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For the record

March 5th, 2013 44 comments

Another quick post on nuclear power, probably the last for a while. Most of my discussion about nuclear power has been on the question of whether expansion of nuclear power is, or is likely to be, a cost-effective way of reducing CO2 emissions. The answer, as revealed by the failure of the heavily subsidised “nuclear renaissance” in the US, is “no”. But, for the existing (mostly Generation II, see over fold) plants, there’s a separate question – does it make sense to close them down early, or, alternatively to seek to extend their lives.

Since this issue comes up a lot, I thought I would state my position clearly. Nuclear power is an almost exact substitute for coal, has no CO2 emissions and (except where particular vulnerabilities have been demonstrated) comparable or lower health and safety risks (these numbers can be played with in various ways). The marginal cost of generating power from existing plants is low. Problems like waste disposal will have to be addressed anyway, and a few more reactor-years worth won’t make much difference.

So, except where there are particular vulnerabilities that are too costly to repair, I favor keeping existing plants open as long as they can be kept in good repair.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?

February 23rd, 2013 173 comments

Note: The usual sitewide ban on discussions of nuclear power is lifted, for this post only

Queensland’s ban on uranium mining was lifted last year, and a committee is due to report soon on the conditions under which mining might be restarted. As recently as a year ago, the prospects for uranium exports looked bright, despite the Fukushima disaster. In March last year, the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics predicted “prices close to $100 a pound between now and 2015, rising to $124 in 2016 and $141.6 in 2017, in constant 2011-12 Australian dollars.”

In reality, however, the price has fallen to $US43/pound in early 2013 and looks set to decline further. Looking ahead, the future of nuclear power looks bleaker than at any time since the industry began. That’s bad news for the global climate – cheap and safe nuclear power would be the ideal replacement for coal if it could be delivered – but there is no benefit in denying reality

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Categories: Environment Tags:

Trifecta

January 17th, 2013 101 comments

If there were still magazine stands, I’d be all over them today. Three pieces of mine have (coincidentally) come out on in the last day or so, in fairly disparate publications

* In Aeon (a new British “digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday”), I have a followup to my first essay there, which argued the case for a Keynesian utopia, with a drastic reduction in market working hours. In my follow-up, I look at the environmental sustainability of the idea. The tagline for the essay “For the first time in history we could end poverty while protecting the global environment. But do we have the will? ”

* Continuing on the utopian theme, Jacobin magazine has published The Light on the Hill, a reply to Seth Ackerman’s piece on market socialism

* And, at The National Interest, a piece with the self-explanatory title, Will Banks Finally Be Brought to Heel?

While I’m plugging my own work, I thought some readers might be interested in this paper on financial liberalisation and asset bubbles, written in the leadup to the global financial crisis. There’s not much I would change now, and it’s still a pretty good summary of how I think about the financial bubble that created the crisis. The linked working paper version is from 2004, and it eventually appeared in the Journal of Economic Issues, the main journal of the institutionalists who carry on the tradition started by Veblen and Commons in early C20. Not surprisingly, given this obscure outlet, it hasn’t had a lot of attention.

India also cold on coal

December 11th, 2012 39 comments

Following my post on China, I took a look at the situation in India, generally seen as the source of the next big ramp-up in coal-fired electricity. I found this article by Giles Parkinson, who suggests on the contrary

poor supply and pipeline infrastructure, and the high cost of coal imports mean that coal- and gas-fired generation is becoming unviable, even in a country with huge economic growth, an energy deficit and massive energy needs.

Following some of the companies mentioned by Parkinson, I found the recent news is even worse for coal-fired power, and better for renewables and the environment

Tata Power
CLP

As an aside, there have been a lot of stories about a boom in coal-fired power in Europe, in response to low global coal prices. At least in part, though, the story seems to be that the plants in question had been allotted a fixed number of operating hours before they closed down under the EU “large combustion plant directive which forces high-polluting power plants to close by the end of 2015 or after 20,000 operating hours from January 2008 unless they fitted greenhouse gas reducing equipment. So, the combination of cheap coal and expensive gas made it profitable to use up the hours quickly, then shut down, as with these UK plants.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Peak (thermal) coal ?

