Archive for November, 2013

Peak aluminium?

November 30th, 2013 76 comments

The announcement that Rio Tinto is to close its alumina refinery at Gove struck me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that members of my family are affected by it. First up it’s worth noticing what’s mentioned (the high dollar and low aluminium price, which flows through to bauxite and alumina) and what isn’t (the carbon tax and legislation for its removal). Having claimed that he was going to save industries like alumina and aluminium smelting from the carbon tax “wrecking ball”, Abbott is now shown up, once again, as a fraud[1].

In the short run, the obvious policy implication is that the RBA needs to be firmer in pushing the dollar down. It was, I think, a mistake to hose down talk of direct intervention, as was done recently. Given our declining terms of trade, we should be closer to $US0.80 than $US0.90 now, and heading down further.

The bigger question of interest, though, is the future of aluminium. The big story of the past 10-20 years has been the massive growth of production in China, driven by cheap coal-fired power and lots of subsidies. That’s driven prices down to historically low levels (inflation-adjusted, probably record lows). Production in Australia is now clearly uneconomic, but even the Chinese are losing billions.

Declining prices have driven steady growth in demand for aluminium. Since the supply of recycled aluminium is dependent on past production, there has been a multiplied effect on demand for primary aluminium, which is the big driver of greenhouse gas production in this industry.

The general assumption (as with most trends) has been that these trends will continue indefinitely. But it’s clear that prices have to rise just to cover costs, and will rise further as China starts to price the local and carbon costs of coal-fired electricity. Moreover, in technological terms, aluminium is definitely a 20th century commodity. Its inherent properties of lightness and strength gave it great advantages, but it is now being displaced in advanced uses by carbon fibre and in some basic uses by lightweight steels.

So, it seems to me quite plausible that aluminium demand could stabilise over the next decade or two, with the result that most demand can be met by recycling rather than energy-intensive production of primary aluminium from bauxite (via alumina).

Note: I topic-banned regular commenter Hermit from talking about aluminium smelters, as it become an idee fixe. The ban is lifted for this post.

fn1. Has any new PM ever been shown up so comprehensively in such a short time? Not in my memory, which goes back to Harold Holt, and includes some shockers.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Hockey or Turnbull

November 29th, 2013 38 comments

The election that brought Abbott and the LNP to power is so three months ago, and the Christmas plotting season is nearly upon us, so it’s time for some good old-fashioned leadership speculation, with the Libs as the target this time around. According to Laura Tingle, most of the interest in the business community is in Turnbull. I think that would be a bridge too far for the Liberals, having dumped him once. So, my money would be on Hockey as the replacement if Abbott keeps messing things up as he has done almost continuously since taking office. While the accuracy of my political judgements is pretty variable, this one from a year ago is looking fairly good.

Hockey has indeed backed off the surplus, showing more good sense than Abbott. I’m nearly alone in this view, but I think he is under-rated. Not a towering intellect, but still among the stronger performers on the LNP front bench.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Crikey goes Godwin on tiny uninhabited islands

November 28th, 2013 18 comments

The usually sensible Crikey team has gone off the deep end (in an editorial sent out as email, can’t find it on their site) on the Australian government’s response to the recent dispute between China and, among others, the US over a group of “tiny uninhabited islands” (even the name is disputed). The longstanding policy of Australian governments, very sensibly, has been to avoid getting between the US and China on issues like this, of which there are a huge number, involving many parties and incomprehensible claims. Crikey not only endorses Julie Bishop’s abandonment of this policy, but uses the loaded term “appeasement” to describe opponents. So, a refusal to get involved in a game of posturing and sabre-rattling that has gone on, in one form or another, since 1949, is equivalent to selling out the Czechs to Hitler.

Crikey draws a comparison with Kevin Rudd’s willingness to take the Chinese leadership to task over human rights abuses, a willingness criticised by Bishop at the time. To see how absurd this is, you need only ask whether Chinese dissidents, who mostly endorsed Rudd’s speech (some thought it did not go far enough) are going to welcome our support for the anti-China position in this territorial dispute. The answer is obvious: for the most part, Chinese democrats fully support the government position on these issues.

