Published February 12, 2010
Going green will not be optional in Cambridge, Mass., if the Cambridge Climate Congress has its way. It will be mandatory.
There will be congestion pricing to reduce car travel. Curbside parking will be eliminated. There will be a carbon tax "of some kind," not to mention taxes on plastic and paper bags. And the Massachusetts city, home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will advocate vegetarianism and veganism, complete with "Meatless or Vegan Mondays."
Those are just some of the proposals put forth by the Congress, which was created in May 2009 to respond to the "climate emergency" plaguing Cambridge. Once the Congress settles on its recommendations, they will submitted to the City Council.
"This emergency is created by the growth of local greenhouse gas emissions despite the urgent warnings of climate scientists that substantial reductions are needed in order to reduce the risk of disastrous changes to our climate," the Climate Congress reported in proposals issued on Jan. 23. "This proposal is made in the belief that an effective local response is, if anything, made more urgent by so far inadequate global agreements and federal policies for emissions reductions. It is made in the belief that our City should lead by example."
While the group's proposals remain a work in a progress, some experts say the potential measures it advocates are "heavy-handed" and incongruous. But others say the city just might be onto something, particularly if the taxes associated with the plan are used to make buildings and transportation more efficient.
Dr. Ken Green, a resident scholar on environment and energy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said he found an "overall redundancy" in the proposals, specifically regarding a carbon-based tax coupled with congestion pricing, increased parking meter rates and parking tickets.
"That's just a revenue-raiser for the city," said Green. "There's an overall incoherence of having a carbon tax and three or four indirect taxes."
To best reduce emissions in the near-term, Green suggested a revenue-neutral carbon tax, meaning that little -- if any -- of the funds raised would be retained by municipal government. The vast majority under such a plan would be returned to the public.
"It creates an incentive to become more energy efficient to either avoid the tax or keep as much of any rebate as possible," Green said. "But if they do the [carbon] tax, they should get rid of almost all of the other things. If the point is to put a price on carbon, pick one price, make it transparent and then get rid of the other regulations, which end up overpricing carbon. So if you had your carbon tax, you don't need your congestion pricing because people are already paying the tax in their gasoline."
Green also said the proposal to ban the production and distribution of plastic bags and bottled water in city limits is as "heavy-handed as government can get" and questioned Cambridge's proposal to institute disincentives for the purchase of non-regional food.
"Trying to grow something out of season in a greenhouse locally may produce more greenhouse gas emissions than having the same food shipped in from a place where it grows naturally," he said. "Studies do not come down uniformly on the side that local is better."
But Richard Rood, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences at the University of Michigan, praised Cambridge's proposal to create a "temperate zone" program, in which building are neither heated nor cooled during the fall and spring.
"That is a place where you might make a difference," said Rood, who writes a blog for Weather Underground.
He also praised the city's proposal to advocate vegetarianism and veganism.
"From a climate point of view, eating less meat would have a climate impact," said Rood, citing increased deforestation, methane production, fertilizer use and greenhouse gases associated with maintaining that land. "Eating less meat is for the environment in many ways.
Regarding the possibility of a carbon tax, Rood, who supports such a move on a national level, said the impact on a city level would be "fairly small." The real positive effect, he said, would be if the plan caught on in other cities if successful.
"In general, if you look at how policy develops, it often starts on regional and local scales and then advances forward," he said. "Cambridge is full of really smart people, so you know, it has the potential."
It still remains to be seen, however, how these proposals will be received by Cambridge residents. Cambridge City Councilor Sam Seidel, who spoke to FoxNews.com after riding his bicycle to his office, said that remains the key unanswered question.
"The challenge in broadest terms is to figure out what makes sense, what doable, but all of that in the context of how much ground we have to cover," he said. "We have to be realistic on what we're going to be able to accomplish."
Seidel said the Climate Congress will next meet on March 6, at which point the next steps regarding the 20-page proposal will be decided. Any success in slashing greenhouse gas emissions will hinge on individual efforts, he said.
"It's my own view that while governmental action is going to be an important part of any successes we're going to have, individual citizens are also going to have to take individual ownership and responsibility for their own actions," he said. "It's only by working together that we're going to see the necessary reductions that climate scientists have been calling for."
Asked if the proposal amounted to a series of taxes, Seidel said, "The goal of truly, accurately evaluating the cost of our decisions is an important part of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it's really pointing out to people what their choices imply."