Archive for November, 2015

Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

November 27th, 2015 105 comments

For quite some time, I’ve argued that, if nuclear power is to make any substantial contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, its growth will have to accelerate in China and to be based on the AP1000, the only Gen III+ design likely to be built in numbers significant enough to achieve any kind of scale economy.

It now appears highly unlikely that this will happen. Although China notionally restarted its nuclear program in 2012, a year after Fukushima, approvals have slowed to a crawl. This article, from Nuclear Engineering International, explains some of the reasons.

More significantly, China appears to have abandoned the idea of using a Western design, and is instead pushing two designs of its own, the CAP-1400 (an adaptation of the AP1000) and Hualong 1, Chinese design with French antecedents, variously rated as Gen II, Gen II+ and “comparable to a Generation III”.

It appears that the cost of imported inputs to the current projects is seen as prohibitive. The hope that the Hualong will generate an export market, and the British government has just agreed in principle to the construction of one such plant, conditional on approval of the design. In the absence of any operational plants, that looks problematic, to put it mildly. The announcement looks to be driven more by diplomatic considerations than by economics, which suggests that actual construction may be a long way off.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Clean Coal is not going to happen

November 27th, 2015 50 comments

The announcement that the UK government is cancelling funding (budgeted at stg 1 billion) for its proposed competition for carbon capture and storage (CCS) marks the end of the last best hope that we can mitigate CO2 emissions while continuing to burn coal. If follows the abandonment of similar programs in Australia and the US.

Two thoughts on this.

First, it makes a nonsense of one of the justifications for supercritical coal-fired power stations, namely that they can be made “CCS-ready”.

Second, lots of projected paths to decarbonization involve substantial reliance on CCS. Those will need to be scrapped or changed substantially. The simplest change would be to replace coal+CCS with nuclear (the UK government now seems to be chasing the mirage of Small Modular Reactors) but that is only marginally less unrealistic than CCS (a new post on this shortly, I hope). The alternative is to rely on a combination of storage and smart grid pricing to adapt our current electricity system to one driven mostly by wind and solar PV, with hydro and limited amounts of gas as the dispatchable sources.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

November 20th, 2015 36 comments

For most of my academic career, I’ve been working on (more precisely, trying to demolish) the idea of private investment in public infrastructure, exemplified by the Private Finance Initiative in the UK and the Public Private Partnerships program in Australia. Here’s my first published article on the subject, from 1996. I conclude that

The current enthusiasm for private infrastructure, like the enthusiasm for public ownership which it replaced, has been based more on ideological beliefs in the virtues of one sector and the vices of the other than on any systematic economic analysis …Analysis of the relative performance of the private and public sector in different phases of infrastructure provision suggests that, in most cases, the private sector will be most efficient in the construction phase but the public sector will be best equipped to handle the risks associated with ownership.

Twenty years later, this analysis seems finally to have been validated. The UK Auditor-General recently reported that

Analysis of the 2012-13 Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) implies that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%–8%) is double that of all government borrowing (3%–4%)

As a result of the excess costs, and some spectacular failures, bipartisan enthusiasm for the PFI has finally turned to disillusionment. Here’s the Telegraph, correctly putting much of the blame on New Labour. And, for balance, here’s the Guardian. There hasn’t been a similar admission of failure in Australia, but the flow of PPP projects has greatly diminished, and most new ones rely on a substantial component of public capital.

Unfortunately, the failure of private finance hasn’t led governments to resume the high levels of public investment that prevailed in the Keynesian era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, even with central bank lending rates at zero, there has been no real recovery in infrastructure investment. Apart from the direct effect of lower investment, there’s a strong case that infrastructure investment increases the returns from private investment in general and therefore stimulates growth.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Nothing learned, nothing forgotten

November 19th, 2015 81 comments

I haven’t posted on the recent terror attacks, or the various responses, because I have nothing new to say, and nothing old to repeat that hasn’t been said, or repeated, better by others. It appears that no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began. This 2003 post from the Onion just needs the dates changed to be applicable (or not, for those who support the side being satirised here) to the current debate.

Having said all this, have I learned anything myself? The Iraq war turned me from being a liberal interventionist (though opposed in the case of Iraq) to a strongly anti-war viewpoint.

By December 2005, I had this to say[^1]

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

The ten years since 2005 have confirmed me in the rightness of my views[^2]. But since the same is true of nearly everyone on all sides, that’s not very helpful.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

A global climate deal without Australia

November 18th, 2015 25 comments

Over the last few weeks, there have been quite a few reports that the US, Japan, Australia and Korea are negotiating an agreement that would greatly reduce the availability of concessional funding for new coal projects. Recent reports, though, suggest that the US and Japan will make an agreement on their owmsn ter, leaving Australia (and perhaps also Korea) to go its own way. That has some pretty big implications for the Turnbull government and its position at the Paris Conference.

National and international development banks and export credit agencies, including Export-Import Banks in (South) Korea and the US, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation[1] and the Export Finance Insurance Corporation in Australia have been a major source of finance for coal plants in developing countries like the Phillipines and Vietnam. With Chinese coal demand having peaked, and India shifting emphasis to renewables, the coal industry is counting on rapid demand growth in countries like these.

The reported US-Japan deal would eliminate funding for coal-plants that don’t use supercritical technology, and would require ultra-supercritical technology for all but the poorest countries.[2] Apparently, Korea has proposed weaker restrictions, and Australia weaker still. But rather than split the difference, Politico reports that the US and Japan will make a deal without Australia and Korea.

