Will the Weak Economy Derail Our Going Green?

November 08, 2008 09:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
As New York ponders a plastic bag fee, speculation continues over whether environmental policies can survive the economic crisis.

Earth vs. Dollar

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a plastic bag fee that could generate up to $16 million a year, and discourage people from relying on plastic bags. The plan would charge consumers 6 cents per bag, and is considered somewhat of a last resort. The Bloomberg administration has tried other tactics, such as advertising the use of cloth bags, and providing supermarkets with recycling bins for plastic bags, according to The New York Times. Plastic bag fees are common in Europe, and have been considered by other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Dallas.

But some say the proposal comes at a bad time, when many New York City families are struggling to pay for basic necessities. Mayor Bloomberg announced recently that property taxes would be raised “earlier than expected,” and sales or income taxes could soon follow suit.

Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, told The New York Times, “the most severe impacts” of plastic bag fees would fall “on those who are least able to absorb them.”

New York’s minor controversy illustrates a larger dilemma: whether environmental objectives will be cast aside, or whether they should be put on the back burner, due to the global economic crisis.

In October, an Associated Press article discussed whether the “focus on stabilizing the economy” would thwart efforts to pass environmental laws, such as caps on greenhouse gases. “At the very least, it will push back when the reductions would have to start,” the article said.

But others say some environmental good can come from this downturn. In The Huffington Post, Michael T. Klare writes that the poor economy will result in less driving, flying and energy use in general, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Global oil demand is already down from 2007.

Klare also sees a downside, however: “the risk that venture capitalists will refrain from pouring big bucks into innovative energy projects.” He cites an energy forum in early October, at which experts from financial organization Ernst & Young predicted “a sharp drop-off in alternative energy funding.”

Background: Economy taking precedence

Toward the end of the 2008 Presidential Election, talk of climate change drastically fell off in favor of economic discussion, according to Forbes. Although Barack Obama and John McCain spent a great deal of time discussing energy issues, the conversation was grounded in economic concerns, such as creating jobs and lowering prices. Energy independence was also emphasized, but “[s]olutions that address reducing dependence on foreign oil don’t necessarily lessen carbon emissions,” Forbes reported.

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