When Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, a major focus was on reducing air and water pollution. On Earth Day this year, a major focus should again be on air pollution, with reducing carbon dioxide emissions being a critical need.
As pointed out by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, we should think of carbon dioxide as an air pollutant. By burning fossil fuels, mankind has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide from the preindustrial value of 280 parts per million to the present 400 parts per million. This increase is the largest driver of global warming and climate change.
Global warming and climate change are starting to have major impacts. New satellite data indicate that sea level is rising faster than previously predicted, with a rise of at least 2 feet expected by the end of the century. This will make coastal flooding in Maine much worse in the future than the flooding seen recently in southern Maine. It is urgent that we reduce our use of fossil fuels as fast as possible.
Many, including the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, have proposed a carbon fee and dividend. This would help reduce the use of fossil fuels. But additional action is needed, such as greater incentives for energy efficient housing, transportation and manufacture of goods. In addition, cooperative research is needed to develop the best technologies to achieve these goals.
But the recent tax cuts will put pressure on federal discretionary spending, even for projects that make up a small part of the budget. This makes it essential that we elect members of Congress who strongly support the actions needed to minimize climate change.
For example, we need programs that encourage private industry to build energy-efficient housing. Unless the cost of heating becomes much higher, both purchasers of houses and renters of apartments will be attracted by low monthly payments or rent. This encourages owners of apartments to build less energy efficient units. Likewise, less efficient houses will continue to be built.
A carbon tax would shift more attention to the heating cost of homes for sale and apartments for rent, but unless the tax becomes very high, many inefficient units will continue to be built. To prevent this, strong incentives are needed for investors and home buyers to build homes and apartments with the lowest possible use of fossil fuels. It is urgent to maintain and increase funding for programs that promote efficient design and to also provide incentives.
In Maine we have two recently completed apartment buildings that meet strict passive house building standards. One is in Brewer (48 units) and the other in Portland (45 units). Meeting the passive housing standard means that the heating needed for these apartments is extremely low. This is the kind of housing that should be encouraged in order to greatly reduce our use of fossil fuels.
State and federal programs played a modest part in these projects, but many more such apartments and homes need to be constructed. To accomplish this, we need to publicize the benefits of such construction and provide more incentives. This is the kind of economic activity and infrastructure that should be prioritized.
We need to elect candidates who strongly support programs that fight climate change. All of us should also consider our own contribution to carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere. One possibility is to purchase Maine Green Power and offsets for our personal carbon footprint. This may be especially appropriate for high-income individuals who usually have higher carbon footprints because they travel more, have larger houses, and other factors.
For all of us, we might consider using part of our tax cuts to improve the energy efficiency of our houses and to purchase carbon offsets.
John Tjepkema is a professor emeritus in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine in Orono.
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