April 29, 2008

The New Joke Going Around

A: We're really addicted to oil.

B: How addicted are we?

A: So addicted, even our alternative energy sources depend on it:
In the comment section of theoildrums coverage of the Grangemouth refinery shutdown, we find that a diesel shortage has caused construction to stop on a $300 million wind farm.


A wind-farm construction project brought to a standstill because of a lack of fossil fuel.
Read the whole post. As the author notes, transitioning away from fossil fuels means not just finding alternatives, but doing so intelligently:
A great concern of mine is the likelihood of falling into the "Tragedy of the Energy Investing Commons". As the energy crisis deepens, more money, expertise and resources will be thrown at any energy alternative that produces energy, irrespective of its quality, density, energy surplus or environmental impacts. Many of these technologies will be dead ends (energy sinks). Many will produce some energy. Some will procure new forms of energy valuable to future society, and at meaningful scale. However, all will drain resources, both liquid fuels and non-energy inputs away from non-energy society. If their energy contributions are marginal, or of differing quality than we depend on, this will accelerate the usage of our remaining high quality fossil stocks. If our energy consumption was well-diversified, and/or redundant, a shortage in diesel would not lead to problems with wind turbine construction.
Thinking about how to develop a really truly diversified energy regime is going to be a hard problem, not least because we're so used to having not just the energy punch of petroleum, but its portability as well. If our alternatives to oil (biodiesel, say) are subject to more constraints than we're used to, folks aren't going to be happy.


Michael O'Hare (emphasis mine):
The ease with which politicians say "gas prices are too high" combines their cowardice (or cynicism and irresponsibility, or maybe just ignorance) with a widespread confusion of price with cost in the public mind, one for which we educators probably have to answer though a supine and feckless press isn't helping at all. The distinction is no piece of technical arcana, but one of the most fundamental keys to getting policy right, and in this case, a very big batch of policy with enormous consequences. If you don't understand the difference, you do what Hugo Sanchez Chavez does and suppress the price by enormous public subsidies. Unfortunately, the cost of anything is quite independent of what we want it to be, or the price at which it is offered, because cost [is] a reality sort of thing, the value of the economic resources consumed in providing it.
Quite so, except for that last sentence. The confusion of price with cost is pernicious not just because it leads to bad economic policies, but because it assumes that the quantity we consume of something is constant. Such a belief precludes the possibility of increased efficiency, conservation, or other measures to reduce the quantity of that which we're consuming. High gas prices aren't fun, but they're especially not fun when you have an economy like ours that is A) built around the automobile, and B) has taken only cursory steps to increase the fuel efficiency of our automobile fleet. Cost is dependent on, if not what we want it to be, then on what we do, and there is much we can do, at least in the long run, to change our gasoline consumption patterns; likewise with (coal-based) electricity. (To be fair, O'Hare makes this point, more or less, in the next paragraph.)

The Future of Mass Transit

The LA Times had an op-ed this weekend about the problem with doing congestion pricing in southern California, and the reactions (from Ryan Avent and Josh Patashnik, inter alia) point to a major dilemma for both congestion pricing policy and climate change policy: You can't provide incentives for people to switch to mass transit, and thus reduce both traffic and CO2 emissions, if there are no mass transit alternatives -- something that's the case in much of the US, and particularly in the western states. Outside of New York City, the District, and a few other places, mass transit infrastructure is pitifully small, if not nonexistent. This will make carbon or congestion pricing harder on most people, low-income people in particular, and there won't be much in the way of immediate amelioration -- building new mass transit systems takes years, after all.

I agree with Ryan that new mass transit should start being built now -- and I would add that it should be build with the anticipation of receiving revenue from carbon/congestion pricing schemes. It would be a rather large bet on the likelihood that states and cities would adopt such schemes, but I don't think anyone can truthfully say they won't happen in the near future.

UPDATE: With the caveat, of course, that carbon pricing will likely be more widespread than congestion pricing, which will probably be limited to large cities.

April 23, 2008

Come On, Europe

Europe really needs to get over its nuclear power phobia, or else this is going to seriously undercut their efforts on climate change:
At a time when the world’s top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, Italy’s major electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, generally the dirtiest fuel on earth.

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

Of course, the EU's commitment to fighting climate change has always been rather overrated, although they have made enormous progress in a variety of areas, ranging from carbon markets to renewable energy to more sustainable development patterns. During the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the EU added in a provision allowing the member countries to form a "bubble," or a blanket reduction target, instead of having to follow individual reduction requirements. Of course, since the UK had at the time made massive reductions in GHG emissions, and Germany had recently absorbed a collapsed East German economy, this meant that the EU could piggyback off those two countries, and not have to reduce emissions all that much, even under the modest requirements of Kyoto.

This I learned from a talk recently by Richard Benedick, one of the key negotiators for the Montreal Protocol and a renowned diplomat in environmental matters generally. His recent article about the failure of the Kyoto process and how a more decentralized approach to climate change might work better is worth a read. I've become more of a Kyoto skeptic myself, though the danger there is that nothing will replace it when it expires in 2012. I see the most promise in a G8+5 approach of getting the biggest polluters to agree on a reduction target; or perhaps something like a global carbon fund I talked about a while back.

April 8, 2008

Why Additionality Might In Fact Be Problematic

The World Bank is considering funding a coal-fired power plant in India through the Clean Development Mechanism, on the grounds that it would be more efficient than existing plants. It might be additional, perhaps, but it seems, to put it mildly, counterproductive.

April 7, 2008

Climate Change: Still a Political Issue

It looks like Al Gore and company have a long way to go when it comes to portraying climate change as being beyond partisanship (via Dayo Olopade):

The red line, showing Republicans' responses to the "We Can't Wait" ad by the Alliance for Climate Protection, takes a huge nosedive when the ad pivots from taking about World War II, civil rights, and the Apollo space program -- things all Americans view favorably -- and begins talking about taking action on climate change. It's unclear, as Dayo notes, whether this is conservative ideology or simple partisanship at work, but it's clear that any climate change policy, even a modest one like Lieberman-Warner, will only succeed over the fierce objections of the GOP. We should also keep in mind that moderate-conservative Democrats from industrial states may also be spooked from supporting taking action. It would be interesting to see the reactions to this ad broken down by region, then.

April 5, 2008

Movie Recommendation

Robin Hood. This is the 1991 version that was only shown as a miniseries in the US out of fear of competing with Kevin Costner's execrable Prince of Thieves, which came out that same year, but this is the far superior version. It's sort of weird to see Patrick Bergin, which I think most people know as the villain in Sleeping with the Enemy, as the hero, but it works, as does the rest of the cast. This includes a then 21-year-old Uma Thurman as Maid Marion, who plays her with a good deal more pluck and vitality than the role usually gets.

Another thing notable about the movie is that the usual villains -- the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Guisborne, etc. -- are absent. Instead, the story is recast as a conflict between the Saxons, who had been living in England for centuries, and the recent conquerors the Normans. Robin is Sir Robert Hode, a Saxon landowner who gets tossed off his land by the Normans and becomes the outlaw of legend. The scenery is very naturalistic and plays up the semi-pagan nature of medieval England -- there's even a Green Man at one point. At the same time, there's still plenty of wit and humor, as a good Robin Hood movie should have.