Home > Economic policy, Environment > Stern on the cost of climate stabilisation

Stern on the cost of climate stabilisation

November 15th, 2006

As I said in the previous post, I plan to focus on the economics of responses to climate change from now on and the obvious place to start is the Stern report.

There’s a lot in the Stern report, and I’m going to assess it a part at a time, starting with the issue I’ve been most interested in, the cost of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels. I’ll focus on the case considered by Stern, and in my submission of stabilising levels at 550 parts per million, which implies a reduction in emissions of around 60 per cent, relative to business as usual, by 2050. This should be enough to avoid severe damage.

The Stern review report a wide range of estimates of the cost of stabilization. The range is summarized as 1 per cent of GDP, plus or minus 3 percentage points. In my submission to the review I gave a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on two parameters, the fossil fuel share of GDP (which I took as 6 per cent), and the elasticity of demand for fossil fuels, which I took as between 1 and 2. This gave a range of costs for a 60 per cent reduction in emissions of between 1.8 and 4.2 per cent, with a midpoint of 3 per cent, which is in the upper part of the Stern range.

One part of this discrepancy can be resolved easily. The Stern report estimates the fossil fuel component of GDP at 3-4 per cent. Using a value of 3 per cent would halve my estimated range to between 0.9 per cent and 2.1 per cent. Getting an accurate figure here is difficult, but its possible to explain a couple of reasons for our differing values.

The report observes, correctly, that the welfare-relevant variable in estimating the social cost of fossil fuels is the cost of extraction, not the market price which incorporates monopoly rents. Also, I looked at Australia, which has a more energy-intensive economy than the UK or the world average. So, the Stern number looks pretty reasonable.

Although Stern doesn’t quote elasticity estimates directly, the remaining divergence reflects an implied central estimate for the elasticity a little higher than mine. I was fairly conservative, not wanting to push to big a gap with older cost estimates that used long-run elasticity estimates below 1. Such low values are reasonable long-run estimates in the normal econometric usage of the term, that is to say around five years, but not over fifty years.

Turning from top-down approaches like this to bottom up assessments, it’s interesting to note that the Stern report puts a lot of weight on carbon sequestration. If this doesn’t pan out the costs could be higher. On the other hand, if we get some surprise breakthroughs in solar energy, costs could be lower, or even negative.

Overall, my assessment is that Stern’s central estimate, a cost of 1 per cent of GDP, is in the right ballpark. Stern is probably a bit on the optimistic side, but not wildly so.

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  1. November 15th, 2006 at 16:56 | #1

    On the other hand, if we get some surprise breakthroughs in solar energy, costs could be lower, or even negative.

    I suspect that we would get these anyway even with business as usual. Your comparative costings need to assume that either these technological innovations would not happen under business as usual or they would not be commercialised under business as usual. Otherwise you’re not doing compartive costings.

    When I studied photovoltaics as an undergraduate at UNSW (1993) it was routinely suggested that since the mid 1970s projections have been that photovoltaics would become economical for mainstream grid based power stations in about 2015 and that that this projected date continued to be the prevailing estimate. Whenever I have dug back into the literature this seems to still be approximately the case, so I fully expect that it will happen. Of course photovoltaics based power will not provide either guaranteed base load capacity or peaking capacity with a dispatch nature, but it is on track to be a bigger player under business as usual.

    Enviromissions CEO in a 1 hour interview at the end of October stated that the economics of their thermal solar plant were such that they would still start construction in 2007 even though they recently failed to get a government construction grant. They will benefit from MRET but he was pretty clear that they don’t expect to need any additional subsidies or incentives to be cost competitive with coal. They are also buying land in Arizona (in that other country that had not signed Kyoto) with plans to construct a plant there soon. The technology can offer base load capabilities.

    Interveiw with Enviromission CEO is on this program: http://tinyurl.com/tesm3

    I’m a technology optimist. I think that we will be getting significantly reduced CO2 emissions from new power plants, well before 2050, even under the business as usual scenerio. One might argue that if this is true then Kyoto can’t do much harm. I would counter by saying that I don’t think it will do much good.

    Also John what are you assuming in the way of “peak oil” with regards to business as usual? Are you assuming oil mostly runs short by 2050 or are you assuming it will remain abundant?

  2. jquiggin
    November 15th, 2006 at 16:58 | #2

    Stern says, and I agree, that fossil fuels (most obviously coal) will remain abundant. Oil running short would make the stabilisation problem marginally easier in some ways (more rapid adjustment in transport) and less so in others (coal is generally worse than oil).

  3. November 15th, 2006 at 17:10 | #3

    Do you assume that technological innovation will happen under both scenerios?

  4. November 15th, 2006 at 17:13 | #4

    Stern says, and I agree, that fossil fuels (most obviously coal) will remain abundant. Oil running short would make the stabilisation problem marginally easier in some ways (more rapid adjustment in transport) and less so in others (coal is generally worse than oil).

    I beg to differ. Peak oil will accelerate growth in GHG emissions, not stabilise them. Why? Because all sources of unconventional oil require massive amounts of energy to extract and refine the oil. This is true of tar sands, oil shale, gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids. Where does that energy come from? Fossil fuels of course! In fact, its already happening. More than one million barrels of oil are produced per day from the Alberta tar sands, which consumes vast quantities of natural gas and water.

