Public Comment

Commentary: How to Make Berkeley Pure Green

By Fred E. Foldvary
Tuesday January 15, 2008

To make Berkeley the first pure green city in the planet, the City Council has to make all polluters compensate society for the damage caused by their pollution. The promotion of cleaner city vehicles, energy-efficient lighting, and “spare the air” days are very nice, but there is no good substitute for a comprehensive policy if we are to be serious about minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The rationale for pollution charges is that people should be responsible for the social costs of their actions. A complete green-city policy would cover pollution from all sources: manufacturing, buildings, vehicles, and pedestrians. The most effective policy is to focus the charges on actual, measured pollution, rather than proxies such the ownership and use of cars or of the contents of houses. Charging for pollution would also minimize invasions of privacy and not cause damage to the local economy. 

Pollution charges should not be confused with energy efficiency. One can have a very inefficient car or heating system that pollutes very little. If people want to waste money with inefficient appliances, that is their problem, not society’s problem. 

The technology to measure pollution is already available. Devices include diffusion tubes that trap samples of pollutants such as ozone, and pumps that push air through a collector. Such instruments should be used to measure both particulate matter such as dust and soot, as well as gases. After collection, they are sent to laboratories for analysis.  

To make Berkeley pure green, the city should place measuring devices by factories and also periodically inspect the area around all buildings, both commercial and residential, for pollution. This measurement could be coordinated with the activities of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the U.S. and California Environmental Protection Agencies. 

There is no need to enter any residence, as what matters for greenhouse gasses is the pollution emitted from the building. The owners would then be sent monthly bills with pollution charges in proportion to the environmental damage done by the emissions. A homeowner with a large bill would be invited to consult with city officials to reduce the pollution. 

Smokers are banned from indoor places such as restaurants, but they pollute the air with a trail of smoke by walking down the street, their arm swinging a burning cigarette. Street and park smokers could be fined $10 for each smoking incident, enforced by parking meter officers who spot them. 

Much of the air pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area is from vehicles, and regulations such as smog tests, gasoline additives, and engine requirements have failed to eliminate this source of emissions. A more effective way to minimize emissions from cars is to charge the owners. Most auto emissions come from about ten percent of vehicles. The cleanest 90 percent of automobiles generate less than 15 percent of the pollution. Therefore pollution charges can be effective if they are placed on the few cars that pollute the most. 

The City of Berkeley cannot control the pollution from California-controlled freeways, but the city should have authority over its streets. Berkeley could measure the actual pollution from cars with remote sensors, such as those pioneered by Donald Stedman. These devices emit an infrared beam across the street, and as a car passes, the exhaust absorbs the beam’s light waves. The sensor can measure the concentrations of pollutants in the exhaust and differentiate among various types of pollution, such as carbon monoxide versus carbon dioxide. 

Berkeley could place these sensors on street intersections and freeway entrances along with video equipment that reads the license plates of the cars passing by. If theft or destruction is a problem in some places, the devices can be put in the backs of vans and moved around. If a car exceeds a limit several times, the owner would be sent a pollution bill. The remote sensor devices are inexpensive, and the pollution charges would more than pay for the cost. Some drivers could try to thwart the sensor readings by covering their license plates, but that can be spotted and penalized by the Berkeley police. 

Vehicles whose owners live outside of Berkeley would be charged just as much as residents. A visitor to Berkeley has to pay sales tax on purchases here, some of which goes to the city. Likewise, a nonresident could be fined for littering in Berkeley. So the same principle applies to nonresidents who pollute the city. They are causing damage to the residents of Berkeley, as well as to the planet, so they should be fined. 

These pollution charges would be adjusted in response to the reduction in emissions. If cars and buildings continue to pollute after a remote sensor and billing system is in place, the charges can be increased until we achieve the reduction to the 80 percent target set by Measure G. Charging for pollution would be a great way to push car owners to go green. 

I wrote the argument against Measure G because it was not green enough, as it did not specify how pollution would be reduced, and the target date of 2050 is too far in the future. The Kitchen Democracy vote on the target date was in favor of an earlier year, 2020. We can best achieve a swift reduction of greenhouse gasses without disrupting the economy with pollution charges. 

Indeed, most likely the pollution levies will be greater than the enforcement costs. The revenue generated by pollution charges could be used to reduce taxes, such as on utilities. Pollution charges would make Berkeley pure green both by reducing pollution and by compensating society for the pollution that remains.  

A successful implementation of pollution charges would make the whole world pay attention. Berkeley would be the global leader in the effort against global warming. The City of Berkeley will decide his year on how to implement Measure G. We could do this best with pollution charges. 


Fred Foldvary teaches public finance and real estate economics at Santa Clara University.