The idea that, having just ignored human rights issues in Sri Lanka, the Abbott government has suddenly developed a concern with these issues in China is equally absurd.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

Grattan on Growth

November 28th, 2013 52 comments

I’ve been asked a few times about the Grattan Institute’s new report Balancing budgets: tough choices we need. It’s a substantial piece of work, and isn’t driven by a partisan agenda or special interest lobbying. On the other hand, I disagree strongly with the implicit criterion for policy design. This is nowhere spelt out, but the analysis is clearly driven by the following rule: seek policies that maximize GDP growth, subject to the constraint that the poorest (bottom 20 per cent of) households should not be made worse off.

This is most evident in the recommendation to remove the GST exemption for fresh food and use some of the proceeds to compensate the poorest 20 per cent of households. Let’s compare this with the alternative of raising income tax rates for high income earners (say, the top 20 per cent). By design, neither proposal has much net effect on the poorest 20 per cent. But the food tax falls mostly on the middle 60 per cent of households, since the top 20 per cent don’t spend much more on fresh food than the middle income group. It’s true that the cost of raising money through income tax is higher (Grattan uses an estimated cost of 25 per cent of the gross revenue) than for a food tax (5-10 per cent). But let’s spell this out a bit. Suppose you need to raise $500 in net revenue (roughly speaking what you’d get from the food tax for a household spending $100 a week). Would it be better to impose the tax on Gina Rinehart (in which case, taking account of the economic costs of collecting the tax, you’d have to raise an extra $100 or so compared to the food tax) or on one of her employees. If you regard Rinehart as an extreme example, take the choice between taxing a university professor (definitely in the top 20 per cent) or a campus worker such as a gardener or cleaner (not in the top 20 per cent, but normally not in the bottom 20 either, since this group consists almost entirely of people on pensions and benefits).

The fact is that Howard’s tax cuts, mostly carried on by Labor, used the temporary proceeds of the mining boom to permanently increase the after-tax income of the top 20 per cent. That’s the biggest single cause of the budget problems identified by the Grattan Institute, and the first thing that needs to change if we are to fix those problems.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

How word targets help creative procrastination

November 25th, 2013 21 comments

I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.

That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.

And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.

Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for you, my readers (at least, those of you who don’t just come here to get annoyed at whatever lefty nonsense I’m banging on with today). In the past 10 years, WordPress tells me, I’ve written over 5000 blog posts, while still keeping up the supply of books and journal articles for which I earn my living, and, I hope, managing to keep plenty of time for family and friends.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


November 25th, 2013 92 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 25th, 2013 36 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Why spies never discover anything useful

November 23rd, 2013 61 comments

I’ve long maintained the view that spies never discover anything useful about a country’s foreign enemies, though they are very useful in suppressing domestic opponents. This is a straightforward implication of game theory, but my attempts to explain it haven’t worked in the past, and I don’t know how to do much better. So, I’m going to restate my arguments from 10 years ago, against the massive expansion of spying that was already under way, and make the observation that the evidence since then strongly supports my case.

Despite an espionage and surveillance effort unparalleled in history, the US NSA has been unable to produce any convincing evidence of stopping even one domestic terror plot. Its best case was someone alleged to have sent a few thousand dollars to Al Shabab in Somalia. The NSA not only missed actual terror plotters like those in Boston, but also performed poorly relative to ordinary police methods which have produced numerous convictions (many of them admittedly, by methods that verge on entrapment).

But if anti-terrorist espionage has proved ineffectual, spying on friendly governments is just plain stupid. This isn’t a zero-sum game, like espionage in warfare, it’s a negative sum game. Australia is now finding this out, but the reflex reactions of “everyone does it”, “we don’t comment on intelligence matters” and so on, remain as firmly embedded as ever.

Of course, while this is stupidity as regards the public interest, or even that of Australian political and business elites as a whole, it is massively beneficial to the security apparatus, and the complex of interests it supports. It’s striking that the only Indonesians who’ve given Abbott any support have been their own spies and secret police, who can expect more funding and greater powers. Doubtless our own spooks will return the favor in due course, if their Indonesian counterparts are caught doing something we don’t like.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, World Events Tags:

Sauce for the goose

November 23rd, 2013 23 comments

Among those hyperventilating about the ABC decision to publish the information about the spying fiasco, Andrew Bolt has been every bit as vociferous and hyperbolic as you would expect. Of course this is silly: the UK based Guardian was going to publish anyway, and if they had, for some reason, chosen not to do so, Snowden and his team could have given it to the Indonesian press, which would have been an even worse outcome for the Australian government.