December 10th, 2012 20 comments

Most of the news on CO2 emissions has been bad. In particular, there are plenty of stories suggesting that coal-fired electricity is booming, and that this can be expected to continue. Although the evidence is mixed, I’m coming to the opposite conclusion. It’s already clear that no new coal-fired power stations will be constructed in the US for some time to come, and that many old ones will close, thanks to cheap gas and EPA regulations. And, while there are some new stations coming on-line in the EU, closures will predominate there too, although they still need to work out what to do with Poland.

But the big news is from China. Not that long ago, the standard story was that China was turning on two new coal-fired power stations every week. Now as this AFR report (paywalled, but another version here) says, China is cutting back hard on coal expansion. I found this story from March, in which the China Electricity Council says that it expects coal consumption in 2015 to be below the 2011 level, implying that the peak is very near. India is also planning some big expansions, but if China can grow without coal, so can they.

All of this suggests that the peak in global use of thermal coal could be much closer than is generally thought. Demand for metallurgical coal, used to produce steel, seems much more robust at least as long as investment-driven growth continues apace in China and India. Looking at the other fossil fuels, we reached plateau oil at least five years ago. On the other hand, gas (less carbon-intensive than the others, but still a source of CO2) is booming. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done before we can end the growth in emissions, let alone start on the 80 per cent reductions we need.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The Murray Darling Basin: the end of an era

November 29th, 2012 18 comments

I first started working on the problems of the Murray-Darling river system 30 years ago, just as the great expansion of irrigated agriculture was reaching its limits. I’ve done a lot of different things since then, but kept on coming back to this issue. For a brief moment after the election of the Rudd government and the implementation of the Water for the Future plan, it seemed like Australia finally had the policy right. The government would buy back enough of the water rights it had given away in the past, and use them to restore something close enough to natural flow patterns to protect the most vulnerable natural environments. The money spent on the purchases would ease the pain of the adjustments that have been going on for decades anyway, as a result of “closer settlement” policies that encouraged the creation of farms too small to support a family properly.

All of that fell in a heap with the disastrous mismanagement of the Draft Basin Plan, which led to its rejection first by irrigators instead of the government. At this point, the process reverted to the time-honored patterns of political horse-trading and I announced a year or so ago that I was moving on. Now the Basin Plan is finally law. The best that can be said is that it is not the disaster it might have been. Billions of dollars have been allocated to infrastructure boondoggles, and the allocation of water to the environment is less than what is needed. But the 2750 GL environmental allocation is much more than seemed remotely plausible a decade or so ago, and there seems to be some effort to stop the most wasteful infrastructure project.

Meanwhile, on the academic front, I’ve had one last gift from my decades of work on this topic, with a publication in Nature Climate Change, something I’ve long aspired to. Admittedly, I’m listed last among nearly 20 authors of an article that’s only a few pages long. I wrote a fair bit in the drafting process, but only a couple of sentences ended up in the final paper. Still, that’s the way things are done in the natural sciences, so I’m not going to complain. For those who can’t get access, the shorter version is that, while Australia hasn’t done a great job with the management of our water resources, we are still doing better than anyone else.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be starting a new Australian Research Council Laureate project next year, on bounded rationality and financial crises. I’ll also continue working on climate change, and may touch on the issue as it relates to the Basin. But, apart from that, I think it’s time to declare an end to my work on the Murray. I think the work I put into this problem, along with many other natural and social scientists, led to a better outcome than we might have seen otherwise. And, sometime before too long, I really will take the family on the houseboat trip I’ve been planning since the beginning.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The carbon price: three months on

October 29th, 2012 83 comments

The UQ Risk and Sustainable Management Group, which I lead, held a small workshop last week, looking at early experience with the carbon price. We plan to produce an edited volume from it, to be published early next year. A few items of information that were new(ish) to me;

* There’s been a lot of work going on to tighten up estimates of climate sensitivity (conventionally measured as the equilibrium response to a doubling of CO2). The news on this front has been moderately good. The worst case catastrophes are less likely and stabilization at 475 ppm would give a 90 per cent chance of holding the global temperature increase to 2C or less. This is excellent news, since, as I’ve argued previously, it will be a lot easier to get to 475 than to the internationally agreed target of 450. We’re adding about 2ppm/year, so the extra 25ppm more or less offsets the decade of delay we’ve just experienced.