    Read this
    For every barrel of synthetic oil produced in Alberta, more than 80 kg of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. About 5-10% of the two to four barrels of water used for processing is considered as wastewater. The forecast growth in synthetic oil production in Alberta threatens Canada’s international commitments. In ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Canada agreed to reduce, by 2012, its greenhouse gas emissions by 6% with respect to the reference year (1990). In 2002, Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 24% since 1990

    All the mainstream oil analysts expect a big shift to unconventional oil in coming decades:

    During the plateau period in later decades, according to the CERA analysis, demand growth will likely no longer be largely met by growth in available, commercially exploitable natural oil supplies. Non-traditional or unconventional liquid fuels such as production from heavy oil sands, gas-related liquids (condensate and natural gas liquids), gas-to-liquids (GTL), and coal-to-liquids (CTL) will need to fill the gap.

  5. Hermit
    November 15th, 2006 at 17:15 | #5

    My gut feeling is that 1% is too low by a wide margin. Rather than use elasticity based calculations I think an engineering approach is needed. We need to ask how can middle class aspirations be met for the likely population in 2050. Remember that oil will be almost gone and half the coal fired baseload will be replaced with nuclear after clean coal fails to deliver. Staggering investments in renewables and water desalination will be required to make up the balance. We may be kidding ourselves that it will be relatively painless.

    However I will study Stern’s methodology but I think a physical model has to come first with dollars inserted afterwards. Indeed GDP per capita may look good but lifestyles will be unrecognisable.

  6. November 15th, 2006 at 19:37 | #6

    Carbonsink – “Peak oil will accelerate growth in GHG emissions, not stabilise them”

    Not to mention the coal to liquids bandwagon that everyone seems to be jumping on to try and save their Prados.

    http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2005/8/26/115637/993

  7. November 15th, 2006 at 19:53 | #7

    I agree with Carbonsink and Ender – its a common misconception that peak oil (and gas) will help re: global warming (even ASPO president Kjell Aleklett has said this on numerous occasions).

    Instead we’ll start synthesising oil and gas from dirtier (and lower “energy returned on energy invested” – which means we need to burn more to get the same net output) sources – first heavy oils and tar sands, then coal to lquids, and finally really wasteful stuff like shale oil.

    Peak oil has a number of positive aspects but its quite likely the impact on global warming won’t be one of them…

  8. November 15th, 2006 at 20:49 | #8

    Terje – “Of course photovoltaics based power will not provide either guaranteed base load capacity or peaking capacity with a dispatch nature, but it is on track to be a bigger player under business as usual. ”

    Why – with storage renewables can displace a lot of peaking capability. Additionally, on average, renewables neatly follow daytime peaks.

  9. derrida derider
    November 15th, 2006 at 22:33 | #9

    Hermit –
    You have got to be a physical scientist or engineer. The number of times I have had to explain how prices drive tech progress, as well as current behaviour, to people pushing naive physical models …

    As for the bit about life being unrecognisable in 50 years, that’s undoubtedly true. But we can safely bet that it will be true with or without global warming, and there’s no particular reason to think that lifestyle will be worse, and some reason (greater command over physical resources due to tech progress) to think it will be better. There’s no reason we should assume that GDP will be a better or worse guide to living standards than it is now.

    And Terje, there’s no doubt a decent carbon tax would make that 2015 date for solar competitiveness far more achievable.

  10. Paul G. Brown
    November 16th, 2006 at 03:54 | #10

    On “Peak Oil” and “unconventional oil”.

    I don’t really think there’s any disagreement between what you’re saying, carbonsink / Ender / Big Gav, with the point JQ and Stern are making. It’s absolutely true that processing ‘unconventional’ oil into fuel is energy intensive and creates environmental problems.

    But the economic point (remember: we’re not arguing the science or the engineering now, but rather trying to reason about the public policy response, about how we balance the incentives) is that this processing will be relatively expensive, and will drive up the price of fuel. Driving up the price will reduce the demand (mumble about elasticity) and drive down consumption which should reduce cardon-dioxide emissions.

    Lacking onmiscience, it’s hard to say which effect–reduced consumption, increased processing–will be greater. That will be an empirical question. But my intuition is that, because we’re dealing deep down with some basic thermodynamics, it’s gonna be a wash in terms of emissions.

  11. November 16th, 2006 at 07:28 | #11

    Paul G. Brown wrote:

    Lacking onmiscience, it’s hard to say which effect–reduced consumption, increased processing–will be greater

    I tend to agree (to a point), there will undoubtedly be some conservation effect due to increasing oil prices, but with tar sands economically viable at just $40 a barrel its already obvious that there will be very little conservation at that price point.

    I’m no economist, but its seems to me that oil has a very low price elasticity — prices have to soar to affect demand even a little.

  12. November 16th, 2006 at 07:37 | #12

    derrida derider wrote:

    Hermit – You have got to be a physical scientist or engineer. The number of times I have had to explain how prices drive tech progress, as well as current behaviour, to people pushing naive physical models …

    derrida derider – you have GOT to be an economist! Only an economist would believe that “the invisible hand of the market will provide” while having no idea this will happen. Remember, its he scientists and engineers that have to come up solutions, and ATM they ain’t got any.