In this context, it’s worth recalling that Bolt wasn’t always so highminded about protecting our nation’s secrets. Back in 2003, when Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Office of National Assessments because he could not stand the way Iraq intelligence was being “sexed up”, Bolt was denouncing anyone and everyone who suggested that the Iraq war was anything other than a brilliant success based on overwhelming evidence. Somehow, he received a leaked copy of a report written by Wilkie, which, with his characteristic method of selective quotation, he used to attack Wilkie’s credibility. The Howard government (which could not, of course, quote the original report) used Bolt’s article to attack Wilkie. As Mike Seccombe observed at the time

You have to admire the neat circularity of it: top secret information is leaked to a government-friendly journo, who puts bits of it deemed damaging to Wilkie on the public record. Downer’s office briefs Senator Macdonald using that information.

This is part of a more general information. When secrets embarrass the government, leaking them is a major crime. When the government wants to attack its opponents, leaks are just part of politics. I don’t have a problem with journalists who publish leaked information without fear or favor. But someone like Bolt, willing to be used as a conduit for leaks that make the government look good, and then to pontificate about the immorality of leaks that make the government look bad, isn’t a journalist – he’s a lackey.

And looking back again, it’s worth remembering that Wilkie was right, that every word Bolt wrote about Iraq turned out to be utterly, howlingly wrong, and that he has never apologised or retracted. The credibility of anything he writes now should be assessed in that light.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, Oz Politics Tags:

A new front in the culture wars

November 22nd, 2013 31 comments

The political right seems eager to open new fronts in the culture wars. The latest, from the WSJ, is running (I won’t link to their piece, but to this translation). I’m happy to say that I am on the correct (that is, left) side of this latest battle. Apparently, liberal elitist runners have bumper stickers indicating the longest distance (in miles) they have run, say 26.2 for a marathon. Real Americans, on the other hand, never leave their cars (except to move from the garage to the couch) and therefore have stickers saying 0.0.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


November 21st, 2013 85 comments

I was going to write something about Abbott’s mishandling of the latest spy fiasco, but I don’t think I can improve on Tad Tietze at Left Flank. I’ll just stress a few points

(a) Indonesia is now a democracy which means that the kind of cosy deals between military/security apparatchiks we used to do are just as constrained by Indonesian public opinion as by Australian if not more. I don’t know who the Indonesian equivalents of Ray Hadley and Alan Jones might be, but I can imagine what they are saying

(b) The idea, still underlying a lot of the discussion, that we can and should dictate terms to the Indonesians is nonsense. The US can get away with this kind of thing (though Obama was wise enough to end the bugging of Merkel’s phone), but we need the goodwill of the Indonesians at least as much as they need ours. The fact that neither we nor they are paragons of human rights policy or the treatment of minority groups is a case of attending to our own problems before lecturing others.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

For the record

November 20th, 2013 25 comments

I just read Peter Hartcher’s series on the meltdown arising from the rivalry between Rudd and Gillard. A pretty good summary, I thought, though of course Hartcher was, like me, more in sympathy with Rudd.

The account clarified one point for me. A crucial element of the anti-Rudd story was the supposedly critical impact of leaks before the 2010 election, for which Rudd was widely blamed. I couldn’t remember thinking of these as a big deal at the time, and Hartcher explained why. The most damaging leak (Gillard making some dismissive remarks in Cabinetabout age pensioners) occurred on the same day as Gillard announced the Citizens Consultative Assembly. As this post shows, this appalling idea permanently changed my view of Gillard, which, even after the coup against Rudd had remained broadly positive. “Cash for clunkers“, which came shortly afterwards, cemented my view. By contrast, the leaks were the kind of insider gossip which excites the Press Gallery, but had absolutely no impact on my thinking.

As Hartcher points out, while he was sensible for most of his brief second term, Rudd spent the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign pursuing ideas that were just as silly.

