Category Archives: Uncategorized
The Benefits Of Letting Teenagers Sleep In

Anyone who’s been a teenager or knows one has seen it: teenagers like to sleep in, and they need a lot of sleep. Research is now showing that this is a cross-cultural, biological reality for adolescents. And so the benefits are starting to pile up for schools that are accommodating this biological reality by starting later.

Otherwise, as Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota writes, we put these teens at risk:

Studies on sleep in general, and on sleep in teens in particular, have revealed the serious negative consequences of lack of adequate sleep. Teens who are sleep-deprived – defined as obtaining less than eight hours per night – are significantly more likely to use cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

The incidence of depression among teens significantly rises with less than nine hours of sleep. Feelings of sadness and hopelessness increase from 19 percent up to nearly 52 percent in teens who sleep four hours or less per night.

Teen car crashes, the primary cause of death for teenagers, are found to significantly decline when teens obtain more than eight hours of sleep per night.

It’s been very encouraging though to see the impacts on teen health from schools that are starting later in the morning:

Results from schools that switched to a later start time are encouraging. Not only does the teens’ use of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol decline, but their academic performance also improves significantly with later start time.

The Edina (Minnesota) School District superintendent and school board was the first district in the country to make the change. The decision was a result of a recommendation from the Minnesota Medical Association in 1996.

Research showed significant benefits for teens from that school as well as others with later start times.

For example, the crash rate for teens in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2013 dropped by 70 percent in the first year after the district adopted a later high school start.

It’s promising stuff. Hopefully this practice will become the norm across the country.

Berkeley Homeowner NIMBYs Face National Blowback

NIMBYs in Berkeley are getting some national attention. The New York Times covered a battle over a Berkeley home that a developer wanted to subdivide into three units. Despite compliance with the zoning code, neighborhood opponents convinced city leaders to reject the project. But a local YIMBY group sued and won to overturn the decision.

The article uses the story to describe the prevalence of single-family zoned neighborhoods around the state:

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

The article rightly points out the damage done by laws that enable this kind of exclusionary neighborhood, particularly to housing affordability and the environment.

Adding fuel to the fire, former Berkeley planning commissioner Zelda Brownstein published a controversial piece in Dissent Magazine arguing that there is no credible evidence to support the claim that local opposition prevents housing from getting built, despite numerous studies, surveys and observable evidence around California to the contrary. She writes:

Developers build housing, and what they decide to build—and when and whether they decide to build it at all—depend on factors that over which local governments have no control: the availability of credit, the cost of labor and materials, the cost of land, the current stage of the building cycle, perceived demand, and above all, the anticipated return on investment.

Some of the same YIMBYs that fought the Berkeley housing decision quickly returned fire, noting Ms. Brownstein’s conflict of interest as a landlord who benefits financially from the lack of new housing:

Personally, I’m not a fan of these kind of personal attacks, as Brownstein’s arguments should be evaluated on their own merits, not based on who is making them.

But as California residents grow increasingly frustrated with NIMBY activity stifling new homes, these kinds of debates and news coverage will only increase.

Republican Tax Bill Would Devastate Renewables & Affordable Housing

UPDATE: Initial reports that the electric vehicle tax credit was killed in the Senate version may have been inaccurate. The text of the amendment contained some obscure language that actually indicates that it was not adopted in the ultimate bill.

Donald Trump’s electoral college win a year ago certainly promised a lot of setbacks to the environmental movement. His administration’s attempts to roll back environmental protections, under-staffing of key agencies enforcing our environmental laws, as well as efforts to prop up dirty energy industries have all taken their toll this year.

However, until the tax bill passed the Senate this week, much of that damage was either relatively limited in scope or thwarted by the courts. But the new tax legislation now passed by both houses of Congress, and still in need of reconciliation and a further vote, could dramatically undercut a number of key environmental measures in ways we haven’t yet seen from this administration.

