A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.
There’s plenty of bad news around these days, and that’s true of climate policy as of many other things. Turnbull (or Abbott, pulling Turnbull’s strings) has already imposed massive cuts in climate science research in Australia and it seems certain that Trump will do the same in the US.
Happily, it looks as if they have come too late to do real damage. The fact of climate change is now well established. Cutting research will impose all kinds of costs, but it’s not going to change the conclusions of science. Of course, the right will reject inconvenient science as they have done for decades, but more of less research won’t change that.
The big news is that the problem has turned out to be much easier to solve than anyone thought. We’ve long known that, to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, emissions should peak in 2015, and decline at an annual rate of at least 2.2 per cent thereafter. Hardly anyone thought a peak could happen before 2020 at the earliest, and this would imply a decline so steep (4.6 per cent per year) as to be just about impossible.
It now seems pretty clear, however, that fossil fuel emissions did in fact peak, or at least flatten out in 2015, and have remained stable through 2016.
Of course, stabilization is not enough. Is it possible for emissions to decline at the required rate. We can look at an identity
e = g – t – r
where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g is the rate of growth of output, t is the annual technological improvement in energy efficiency (the ratio of energy use to output, and r is the reduction in emissions per unit of energy, due to renewables).
Currently, these are just about in balance. But installations of renewables (and therefore r) are growing rapidly, while g is declining in the developed world, and probably also in China. It follows that we can expect e to become negative in the near future.
Policy matters, and it is important that the Paris Agreement should go ahead, with or without Trump and Turnbull. But the goals to which governments are willing to commit depend on what they think they can credibly promise. So, the fact that stabilizing the global climate looks to be feasible within the current economic framework is really good news.
UPDATE: A couple of commenters have questioned the math above. So, let’s spell it out. Let
E = Emissions (tonnes CO2)
G = Gross World Product (constant $)
J = Energy used (joules)
T (for technology) = G/J ($/joules)
R (for reduction) = J/E (joules/tonne CO2)
E = G / (T*R)
log (E) = log (G) – log (T) – log (R)
Differentiating with respect to time
e = g – t – r
Anyone wishing to debate this further should do so in the Sandpit
The one policy issue that was an unambiguous loser for Clinton was trade[^1]. Her grudging move to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, choice of Tim Kaine as running mate and some unhelpful remarks from Bill Clinton meant that Trump had all the running. How should we think about trade policy after Trump? My starting point will be the assumption that, in a world where Trump can be President of the US, there’s no point in being overly constrained by calculations of political realism.
A few points and some suggestions
* So-called “trade” deals like the TPP were actually devices to enhance corporate power (and, in the case of the TPP, to isolate China), and deserved to be defeated regardless of views on trade
* No matter what policy is adopted, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, any more than farm policy can restore an agrarian society. The manufacturing share of total employment has peaked nearly everywhere in the world, notably including Mexico. As is often the case, Chinese data is too opaque to get a clear picture, but there’s plenty of evidence of contraction about
* The idea of manufacturing jobs as “good” jobs is historically specific particularly to the US, and reflects the fact that the dominance of manufacturing coincided with the New Deal and the unionisation of the labour force. It’s unions, not manufacturing that we need to bring back.
* The big problem facing workers, in the US and elsewhere, isn’t competition from immigrants, or from imported goods. It’s the fact that capital is freely mobile and unfettered by any social obligation. So, a profitable plant can be closed down if its owners get a better off elsewhere. Alternatively, the threat of a move can be used to bargain down wages.
So, instead of thinking about tariffs and trade agreements, the big question is: what can be done to change trade and capital flows in ways that yield more good jobs?
Some suggestions over the page
My election commentary in Inside Story is about
The dog that didn’t bark … the (assumed) majority of “decent Republicans” to whom Clinton sought to appeal. Although most observers (including me) assumed that many of them would turn against Trump, hardly any did so
So said Adam Smith a couple of centuries ago, and he will, I hope, be proved right, in the US, and elsewhere in the world. Trump and the Republican majority in Congress and (imminently) in the Supreme Court will, in all probability, repeal Obamacare, restore and expand the Bush tax cuts for the rich, stop action on climate change, overturn Roe v Wade, expand deportation and more.
At CT and just about everywhere else, there’s been lots of discussion about who is voting for Trump and why. This began during the Republican primaries, when it made sense to ask “what kind of Republican would prefer Trump to Bush, Cruz etc?”.
This kind of discussion continued through the general election, even though the answer is now staring us in the face. Trump is getting overwhelming support from self-described Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and almost none from Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents. The same was true for Romney four years ago, and for McCain and Bush before him.
This is well known, but few people seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion*. With marginal changes (I’ll discuss these below), the people who are voting for Trump now voted for Romney four years ago, and for Bush before that.
In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.
So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.
Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.
While doing a bit of work on electricity policy, I dug out this piece from 2001, which was published as ‘Market-Oriented Reform in the Australian Electricity Industry’ in The Economic and Labour Relations Review, June 2001; vol. 12, 1: pp. 126-150. The conclusion, written at a time when supporters of electricity reform were trumpeting it as a huge success, stands up pretty well 15 years later, I think.
Some problems, however, are likely to become more rather than less acute. The Australian National Electricity Market commenced operation in a period of oversupply so that problems of market power and excessive prices have not emerged until recently. It remains unclear whether an electricity auction market can produce adequate incentives for investment while generating appropriate prices for consumers.
Similar problems are emerging in relation to the regulated monopoly component of the industry, the transmission and distribution sector. Regulators must set prices that do not reward inefficiency or allow monopoly profits, but nevertheless provide appropriate incentives for new investment. This is a delicate balance.
In the longer term, the problem of the environmental impact of an industry relying predominantly on carbon-based fuels remains to be addressed. A market solution would involve the creation of emissions credits that could be traded along with electricity in national markets. Although limited steps have been taken in this direction, much remains to be done.
There are reports that the ABC’s Catalyst science program is to be dumped, and replaced by a series of specially commissioned 1-hour documentaries. The move has reportedly been prompted by the disastrous broadcasts of Maryann Demasi, on the supposed dangers of statins and wifi. I have mixed feelings about this. Catalyst has serious problems, going beyond Demasi, but the alternative sounds like it will require a lot of money to do well. I fear that “specially commissioned” will turn out to mean “recycled from Discovery Channel” and that we will end up with lots of variants on “Shark week”
More generally, it’s depressing to reflect on the near-total failure of television as a communications medium for science. The demands of the medium (flashy visuals, and continuous sound) overwhelm what ought to be its potential. Discovery Channel is a joke that makes Catalyst at its worst look good. Even the great David Attenborough is now presented inaudibly, drowned out by the monotone background noise of Sigur Ros. Overall, radio is better, and text better still.