This will, I think be my last word on the Gillard-Rudd rivalry. Feel free to comment, but please avoid attacks on other commentators. Obviously, political figures are fair game, within the usual limits.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Rudd-Gillard government: An appreciation

November 15th, 2013 66 comments

A lot has already been said on the occasion of Kevin Rudd’s retirement from politics. Having already written a great deal about Rudd while he was active in politics, I’m not going to add to it. Rather, I’ll reflect on the achievements of the Labor governments of the past six years, which were substantial. They included

* The uniquely bold and successful management of the Global Financial Crisis
* The creation of the NBN
* The design and implementation of a price on carbon
* The National Disability Insurance Scheme
* Plain packaging for cigarettes

among many others. How much of this will survive what, I hope will be one term of LNP government remains to be seen, but Labor can campaign for years on defending and extending this record.

Against that, there were some failures. Most obviously, the government failed to come up with a workable solution to the problem of asylum seekers, and eventually capitulated to the xenophobic rhetoric of Abbott and Morrison (though with the important qualification that Labor greatly increased the total refugee intake, while Abbott has cut it). In addition, despite Rudd’s recognition that the GFC marked the breakdown of the post-Bretton Woods capitalist order, he(and even more, Wayne Swan) rapidly came to treat it as a momentary aberration, and to return to the policy orthodoxy that created the crisis in the first place.

The biggest failures, though, were personal, not political. Rudd’s abrasive egotism was matched by Gillard’s unprincipled tribalism (for her, Labor was an extended family, not a political movement) to produce a series of catastrophes that eventually destroyed the government. If they had managed to work together, as they did with reasonable success for the first two years of the government, they could have been a better team than Howard-Costello or Hawke-Keating. But it seems to be the nature of Australian politics taht such partnerships never worked for long.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Wall Street isn’t Worth It

November 15th, 2013 55 comments

That’s the title of my new piece at Jacobin, which links back to a variety of discussions at Crooked Timber, in particular this one from Ingrid Robeyns. Mankiw, whom Ingrid cites, offers an implicit defence of the 1 per cent, implying though not quite asserting, that the gains accruing to those in this group (largely senior executives and the financial sector) have been the price we pay for a process that benefits everyone, yielding a Pareto improvement. As Ingrid says, Pareto improvements aren’t as self-evidently desirable as Mankiw assumes. My argument focuses on Mankiw’s factual premise, concluding that the expansion of the financial sector has made the majority of people worse off. This implies that a response to the global financial crisis focused on attacking the financial sector is feasible as well as being, in my view, politically necessary as an alternative to rightwing populism.

Jacobin doesn’t appear to have a comments section, so feel free to comment and criticise here. I’ve had an interesting discussion with Daniel on Twitter already, but it’s not really a great medium when more than a few people are involved.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Some good news from the US Congress

November 14th, 2013 11 comments

The US Congress is rightly regarded as a dysfunctional mess, blocking vital legislation for trivial partisan reasons. But occasionally, things work out for the best. A variety of critics ranging from left and liberal Democrats to members of the Tea Party appear likely to derail ‘fast track’ authority for Obama to sign the appalling Trans-Pacific Partnership. By contrast, the Abbott government is keen to sign this secret deal and has dropped Labor’s objections to clauses that would allow foreign corporations to sue our government for policies inconsistent with the market liberal ideology that informs the treaty. Let’s hope the whole thing is slowed down until the 2016 election year. If that happens, the pressure to renegotiate the deal, or scrap it altogether, will become intense.

Coincidentally, Wikileaks has published a draft chapter from the agreement, hidden from us by our governments and making clear what everyone knows. This isn’t about trade but about imposing market liberal institutions, including strong intellectual property in pharmaceuticals, copyright and so on.

Colin Clark lecture

November 14th, 2013 4 comments

I presented the Colin Clark lecture today, on the topic “National Accounting and the Digital Economy: The Case of the NBN’


Colin Clark’s greatest contribution to economics was his pioneering role in the construction of national accounts. In the industrial economy of the 20th century, the central problem in the national accounting was the need to avoid double counting, by measuring only the value added at each stage of production. This problem is closely related to that of benefit-cost analysis for public projects. In the 21st century digital economy, value is primarily derived from the flow of information rather than physical inputs and outputs. This creates new problems for national accounting, and for benefit-cost analysis. One example of these problems is the question of how to evaluate alternative proposals for the National Broadband Network.

Paul Syvret covered it in the Courier-Mail. I also did an interview with Steve Austin on the local ABC 612[1], which started off with a brief discussion of Rudd’s economic legacy, and another for AM on Radio National which didn’t make it to air.

