The low hanging fruit of sustainability

Sometimes there are good reasons why sustainability work is hard. It can be complicated to figure out practical solutions in the first place, or necessary solutions can require real sacrifices from people who therefore fight them. But there are also a lot of easy and/or selfishly beneficial things that can be done, which haven’t yet. On the large scale, I’ll never forget first seeing this chart from McKinsey & Vattenfall:

There are at least three striking things about it:

  1. That left hand section showing that a significant chunk of CO2 abatement is cost-negative.
  2. How many of the high-profile efforts to reduce emissions are way off to the right, meaning that they’re much more expensive than other things we could be doing.
  3. Even if we did everything on the chart, we would still have more CO2 in the environment than is safe for human civilisation.

My emotional reaction to the first point is conflicted. On the one hand, there’s a huge opportunity here to make more progress than we’ve made so far, at no net cost to society. On the other, we still haven’t done it, and that report is now at least 5 years old and not particularly controversial. How are we going to get people to do the more difficult work that requires actual sacrifices, if we can’t even organise and overcome entrenched interests to get the easy stuff done?

But perhaps I’m wrong to see this as “the easy stuff”. Most of it still requires the mobilisation of large amounts of capital, for a start. There are also plenty of small but worthwhile steps that have a much lower barrier to getting started. Sightline’s been doing sterling work over the last couple of years compiling a list of such things, framed as the Making Sustainability Legal project, because most of the suggestions simply involve getting rid of pointless or poorly-written laws that stop people from doing socially-desirable things. Here’s their full list of ideas:

  1. Democratizing Trails: Outfitting rules and dwindling budgets keep working-class and inner-city kids from enjoying the Northwest’s national forests.
  2. Unleash Personal Car Sharing: An obscure change in insurance regulations stands in the way ofmaking money on your car’s idle hours.
  3. Delivering Ourselves from Unwanted White Pages: State law requires phone companies to litter your doorstep with the White Pages, even if you ask them not to.
  4. Decriminalizing Green, Affordable Car Insurance: State rules make it difficult for insurance companies to charge by the mile or give people who drive less a break on their rates.
  5. Unfettering Food Carts: A thicket of city codes stunts the growth of food carts in Seattle and Vancouver, BC.
  6. Exempting Bars from Parking Requirements: Nearly every city and town in North America bans drunk driving but requires bars to provide parking.
  7. Repealing Bans on Clotheslines: Homeowners and condo associations continue to ban clotheslines, even when state law says they can’t.
  8. Letting Cities Slow Traffic: State law tangles cities that want to lower speed limits and improve street safety in red tape.
  9. Allowing Communities to Innovate for Clean Water: Arbitrary state limits require cities to spend billions to fix combined sewer overflows, when cheaper stormwater investments could also reduce pollution.
  10. Freeing Taxis: Cities’ rules that cap the number of available taxicab licenses create high fares, low availability, and a barrier to greener urban travel.
  11. Unchaining Bike Sharing: Mandatory helmet laws are the single biggest barrier to creating public bike sharing programs.
  12. Replacing an Unsafe Fire-safety Test for Couches: California’s 12-second-rule coats your furniture with toxic chemicals, and won’t keep your house from burning down.
  13. Getting Out of Work’s Way: State rules that require thousands of hours of cosmetology training for African hair braiders are onerous, and arguably racist.
  14. Welcoming Strollers on Transit: Transit rules that require parents of young children to fold strollers on buses get in the way of car-free families.
  15. Liberating Couchsurfing: Renting out a room in your house shouldn’t be like harboring fugitives, or paying taxes as a hotel.
  16. Legalizing Used Pickle Jars: National codes prevent stores from sanitizing and reusing food containers.

These things aren’t going to “save the world” or anything grandiose like that. But each of them would make some peoples’ lives better, with a positive net impact on society. What are we waiting for?

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