02.08.09

Green Should Not Be Wasteful

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy, Resources at 1:50 am by justakim

A while back, Thomas L. Friedman was on the Daily Show to advertise his new book Hot Flat, and Crowded. It may be that he oversimplified his explanation for the show, but I am terribly unimpressed. He said we should overinvest in green technologies, cause a bubble, and reap the benefits.

He said that the dot-com bubble left us internet infrastructure and the financial crisis left us with overpriced condos, and now we need a green bubble to get us out of the financial crisis.

The definition of a bubble is putting in more money than it’s worth. Period. If it is going to pay off in the future, that would be called an investment. So this guy wants us to throw more money into an industry’s R&D than it’s worth, he wants us to lure people into investing in the training, experience, and time that is going to dump their job when the bubble comes due. Ask those bankers and financial analysts if there’s too many to go around. He wants us to do it right now so that we can solve or past excesses, not by learning from our mistakes but by repeating them.

The money that Friedman advocates wasting could be better used in making bigger differences on other problems. Those people who are now considering their careers possibly for the rest of their lives may have been more valuable to society learning and performing in other industries. Our current opportunities as they are, to make investments, could be better spent on less ridiculous schemes.

We did not have to overindulge in internet startups to benefit from investing in IT infrastructure. We didn’t have to make ludicrous choices about home ownership in order to gain what dubious benefits we will get out of this mess. And we certainly don’t have to do it again.

To recognize underinvestment is one thing. To deliberately waste money when there are better uses is absurd.

06.30.08

Cowboy Carpool?

Posted in Energy at 10:03 am by justakim

Marketplace talks with a Rodeo champion about the cost of gas. These guys, who travel thousands of miles a year, are being hit hard. They’ve swapped cars for something more efficient while ditching the camper, and being more picky about which shows they attend. “They” are four bullriders.

“So what we’ve got here is a cowboy carpool?”

Ahahaha

06.19.08

It’s All in the Words

Posted in Behavior, Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Resources at 11:03 pm by justakim

Killing critters vs culling herbivores
Researchers looked back upon a controversial hedgehog culling
and used “content analysis”, a framework used by social scientists that basically looks at diction (vocabulary, wording). They found that different stakeholders discussed the same situation with completely different language.

“The pro-hedgehog lobby wrote about killing and animal welfare issues and used emotive or informal vocabulary, whereas the pro-bird lobby used more scientific language and vocabulary concerning wildlife and the Hebrides. Interestingly, media coverage of this controversy tended to use language similar to that of the pro-hedgehog groups. Our results show how content analysis allows differences in focus between stakeholder groups to be highlighted in a quantitatively rigorous way, and that this can encourage a dialogue to develop in which all stakeholders are at least addressing the same issues.”

…quantitatively rigorous? Yeah well, I don’t think you have to run statistical tests on word counts to know they’re approaching the situation differently and using their written skills to best frame their position. it does however make it easier to identify and address differences.

Miles Per Word
Changing how fuel efficiency is described can make a difference in what cars people buy. Rather than describing efficiency in miles traveled per gallon, if one were to describe it in gallons per 100 miles traveled, it would be easier to see how much of a difference it would make to take a very low efficiency car and improve it.

At 10 mpg, it takes 10 gallons to travel 100 miles. If that were doubled to 20 mpg, it would take 5 gallons. You save 5 gallons.

A car with 25 mpg takes 4 gallons to travel the same distance. Double that to 50 mpg would take 2. You save only 2 gallons.

We’re better off by having people ditch SUV’s for average cars than replacing average cars with better ones. This may seem pretty obvious for after all the SUV is the symbol of everything anti-environmental, but perhaps moreso when presented slightly differently.

05.24.08

Unintended Consequences

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Pollution at 2:27 am by justakim

Trees

I was browsing one of those various stories about an organization buying some patch of forest for carbon sequestration purposes. It occurred to me that this was a very strange thought.

Start off with a straight market in emissions, a textbook example. In the market, each company has a different cost for reducing their pollution. The ones that have a harder time reducing pollution will pay the ones better suited to it, to pollute less in their stead. Pollution is decreased efficiently where those most able, do so. Total pollution goes down. Cool.

Why stop with companies? There are other places that can emit or remove your pollutant. Some energy sources are cleaner than others; buying from the cleaner sources should count for something. Why not trees? How does this work? You assume that the trees will remove pollutants. You assume that whoever owns the trees is going to cut them down anyway. Pay the tree owners to leave the trees up so they can continue to remove the pollutant.