As far as I can tell, we are still in the stage of preliminary posturing. Some sort of compromise, or perhaps capitulation, may be reached. But if the US-Japan deal goes ahead without us, that will be a pretty clear signal that Turnbull is going to stick with Abbott’s anti-climate policies.

If such an outcome is possible in these talks, it’s also possible in Paris. Until now, I’ve assumed that the imperative for a global deal is such that even Australia’s weak proposals, and rejection of any credible policy, will be treated as acceptable. But now that Harper is gone in Canada, and Japan is working with the US, Australia is unlikely to find much backing for a recalcitrant position. While Korea might hold out on export financing, it is unlikely to want to be seen as sabotaging the entire agreement.

Hopefully, this is one of those situations where the export finance negotiations are still on a dynamic set under Abbott. Hopefully, Turnbull can see that the merits of being a global citizen in good standing, notably including continued friendly relations with Obama, outweigh any grumbles he might face from the LNP right.

Update An agreement has been reached. It looks pretty close to capitulation by Australia, though the government extracted enough concessions to call it a compromise. (Hat Tip: Cambo in comments).

fn1. I wasn’t clear about Australia’s involvement, since we don’t export or finance power plants, AFAICT. It appears that the agreement was formally made by the OECD, which requires unanimity. That makes the threat by the US and Japan to go it alone even more significant, I think.
fn2. Despite the impressive sounding name, ultra-supercritical plants still emit a lot of CO2, only about 10 per cent less than the subcritical plants they replace.

Categories: Environment Tags:


November 17th, 2015 41 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Discussions about climate policy and related issues can be posted here, along with the usual things.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 17th, 2015 54 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:

Oz and the Anglosphere

November 11th, 2015 17 comments

Here’s a piece for Inside Story, pointing out the rest of the English speaking world is doing worse than Australia, and that New Zealand, in particular, should never be used as a model in anything to do with economic policy.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The moral case for renewables

November 11th, 2015 6 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

Armistice Day

November 11th, 2015 42 comments

As Armistice Day comes around again, I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last, bringing nothing but ruin and destruction to all concerned. And yet, opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic.

My annual ritual of writing a post on this day hasn’t helped at all. I’ve repeatedly had it explained to me by learned commenters that the mass slaughter of 1914 to 1918 (and, by implication, the even more massive slaughter that followed it over the 20th century) was a right and necessary response to German imperialism, or that it must be understood in its historical context. I need only change a few place names, and substitute different enemies, to hear the voices of our present leaders, explaining the need for our armed forces to deliver more death and destruction, because “we must do something”. The fact that our current enemies are of our own direct creation, and that a decade or more of these wars has succeeded only it making matters worse, seems irrelevant.

Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so.

Against that, however, is the ever-present shadow of nuclear cataclysm. The world has managed to survive, permanently within a few minutes of catastrophe, for 70 years now. But can that continue indefinitely? when belief in the rightness of war and the need for military strength is such a powerful force among ordinary people, and even stronger among the rulers who have the power to launch these weapons. Without radical changes in thinking, it seems almost certain that nuclear weapons will be used, sooner or later. Even a limited nuclear war, between India and Pakistan for example, would be a disaster as bad or worse than the World Wars of the 20th century.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Are recessions abnormal (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

November 9th, 2015 14 comments

I’m on to the macroeconomics section of my book in progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The key point of this section is that, whereas the academic economics profession has wasted most of the last thirty years on the project of founding macroeconomics on (some near approximation of) standard neoclassical microeconomics, the validity of the core results of neoclassical microeconomics depend on the assumption that the economy is operating at full employment[^1]. This observation isn’t original – it was why Keynes saw his theory as saving capitalism from itself. Even the title I used in this post on the macro foundations of microeconomics turns out to be a reinvention of the wheel.

Having noted the importance of the full employment assumption in the abstract, how relevant is it? If the economy is, with notably rare exceptions, at, or close enough to, full employment, then it seems safe enough for economists to continue, as the profession has for 40 years or so, to treat macroeconomics as a special subfield with little relevance to the rest of the discipline.

To put the question simply, are recessions abnormal?

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 9th, 2015 29 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:

Grattan Institute advocates cutting university research funding

November 2nd, 2015 44 comments

Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute has received quite a bit of attention for a piece arguing that universities don’t need additional funding because money intended to fund teaching is going to support research instead. Norton suggests that the funding going to research is around $2 billion a year

University research matters to Australia, but the evidence that it improves teaching is less clear. Direct spending on teaching, by contrast, is far more likely to ensure that universities offer the high-quality courses students want.

The obvious question is, if university research is important to Australia, won’t cutting $2 billion (or some substantial component of it) from research funding harm our national interest. As the quote above shows, Norton merely asserts that redirecting funding from research to teaching will benefit teaching.

The core of Norton’s piece is a misuse of accounting categories. The implicit claim that, since university funding is allocated on a per-student basis, it must be intended entirely for teaching. The further implicit assumption is that the only research that should be undertaken is that explicitly funded through bodies like the Australian Research Council.

But this has historically never been the case. In Australia, and (as far as I know) in every other country, university academics are expected to undertake research as part of their duties, whether or not they have grant funding. The standard proportion, which hasn’t changed in my 30+ year involvement in the system is 80 per cent teaching (and associated service), 20 per cent research, which appears to be exactly the proportion cited by Norton.

It’s true that more transparency in the allocation of resources between teaching and research would be a good thing, if it were feasible. But as the travails of exercises like the Excellence for Research in Australia process have found, this is easier said than done.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags: