India, Italy, Brazil Can Fill America’s Blanks

Americans pride themselves on being ________ (fill in the blank with something like "biggest", "best", or "first"). Especially in California, we think we lead the world on carbon-reducing advances like ________ (fill in blank with "solar power", "energy efficiency", or "suntanned, body-builder, movie star, Austrian-born governors"). Given Obama’s UN-busting initiative in Copenhagen last month, our country may soon have more to brag about in the low carbon economy of the future, but for now, we might be smart to follow a few examples from India, Italy, and Brazil.

A company in India that once made plastic bags now recycles them for both environmental and economic gain. K.K. Plastic Waste Management has built about 700 miles of roads around Bangalore, mixing 3,500 tons of plastic waste with asphalt to form "polymerized bitumen". These plastic roads withstand monsoon rains better, reduce tire resistance (which improves fuel economy), and last longer than traditional paving. The US recycles a lot of plastic, but lately has had little use for it. If state and federal highway authorities mandated use of things like plastic roads, we could __________ (fill in the blank with "save lots of money", "cut carbon emissions", or "recycle my faded lawn flamingoes productively").

In 2001, Italy’s dominant electric utility, Enel, launched a five-year program to install smart meters for some 40 million customers. By 2006, that $3 billion investment, including meters using technology from California’s Echelon (ELON), enabled the utility to offer variable pricing for different times of day, energy management information to consumers, and grid connection of solar power. Enel reports it is already saving about $750 million from the smart meters and will therefore payback its investment in four years. American utilities are just beginning to experiment with smart meters, but the Italian mass-marketing effort shows that the US could _______ (fill in the blank with "use smart meters to cut carbon up to 30%", "enable average customers to become renewable energy entrepreneurs", or "make tons of money for American smart meter manufacturers such as General Electric (GE), Itron (ITRI), and Sensus Metering Systems").

Finally, Brazil recently discovered massive oil deposits beneath 20,000 feet of ocean water and a layer of salt. Energy expert Daniel Yergin says this will be one of the most complicated projects in the history of oil extraction and may never get done because of the technical challenges, but the Brazilian government is going to be sure domestic workers and businesses profit from this discovery. Brazil has mandated that its government-owned oil company, Petrobras, own/operate the field and use mostly Brazilian oil rigs and other contractors to commercialize the resource. If the US did something similar, we could _______ (fill in the blank with "put billions of dollars into American companies and stimulate economic recovery", "generate tax revenues to balance state/federal budgets or to invest in low carbon alternatives to oil", or "violate numerous global trade and tariff agreements and hope no one notices or cares").

Americans have many reasons to be proud, but no matter how much we know, there’s always someone who can teach us new tricks. As Congress takes up climate legislation again in the New Year, it may be worth remembering that other countries could help us fill in a few blanks in ways that benefit both the environment and the rebounding economy.

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