* Just by selecting the right breeding stock, we might be able to reduce methane emissions (belches and farts) from ruminants by around 30 per cent

* Soil carbon storage, much beloved of Opposition climate spokesman Greg Hunt and others, is (almost) a complete furphy

Categories: Environment Tags:

0.4 percent of a wrecking ball makes …

October 24th, 2012 165 comments

… a ball bearing perhaps?

0.4 percentage points is the estimate of the CPI impact of the carbon price, published in the Herald Sun (hardly likely to understate it). In the attempt to stop this catastrophe, the Australian political right has trashed its intellectual credibility, embraced lurid conspiracy theories, reduced its leading publications to laughing stocks, and promulgated a string of easily falsified talking points, each one more absurd than the last. So, now that their predictions of doom have come to this, what will be their response? My guess is that they will double down – Catallaxy and Andrew Bolt are already on the job.

Of course, a price of $23/tonne is just the thin end of the wedge. Most estimates suggest that we need a price somewhere in the range $50-100/tonne to produce a long run shift to a low-carbon economy. That might amount to a price increase of 2 or 3 per cent – about the same as the GST.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Will there be buyers for Queensland’s uranium

October 23rd, 2012 134 comments

Dumping yet another election promise, Campbell Newman has just announced the end of restrictions on uranium mining in Queensland. Crikey asked for my opinion (their article is here, maybe paywalled). I said

The end of Queensland’s ban on uranium mining comes at a time when long-term prospects for uranium markets have never looked bleaker. The failure of the “nuclear renaissance” in the US means that at most 2-4 new plants will be built there this decade, while older plants will close as plans for upgrades and license extensions are put on hold. In Europe and Japan, not only will there be little or no new construction, but the phaseout of existing plants is being accelerated. China’s big expansion plans are still on hold after Fukushima, and the program as a whole is being scaled back in favor of renewables. In these circumstances, uranium exporters must accept lower prices, be less choosy about their customers, or both. As one of the few markets with significant growth potential, India is in a strong bargaining position. It’s not surprising that the Gillard government has been keen to overlook India’s contribution to nuclear proliferation and the limited progress that has been made in separating civilian and military programs and stockplies.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Stuck in the 20th century at #Ozfail

October 20th, 2012 56 comments

I really need to get back to the analysis of tax and expenditure options I’ve been working on, but the absurdities of the Oz keep distracting me. Today’s paper runs a front page story claiming “Temperatures were higher 2000 years ago“. The story is based on a study published in Global and Planetary Change, which uses tree ring records to estimate (with lots of caveats about uncertainty) that Northern Hemisphere (presumably land) temperatures were warmer in the 1st Century AD than in the 20th. More precisely, “The first century AD was the warmest 100-year period (+0.60C on average relative to the 1951-1980 mean) of the common era”. Take that, warmists!

There’s are a couple of minor problems with the story. As part of the Murdoch empire, encompassing 20th Century Fox, the Oz has apparently not noticed that the 20th century ended some years ago. And, being prone to printing silliness about pauses in warming, the writer, Graham Lloyd, did not bother to check whether the temperature today is warmer than the 1951-1980 mean. This isn’t hard to do. The US National Climatic Data Center reports global temperatures on a monthly basis. It reports that the Northern Hemisphere land temperature for September 2012 was +1.04 ± 0.26 above the 20th century average (I’ve checked and 1950-80 was about equal to the average for C20 as a whole).

So, the correct headline for the story should have been “Northern Hemisphere warmer than at any time in past 2000 years”

One more point, just for completeness. Readers might reasonably assume that the graphic accompanying the story is taken from the journal article it reports. In fact, it’s credited to the Global Warming Policy Foundation – given the fact that the Oz has linked to it, you don’t need to be Einstein to guess what kind of policies the scientific ex this foundation (headed by Benny Peiser) is pushing.