It sounds great! Offsetting pollution and protecting trees at the same time. But something about this extension seems flimsy. Instead of reducing pollution among firms that are polluting, this would instead pay to make another place keep doing what it was doing naturally. So, the firms keep polluting and the trees keep breathing, they are just theoretically not going to get cut down or burned. This doesn’t strike me as a very effective strategy to reduce emissions.

What’s to stop someone from taking a step further. Surely some trees are better at carbon sequestration than others. Why not cut down one forest of less ‘efficient’ trees, and replant them with a nicely ordered tree farm that has more efficient trees? Trees that can be harvested. Perhaps one day the tree farms will be replaced with algae vats.

The entire line of thinking, of finding the cheapest cost ways to alter the projected path of carbon emissions seems misleading and ineffective, providing excuses not to reduce pollution and crowding out pollution reduction technology.

Cars

The result of unintended consequences (or ulterior motives) can be seen in the car market. Here’s a story where the Postal Service buys new alternative fuel vehicles.

The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

They replaced their Jeeps with Ford Explorers and found it hard to find the alternate fuel. Since the Explorer-based cars are less fuel efficient, consumption went up and efficiency went down. Brilliant.

A limited number of stations selling ethanol and the scarcity of vehicles burning it diminish the fuel’s appeal, according to a June 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Three of the 26 ethanol- capable vehicles offered in 2007 were compact or mid-size cars, and the rest were large autos, pickups, SUVs or vans.

Fish

On an odder note, it seems that cleaning up pollution can sometimes have a negative impact on a species. The murk of pollution protected the stickleback from predation. An aggressive cleanup campaign in the 1960’s transformed Lake Washington from an open sewer into a clear lake.

But the lake’s recovery put at least one species in a pickle: the three-spine stickleback.

The small fish, formerly hidden in the murky depths, found itself swimming in plain view of predators like cutthroat trout.

Researchers now think the threat of predators spurred the fish into rapid evolution toward an older version of itself, evolutionarily speaking.

In the absence of pollution, the fish was suddenly made visible to its predators. The less protected were snapped up, and the ratio of fish with armor increased.

Interestingly, there are other clear lakes where the stickleback are not heavily armored, suggesting that something different is happening here. My thinking is this: In the presence of pollution, the fish favored other traits. With the sudden removal of pollution, there was no slow return to normal. All the fish who were caught unprepared were eaten and the ones with armor survived. It may not have been the best advantage, but it worked in a pinch.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is interesting to see such an unusual and rapid effect due to cleanup. Things aren’t going to be quite like they used to be.

05.16.08

Sensitivity or Lack Thereof

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 9:43 am by justakim

China quake may cut carbon offset supply

I did a double-take when I read that title. It seemed a little insensitive given the 40,000 still missing. That seems a little more important than the lost revenue from carbon offsets and the rise in offset prices for everyone else.

Here’s Marketplace on the attempt to shore up 400 damaged dams.

On a brighter note, this chart in the Economist piqued my interest. US private giving is off the chart. To put that into context, I browsed the source, the Index of Global Philanthropy. Total per capita giving is among the highest following Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. However, total giving is huge; $129.8 billion with the UK following at $20.7 billion while Norway’s at $3.7. We have a lot of money, and we give a lot of it. Good deal.

I also noticed that private overseas giving is closely related to the US business cycle.

Speaking of giving, thanks for taking my survey. I’m still taking responses.

FinAid bunny

05.12.08

What About Gas?

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Resources at 11:08 am by justakim

“You’re an economist. What about the gas price?”

There’s two reasons I don’t talk much about the gas prices. One, every economist out there is talking about it, and some like env-econ do a fine job of covering every ounce of it. The other reason is that I don’t think just making it cheaper is the answer, which is something many people don’t want to hear. This does not mean I don’t sympathize with people who are adversely impacted recently, but that I think we made less-than-optimal decisions and now we’re paying for it.

Inspired by a conversation last week, here’s my bit on gas prices:

Me: Even now, our gas prices are so darn cheap relatively speaking.
Cohort 1: Cheap? Compared to what?
Me: Compared to Europe, for a start.
Cohort 2: Actually, I just saw a report recently about how we’re 100+ expensive…

Don’t believe us? here are the numbers in question. We’re around 108. European countries have high prices because of high taxes that are used to develop other transportation infrastructure, like mass transit. 18 cents doesn’t compare to a couple bucks. If the price goes up by a dollar here, that’s a significant increase while in Europe, it’s a smaller percentage. Price shocks are bad. It is harder to adjust to a sudden and possibly temporary price change than to shift production and consumption to a predictable future. If you’d known in advance that prices would suddenly go up, you would have planned for it. If you’d known all your life that gas is expensive, you would have made life choices accordingly. Your city might not look the same.