The slides are here

fn1. Illustrated with a slightly goofy candid shot, taken in the ABC Green Room

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


November 13th, 2013 69 comments

If you want a single episode to summarize the fiasco that is the Abbott government, the first working hour of the 44th Parliament would be hard to beat.

First, the government had to gag the Opposition seeking to get any kind of information about the government’s signature issue, Stopping the Boats. If anyone had said, 20 years ago, that it would be necessary to read the Jakarta Post to find out what our own government was doing, they would have been greeted with incredulity.

Then, having specifically nominated juvenile insults like “Electricity Bill” as the kind of thing his new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop would rule out of order, he had to watch as his attack poodle, Christopher Pyne used that very insult and was supported by Bishop. Then, of course, Abbott voted to uphold Bishop’s ruling.

Then, having wasted the first hour of the Parliament, Abbott announced his discredited bill to repeal the carbon tax. Meanwhile, the vice-president of our most important neighbour, representing a government Abbott has already insulted half a dozen times in as many weeks, was left to wait in an anteroom.

The Labour government of the last six years had its low points, to be sure. But it’s hard to imagine that those who voted for this crew (or for their former ally, Clive Palmer) aren’t experiencing a fair bit of buyer remorse.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?

November 13th, 2013 111 comments

This quote is attributed, perhaps spuriously to Keynes. A sharper version of the same point is made here by Noah Smith, exploring the concept “Derp”, “”the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”, where “strong priors” in the technical Bayesian sense, mean that ” … you really, really believe something to be true. If your start off with a very strong prior, even solid evidence to the contrary won’t change your mind. ”

A notable example of this, very relevant on this blog, and cited by Smith, is the cost of solar energy. Roughly speaking, the cost of solar modules has fallen by a factor of 10 over the past few years, and the cost of installed systems by a factor of three. If that hasn’t changed your mind about the relative merits of alternative policy option, then you must have really strong priors, and in that case, you shouldn’t be engaging in debate, since your mind can’t be changed by evidence. As Smith observes, “That is unhelpful and uninformative, since they’re just restating their priors over and over. Thus, it is annoying. Guys, we know what you think already.”

But, it’s easy to throw stones, so I thought I would check my own archives to see if I was guilty of Derping on this point. Here is what I thought in 2004

Nuclear (fission) power is probably the cheapest large-scale alternative electricity source (there are some sites where wind is cost-competitive, and similarly for geothermal) but it is still a good deal more expensive than coal or gas. How much more expensive is hard to tell because the industry is riddled with subsidies, but I’d guess that the full economic cost is about twice as high for nuclear electricity as for coal or gas. Moreover, most recent construction has been in places like China and Korea where safety standards may not be as high as they would have to be to get nuclear energy restarted in the developed world as a whole.

What this means is that nuclear power won’t enter into calculations until we have a carbon tax (or equivalent) steep enough to double the price of electricity. It’s clear though, that much smaller increases in costs would make a wide range of energy conservation measures economically viable, as well as reducing final demand for energy services. Implementing Kyoto, for example, would not require anything like a doubling of prices. Whether or not a more radical response is justified, it’s clearly not going to happen for at least a decade and probably longer.

Nevertheless, if mainstream projections of climate change turn out to be correct, and especially if, as Lovelock suggests, they turn out to be conservative, we’ll eventually face the need for new sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaics are improving fast but still a long way from being cost-competitive. So it may well be that, at least for an interim period, expansion of nuclear fission is the best way to go.

I didn’t mention carbon, capture and storage, but I also supported that as a good option for Australia, assuming it could me made to work.

The facts have changed, and I have changed my mind. I now think the role of renewables, and particularly solar is going to be much larger than seemed likely ten years ago, nuclear much less, and CCS marginal.

Update Obviously, this post was intended to provoke a reaction from the critics of renewable energy (normally, also advocates of nuclear) who regularly comment here, challenging them to say how they had adjusted their views in the light of the evidence of the last decade. Most commenters responded thoughtfully. But our single-topic nuclear fans, Hermit and Will Boisvert, responded by herping even more flerps of derp. Despite being reminded of the topic, they just kept on pumping out the same constant, repetitive reiteration of their priors that defines derp. This does, at least provide me with some guidance. From now on, comments from single-issue pro-nuclear commenters (specifically, the two mentioned) will be deleted unless they contain a point that has not been made previously or (highly improbably) a change of view.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Armistice and Remembrance

November 11th, 2013 68 comments

I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from Paul Keating. The core of the piece

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.

