Monday, June 18, 2007

Hard power version of environmental policy.

A few months ago, some of us outside of Australia heard of that government's plan of banning all sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2010. Now, this move is expected to decrease the potential GHG emissions of that country by 4 million tones in just two years.

Just a few days ago, Ontario announced that gasoline-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers will be banned by the year 2010. Of course, doing a quick search for "leaf blower ban" on Google News comes up with a plethora of news stories from around the U.S. regarding local bans on these loud implements (which we sometimes see being used to blow a paltry handful of leaves across a sidewalk). I personally think that this is a good thing, although the justification behind passing these bans may need to be examined, since it is not inconceivable to me that someone will try and challenge these U.S. local laws as being unconstitutional (either under a state or the national constitution).

However, if such laws are tied to paying fines for pollution - noise and air pollution - then this may be a good setting for justifying the law (and the fines). Of course, if you were to impose a fine of $1,000 for an offense of using a leaf blower (as is presently the case in Palo Alto, CA), using the justification that this is a "polluter pays" fine for emitting noise and air pollution, people might start trying to hang general noise pollution penalties on top of this framework. This raises the question of how much a person has to pay for blasting a car stereo (with or without a subwoofer system), if a road/sidewalk construction crew needs to get a noise pollution permit before starting a job, if "drunk and disorderly" will include fines for a loud drunk, using a loud car/motorcycle exhaust system, etc.

Outright bans (with or without fines) are ultimately unpopular, especially when people are not philosophically "on board" with the philosophy behind the law. This is why so many non-"neat freak" people make the joke that Singapore is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there... Of course, one might argue that "hard policy" options like banning products and banning actions produces results. Bans on substances (for example, with asbestos in new buildings, CFCs in refrigerators, phosphates in detergents, and lead in gasoline) and some actions (for example, duels of honor, and several other unsavory practices that many people would likely not want to even read about) have proven to be effective in the past. However, they have also been ineffective (note the ongoing War on Drugs, the repeal of Prohibition, and continuing need to enforce speed limits).

One might argue that removing the choice in the market place all-together (such as the bans on incandescent bulbs and leaf blowers above), while providing viable alternatives (in the form of low-electricity lighting solutions, soft & low-pollution blowers, etc) may prove to be a softer use of power than just the bans. This is the case in Australia with allowable viable alternatives of CF and LED bulbs. However, without some viable alternative for leaf-blowers, these local bans may prove difficult to maintain in the longer term.

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