December 7, 2007

If "it's not easy being green..." so then what? Zero-emission garbage trucks

Wired report today: Investors Find Green Technology Is Not an Easy Win. No big surprise: venture capitalists discover that new technologies are dicey. Isn't that true of all venture-capital operations, and isn't that the purpose of venture capital networks? Ah, well. Some day Wired reporters will understand financial markets.

But there's an important issue that Wired has covered elsewhere: not all "green" technology is either green or feasible. Corn-based ethanol certainly isn't good for the environment on net (neither is Brazil's sugar-ethanol production), and cellulosic fiber technology is in its infancy at best. Hybrid cars are expensive, and one can argue that zero-emissions cars merely shift emissions to central points instead of distributed points. So what to do, then, and how the heck is this related to any other blog entry I've written?

Here's the point: some "green" automobile technologies are best thought of not as panaceas but as solutions to more limited but still serious problems. Take low-emissions vehicle technology: at the moment, it's hard to argue that it saves resources, but it does eliminate massive pollution that is distributed by vehicles. There are some places where that would have dramatic effects on local communities if not on the world, specifically the parts of poor neighborhoods where diesel garbage trucks currently spend hours spewing particulate pollution while getting to landfills, with consequences for children's pulmonary development that is well documented.

Low- or zero-emission garbage trucks would not save the planet, but they could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor children, and they could be a test-bed for technology development. The far better solution is to attack class-biased environmental damage more directly (rerouting trucks). But there are also opportunities for amelioration, and that's needed in plenty of places. Lead mitigation is needed in hundreds of neighborhoods in this country, and reducing emissions of garbage trucks would help with respiratory problems.

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Posted in Education policy on December 7, 2007 10:34 PM |