The Bathtub Paradox: S.F.'s Pro-Environmental Efforts May Encourage Pollution Elsewhere

San Francisco talks a good game on greenhouse-gas reduction. But, alas, talking generates carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

A draft report presented earlier this month to the Environment Commission revealed that the city has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 12 percent since 2005, but fell far short of aggressive goals to cut emissions by 20 percent.

It's difficult to conceive of a downside to reducing noxious emissions, but the state of California has, in essence, done just that. San Francisco has, with great effort and expense, knocked back its emissions by one-eighth since 2005. But, one year after that, a statewide cap-and-trade program regarding such emissions was established. Which means that, by potentially driving down the cost of carbon credits through concerted reduction, San Francisco could make it that much easier for a municipality that doesn't give a damn about reducing emissions to buy up inexpensive carbon credits, and pollute that much more.

"Imagine there's a bathtub with a limit on how high the water can get," says Jim Bushnell, a U.C. Davis economist who advised on the formation of the state's cap-and-trade plan. "If you're bailing out of one end and pouring into the other, it doesn't change the overall level."

San Francisco is the one frantically bailing in this analogy.

The only important factor when it comes to green power, says U.C. Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein, is encouraging the construction of more of it. He doesn't see much of this being done via San Francisco's efforts. "If San Francisco goes more green, you can just get reshuffling," says Borenstein, the co-director of the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business. If San Francisco merely scoops up green power from the existing finite sources, "then that may just crowd out somebody else from purchasing that power."

Rather than simply mind its corner of the tub, Bushnell suggests San Francisco work with other parts of the state to reduce total emissions — or work toward cutting emissions in areas outside the scope of California laws. "If you want to reduce global emissions, why not invest in reducing China's?"

This isn't as wild an idea as one might think. A 2010 U.C. Berkeley study found 29 percent of chemical particulates collected at a pair of Bay Area sites to be Chinese in origin.

If you're looking for an upside, perhaps it's this: If you don't have time to visit Beijing, some of it will come to visit you.

My Voice Nation Help

I'm no great fan of cap and trade (I prefer a straight up approach of carbon taxation at the source), but I think the article fails to note the basic premise of cap and trade: the overall amount of GHG's allowed under cap and trade is supposed to decline year by year.  Since GHG's are not a localized pollutant, it doesn't really matter WHERE GHG reductions take place: just that they DO take place under a well defined and enforced declining cap.  


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