The past legislative session saw a flurry of environmental initiatives set on tackling global warming and reducing American dependence on foreign energy sources. Some states set carbon emission reduction goals while others committed to renewable portfolio standards. Hawaii (HB 226””Reps. Green, Mizuno, Thielen), Minnesota (SF 145””Sen. Prettner Solon; Rep. Hilty), New Jersey (A3301/S2114””Assm. Stender; Sen. Buono), and Oregon (HB 3543””Rep. Dingfelder; Sen. Avakian) set challenging goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while Colorado (HB 1281””Rep. Pommer), Minnesota (SF 4””Rep. Peterson; Sen. Anderson), and New Hampshire (HB 873””Rep. Harvey) will require utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Establishing benchmarks and goals was a significant show of progress, but the more difficult challenge of meeting them lies ahead. Few states have come forth with substantive plans for reducing carbon emissions, and that’s a problem.

Carbon reduction strategies will require the help of average citizens, and programs that allow them to control their consumption will go a long way towards reaching emissions goals. One issue that has received attention over the last few months is plastic bag consumption at check-out counters. Each year, 12 million barrels of oil are needed to produce the 100 billion plastic bags Americans consume each year, according to the EPA. And while plastic bags can be recycled, only about five percent are. This excessive waste led Ireland in 2002 to adopt a Plas-Tax of 15 pence per bag. By the following year, plastic bag use in Ireland had been reduced 90% and the proceeds of the tax were being used to subsidize reusable shopping bags for the poor. While the tax was not without its problems, the initiative typifies the experiments that must be played out in our cities and states. San Francisco and Oakland recently made headlines for imposing plastic bag bans on high-grossing retailers, and several other municipalities are looking into taxes, bans, and recycling programs. Each of these policy options has their merit, but the bag tax is unique in placing the responsibility of consumption and respect for the environment on the average citizen.

Meeting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will require citizens to take part in reducing consumption and understanding their individual impact on the environment. The plastic bag tax is one means of doing that. More information on Ireland’s Plas-Tax program can be found here. Additionally, environmental policy briefs and model legislation from CPA can be found here.