Can You Reduce Carbon By Subsidizing Roads And Bridges?

In addition to stimulating the economy through a massive infrastructure program, the Obama administration is still commited to fighting carbon emissions and climate change. That may not be getting as much attention right now, but with Democrats holding so much power right now, the time to push for this stuff is now. And push they will. Watch for a debate about cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, and which is better.

But there’s a serious, and potentially harmful contradiction here. Energy analyst Gregor MacDonald elaborates:

The most grotesque outcome I can possibly imagine for the Obama stimulus plan would likely become reality if, on top of a new set of carbon tax guidelines, most of the billions spent on physical infrastructure went to roads and bridges and neglected public rail transport. Worryingly, this is exactly the outcome we are headed for now, as an unintentional barbell policy develops where highly sophisticated green advocates shape carbon and climate policy at one end of the stimulus plan, and then the nation’s Governors favour roads and automobile infrastructure over rail at the other end.

Macdonald is a rail advocate, and he thinks we’d get huge benefits from equipping western cities with better public transit options. But even if you disagree, you can see the problem. A cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax would penalise traditional models of transportation and business. BUT, if you reinforce the current infrastructure, then you leave the people with fewer ways of changing in the way we want. We’re asking people to change their patterns, but then subsidizing the old ones. Potentially, this undermines both goals: the economic recovery and the desire to see less carbon emitted.

It’s not a trivial problem, unless you believe that the money spent will work regardless of how it’s spent. That’s the school of thought that anything the government does is good, just as long as they do something. But if you believe there should be a purpose, and that pounding dirt isn’t a way to improve wealth, then this is worrisome.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.