15 Dec 2008: Opinion

A Green Scorecard for
Stimulating the Economy

In evaluating an economic recovery package, the new U.S. administration and Congress must weigh any proposed spending – on highways or mass transit or wind-power transmission routes – on the basis of clear criteria that would assess just how green the projects will be.

by richard conniff

President-elect Barack Obama has spent two years talking about how badly this country needs change, particularly on green issues. Now he has a chance to deliver it. But so far, when it comes to his economic stimulus package, the rush to get quick results seems to be pushing the environment to the background and sending the process down a familiar path, as lobbyists and contractors jostle for handouts in another round of what one commentator recently dubbed “K Street Capitalism.”

Despite all the talk about breaking our oil addiction and addressing global warming, most of the projects currently being touted as “shovel-ready” are not green at all. In transportation, for instance, state and federal transportation agencies are mainly trotting out their usual highway wish lists. “Part of what we’re hearing from lobbyists and staff on Capitol Hill is that the dollars should be sent out according to the existing formula,” says Deron Lovaas, director of federal transportation policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means relying on a Reagan Administration deal from 1982 under which 80 percent of transportation funds go to highways and only 20 percent to public transit. (NRDC thinks 50-50 would be more like “change we can believe in.”)

So what’s an environmentally enlightened way to spend federal dollars, even when speed and economic recovery are critical? How do we get away from our present bridge-to-nowhere system of handing out money based on political clout?

We need a clear break from business as usual, and the economic stimulus
A scorecard would force everyone, from defense contractors to environmentalists, to think a little differently.
package is a perfect opportunity to test the idea of a green scorecard for smart spending. It would consist of a checklist of objectives, many of them necessarily economic: Does this proposal create American jobs? Does it foster industries where the United States can take a decisive lead? Does it have a short payback period? Does it offer a good return on investment?

But green criteria would carry equal weight: Does it decrease our carbon footprint? Does it encourage energy independence? Does it improve air quality? Does it address water quality and supply issues? Does it encourage smart growth rather than sprawl? Does it protect wildlife and other natural resources?

A proposed project would win or lose points on each metric, and move forward only if it achieved a specific overall point total.

Reducing a funding decision to numbers might sound simplistic. But simplicity can be a good thing. Say you’re trying to ease the traffic bottleneck caused by tractor-trailers on a major transportation route. The choice: Either expand the highway to eight lanes, or boost capacity on the adjacent intermodal rail line. The rail project is almost certain to rack up more points for being quicker to start, cheaper to build, and delivering freight five times farther than trucks on the same gallon of fuel, releasing one third the greenhouse gas emissions.

Even a relatively simple point system can leave room for nuance. The entire power transmission grid is overdue for an upgrade, but the point

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system would probably direct early funding to underdeveloped wind power transmission routes. Biofuel in the form of corn ethanol would gain points on energy independence, for instance, but lose them on carbon emissions. A housing project might get +1 point for creating short-lived construction jobs, while an alternative energy plan might score +3 for long-term jobs in manufacturing.

A scorecard would force everyone to think a little differently. A defense project that’s outside the traditional environmental bailiwick might work harder to slow runoff, if only for the extra points on water quality and supply. A developer seeking government support would want to focus projects downtown or along existing transit routes, to score climate points by reducing drive-time.

Likewise environmentalists might find themselves paying closer attention to mainstream economic concerns. For instance, climate change activists frequently urge consumers to buy compact fluorescent lights and energy efficient electronic devices (+3 for reducing carbon emissions). But those products are generally manufactured overseas (-3 for U.S. job creation), according to Jackie Roberts, director of sustainable technology for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Using economic stimulus money to provide cash rebates for weatherization projects, Roberts says, would deliver quick results (and collect points) on both economic and environmental scores, because insulation, thermal windows, and other weatherization products are manufactured in the United States.

Last week, a coalition of 17 U.S. environmental groups put forward a “green stimulus” proposal for 80 projects to reduce pollution, save energy, protect public health and safety, and restore the environment. The coalition said the proposed projects – which include road and bridge repairs but no new roads — would create up to four million jobs and cost $160 billion.

EDF and Duke University also recently compiled a list of global warming fixes that are ready to roll out as part of the first round in any economic stimulus proposal. For instance, North Carolina has developed a new technology for turning livestock wastes into potting soil, producing a 97 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. This technology would also score points for addressing water and air-quality issues and creating U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The scorecard idea is hardly new. Oregon uses a system of “progress indicators” for measuring performance by state agencies. Former presidential candidate Tom Vilsack also employed such a system as a budgeting device when he was governor of Iowa, and he promoted the idea at the federal level during the presidential primaries.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Vilsack said a spending scorecard would be “a terrific opportunity for the Obama Administration to send a different message to the people: ’This is huge, it’s complicated, but we’re going to be transparent. We’re going to tell you what we’re spending, why we’re spending it, and what benefit will accrue to the American people.’”

Given the influence of lobbyists and the electoral cycle at the federal level,
The scorecard could eventually become a standard for all federal spending, reducing the influence of lobbyists.
it might ordinarily be naïve to propose any kind of scorecard, much less a green one. Members of Congress will resist having their pet projects held to the numbers — the Capitol Hill equivalent of No Child Left Behind. It’s also easier and politically more rewarding in the short term to put a program into place today than to argue about what numbers it’s going to hit.

But the debate over the auto industry bailout has made people painfully aware that it’s not enough to have a budget. We need a plan, and it needs to be a plan where fixing things in the short-term doesn’t just make them worse a few years out.

President-elect Obama currently has the political clout to deliver scorecard criteria for the economic stimulus package without prolonged debate. If he gets it right, the green scorecard could eventually become a standard for all federal spending, reducing the influence of lobbyists and forcing legislators to focus instead on results. But for now what matters is that such a scorecard would give Obama the budget test he needs to deliver on both economic recovery and on his promise of “a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.”