I know that there are people who don’t want anything to do with those ‘socialist’ European countries, but one might consider that our price is much closer to Russia’s.

When I was twelve, I laid out the itinerary for the family vacation. I took out some maps. I hit as many national parks as I could within our two week time frame. I was very proud of myself. I find the summer vacation as important as anyone. But I don’t think the American way of life requires that we remain vulnerable to the whims of a volatile, cartel-operated market. That just doesn’t seem American to me.

05.02.08

The New Face of Wave Energy

Posted in Energy at 7:45 am by justakim

Wow, this just looks amazing. Here’s a video demonstrating wave energy prototypes. You don’t need the volume up to see how elegant and appealing this looks. These energy-generating machines act like wind farms but harvesting the ocean’s currents. They are designed to mimic the movements of sea life. It’s hardly the image of waves slamming into huge accordions or churning fish-splattering turbines I imagine. That looks soooo good.

My only criticism is the use of ‘footprint’ to describe anything impact-related!

04.27.08

Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…

04.25.08

The Future of Cars

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 9:23 pm by justakim

Ars Technica posted a nice description of the governors’ conference on climate change from last week. It is widely known that California has attempted to set its own emissions standards and has been blocked federally.

Perhaps in anticipation of the promises of all three presidential candidates, there is a new venture to bring Norwegian electric cars to California.

The joint venture’s first product will be Think City, an emission-free, 95 percent recyclable car with a maximum speed of 65 miles an hour. Plans call for a U.S. launch next year.

Lane said he expects the Think City, which will be priced under $25,000, to compete with Toyota Motor Corp’s popular Prius hybrid.

Their plan include charging stations to support the 50,000 cars they hope to be making annually.

If the US government won’t take the lead in promoting a market for cleaner cars, who will? …China?

The question of hybrids and other fuel efficient vehicles arises because the world’s automakers are gathering this week for the Beijing Auto Show, an event that is growing in clout as the world’s second largest auto market is set to be No. 1 soon.

But executives are waiting for Chinese officials to lay out a set of incentives that could jump start a product line…

Given how much we’ve used China as an excuse not to sign onto Kyoto etc, it would be terribly embarrassing if the world had to turn to China to take the lead. On the other hand, a switch to a purely electric car might not be so great an idea, for China.

Nissan Motor Co Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told reporters the Japanese automaker is approaching the Chinese government, among the many it is in talks with, to push for a pure electric vehicle solution to battle pollution.

China depends heavily on coal to produce electricity. Emissions offset from the tailpipe will just appear elsewhere.

Hey, if the federal government doesn’t want California to dictate standards for the entire country, there might be appeal to dictating standards abroad.

Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government do it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy.

-P.J. O’Rourke

1. Emissions by country
2. Chinese energy consumption
3. US energy

04.22.08

Food Craze

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 4:50 pm by justakim

Farm aid and fair trade are what the leader of the UN Conference on Trade And Development is calling for. Local farmers have to compete with food aid as well as subsidized agricultural products from the US and Europe, leaving countries vulnerable to changes in the market with underdeveloped agriculture at home.

Panitchpakdi said speculators on commodities futures markets were worsening the problem of high food prices, and he hoped the April 20-25UNCTAD meeting in Ghana would address this.

And if that’s not sensationalist enough for you, we can call it “silent mass murder”.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s president blames biofuels.

The US Foreign Agricultural Service advises countries against stopping exports.

“Firstly it is restricting trade and tends to make people think of hoarding. Secondly, domestic producers are sending the wrong signal –don’t produce, don’t invest in new technology, additional fertilizers or new genetics.”

What good will investing in agriculture do if you cannot compete with subsidized farming?

Case in point: USDA celebrates Earth Day by preserving farmland..

Happy Earth Day?

It seems like a great irony that places so lacking in biodiversity–places that are used for the purpose of monoculture, are being protected as if it were of environmental benefit. They could not protect the land from farming, nor could they set aside some other more environmentally valuable land to offset farming. Instead, let us go all the way to perverting environmental easements in the name of environmentalism, to create another farming subsidy.

We here in the US are affected by soaring prices, even if to a much lesser degree. Some places in the US are rationing grain.

The New York Sun reported Monday that “major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply.”


Rice is especially hard-hit, as shortages have led to dramatically increased prices. In some cases, a 25-pound bag is selling for more than $30.

Well, I hope that doesn’t last long. Our last 20lb bag of rice is probably going to last us ’til winter.

Also, as an alternative to burning food, the seeds of weeds are back.

I am probably lacking in environmental enthusiasm today. I’ll leave that to the pros.

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