Originally, there was some hope that Republicans in the U.S. Senate would weaken some of the draconian environmental measures in the original House tax bill. But that was largely dashed by the late Friday night, partisan vote in the U.S. Senate. First, the bill targets clean technology while promoting dirty energy:

  1. The renewable energy tax credits for wind and solar are severely undercut by an obscure provision in the bill called Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT), as Greentech Media reports. While analysts are still reviewing the provisions to discern the likely impact, initial assessments are that this bill language could greatly hurt the industry by decreasing the value of the credits.
  2. Similarly, the reinstatement of the alternative minimum tax for corporations, which was not in the House bill, also hurts the market for renewable tax credits, if not devastates it. By inserting this provision at the very last minute, Senate leaders attempted to offset some of the other tax cuts and projected deficits by ensuring corporations pay a minimum tax. The problem is that it renders many tax credits worthless, as businesses will no longer need them. Particularly hurt are wind energy projects, which rely on the production tax credit, as well as solar projects that rely on the investment tax credit.
  3. As a dirty cherry on top, the Senate bill opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

On housing, the tax bill has the potential to devastate affordable housing. Affordable projects often rely on tax credits for financing. As Novogradac & Company writes, the BEAT provision will dampen corporate investors from claiming tax credits like the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), new markets tax credit (NMTC), and historic tax credit (HTC), all used to fund affordable and other infill projects. Other changes in the bill promise further dampening of financing for affordable housing.

The only good news for environmental and housing advocates is that there is still a chance to make changes in the bill through the conference committee. And that the provisions here can be rescinded in 2021 with a new congress and president.

Environmental Thanksgiving

Dan Farber at Legal Planet posts his Top 10 things to be thankful for when it comes to the environment:

10. Nicaragua and Syria have joined the Paris Agreement, leaving the U.S. as the only outlier.

9. Some countries and car companies have announced plans to phase out gasoline vehicles.

8.  The new governors of New Jersey and Virginia are committed to fighting climate change.

7.  Tens of thousands of Americans have lined up to support environmental groups opposing You Know Who’s Administration.

6.  States from California to New York have strengthened their own climate change policies in direct response to the Administration.

5. China and the EU have remained firm in their support for the Paris Agreement.

4. The courts seem determined to rigorously review Administration actions.

3. China is about to announce its cap-and-trade plan, and may already have reached peak coal use.

2. Solar and wind prices are continuing to fall, making coal less and less competitive.

1.  There’s another presidential election in three years.

It’s a solid list. I would add two more: the price of electric vehicle batteries is falling rapidly, with two mass-market affordable EVs on the market (Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3). And the congressional election is in less than a year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Lessons From The Maryland Purple Line Rail Fight

The Purple Line light rail is finally underway in the Maryland inner suburbs around Washington DC, after a 31-year battle by neighborhood residents to get it built. It’s a badly needed light rail connector between two spokes of the Metro heavy rail lines, running through very transit-dependent areas (see map above).

Ben Ross was one of its chief advocates as an activist resident. He summarized some of the lessons the grassroots coalition learned in their three decade fight, which I distill here:

  • Democracy still works: grassroots organizing and mobilization defeated well-heeled property owners.
  • Think big: the bigger the project proposal, the greater the coalition in support became, featuring an alliance of business, labor, environmentalists, and civic groups as well as transit advocates.
  • Go on the offensive: forget the active opponents of a controversial project, mobilize supporters and convince the undecided with a positive message about the many benefits and forget point-by-point rebuttals of their arguments.
  • Avoid preemptive concessions: Ross writes, “When the critics object to the project itself, changes they suggest will not end their opposition, and they will make it harder to build support by lessening the project’s value.”

That last bit of advice probably would have been helpful for the Obama White House negotiators on the Affordable Care Act, who accepted numerous Republican amendments on the bill without getting their votes and instead alienated their base supporters from the bill.