Update Reader andrewt points us to the actual article. The GWPF graphic is taken from the article, with the addition of a bunch of chartjunk. The article actually focuses on Northern Scandinavia, though its results are broadly consistent with other reconstructions at the hemispheric and global scale. And, while I won’t bother linking, it’s clear that Lloyd has taken his story, and interpretation of the results, from the Anthony Watts “sceptic” site.

Categories: #Ozfail, Environment Tags:

Statistical significance

October 19th, 2012 27 comments

I know I should just ignore the Oz, but faced with its continuous campaign to promote innumeracy, cheered on by the likes of Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, I can’t help but try to set things straight. We’ve seen on many occasions that nearly all “sceptics” either misrepresent of misunderstand the concept of statistical significance, assuming it to correspond to the ordinary meaning of “significant”. The classic example is the Lindzen talking point, made in 2008 that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″. As everyone who understands statistical signifance (notably including Phil Jones, who gave an accurate response and saw a distorted version of his words become a delusionist meme), that’s because statistical significance depends on sample size. Roughly speaking, to see a significant upward trend in a noisy time series, the trend, multiplied by the number of years of data, needs to be about twice the standard deviation of the random variation about trend. So, if you have an upward trend of 0.015 degrees per year, and a standard deviation of 0.1 (these are estimates, but feel free to check)) you typically need 14 or 15 years of data to see a statistically significant trend. Over shorter periods, it’s easy to eyeball a pause or decline, as this graph from Skeptical Science shows.

Lindzen obviously knew this, and it was easy to check that he could go back 13 years from 2008 (but no further) without finding a statistically significant trend. He also knew that, given a few more years of data, the trend for the period since 1995 would be statistically significant, but correctly assumed that no-one on the delusionist side would know or care. Now, the Oz has this, from Michael Asten, professor of geophysics at Monash University. It’s worded carefully enough for me to think he knows he’s pulling the same swifty as Lindzen, but it’s hard to tell for sure[1]

Global temperatures have not increased in a statistically significant sense in the past 15 years. A pause of 10 years in the upward trend of the past 40 years would be unsurprising from existing models. A pause of 20 years would definitely surprise. Changes across the next five years will be watched closely.

As you would expect, Asten has to move Lindzen’s goalposts forward by a couple of years, to an implied starting date of 1997. Note also that he slides from “no statistically significant trend” to “a pause”. What can we say about this? In one sense he is right. As I’ve said, we need about 15 years of data to get a statistically significant trend, so we wouldn’t expect to find one with 10 years, and we would usually expect to find one with 20 years. But, of course, that number itself is variable. Asten is repeating basic facts about time series, in a way that would lead unwary or gullible readers (the vast majority, given the outlet) to suppose that recent evidence casts doubt on the observed warming trend. The only thing that’s hard to figure here is whether he is fooling himself as well as his readers.

fn1. (Lindzen himself often slipped from “no statistically significant warming” to “no warming” either out of sloppiness or because he thought no one was looking.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Climate and catastrophe (updated)

September 20th, 2012 58 comments

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has just announced that Arctic ice cover has reached its minimum extent for 2012, far below the previous record[1]. Peter Doherty discusses some of the implications here. As far as the broader debate about climate change is concerned, there are some big implications.

* First, this is irrefutable evidence that the climate is changing, and that the idea that climate change stopped or slowed down after 1998 or 1995, as delusionists have regularly claimed, is nonsense. On the contrary, the loss of Arctic ice is accelerating, far ahead of model predictions{2] In this context, I have yet to see any “sceptics” actually accept the evidence proving them wrong. But, with a handful of exceptions, we have silence rather than the usual rash of talking points to explain the evidence away. A notable example is Andrew Bolt, who ran lots of posts claiming there was no problem (most recently here), but hasn’t mentioned the topic since the minimum extent record was broken nearly a month ago.

