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Sustain to gain: January 2011 Archives

The US economy is challenged by the financial-real estate bubble induced Great Recession, and it is struggling to escape the carbon lock-in induced by physical and mental dependencies on cars and coal. This carbon lock-in is distinctively characterized by temporal dynamics: A change in infrastructure, technologies and behavior is costly and pays off only in the mid-to-long term. If nothing happens, however, US commuters will pay the bill in becoming passive reactants of volatile and augmenting oil prices.

Obama, in his State of the Union Address, related both challenges by suggesting to move subsidies from oil companies to clean energies – not without jokingly pointing out that they are doing fine on their own (see minutes 20–22 in this video). The redistribution addresses a concern of fiscal hawks in not spending new money. This move will also count twice for the big energy transition. First, obviously clean energies are supported. Second, dirty technologies loose support. In fact, the latter move may be more important, and appropriate then the first one. For this consider that for reasons of economic efficiency you want to provide a level playing field across environmentally technologies. Or more bluntly, you don't want to waste all your money into a semi-plausible highly expensive technology. The problem is: you don't know in advance, at least you cannot be sure. Is hydrogen part of the solution or a dead-end? Will biofuels at one point contribute to decarbonization in a sustainable manner, or will they rather continue to exacerbate our environmental troubles?

Subsidies always need to choose technologies based on limited knowledge on future development. However, if you know that some technologies are harmful, you can make them more expensive, e.g. by cutting wasteful subsidies. With such a move, you can be sure to do something right – and to support the treasury.

Update: Andrew Revkin rightly points out that only targeting oil is a quite narrow focus. Indeed, the US corn industry (including biofuels) also lives on generous subsidies while producing corn ethanol with high GHG life cycle emissions. Here is what Andrew says:

"Obama clearly picked up on bipartisan interest in eliminating distorting energy subsidies, but sadly targeted only oil subsidies in seeking the billions he wants for research and innovation.

A bias toward punishing the oil industry, leaving out the huge bonbons handed out to big coal and biofuels, is bound to stir up a fight rather than resolve one. That's one reason that some "green" subsidies would need to go, as well."


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Transport research is often fixated on the automobile. Car transportation provides user benefits, costs money, and produces social costs, making it an attractive object for economic researchers of transportation. At the same time, pedestrians and cyclists receive less intention - even though constituting truly environmental (and often enjoyable) modes important for many travellers. This gap in profound research may be caused by the relative insignificance of these modes in purely economic terms.

Eva Heinen, Kees Maat and Bert van Wee from the University of Delft have now published an article that not only focuses on cycling but also tries to establish a framework that goes beyond pure socio-economic utility considerations in analyzing the role of attitudes and norms in cycling decisions. The study asks Dutch cyclists on their attitude on cycling, including both utility and normative aspects, such as status and environmental concerns.

The study concludes: "[...] individuals base their mode choice decision on the direct benefits in terms of time, comfort and flexibility. Individuals who commute over longer distances have, on average, a more positive attitude towards cycling than those who cycle shorter distances. [This] support the idea that individuals have a more positive attitude as the bicycle commute lengthens."

Safety plays a significant but minor role. However, the authors suggest that cycling in the Netherlands is relatively safe, and that safety is a much more important factor in other countries. Indeed, in Beijing , for example,  repeated comments from residents indicate that they prefer to cycle but are scared by dangerous car traffic and shift to public transit or cars.

This study, and others, need to be complemented by both quantitative and conceptual research to strengthen the research record on the modes that may be less important in terms of monetarized utility but provide wider social benefits in terms of physical health, environmental benefits, and life quality. 


Eva Heinen, Kees Maat and Bert van Wee. "The role of attitudes toward characteristics of bicycle commuting on the choice to cycle to work over various distances". Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, Volume 16, Issue 2, March 2011, Pages 102-109

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