    “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” – Kenneth E. Boulding (economist)

  13. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 08:37 | #13

    In the short run oil for transport is very inelastic, but in the long run it’s quite elastic. Just look at how the market for 4WDs has died in the arse recently. Modern diesels are getting 5l/100km, and electric cars are just around the corner.

    Of course, when all of China and India own a car…

  14. MikeM
    November 16th, 2006 at 09:28 | #14

    Wilful has an important point.

    China is the world’s largest consumer of coal. In 2005 it consumed 1,080 million tonnes oil-equivalent of coal. Last year the United States consumed 575 million oil-equivalent tonnes of coal, or almost two tonnes per capita, compared with China’s consumption of well under one. Clearly, if US per capita consumption were brought down to China’s, that would go a long way toward fixing the problem.

    If we look at comparative petroleum consumption, the United States has an even bigger opportunity to save the rest of the world. Chinese consumption last year was 327 million tonnes, or a quarter of a tonne per capita. That of the US was 945 million tonnes, or slightly over three.

    New Scientist noted in its editorial on November 2 (“Climate change – we have been warned”):

    “CLIMATE change used to be a scientific issue, the preserve of labs and learned conferences. No longer. It has become a major economic and political one, and not before time….

    “Everyone, from the richest to the world’s poorest, has to be on board [in addressing global warming], so an equitable approach is imperative – one based ultimately on the size of populations. The average amount of carbon used by each person across the world is 1 tonne a year, and clearly some of us use a lot more than others. The only fair way forward is to share the quota equally among the global population and then reduce it over the coming century by about 90 per cent. Nations, companies and even individuals would then be able to trade their entitlements, which would encourage the very low-carbon technologies we need to introduce.”

    For comparison, Australia’s per capita coal consumption last year was 2.6 oil-equivalent tonnes of coal and, of oil, two tonnes. We are using far more than our “fair share”. If we brought our per capita consumption down to match China’s current rate, we would be somewhere close to right.

  15. November 16th, 2006 at 10:14 | #15

    One thing that needs to be kept in mind about the carbon impact of unconventional oil plants is that some methods (such as CTL) are quite amenable to having the process CO2 geosequestered. This is reasonably efficient because the CO2 produced in the process is already concentrated. It’s not true, however, for Canada’s current oil shale synthesis, which is indeed a huge CO2 emitter – though that can be made more carbon-friendly by using something other than unsequestered gas to heat up the shale.

    Hermit, the match between renewable peak production and peak demand isn’t nearly as good as you might think. Peak solar production occurs at midday (1pm in summer, of course), while peak demand occurs between 4-6 pm, by which time solar power production tails off quite a lot. It’s just in time for the Fremantle Doctor to kick in over in the West to give your windmills a kick along, though :)

    And I wish people would be a bit more specific on what they mean by claiming solar cells will be “economically viable”. For what? To replace peaking gas plants – or, more to the point, ensure that they run less? To run in combination with energy storage to replace baseload coal (which is where the heavy lifting needs to be done in Australia)? There is a considerable difference (notwithstanding Ender’s enthusiasm for vehicle-to-grid technologies, which I will believe when I see).

    Finally, as for Mr Boulding’s quotation, what do you think outer space is for :)

  16. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 10:37 | #16

    Has anyone heard about using CO2 from coal-fired power stations as a feedstock for algae to create biodiesel? I can’t find a credible link right now, but a demonstration plant is planned (ie will actually be built) for Hazelwood power station (Australia’s dirtiest) that will capture 5% of emissions and turn them PROFITABLY into biodiesel and high-protein stock feed. While it’s early days, this sounds highly promising, and a much better and more technically sound idea than geosequestration.

  17. November 16th, 2006 at 10:40 | #17

    Robert, of course this that sequestration can be made to work. I have my doubts that in the order of 10 cubic kilometres of CO2 per day can be buried without leaking.

    Another favourite quote of mine:
    “The invisible hand of the market is about to b*tch slap us into the stone age” –Matt Savinar

    Not sure that I agree with it, but its a good quote!

  18. November 16th, 2006 at 10:42 | #18

    Just look at how the market for 4WDs has died recently

    Actually, SUV sales are up strongly in the U.S. since the price of oil fell back to earth

    Modern diesels are getting 5l/100km

    I know, I own two. You can actually get low 4s on the open road in 2L diesel hatchback

    electric cars are just around the corner

    They were just around the corner 20 years ago as well. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that all transportation will have to be electrified in the long term, but EVs aren’t going to hit the mainstream anytime soon. Even hybrids are still very much a niche market, whereas diesels represent up to 70% of new car sales in some European countries.

  19. November 16th, 2006 at 10:50 | #19

    Robert Merkel – “To run in combination with energy storage to replace baseload coal (which is where the heavy lifting needs to be done in Australia)?”

