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.

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 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?

A scorecard would force everyone, from defense contractors to environmentalists, to think a little differently.

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 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, 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.

The scorecard could eventually become a standard for all federal spending, reducing the influence of lobbyists.

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.