I thought you took the train to work.

I like the idea of terrapass.

At June 23, 2006 8:14 PM , Blogger beedubs said...

Hey Matt,
I check in on your blog every now and then (Bickford must've told me about it) and there always seems to be interesting stuff here. On the subject of global warming, do you have any insight on the NAS panel report yesterday and the controversy over whether the hockey stick has been broken? (Anything on the math, the science, or the behind-the-scenes politics would be interesting.)

At July 19, 2006 11:25 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Hey Beedubs, do I know you? I hadn't heard that the hockey stick had been broken!? I will have to look into it. What I do know is that 2005 was the warmest year ever and 2006 has also set some records.

At July 19, 2006 11:30 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Yes I do take the train to work (+ bike to/from stations on each side)and don't drive that much. So I am probably paying for some of your emissions too Tim. What I like about this idea is that it shows the cost to the individual of removing their own CO2-- but it is incomplete of course since I am also responsible for heating our house and buying manufactured goods and agricultural products that were fertilized...The 23 pounds of CO2 is divided into 8 pounds of carbon in the fuel and the balance oxygen from the atmosphere-- 8 pounds of gasoline is maybe easier to digest/imagine.

At July 20, 2006 2:36 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

I read in the Financial Times yesterday (FT left on the train by a gypsy! See blog on that.) that while the Toyota Prius Hybred gets 55 miles to the gallon, an 18-wheeler gets roughly 7.
Anyway-- ran across this interesting piece:

“The Environmental Paradox of Bicycling”: shifting people from their cars to bicycles offers almost no benefit to the environment.

Bicycles do have large first-order environmental benefits over cars as a means of transportation. Ulrich’s analysis considers the case in which a formerly sedentary person begins bicycling 10 km per day, 5 days per week. In this scenario, about one ton of CO2 is spared every year in the form of reduced fuel consumption.

This reduction in fuel use is partially offset by the increased food consumption of a cyclist. Although typically we think of food as carbon neutral — because the plants at the bottom of our food chain regrow after we harvest them — this view overlooks the fact that most of us don’t feed ourselves by hunting and gathering. The energy required to grow, harvest, process, package, and transport food to your nearest Whole Foods significantly outweighs the actual caloric content of your meal, by a factor of almost six. In other words, only about 15% of the energy we consume when we eat is actually in our food. The rest is contained in the fossil fuels used to bring our food to us.

But increased food consumption is a relatively minor effect when compared to the overall gas savings of cycling over driving. The real culprit in Ulrich’s analysis is the increased lifespan of people who ride bikes. Regular exercise helps you live longer, which points to an unsettling fact. One of the single best things you can do for the planet is to limit your time here.

Ulrich estimates that every year of sustained bicycle use adds about 10.6 days to the average person’s lifespan, even accounting for the increased accident risk that cyclists face.

The result, in Ulrich’s analysis, is basically a wash. Each of us, simply by participating in the economy, uses a significant amount of energy. Bicycling rather than driving causes a large first-order decrease in the amount of energy a person uses, but the increased longevity of that person almost entirely negates the savings.

More information:


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