    No-one is saying that we need to totally replace base load coal. Really Australia is awash with base load power. The main problem is that we are very short of peaking power, hence the blackouts in hot summer days and the mad scramble for diesel and portable gas turbine generators to beef up the grid. Renewables follow the peak with a 2 to 4 hour lag that can be overcome with storage. It does not have to be electric cars but can be Australian, now Canadian, Vanandium batteries or flywheels. Both of which are commercially available. Renewables plus storage still costs less than nuclear when both enrichment costs and waste disposal costs are factored in. Nobody knows how much burying 140 million tons of very high pressure CO2 per year is going to cost but commonsense says that it will not be cheap or easy. Renewables plus storage are available now and we would not have to wait the 20 years for nuclear or CCS.

  20. Hermit
    November 16th, 2006 at 12:27 | #20

    The fallacy with price signals overcoming shortages is that the alternatives may be physically limited. Decades ago oil production and refining used 3% of its gross energy; with ethanol that’s more like 80%. There isn’t enough land to grow crops to fully replace oil based fuels.

    I agree that large scale industrial CO2 capture will never happen, with or without carbon penalties. Refer Tim Flannery and ABC Catalyst. By peddling the clean coal line the PM looks foolish along with the fib about ‘meeting Kyoto obligations’. Money earmarked for clean coal should be spent on energy storage for wind and solar. Even though I believe nuclear is inevitable within a decade I think we have to get cracking on low carbon energy sources that will get quicker results. This is also why the incremental analysis used by Stern may not be valid.

  21. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 12:34 | #21

    hermit raises an interesting point. Without reading the Stern report in detail, does he assume that the expenditures are spread over the entire period? Is this a reasonable assumption? I would have thought that some big ticket items should be started on immediately if they are to have a physical effect, and big upfront costs may raise the estimates substantially.

  22. Jimbo
    November 16th, 2006 at 13:03 | #22

    derrida derider wrote:

    Hermit – You have got to be a physical scientist or engineer. The number of times I have had to
    explain how prices drive tech progress, as well as current behaviour, to people pushing naive
    physical models …

    Your comment here suggests a slight disagreement with the laws of the universe (physics in short). Energy is critical to the way we live. The ease of our way of living is directly linked to cheap energy. This is illustrated by the close correlation with the mankinds rise in living standards (in the first world at least) and the discovery of cheap (in both monetary and energy required terms) and easily extractable oil. A petroleum geochemist friend of mine once commented to me that the way we use oil is wastefull because we are so heavily dependent on it for more than just energy, but also for a cheap feedstock of the petrochemical industry. Now, some have said that this is not a problem as tar sands etc can be used to replace oil, but as pointed out in the whiskeyandgunpowder piece

    http://www.whiskeyandgunpowder.com/Archives/2006/20061113.htm

    this will not be so easy. It will certainly be a lot more expensive and a whole lot more environmentally challenging.

    Looking at “sciences” credentials from a different viewpoint that has little to do with energy (directly anyway), I present the problem mankind will face with phosphate fertilisers. At the moment a large fraction of the feedstock for this comes from sources that were deposited over millenia by animals such as birds. Now, within the next 50-100 years this will be gone (like any resource) as we are consuming it fast. The suggestion was made that this was not an issue as we could get the phosphate from the ocean where it is found in very low concentration. The problem here is that the volume of seawater that would need to be filtered would be so high that it would have a very high impact on the health of the ocean in general (and it will also require plenty of enery as well). Now we could all go organic to get us around this problem, but it is not possible to grow enough food on planet earth for 6.5 billion people without artificial fertilisers. Science can tell you now that this will be a challenge of the future and its limitations. Can traditional economics? especially if the ideology “technology will solve all” is so entrenched in so many in the field.

  23. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 13:53 | #23

    Jimbo, you do know that soylent green is a tasty and nutritious food?

  24. November 16th, 2006 at 14:39 | #24

    Most of the analyses of the economic cost of mitigating climate change assumes CCS (aka “clean coal”) will work. To me, this is like assuming we’ll have nuclear fusion any day now. Its an unproven technology, it may work at some locations and not others, and it may or may not be economically viable even with a hefty price on carbon emissions. We just don’t know.

    Some numbers:

    World CO2 emissions from burning coal: 10.43 GT in 2006
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/excel/figure_66data.xls

    Volume of one ton of CO2 = 556.2m3
    http://www.icbe.com/carbondatabase/CO2volumecalculation.asp

    10,430,000,000 * 556.2m3 = 5,799,080,000,000m3 = 5,799.1 cubic kilometres per year = 15.89 cubic km per day.

    So, we have to bury 16 cubic kilometres of CO2 every day and hope that it stays there. How plausible does that sound to you? Remember, the world is banking on this working.

  25. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 14:45 | #25

    The world banking on it? Or only John Howard up until the next election?

  26. Jimbo
    November 16th, 2006 at 14:45 | #26

    No, but a quick scan of the internet enlightened me. Growing high protein crops is not a bad idea, people in Italy for example love there Minestroni which makes good use of them. But does it solve the problem? Also, how successful in the nearterm can you see the transition to a vegetarian. It also does not get around the fundamental problem of growing enough of the essentials (wheat/barley/rice) and having enough water, to feed a rapidly growing population.

    I should point out that I do not think that one day manking will all end up being vegetarians. In his fictional book 3001, Arthur C. Clark wrote it would happen. However, he also wrote that by then the population had dropped back to 2 billion. Only time will tell of course….

  27. wilful
    November 16th, 2006 at 15:01 | #27

    You’ve missed the pop culture allusion totally? Soylent green is people!

    Oh don’t worry about it…

    But, more seriously, how about this algae farm fed by CO2 from power stations, together with sun, water and nutrients, turning out proteins for food and oil for transport? Sounds win win win. Supposedly profitable (if you have the land) today. I am going to follow the demonstrator project closely.

  28. November 16th, 2006 at 15:18 | #28

    wilful wrote:

    The world banking on it? Or only John Howard up until the next election?

    Not just John Howard, the world.

    For example, Stern says:
    Even with very strong expansion of the use of renewable energy and other low-carbon energy sources, fossil fuels could still make up over half of global energy supply in 2050. Coal will continue to be important in the energy mix around the world, including in fast-growing economies. Extensive carbon capture and storage will be necessary to allow the continued use of fossil fuels without damage to the atmosphere.

    Gore sees CCS as a big part of the solution as well.

  29. derrida derider
    November 16th, 2006 at 15:59 | #29

    The algae project is, of course, just another form of solar energy (that’s where the energy for the algae to reduce the CO2 to carbohydrates comes from), with the energy being stored in the form of diesel rather than in batteries. I wonder if they can also capture the free oxygen and stream it in to the furnace for greater burning efficiency? Maybe a solar cell-powered electrolytic cell could do the job as efficiently – you wouldn’t need the water then, which could be a big problem for large scale adoption. The “if you have the land” proviso above is of course the ultimate limit to solar power of any kind.

    Jimbo and carbonsink, we have overrun the earth (to the earth’s detriment) because we are far and away the most adaptable creatures ever seen on earth. Can you think of any other large creature that thrives in such radically different environments?. You are taking the position that we can never adapt – I am taking the position that we have to start adapting now if we want to make the adaptation less painful. Experience, not just theory, shows that the best way to do this is by getting the prices right, because getting the prices right gives billions of people incentives to think about solutions large and small that you and I currently have not thought of.

    The logical consequence of your view is no action – there’s nothing we can do. As Al Gore noted people seem to want to move straight from denial to despair, whereas both are equally lazy and equally lethal.

    As for the bits about phosphate, who knows? Maybe it’s true – but unless you’ve got a solution (a phosphate mining tax big enough to make phosphate recovery from sewage profitable? Grow genetically engineered cultivars of Australian natives that are all adapted to low-phosphate soils? Mine it from magma?) then so what? Undoubtedly the earth will disappear someday as the sun expands to beome a red giant, and it will undoubtedly be struck by numerous giant asteroids long before then, but I’m not losing sleep over that. You only lose sleep about problems you can make a difference to.

  30. Jimbo
    November 16th, 2006 at 16:00 | #30

    Sorry, typo, I meant that I do think that humans may end up being vegetarians,

  31. November 16th, 2006 at 16:21 | #31

    The logical consequence of your view is no action – there’s nothing we can do.

    Not at all, but I think its naive to believe we can just sit around and wait for the market to work its magic and everything will be hunky dory.

    Three points:
    1. Oil is highly price inelastic
    2. We’ll need at least 20 years to overhaul our transportation infrastructure.
    3. There was no price signal before the peak in U.S. oil production in 1971

    Apart from those minor points, I’m sure the market will provide!

  32. Jimbo
    November 16th, 2006 at 16:22 | #32

    derrida derider, I think may be missing my point. I do think that things should be priced to give an accurate representation of their real costs, but this will not happen if left to the power of the markets alone.

    Once again as an example, the potential for the salinity problem in the Western Australian wheatbelt was being discused and published in the 1920′s and the politicians new about it. Post war the land clearing rates were increased dramatically regardless of this, completely ignoring taking the option of a precautionary principle (i.e still clearing but do it with a bit of common sense and make use of he best science of the time). Now W.A. has the worst salinity problem and this will cost the future a lot. But the market alone does not have the vision for this, it requires some degree of government intervention.

    With regards to human ingenuity and ability to survive, I agree. But that does not neccesarily mean that the worlds 6.5 billion will all end up living like kings. All it means is that humanity will survive.

    Finally, the main crops which feed the worlds growing population are wheat/barley/rice etc. There are no native Australian crops which could do that with the size of the worlds population. I hope that science will give us enough time, but this will only happen if we also have some wisdom.

  33. O6
    November 16th, 2006 at 16:37 | #33

    Wilful, follow this link http://www.science.org.au/media/9may06.htm to find the alga researchers. They presented a paper at the AAS symposium reported there.

  34. November 16th, 2006 at 17:01 | #34

    Carbonsink,

    The oil price rise in the 1970s was preceded by a gold price rise of equal magnitude. The price rise of oil was not the result of US oil production peaking but rather a consequence of poor monetary policy brought on by Nixon.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  35. November 16th, 2006 at 17:16 | #35

    Terje, my point was there was no price rise prior to production peaking, so there was so signal to conserve or find alternatives. That left the U.S. at the mercy of OPEC and the rest is history.

  36. November 16th, 2006 at 20:04 | #36

    Actually OPEC was at the mercy of the US because much of there financial wealth at that time was denomiated in US dollars via US treasury bonds. When the USA started to devalued the dollar in 1971 the OPEC nations merely adjusted the nominal price of Oil to ensure that the real value of their income did not decline. Most commodity producers did the same thing.

