Politicians who cite a moral imperative to fight climate change rarely put a price tag on doing so. But it takes green to go green, and New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has grasped the other moral imperative: He's put a cost on reducing his city's carbon footprint on the planet.
Last Sunday, on Earth Day, Mr. Bloomberg proposed an $8 fee for cars and $21 for trucks entering Manhattan south of 86th Street during business hours. This "congestion tax" is just one of 127 proposals by Mr. Bloomberg to fulfill his goal of curbing the city's greenhouse-gas emissions 30 percent by 2030 (estimates show a 25 percent increase).
Another of his steps would raise electric bills by an average $2.50 a month to pay for more efficient generating plants (which would eventually lower those bills). Taxpayers would also be hit for the cost of planting of 1 million trees, while developers would need to pay more to construct "green" buildings under new codes.
Such specific details on the sacrifices that lie ahead for all Americans takes real political courage, something missing in Washington but growing in many cities and states. Energy experts know it will require far more changes in lifestyles and family finances to reduce carbon emissions than such popular fads as using fluorescent light bulbs or driving hybrid cars. Wholesale changes in technology and behavior are needed, and the sooner people know the individual costs, the sooner a consensus for action will form.
The dream is in the details, and Bloomberg's dream (dubbed PlaNYC ) is to push people toward public transport and out of polluting gridlock with both financial incentives and disincentives (Manhattan traffic jams cost businesses $13 billion annually). He wants to create the first environmentally sustainable city – a task that includes rehabbing old buildings for energy efficiency. "Using economics to influence public behavior is something this country is built on – it's called capitalism," says the former businessman.
With 8.2 million people, New York emits only 1 percent of total US greenhouse-gas emissions, but it could become a national as well as global leader in taking action. In a few weeks, it plays host to a summit of mayors from the world's largest cities to share strategies to fight global warming. As an archipelago, New York stands to lose ground to rising sea levels, especially during fiercer hurricanes. Its projected growth in population demands more taxes on polluters and energy users, and investing that revenue in solutions, such as better and more subways.
Bloomberg's bold plan deserves support from the state, especially for the Manhattan driving fee. (London has shown that a congestion tax reduces city driving and increases use of mass transit.) He has wisely tapped the wisdom of many groups in devising his plan, laying out both the benefits and the costs.
Europe, Japan, and Canada – which all signed on to Kyoto's emission cuts without knowing the price tag – are only now balking at the costs of compliance. The US, with New York in the lead, can follow a different path and be up front about the price of investing in a new future. Setting targets for reduced emissions is easy. But let's get through the sticker shock, too.