Friday, July 10, 2009

Cigarettes for the Planet

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

Global giant Deutsche Bank just launched a real-time 70-foot-tall carbon counter in New York City (right outside Penn Station and Madison Square Garden at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue), which displays a running total of long-lived greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. You can see the online version here.

This sort of advertising is something that humble NGOs only dream of, and has the real potential to raise awareness and reinforce the need to act.

Kevin Parker, who heads up Deutsche's Asset Management group says that:

"Behavioral economists will tell you that the simple act of placing an electricity consumption meter in plain view can substantially cut a home's energy use. The same goes for real-time miles-per-gallon meters in cars, which change the way we drive. These findings tell us something about behavior: When the price of costly activities isn't hidden from us, we're more likely to pursue those activities prudently."

But how quickly does change occur? The sudden rush to raise awareness reminds me of the very public campaign against cigarettes, which started picking up speed 40 years ago when the "scientists don't agree" arguments crumbled and the surgeon general started issuing warnings about tobacco use. The good news on the cigarette front is that there are only 1/2 as many smokers in the US as there were in the 60's. The bad news is that it took 40 years to get here. The worse news is that smoking rates have continued to rise in developing parts of the world, rising by 3.4% per year, according to the WHO. The American Cancer Society projects a drastic increase in cigarette use, based on population and smoking trends in the developing world.

China is now the biggest producer and consumer of cigarettes. Of course, the same is true of CO2. Are we doomed to repeat the cigarette cycle with greenhouse gasses? A gradual adjustment in our domestic "carbon consumption", combined with growth in other parts of the world will be disastrous, leaving the planet with the equivalent of a two-pack-a-day carbon habit.

As a first, step, we need to lead by example. US emissions rates on a per capita basis are so high that it makes it difficult for us to credibly call for action elsewhere. Do your part!

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