All he needs is the political will.


POSTED ON 15 Dec 2008 IN Biodiversity Climate Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability North America 

COMMENTS


Although I agree with you main point (we have to rank solutions), I disagree with your current method. First, because not all points are created equal, and second because many of your points ("US jobs") are based on populist notions that are economically stupid. Put differently, you may give + points to a destructive idea (remember ethanol?)

Keep reading the contingent evaluation literature :)
Posted by David Zetland on 15 Dec 2008


Imposing a requirement for consideration of environmental and climate matters, along with others, is a fine idea. For a start, it's fine. But how about planning?

For instance, in the future we want, there will be less and less sprawl and less automobile traffic. But in the meanwhile, folks have to get from Pt A to Pt B, and skillions of miles of roads need fixing, and gazillions of bridges need repair.

Some critical path analysis is critical.
Posted by David Ocampo G on 15 Dec 2008


I must say that I am disappointed by the near-sighted perspective that the previous comments convey. Though this may be a relatively novel idea, it offers up much promise. I can see a great deal of backlash coming from nearly all sectors, even environmentalists, but this is an idea that needs to be explored further.

Federally funded projects already require a certain degree of "environmental oversight" under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), by way of Environmental Impact Statements. EISs are notoriously time and resource-intensive and often fail to account of some of the external costs of federal projects.

A "green scorecard" that allows for the comprehensive evaluation of federal projects is essential to our transition to environmentally sound future.
Posted by Ashton Martin on 16 Dec 2008


As to the first comment, I agree that it is exactly
in the methods that the discussion needs to
continue. If we can negotiate over a point-
system that is transparent and simple to
understand, it provides the opportunity for those
numbers to be adapted over time to new
insights. The fact the bioethanol is more
complex a story than we originally thought only
speaks to the adaptability such a point system
would have to emerging and innovative
strategies.

On the other hand, it does seem to me that such
rubrics are notoriously hard to develop, and if
not made adaptable can quickly be a problem
(see No Child Left Behind and un-addressed
issues of immigration in our public schools).
Posted by Cody Evers on 16 Dec 2008


This article is one of the most useful I’ve seen. Of course a point system for economic and environmental criteria would be efficient! (I had been groping around for something like this.) But as the article and comments point out, this process could get extremely complicated. And although I think it’s a useful concept and should be part of the mix, the point system needs to be subservient to a simple, overarching vision. If we were to view the entire nation from space, what would we want it to look like? Rather than just dealing with disjointed criteria, however sensible, we need a grand vision of the whole that everyone can understand and feel a part of.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 17 Dec 2008


I agree with the author that we need some kind of method assess the true costs of our new projects. However, it assumes that our current economic system allows for that. It is hard if not impossible to determine what the true value/cost of a new project would be when our current economic system almost completely disregards environmental value. I think the real way out of this recession is through a new economic model: Ecological Economics, is a way to properly value the real costs of living.

If we are going to change we need large scale reorganization, once we have achieved that our scorecards will reflect the true costs/benefits for the programs we score.

See more at: http://natesearthblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/is-way-out-of-recession-through-new.html
Posted by Nathan Johnson on 17 Dec 2008


Almost everybody agrees that we need a change. Very few are ready TO change. One is a noun that just sits there. The other is an active verb. The reason that few are ready TO change is because with change comes loss. There's no way around it. Divorcing ourselves from fossil energy will not be easy or free, yet the present opportunity of financial catastrophe is precisely the moment to start. It makes no sense to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Even the nursery rhyme knows it can't be done.

Close to a trillion dollars is going to be pumped into the economy in the form of freshly printed dollars. It mystifies me. If I did that as a solution to my economic troubles, I'd be thrown in jail. And we think Bernard Madoff had a big Ponzi scheme going.

That fear voiced, it is still absolutely vital for the economic stimulus package to be as green as possible. The green scorecard might work; perhaps there's a better method. What's important is that there is a method adopted.

I've been listening to all the reasons why the stimulus is going to be brown, rather than green. It all amounts to acceptance of business-as-usual married to politics-as-usual. The green stuff will follow, we're told, but first we need to shore up the economy.

So that when the green stuff follows, we can retreat from the enormous brown investments the stimulus will make?

Divorce is messy, but now is the time to file the papers.


Posted by David Sassoon, SolveClimate on 18 Dec 2008


In addition to my comment above, I should have said that the scorecard idea should apply primarily to geopolitical-area plans, such as city "General plans," county, metropolitan and regional plans, etc. How do specific projects help area plans to be sustainable economically and environmentally? How does funding help one area's plan cohere with that of another? The more plan-oriented stimulus funding is the more bang for the buck and effectiveness it will deliver.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 18 Dec 2008


Waste to Energy (WtE) can be a majority part of the environmental and economic solutions we are all looking for.

The EPA classifies Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) as a renewable fuel. The equipment to make it non-polluting is required on new and existing plants.

The US throws away enough fuel every year, for over 500 more of these plants - all of which could be built on existing landfill sites.

Eliminate 90% of the volume (250 million tons) of waste being put in landfills every year to generate electricity. Displace the coal currently used to generate electricity - a double benefit.

Put hundreds of thousands of people to work building, supplying, operating and maintaining these plants.

Problems solved!
Posted by Paul Tousignant on 20 Dec 2008


Comments have been closed on this feature.
richard conniff ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff is a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a National Magazine Award-winning writer, whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. His upcoming book, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals, is due out from W.W. Norton in May. He is the author of six other books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide and Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World. Conniff has also written for Yale e360 about carbon offsets and the greenhouse gas NF3.
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