    There were plenty of alternatives and they were found. The alternatives were foreign oil wells. The world price signal was entirely accurate in forcasting that there was not physical shortage.

    However there was an oil crisis in 1973. This was a supply shock that was not anticipated. However it was not the result of a predictable depletion of oil resources. It was a political response to the Yom Kippur War and the OPEC nations imposing trade sanctions on the USA (and some other western nations).

    The jolts to both oil supply and oil prices in the 1970s were entirely political in origin. They were the result of monetary fiddling, wars and trade blockades.

  37. November 16th, 2006 at 20:09 | #37

    That left the U.S. at the mercy of OPEC and the rest is history.

    What you seem to be saying is that the market is a failure because it can’t predict how stupid governments can be. Personally I think it is a pretty tall order. Given the circumstances I think that markets do a remarkable job predicting how stupid governments can be. The Wall Street stock exchange (amoungst others) predicted the great depression (another act of government stupidity) with stunning clarity.

  38. November 16th, 2006 at 22:33 | #38

    Actually all I am saying is there was no indication whatsoever from the oil markets in the late 60s and early 70s that U.S. oil production was about to peak.

    Of course there were alternatives in 1971 — foreign oil wells — but the U.S. was no longer the world’s “swing producer”, it could no longer control world oil supply by simply opening the taps. The inevitable consequence of that was the oil crisis of 1973.

    You say the jolts to oil supply in the 1970s were entirely political in origin, and that is true, but it could not have happened if U.S. oil production had not peaked. OPEC had no political power without a physical shortage of oil in the U.S.

    So back to my point, if the oil markets didn’t tell us in the late 60s/early 70s that the U.S. was about to enter a new and dangerous era of energy insecurity, why should today’s oil markets tell us we are close to global peak oil? (I might add that the term “market” should be used loosely when applied to oil). Because we are going to need a very loud bell about 20 years out if we are going to transition away from oil.

  39. November 16th, 2006 at 22:46 | #39

    Yes I accept that the markets did not anticipate the political risks associated with a dependence on foreign oil. Although after the event many consultancies did spring up in the private sector to help investors and consumers better predict political risks. So in that sence the market place did adapt to it’s weaknesses rather quickly.

    Whilst the market failed in this regard it does not seem to be that any other significant organising force within US society did any better.

    It is worth noting that prior to 1971 the dollar was tied to gold. And using gold as a benchmark for value there was no net increase in the price of oil during the 1970s.

  40. November 16th, 2006 at 23:56 | #40

    For reference, guys, here’s the company doing biodiesel from algae.

    If we’re going to power our cars on biodiesel, it will either come from thermal depolymerization or algae, not from soybeans.

  41. November 17th, 2006 at 00:02 | #41

    WRT carbon dioxide, remember that those volume figures are at standard temperature and pressure.

    Suffice to say that we’ll compress it to something much closer to a liquid (and possibly to a liquid, or converting into a carbonate), before storage.

  42. Paul G. Brown
    November 17th, 2006 at 03:47 | #42

    Terje –

    you really need to read a little history of the Great Depression. If the stock market ‘anticipated’ the depression, why did it bid equity prices up so high in the first place? And what happened on the morning of October 24, 1929 that suddenly informed the equity markets that a period of utterly unprecedented negative growth was in the offing? (And no – Smoot-Hawley is not an answer: that legislation was in the congress for 2 years prior, non-US stock markets suffered similarly, and non-US economies went through the same depression, while Japan did not). Government reaction to the downturn was entirely ‘orthodox’ from a the point of view of a classical economist. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that features like over-aggressive money supply controls, pro-cyclic fiscal policy, and

    I’m not going after your broader point about the interplay of the ‘marketplace and the senate’, except to note that you can cherry-pick examples to support either conclusion. Also – you might google (“Equity premium puzzle”) for a useful empirical antidote to the myth that the equity markets are good at predicting returns.

    FWIW – the passing of peak US oil production and the introduction of OPEC oil quotas seem to be to be co-incident events, rather than inter-related ones. No one really ‘knew’ peak US oil production had passed for almost a decade (long and variable lags in bringing new supply on-line), and OPEC is viewed by historians as having more nationalist and regionalist motivations than economic ones.

    But we digress ….

  43. November 17th, 2006 at 07:15 | #43

    I think the fact that Smoot Hawley made the front page of newspapers in the days before the crash with statements that it now looked like a political certainty was what changed. I think the fact that 1000 economists had previously signed a petition saying that if passed the act would ruin the economy contributed to the markets assesment. But most significantly the fact that the economy subsequently went into a large scale resession confirms that a downward reassesment of the value of company stock appears with hindsight to have been a very rational decision. At least when the market gets it so massively right give it a little bit of credit.

  44. November 17th, 2006 at 07:16 | #44

    WRT carbon dioxide, remember that those volume figures are at standard temperature and pressure.

    True, but I was trying to illustrate the scale of the problem. We still have to capture and compress ~16km3 of CO2 per day, and probably a whole lot more by the time CCS is working on a commercial scale given the growth of coal around the world. “Clean coal” roll off a politicians lips so easily…

    Suffice to say that we’ll compress it to something much closer to a liquid (and possibly to a liquid, or converting into a carbonate), before storage.

