These Three Countries Are Schooling America In Sustainability
Whereas America used to lead the developed world in matters of scientific progress and social responsibility, we’re finding more and more that other nations are running circles around us when it comes to tackling the most significant issues of our time.
Consider a recent warning by a French minister that stated in no uncertain terms that any multinational agreements on fighting climate change would have to avoid US Congressional approval: “We know the politics in the US. Whether we like it or not, if it comes to the Congress, they will refuse.” He understands that much of our government remains mired in primitive, backward thinking—and it’s time we joined him in that understanding.
I’ve chosen just three countries to focus on here, including France, and all three of them are showing what’s possible when governments have a plan to encourage sustainability on a massive scale, rather than retreating into the closed loops of conservatism and denial. It will reveal the society we could be living in, and draw some heartbreaking comparisons to the one we’re stuck with instead.
Although too many Americans seem to have an aversion to taking the lead from foreign powers, and more still who rail against any form of government regulation, there should be a lot to like about a recent initiative in Mumbai to award “certified green” buildings with greatly reduced property tax rates of up to 20%.
The proposal is currently being discussed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (the country’s civic body) and the Indian Green Building Council. The initiative is expected to increase demand for ecologically friendly structures that use energy more efficiently. Said S. Raghupathy, executive director of the Indian Green Buildings Council:
“This will work for sure. We are currently discussing with the MCGM the quantum of the discount to be offered to residents and developers of green buildings. The civic body is serious about this proposal and its impact.”
Taxes have always been an effective incentive for provoking social change, allowing both public and private entities to share the cost of socially responsible courses of action. Here in the United States, modest tax credits are being used to push people toward renewable sources of energy such as solar panels, geo-thermal, and more. The downside, unfortunately, is that some of these subsidies are very slow to change, as we’re now seeing with the fossil fuel industries, whose goals (and allies) are firmly entangled in Washington politics.
But if this bold plan in Mumbai catches on, I’m hopeful we could see similar initiatives roll out here in the States on a much larger scale.
Another bold plan was recently unveiled in France, where a new law has decreed that any new rooftops in commercial zones must be covered in either solar panels or plants.
Green roofs, which use a variety of flowers, shrubs, and grasses, are highly effective at insulating a building during the more extreme seasons. They also retain rainwater, which aids in drainage issues, and provides a refuge for various wildlife that would otherwise be hard-pressed to find shelter in the more developed areas of the world.
It’s no secret that urban areas are much more susceptible to what we call the “heat island effect,” which simply states that cities have a habit of remaining 1.8-5.4°F warmer during the day than the surrounding areas, and a whopping 22°F warmer at night.
Companies in the United States that specialize in custom building projects should probably read the writing on the wall at this point. If this project is a success in France—and I strongly suspect it will be—it’s going to set a strong precedent for forward progress, and for compromise:
The original law called for foliage or solar panels to cover the entire rooftop, but a compromise provided building owners with some room to breathe. Unfortunately, I don’t see how a law even half as ambitious as this could gain any traction under our current Congressional leadership. I can already hear McConnell’s hysterical claims that it would place an “undue burden” on small businesses and lead to a “massive loss of jobs.” You know: business (and rhetoric) as usual.
When you think of Norway, you probably think of either excellent progressive metal bands or really short periods of daylight. Either way, you might not expect it to be the epicenter of one of the most important sustainability movements.
Last year, Norway became the first country in the world to achieve an electric car adoption rate of 1%. In other words, one out of every hundred cars over there is powered by electricity. Over here in the States, our adoption rate sits at a paltry 0.07%.
How did they do it? It’s pretty easy, actually: the world’s strongest incentives packages—or subsidies, if you prefer. Easily the most progressive of these was the removal of sales tax on electric vehicles. On ordinary car purchases in Norway, sales tax can as much as double or triple the purchase price of the car, which makes this particular subsidy a really big deal.
But that’s just the start of Norway’s incentives for electric car owners. They also enjoy exclusive access to bus lanes, free parking, no tolls on roadways, free ferry rides, and more.
Meanwhile, in the United States, we’re not making much progress catching up to our Nordic rivals. US drivers are eligible for a one-time tax credit of (up to) $7,500, while other incentives vary slightly from state to state.
You can say what you will about using the tax code to “encourage” certain social behaviors, but I think Norway has the right of it. Incentivizing people to make socially- and environmentally-conscious decisions seems a morally agreeable use of our tax revenue. For right now, it’s simply a matter of scaling that idea across a country that’s many times larger—and much more populous—than Norway. Well, that and waiting for the next election cycle.
Image Credit: NNECAPA Photo Library