Update While the blog was off-air, Bolt came up with a snark about the Antarctic, which presumably is supposed to offset the long string of posts he made claiming that there was no problem in the Arctic. As usual, Bolt’s talking point has already been debunked, here at Skeptical Science, but you can do it yourself. Compare Bolt’s graph of the Antarctic, showing a small increase in the winter maximum, to the NSIDC graph of the Arctic showing the summer minimum collapsing. End update

* Second, the “catastrophic” part of the delusionists favorite acronym “Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming” is looking a lot more likely. Not only will an ice-free Arctic produce a bunch of feedbacks that accelerate warming, but it will substantially affect climate conditions in Northern Europe, though exactly how remains to be seen.

On the other side of the coin, there’s one predicted catastrophe that didn’t happen. As elsewhere in the world, the introduction of the carbon tax did not “send a wrecking ball through the economy”. In fact, adverse effects are barely detectable. Of course, a lot more action is needed, but the near-universal view of economists that the cost of stabilising the global climate will be of the order of 1 per cent of income is certainly supported by the evidence from the initial steps in this direction.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The Northwest Passage

August 28th, 2012 22 comments

The satellite data showing Arctic ice at record low levels is pretty striking but, as I mentioned, unlikely to change many minds at this stage. One point that can reasonably be made is that satellites have only been around for thirty years – maybe there was less ice further back in history. There is one sort of evidence that goes back many centuries – the repeated failure to find the fabled Northwest Passage, by voyagers going back at least as far as John Cabot in 1497, and arguably as far back as the Vikings in the 11th century. Roald Amundsen managed it in three years in 1903-06 and the voyage was managed with the aid of icebreakers in the middle of the 20th century. in 1984, a specially designed cruise ship managed the voyage, but now it’s become almost routine. “ In 2011 16 private yachts made their way successfully through the once-dreaded passage. ” Here’s an example of the kind of boat that can now manage, within a season, a voyage that defeated the well-equipped expedition of Sir John Franklin, with the loss of the entire crew.

Of course, in a parallel universe, the feat was accomplished by a Chinese fleet in 1421.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Arctic ice at record low

August 27th, 2012 44 comments

As expected, several measures of Arctic ice cover have hit record lows already, and others are likely to do so soon. What’s unexpected is how early this has happened. Melting usually continues until mid-September, so it seems likely that this year’s minimum will be far below the previous record, set in 2007. Those who prefer observational evidence to models will doubtless be pleased to note that the rate of melting far exceeds that predicted by most models. Predictions of when the Arctic might be entirely ice-free at the summer minimum are being revised sharply.

One prediction that seems safe to make is that few if any “sceptics” will treat this unequivocal evidence of warming as a reason to apply scepticism towards the authorities on whom they rely, all of whom have got this wrong. At most they will temporarily shift their ground from “warming has stopped” to “we don’t know what causes it”. However, I’d be glad to be proved wrong on this, so if you see any examples, please let me know. As previously advised, I don’t plan to engage in polemics on this, so if you want to provide confirming evidence for my prediction, feel free, but don’t expect a response from me.

Categories: Environment Tags:

How to solve the solar storage problem

August 22nd, 2012 130 comments

Australians installed more domestic rooftop solar PV in 2011 than in any other country in the world. Despite sharp cuts in subsidies, that seems likely to continue, and raises the question of how this will effect patterns of electricity demand and in particular the capacity of the electricity system to meet peak demand. I just ran across an interesting infographic prepared by a consulting group called Exigency management which puts the question into sharper focus . Under current conditions, demand peaks around noon, remains high through the afternoon, then has another peak in the early evening, as people come home and turn on airconditioning or heating. Widespread takeup of home solar PV will increase supply at the noon peak and even more in the afternoon, but drop off as evening approaches. The result, in the absence of any other changes, will be a system with a demand trough in mid-afternoon followed by a much sharper evening peak.