Overall, the lessons learned in Maryland with the Purple Line could apply to transit and infill housing backers in almost any community.

Cheapest Way To Meet 2030 Climate Goals: Electrify More Vehicles, Furnaces & Water Heaters

California’s 2030 climate goals will be a big step forward for the state. We’re already making good progress achieving our 2020 goals (to return to 1990 levels of carbon emissions), with the state likely to hit that goal a bit early thanks to the global recession and the plummeting price of renewables.  But the 2030 goals require an additional 5% reduction per year in emissions for the 2020s, to reduce our levels 40% below 1990 emissions. That’s a tall order.

Electric utilities will be a big part of the solution, but not just because of their efforts to decarbonize the electricity supply. They’re also needed to expand the kinds of things that can run on electricity instead of petroleum or natural gas.

Southern California Edison makes that case and puts numbers behind it, in a recent white paper the utility commissioned, per E&E news:

SCE used an analysis from the consulting firm E3 that found the cheapest of three pathways to meeting the state’s 2030 emissions goals entails electrifying 24 percent of light-duty vehicles and 15 percent of medium-duty vehicles, in addition to reaching an 80 percent carbon-free electricity target. It also would require 30 percent of residential and commercial water and space heaters to run on electricity rather than gas.

This pathway seems achievable at a reasonable cost, given the advances in battery technologies on the vehicle side. Still, we will need to keep the federal tax credit in place or find a viable substitute to keep demand for EVs strong in the short run.

On the furnace and water heating side, we’ll need some new, cheaper products to wean buildings off of natural gas and onto clean electricity. But the good news is that achieving the 80% carbon-free electricity goal by 2030 may not be so daunting, given that we may be on track for 60% renewables by 2030 anyway, plus all the large hydropower that doesn’t count under the renewables mandate.

As always with the future, there are plenty of variables and unknowns. But California’s progress to date on clean tech gives us a clear idea of what’s needed — and what the costs may be — to achieve the 2030 goals.

California’s Real Gas Tax May Be From Industry Profiteering

A bipartisan super-majority of California legislators took a courageous step this year to pass SB 1 (Beall), which raises the gas tax and vehicle license fees to help pay for backlogged repairs to our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Opponents are now mobilizing for a recall campaign against state senator Josh Newman of Orange County over the vote and to repeal the legislation by voter initiative.

But UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein makes the case that the gas tax increase may pale in comparison to possible price gouging by the oil industry:

It’s been 32 months now, and Californians continue to pay at least 20 cents per gallon more than our higher taxes, greenhouse gas fees (cap and trade and the low-carbon fuel standard), and production costs could explain. Throughout that time, I was a member of the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, a panel of independent energy market experts, and I chaired the committee starting in August 2015.

The PMAC issued its final report last month. It highlighted the unexplained price premium … that has hit Californians since mid-February 2015, amounting to $12 billion — or $1,200 for a typical family of four — in excess payments over the last two and a half years. Those extra payments continue today at a rate of about $3 billion per year, nearly twice the cost of Wednesday’s gas tax increase.

And unlike the extra tax revenue, this money is not going to fix any roads or bridges.

When Borenstein’s state-organized committee tried to make recommendations to investigate the surcharge, they got nowhere with the legislature:

The PMAC discussed both profiteering and infrastructure constraints on production and imports. But the final report concluded that the committee had been given neither the authority, nor the resources, to fully investigate and determine the cause of the mystery surcharge. The committee had no budget allocation, was assigned less than one full-time staff person, and had no power to compel cooperation from industry.

The committee urged the State to commit serious time and resources to unpack the reasons for the new normal of higher payments to gasoline sellers. So far, there is no sign of an appetite in Sacramento for such an investigation, even as we re-argue the case for and against increasing gas taxes to maintain roads and bridges.

So perhaps the real scandal here isn’t the legislature’s efforts to address our crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems — but rather it’s unwillingness to find out why the oil industry is charging California drivers so much for gasoline.

And in the meantime, California drivers (at least those who aren’t driving electric) are paying the price for this inaction.

Rebuilding Fire-Ravaged Northern California Sustainably — Tonight On City Visions

The wildfires that devastated Northern California this month claimed over 40 lives and nearly 9000 structures. But as businesses reopen and people return to their neighborhoods, what is being done to ensure future resilience in our fire-prone communities?

Should we rebuild in the same way, or allow more walkable, compact development? What role does water management play in the rebuilding effort?  And how can you prevent fire damage to your home and property?

Join me tonight on City Visions as I discuss these issues with:

You can tune in on KALW 91.7 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area at 7pm or stream live on the web. Hope you can join the conversation with your questions and comments!

Pro-Trump California Farmers Now Suffer From Labor Shortage

We need productive farms in California to provide local food, help the economy in one of the poorest regions in the country, and as a buffer against continued sprawl. So it’s both environmentally and politically significant that the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle complaining about labor shortages:

On my farm near Modesto, where I grow almonds and walnuts, I’ve had trouble hiring enough people to tend and harvest my crops. And I’m far from alone: Around California, farmers and ranchers report chronic problems in finding and hiring qualified and willing people to work in agriculture.

The California Farm Bureau Federation — a membership association representing farmers and ranchers — conducted an informal survey of our members. It showed more than half of responding farmers experienced employee shortages during the past year. The figure was higher among farmers who employ people on a seasonal basis — 69 percent of those farmers reported shortages.

Wenger goes on to describe how farmers have offered higher wages, benefits and more year-round jobs. But because farmers depend on an immigrant workforce, these businesses have been hit hard by the federal crackdown on immigration, now intensified under Trump, as well as increasing living standards and lower birthrates in Mexico.

Yet many in this industry, which is generally very Republican, backed Trump in the last election.  And their preferred candidate’s policies and rhetoric now appear to be hurting their business:

We’ve been asked many times if the Trump administration’s immigration policies contribute to the shortages. We’re not exactly sure at this point. Our survey results found that a number of farmers reported their employees are increasingly concerned about immigration enforcement and may be more reluctant to move from job to job. Although we’re not aware of any significant increase in enforcement activity on California farms, the atmosphere has certainly changed.

Successful farms are important to California’s way of life and to guard against sprawl. If continued economic pressure on them motivates more to sell out to developers and stop growing our food, we’ll all be worse off for it.

And for more on low-carbon agriculture and policies to encourage it, check out our Berkeley/UCLA Law report Room to Grow:

California’s Fast Food Grease Is Powering Clean Transportation

Your high carb diet may be helping California achieve a low-carbon future. The state’s aggressive low-carbon fuels mandates have increasingly encouraged large-scale fuel consumers to purchase biofuels from restaurant “brown grease” in order to meet the requirements.

This renewable diesel from plants and animal fat can be used without blending because of its similar properties to petroleum diesel (see our Planting Fuels report for more information). Biodiesel, on the other hand, is more limited, as it typically maxes out at 20 percent as a blended fuel with petroleum, due to automaker restrictions.

While the state aims for a future of battery-powered vehicles to reduce transportation emissions, biofuels like renewable diesel are currently picking up most of the slack. As Robert Tuttle in Bloomberg describes:

In recent years, cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego, as well as Sacramento County, have transitioned to using renewable diesel to power buses, fire engines and other city vehicles. Alphabet Inc.’s shuttle buses in Silicon Valley also burn it, and UPS said two years ago that it would buy 46 million gallons of the fuel to run its fleet of delivery trucks.

As the article shows in the chart below, the result of this readily available, if not unhealthy, feedstock is a growing percentage of brown grease-based renewable diesel offsetting petroleum fuel usage:

Of course, meat-heavy diets are making climate change worse. But at least in the short run, this is one fat solution to the problem.

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