    Yes, but compression/liquefaction requires a considerable amount of energy. Not forgetting the costs of building the infrastructure to move the CO2 (compressed or not) from the source to the sequestration site.

    Nukes start to look like the easy option the more you learn about CCS.

  45. November 17th, 2006 at 07:37 | #45

    FWIW – the passing of peak US oil production and the introduction of OPEC oil quotas seem to be to be co-incident events, rather than inter-related ones. No one really ‘knew’ peak US oil production had passed for almost a decade (long and variable lags in bringing new supply on-line), and OPEC is viewed by historians as having more nationalist and regionalist motivations than economic ones.

    I agree to a point. I don’t think OPEC knew in advance how powerful they were (no-one did, and that’s my point), but they quickly realised that the U.S. was unable to respond to the embargo of 1973, because U.S. production capacity simply wasn’t there.

    Again, the point I am really trying to make here is that the market did not anticipate the peaking of U.S. oil. Prior to 1970 the U.S. oil production chart was on an ever upwards trend, and prices were flat for more than a decade. I don’t believe that if oil traders knew that the U.S. was about to become dependent on foreign oil that prices would have remained flat.

    To mitigate a global peak we’d need to know 20 years out, and I don’t think the market will do that for us, just as today’s plunge in oil prices is saying: “Forget climate change, forget oil depletion, party on and buy that SUV!”

    Anyway, I recommend watching the interview with Robert Hirsch here:
    http://abc.net.au/4corners/special_eds/20060710/default_full.htm

  46. Paul G. Brown
    November 17th, 2006 at 07:46 | #46

    Terje –

    So the great depression was the media’s fault?

    Are you, with a straight face, telling me that the movers and shakers on Wall Street hadn’t factored Smoot-Hawley into their valuations before they read the headlines on the morning of October 22nd, 1929? And at the same time, you claim that equity markets accurately value future returns?

    Any way you want to slice it, the future return on capital didn’t abruptly decline by 80%, any more than it blew up in the 1920s or 1990s. Those were markets in the grip of speculative bubbles, a feature of markets since the year dot, and driven by the psychology of the players rather than a sober assessment of ‘risk weighted expected returns’.

    Let’s review the two most recent market declines. Between 2000 and 2002, the DJIA fell by ~40%. It has only just recovered to the the level it was in 2000. Yet the 4 years since then have seen high corporate profits, and decent GDP growth. Or “Black Monday”, October 19, 1987 when the DJIA in one day fell ~22%. The real economy, meanwhile, kept chugging along. 20%+ declines in ‘risk weighted future returns’ accompanied by, well, no change in actual returns.

    The origins of the Great Depression are complex. But they are certainly, at least in large part, to be found in factors tied to the underlying real economy.

  47. Terje
    November 17th, 2006 at 09:14 | #47

    Paul,

    I suspect that we are getting way off topic but I will persist a little.

    So the great depression was the media’s fault?

    No. The media was the conduit for news about government intentions. New information will change peoples assesment of things and will move markets. It is why people read newspapers, so they can know what is going on in the world. The fault lays with the government initiative not those that brought the news about the initiative.

    Are you, with a straight face, telling me that the movers and shakers on Wall Street hadn’t factored Smoot-Hawley into their valuations before they read the headlines on the morning of October 22nd, 1929?

    I’m claiming that their assesment of Smoot-Hawley now happening were changed. There was a lot of expectation that the president wanted tariff reductions. When it became clear that he would in fact support a huge increase in tariffs that altered the outlook. When you get new information you change your assessment of a situation. The newspapers obviously thought that there was a change in the outlook otherwise they would not have bothered to report on it.

    Are you, with a straight face, telling me that stock holders woke up that day and decided to toss out their share portfolio on an irrational whim?

    And at the same time, you claim that equity markets accurately value future returns?

    Not accurately. I merely claim that they involve a rational attempt at assessing future returns and that the assesment process is pretty efficient. To accurately guess what the government will do next year would require a crystal ball. If the markets new with accuracy what the RBA was going to do on interest rates every time it met then there would never be any surprise response. However people can not see into the future. They can only rationally assess the information available today and try and anticipate what the future may bring.

    Those were markets in the grip of speculative bubbles, a feature of markets since the year dot, and driven by the psychology of the players rather than a sober assessment of ‘risk weighted expected returns’.

    No decision maker can set aside their own psychology. And I don’t claim that markets are immune from the influence of psychology and flawed perceptions about reality (although these factors are over rated) . After all it is a process that involves humans. However on the whole most speculative bubbles make rational sence given the prevailing information. They collapse when the information changes. This is true more often than not even in the case of Tulips.

    Between 2000 and 2002, the DJIA fell by ~40%. It has only just recovered to the the level it was in 2000.

    I have not looked closely at this example. However in the middle of those two years there were these Arabs that crashed some airplanes into US buildings and set off a chain of political events and caused a lot of uncertainty about the future. And yes a lot of that assesment was based on psychology just as the political response itself was based heavily on psychology. The market got it wrong but it was hardly irrational to revalue stock downwards until the geopolitical outlook became clearer.