Source: Exigency

(More graphics here)

What can be done about this? The first point to observe is that the demand projection is under current pricing rules. Any sensible system, faced with a demand pattern like this would set peak prices to cover the actual demand peak, not the one that prevailed under a 20th century coal-based system. But, price incentives alone aren’t satisfactory in the absence of some way of storing energy. There’s been lots of discussion of more-or-less exotic solutions, but there’s a much simpler answer.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Disappearing Arctic Ice

August 17th, 2012 83 comments

It looks as if 2012 will set a new record low for Arctic ice extent[1]. As a measure of the impact of global warming, this is depressingly clear-cut. There’s no need to go into arguments about trends and variability, or use any kind of modelling – the ice is melting visibly.

Arctic Sea ice extent

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

fn1. Satellite data on ice extent goes back to 1979. There are other measures, arguably more relevant, such as estimates of ice volume, for which the data set is shorter. They tell an even gloomier stories.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Spoke too soon

August 7th, 2012 22 comments

Having just given a relatively optimistic view of US policy on climate change, I’ve seen a string of signals that the Obama Administration is set to sell out on this vital issue, presumably on the advice of the same political experts who persuaded him to ignore the unemployment problem for most of his first term in office. The bad news

* An Obama ad attacking Romney for saying (correctly) in 2003, that dirty coal-fired power plants kill people.

* Partial approval of the Keystone pipeline

and, worst of all, the apparent abandonment of the 2 degree target announced by U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern

The radio is deplorable, but not significant in the greater scheme of things. Whatever the ad might say, the EPA regulations introduced under Obama are closing down lots of the worst coal-fired power stations. As regards the other two points, the best we can say is that nothing is locked in yet. Still, it’s more depressing stuff from someone who once promised Hope.

Categories: Environment Tags:

US climate change policy: not a hopeless case

August 4th, 2012 24 comments

I’ve let my Monthly subscription lapse (will resubscribe as soon as I get a moment), so I can’t read the latest piece by Robert Manne, only the summary by John van Tiggelen, but the basic argument is simple, and widely shared. Climate change policy in the US has gone nowhere thanks to the intransigent opposition of the Republicans. I have a couple of comments

First, the policy situation isn’t nearly as bad as might be supposed, given the failure of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and the absence of any real push from the Administration. The fact is, that, in the current US situation, achieving coherent outcomes from legislation is just about impossible. Increasingly, the Obama Administration relies on executive and regulatory actions. In the case of climate change, the important ones are fuel economy standards for cars (CAFE), and EPA regulation of CO2 emissions and other pollution from power stations. Obama has pushed through rules requiring a near doubling of fuel efficiency by 2025. The EPA regulations effectively make new coal-fired power stations uneconomic and require the shutdown of many old stations previously exempted from the Clean Air Act. Reliance on executive action has all sorts of problems, and regulation is an inefficient way of reducing emissions. Still, if Obama is re-elected, the US can expect to see continued reductions in emissions over the rest of the decade. It’s important to observe that, even with the current limited policies, US emissions have already peaked and begun to decline. If Obama wins, the EPA and CAFE regulations will be locked in, and there’s the potential to go further, particularly in the context of an agreement with China.

Second, while its unfortunate that climate change has been entangled in the general craziness of the modern Republican party, this process hasn’t been costless for the Repubs. Given the state of the economy, they ought to be looking forward to a whitewash in November. Instead, Romney is expected to lose, and any Repub Congressional majority will be narrow and fragile. That’s not specifically because of climate change, but a result of the entire political approach taken by the Repubs for the last 20 years, of which delusional claims about climate science are just one example. Whereas until the 1990s, there was a steady drift of disillusioned leftists/liberals (both intellectuals and ordinary voters) to the right, the process is now going in reverse.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Quiggin and Bolt: One last try for agreement on the numbers

July 13th, 2012 96 comments

I was at the Australian Conference of Economists earlier in the week, and had a chat with Roger Jones, who has occasionally commented here. I asked him about his estimates of the impact of emissions mitigation policies in Australia, and was able to confirm that our estimates, although reached in very different ways, are in quite close agreement. Roger is cited here and here, estimating that a 5 per cent reduction in Australia’s emissions would result in a reduction in equilibrium global temperature of 0.0034 degrees. In a blog comment, I made the estimate that a 25 per cent reduction, relative to business as usual (the official target of the carbon price policy and also of the Opposition’s ‘direct action’ alternative) would result in a reduction in equilibrium global temperature of 0.02 degrees.

