30 May 2008

Is It "Greenwashing," Or Is It Just Bad Measurement?

Jonathan Gitlin, via Twitter, made sure I saw a new report from the Brookings Institution called Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America. It was front-page news here in Lexington, with a bold headline screaming "Lexington Tops List of Enemies to the Environment: Carbon Footprint is Largest in Nation."

To be honest, it didn't surprise me that much. For starters, the bulk of Lexington's (very cheap) electricity comes from coal in nearby counties. For decades the city let developers plow up horse farms to build strip malls. There's so much sprawl, spread out all over the city, that people have to drive everywhere. It's been incredibly difficult to develop a real downtown. Despite the efforts of groups like Bluegrass Tomorrow and Bluegrass Conservancy, Lexington has already sacrificed so much of what made it truly unique in favor of retail chains (some of which are now declaring bankruptcy) and "mcmansion" housing units we simply don't need.

But Jonathan's note reminded me of another headline that was in the Herald-Leader not too long ago - Lexington Makes Top 25 In Green Cities Ranking.

The article cited a survey from Popular Science Magazine and gave a quote from it: "Lexingtonians recycle everything from surplus electronics to scrap metal."

So which is it? Does my family live in a swillish cesspool of carbon emissions, or in a forward-thinking recycler's paradise?

Apparently both.

So what would happen if the mayor had a press conference and said Lexington is a tall glass of awesome when it comes to the environment, and Popular Science Magazine backs him up? I'm guessing three things. First, developers would see that as permission to keep building. Second, sustainability advocates would be apoplectic. Finally, those advocates would be marginalized by the populace because more building means more jobs and the industry has the PR cover it needs.

So it occurs to me that we need a standard measurement tool to know what's green and what's not, for a variety of reasons. I know measurement is KD Paine's specialty, but I'm not sure she's up on environmental assessment.

What say the sustainability folks? What's the best measurement here?

1 comment:

Taylor said...

I have some stuff about this same topic over at my blog- http://greenky.org

When I first saw the Popular Science article back in February, I was a bit baffled. No way we recycle more or have a 'greener mindset' than Portland. There is just no way. The Brookings Institution at least as some pretty solid methodology on their side, even if it isn't the best measurement.

But I like that their study findings are per capita - so while Lexington has significantly less pollution than Los Angeles, for example, we are worse polluters. I think this is pretty telling. The Brookings study does miss out on the intangibles of sustainability that can't be measured easily with a greenhouse gas inventory - recycling, sustainable consumerism (if there is such a thing) - although it does account for alternative transportation (or the lack thereof) by its transportation emissions score.

Overall, I like the Brookings study. It makes sense. It's believable. But I'm not quite sure how one would make it better.