    In 1987 the Louve accord had just collapsed. However I am not sure that this explains it entirely. However saying that it happened because people are essentially just lemmings is a little cynical.

    The origins of the Great Depression are complex. But they are certainly, at least in large part, to be found in factors tied to the underlying real economy.

    So we agree. The Great Depression was driven by real economic factors. Economic output is effected by things like monetary policy, trade policy, tax policy, droughts and disasters. Given that the Market made a revaluation of future prospects before the main event then doesn’t it get any credit for making the right assesment about the future? Even if it was dumb luck the decision to revalue stock downwards was still correct. You could argue that the market is irrational and on that day it just made a lucky guess about the future, but it is hard to argue that the markets got it wrong.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  48. Paul G. Brown
    November 21st, 2006 at 04:33 | #48

    Terje –

    I find myself agreeing with a lot of what you say. So I’ll limit myself to a couple of clarifying comments.

    “Are you, with a straight face, telling me that stock holders woke up that day and decided to toss out their share portfolio on an irrational whim?”

    No. I’m saying that stock holders built up an irrational, distorted view of “risk weighted expected returns” before the crash. Then, in response to something small and trivial–it might just as easily have been the collapse of the French government (No more wine! Sacre bleu! Sell!) or the invention of colour TV, or a galling typographic error on the NYT crossword page–they began a self-reinforcing downward spiral that over-compensated.

    Logically, the market’s assessment was either i. wrong before, ii. wrong after, or iii. wrong both before and after. My bet is on iii., and I invite you to work the following experiment. Invest $1 in shares on October 1st, 1929, and $1 in baseball cards. Then invest another $1 in shares on 31st October 1932 and $1 in baseball cards on that day too. DJIA grew from (say) 300 on 01/10/1929 to 11000 today ($1 turns into $36). It grew from 50 on 01/10/1932 ($1 turns into $275). That’s a whole lot of 7 difference. Meanwhile, your 1929 baseball cards (Say – collection of New York Yankees) has grown from $1 to (say) about $105, and your 1932 cards to about $100.

    More seriously, US GDP was $(US2002)865.2 Billion in 1929 ($(US2002)635 in 1932), and is $(US2002)11,048 in 2005. So the market’s pre-crash consensus was wild over-estimate, and the post crash consensus a wild under-estimate (Data: BEA in the US).

    And slightly more harshly, I utterly reject your statement “However on the whole most speculative bubbles make rational sence given the prevailing information.” Speculative bubbles are irrational by definition.

    As much as certain theoreticians would like to have us assume rationality on the part of economic agents, the bulk of the evidence from the study of psychology suggests that we are not. I thoroughly recommend reading Kahneman and Tversky and something in the field of ‘Prospect Theory’. It’s illuminating stuff.

  49. Terje (say tay-a)
    November 21st, 2006 at 22:04 | #49

    It seems we have hijacked this thread, however I don’t feel too guilty because it does not appear that it was getting used for much else.

    Logically, the market’s assessment was either i. wrong before, ii. wrong after, or iii. wrong both before and after.

    That does not necessarily logically flow from the comment that preceded it. And you have not offered an exhaustive list of possiblities. It is possible that the market was right both before and after the crash. For instance if in the morning I decide that it looks like a nice day for the beach and in the afternoon I decide it is too cold for the beach it may be that I was right both times but in the interum the weather changed. I think the point is that you are using a narrow criteria for “right” and “wrong” that relies on an accurate prediction of the future rather than an accurate assessment of the data available. I think the crash represents an accurate reassesment of the data that was based on new information (ie the tariff act would be passed into law).

    DJIA grew from (say) 300 on 01/10/1929 to 11000 today ($1 turns into $36). It grew from 50 on 01/10/1932 ($1 turns into $275). That’s a whole lot of 7 difference. Meanwhile, your 1929 baseball cards (Say – collection of New York Yankees) has grown from $1 to (say) about $105, and your 1932 cards to about $100.

    Several points to make.

    Firstly your maths appears wrong. The difference is a factor of 6 (ie 300/50) and not a factor of 7. However this is a minor technical point.

    I notice gold has gone up about 30 fold since 1932 so I think a lot of the change over the last 70 years has to do with a declining value of the dollar more than any major increase in the average value of stocks. However what happened since 1932 is common to both investments so all that really concerns us is what happened between 1929 and 1932.

    Baseball cards don’t pay any form of income return to the holder (unlike interest on a bond or dividends on share stock) so I’m not sure what you would regard as a rational valuation of a baseball card. I note from your example that a baseball card, that produces no income, would appear to have changed little in value between 1929 and 1932. However I wouldn’t expect a three year old baseball card to change in nominal value much unless we were in a period of inflation. Meanwhile stocks, whos value derives primarily from their ability to pay an income that is dependent on the general state of the economy, declined significantly in value (dropping by a factor of 6). Subsequently the general state of the economy declined significantly.

    Between 1929 and 1932 GDP declined by about 30%. However stock prices during this period fell by 80% (300 to 50) according to your figures above. However stock valuations are based on the value of profits not the value of output and I’m not sure that it would be that hard to close the gap. I can think of a lot of businesses today where a 30% decline in output (ie sales) would easily lead to a 100% or greater decline in profit.

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