Unfortunately, Andrew Bolt did not observe the reason for the difference, and suggested that we disagreed by a factor of five. For the second time, a comment I sent correcting the mistake was lost in moderation. I was inclined to give up at this point, but given that Bolt did admit an error in his own estimate that I had pointed out to John Humphreys[1], I thought it would be worth one last try.

Policy disagreements are inevitable, but it would be helpful if we could avoid unnecessary disputes over arithmetic. I’m always happy to check for, and if necessary correct, errors in my calculations. If Bolt and others could do likewise, we would have a better chance of making progress in public debate, or at least of avoiding regress.

Update I appear to have misinterpeted my conversation with Roger, though I need to check on a number of issues before making a final assessment. So, I’m going to withdraw my claim that Bolt and John Humphreys in error on this point, and discuss the estimates with Roger in more detail. I’ll report back when this is complete.

Further update Unsurprisingly, Andrew Bolt has enjoyed a bit of a gloat on the subject, and some of his fans have joined in. So, it’s worth reminding everyone that he was out by a factor of 100 in his own calculations, presenting the impact of one year’s emissions reductions as if it was the total effect over the next 100 years.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Moderation problems at the Bolt blog (updated)

July 4th, 2012 27 comments

In my previous post, I noted that, while Andrew Bolt had correctly calculated the impact of the carbon tax for the year 2020, he hadn’t completed the analysis by evaluating the impact over the relevant policy timeframe. While I was working on this, Bolt produced another post, linking to this piece by John Humphreys, which suggested errors in my original analysis. I submitted comments to both sites. John noted the error in Bolt’s analysis, but advises me that he is not going to publish comments, and hasn’t yet corrected his own post[1]. I assume he’ll get around to this soon.

I submitted the following to Bolt’s blog

John Humphreys has updated his post to note “John Quiggin has pointed out that there is also a significant problem with the Bolt estimate, since it only calculates the benefit from reduced emissions for one year (2020) instead of adding up the cumulative reductions over multiple years. Good point. This means the Bolt methodology just got a while lot more complicated since it now requires an expected future emissions time series and an expected future emissions time series counter-factual. That task is too big for me at the moment, but [b]it’s fair to say that such a number is going to be quite a bit higher than Bolt’s original estimate[/b].”
(emphasis added) I give a corrected estimate here

Sadly, the comment didn’t make it through moderation, presumably due to an error, so I’m publishing it here.

Update: Another go-round on moderation Andrew Bolt has posted again, indicating that the non-publication of my comment was indeed a moderation error, and acknowledging the need to use cumulative effects rather than those for a single year. As he will see when he does this, his sensitivity estimate is consistent with mine.

Unfortunately, Bolt didn’t follow the link I gave, and therefore repeated the already-refuted claim that my estimated was out by a factor of five, relative to that of Roger Jones. As I’d already pointed out here, the error was due to Michael Bachelard, who applied Roger’s sensitivity analysis to an emissions reduction of 5 per cent, when the reduction relative to BAU is 25 per cent. That obviously explains the factor of 5 divergence. I’ve posted a comment to Bolt’s blog pointing this out, but that comment too is awaiting moderation.

fn1. In the meantime, John H. has noted the erroneous estimates by Michael Bachelard, corrected here, and also some estimates by Christopher Monckton, presumably as a reductio ad absurdam

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Quiggin and Bolt agree

July 4th, 2012 37 comments

As I mentioned a little while back, I’m going to refrain (or at least try to refrain) from polemics on the subject of climate change in the future. As a first step, I’m happy to say that I’ve found a post by Andrew Bolt which I can recommend. Bolt links to this estimate by Damon Matthews that each tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere changes the equilibrium temperature by 0.000 000 000 0015 degrees, that is 1.5*10^-12 in scientific notation. Noting that the carbon price is expected to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes per year by 2020, Bolt makes the straightforward calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees.