The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Pandora Post-mortem

November 10th, 2013 107 comments

I have a piece in the Guardian responding to the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise. The core of my argument is that, in most countries, political resistance to nuclear power is no longer the primary problem – the big difficulty is with the economics. The key paras

he fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can’t compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can’t compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for “baseload” power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective.

To put the point more sharply, if we are convinced by the arguments of Pandora’s Promise, what would the makers of the film have us do? Stop protesting against nuclear power? Most of us did so decades ago. Abandon restrictions on uranium mining and export? The Australian government has done so already, with barely a peep of protest. The only remaining restrictions on exports to India relate to concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation, not nuclear energy, and seem likely to be dropped in any case. Give nuclear power a level playing field to compete against renewables? In the US at least, nuclear power is already treated more favourably than alternatives, leaving aside the massive subsidies already handed out in the 20th century. The same is true in many other countries that have sought, with limited success, to promote a nuclear renaissance.

Two of the leading environmentalists quoted as supporting nuclear power are Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. They have some interesting reactions to the recent announcement that EDF will build a nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, under a deal with the UK government. Monbiot sees it as a disaster, going for massively expensive Generation III technology when the alternative was to build an Integral Fast Reactor, a design with lots of theoretical advantages but one that has never been built (other breeder reactors have been expensive failures). Lynas, writing before the announcement has a more sanguine view of the cost. Lynas compares the “strike prices” offered by the UK government for various renewables, ranging from 100stg/MWh for onshore wind, to 305stg/MWh for experimental technologies like wave and tidal energy. Offshore wind (the only source without severe supply constraints in the UK context) comes in at 150 and large-scale solar at 125. These are guaranteed for 15 years from 2014. Hinkley has as strike price of 92.50, for 35 years from the estimated start date of 2023.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 10th, 2013 44 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Catalyst followup

November 7th, 2013 26 comments

Fresh from denouncing statins as a Big Pharma conspiracy, MaryAnn Demasi gives a massive plug for cosmetic dermatology, which she describes, without irony, as the “anti-ageing industry”. She dumps on some over-the-counter remedies but only to promote much more expensive treatments like botox and laser “therapy”. Money quote

Now, you’ve seen how we can mask wrinkles by freezing muscle-movement or adding volume to the skin, but to achieve the ultimate skin-rejuvenation, the one thing all dermatologists agree on is to target a protein in the skin called ‘collagen’.

It’s good to know there aren’t any stick-in-the-mud dermatologists who think that leaving collagen alone is a reasonable implication of the Hippocratic injunction “first, do no harm”.

Categories: Science Tags:

The end of the coal boom

November 4th, 2013 188 comments

A bit over a year ago, I put up a post with the same title as this one, except that it ended with a question mark. At that point, most of the authorities I cited took the view that the decline in the world price of steaming coal was just a blip. In fact, prices have kept on falling and are now, in real terms, not much higher than they were in 2004. More importantly, there is now no expectation of a recovery any time soon. The clearest evidence of that is the abandonment or deferral of a string of proposals to create or expand coal export terminals, most recently by BHP at Abbot Point. Investors are desperately trying to get out of the most recently completed project, at Wiggins Island.

A few observations on this

* It’s common for participants in the Australian debate to claim that the rest of the world is going ahead with coal-fired power stations and fossil fuel projects at an unprecedented rate. That was the view that motivated these port expansion projects, and it’s been falsified as clearly as it can be by their abandonment.

* Much of the discussion about climate mitigation is based on the assumption that Australia can decide how much or how little of the burden we should bear. Leaving aside the risks of a free rider strategy, our status as a coal-exporter means that the biggest impacts will arise from decisions made overseas

* Finally, for some light relief here’s former Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser (paywalled) citing the now-abandoned Abbott Point project as evidence of the benefits of the Bligh government’s asset sales program, of which he was the biggest booster. It will be interesting to see if he now changes tack and claims that the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could (a more plausible line, but both dubious and contradictory of his previous position).

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags: