Monday, January 21, 2008

Haste Makes Waste--Avoiding Unintended Consequences

My Sunday perusal of the New York Times uncovered a very nice piece on the unintended consequences of legislation brought to you by the same guys who wrote Freakonomics, available here The gist of their argument is that beneficial legislation often as the unintended consequence of deterring the very action the legislation was designed to provide--like the Americans with Disabilities Act reducing employers hiring of disabled workers.

The EPA and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) published analyses of Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) proposed “Low Carbon Economy Act of 2007″ (S. 1766), and declared that the impact on economic growth and prices would be “modest.” Full articles available at Sustainablog, here

What the bill and the analysis by the EPA and EIA fail to take into consideration is that the reliance of the Low Carbon Economy Act on carbon recapture and nuclear power has the potential to cause vast unintended consequences for the environment and for the economy. For example, a nuclear plant meltdown would have untold environmental cost and economic cost. Carbon capture technology can extend the use of coal fired power plants and the development of new coal fired power plants when such plants might otherwise be replaced with more sustainable forms of energy.

Similarly, green building legislation which is hastily drafted and passed has had embarrassing and counterproductive results. For example, the Las Vegas green building tax cut that threatened such a strong impact on state tax revenue that it had to be hastily rescinded.

For legislation to be successful in promoting positive environmental change, legislators need to look beyond the obvious and consider the unintended consequences of their actions. One way of doing so is to correctly articulate the desired outcome, and to ensure that the legislation works to promote that goal.

For example, the stated goal of the Low Carbon Economy Act is to "To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of energy, and for other purposes." Is this really an accurate assessment of the purpose of the legislation? The purpose was more likely to preserve the environment for future generations by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using nuclear energy and coal will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will not necessarily preserve the environment for future generations by doing so. Therefore, the first step to strong beneficial legislation which avoids unintended consequences is to articulate a valid purpose and confirm that the mechanics of the legislation works to positively promote the end goal.