Bolt stops there, perhaps having run out of time, so I’ll complete the calculation for him. Obviously to compute the impact of the carbon price we need to estimate the effect, not just for the year 2020 but for the entire period the policy is in place. That’s a complicated task, but let’s simplify by supposing that the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions is maintained over this period. That gives a reduction in equilibrium temperatures of about 0.02 degrees, which coincidentally or not, is exactly what I estimated using a different method in a recent comments thread.

Of course, as we all know, this is a collective action problem – any one jurisdiction acting alone is not going to achieve much. Fortunately, most countries are doing something, even if they have adopted inefficient approaches like direct regulation in the US. So, let’s calculate what would happen if everyone adopted measures with effects comparable to those of the carbon price.

Australia accounts for about 2 per cent of the global economy, and about 2 per cent of total emissions (the latter depends a lot on which emissions are imputed where, but these estimates are imprecise anyway). So, if Australia’s effort with the carbon price is about average for the world as a whole, and these policies are sustained without change, Bolt’s calculation implies that the reduction in equilibrium temperature would be about 1 degree.

Bolt invites comments on whether such a reduction is worthwhile. Anyone who has looked at the impact of 1 degree of additional warming ought to agree that reducing warming by 1 degree yields a benefit far more than is needed to justify global adoption of policies like the current carbon price policy.

What this calculation shows is that we need to do more. Depending on your projections we need to reduce equilibrium temperatures by 2-4 degrees relative to Business as Usual. That will imply a carbon price at least twice as high as that implemented on Sunday. Comparing this week to last, I think we can probably bear the associated pain.

Bolt also links to this article by Michael Bachelard which states that the carbon price would reduce emissions by 5 per cent, relative to 2000, and gives an estimate by Roger Jones that this would reduce equilibrium temperature by around 0.004 degrees. As I’ve pointed out quite a few times now, the relevant comparison, and the one I’ve used in my calculations is between the carbon price and business as usual. That comparison yields a reduction of 25 per cent, and an impact of 0.02 degrees using Roger’s sensitivity assumptions. So, it looks like agreement all round.

(H/T John Humphreys)

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Climate Change Authority

June 21st, 2012 44 comments

Some big news (at least for me). I’ve just been appointed as a member of the Climate Change Authority. I was pleasantly surprised by this – although I’m a strong supporter of the carbon price policy, I’ve been highly critical of the current government in other respects.

As regards the blog, the main implication is that I’m going to avoid posting anything that might constrain me as a member of the Authority (for example, views on policy issues) and also avoid polemical statements about climate issues. I’ll still post relevant information on the topic, and welcome debate in the comments section, but I won’t take an active part myself.

Categories: Environment Tags:

In front of the world?

June 19th, 2012 35 comments

Coincidentally, Australia’s carbon price will come into effect on the same day, 1 July, as the new feed-in tariffs for solar PV, wind and other renewable adopted in Japan as part of the response to the Fukushima disaster[1]. The tariffs are incredibly generous (around 50c/kwh on a net feed-in basis) and supposedly guaranteed for 20 years. I can’t see it lasting that long, but it will certainly make Japan one of the world’s biggest markets for renewables, having installed almost none until now. China has also adopted feed-in tariffs, but at more realistic prices around 20c/Kwh. These policies will ensure continuation of the spectacular growth in installations of renewable energy and the associated reductions in costs.

What does this make of the claim that Australia is moving ahead the rest of the world with the carbon price policy. There’s a sense in which it’s true – our experience with MRET and various state-level policies have shown that these are second-best options compared to a comprehensive carbon price. The Europeans can teach the same lesson, but it seems as if everyone has to learn it for themselves.

But the belief among economic doomsayers that we are the only country doing anything about this is just nonsense. Even in the US, where nothing can be done through legislation thanks to Republican delusionists, a combination of regulation and low gas prices is leading coal-fired power plants to shut down at a rapid rate.

At this point, the global choice is not between doing nothing and doing something. It’s between sensible market-based policies and costly second-best options, of which the worst is the “direct action” in which Tony Abbott claims to believe.

fn1. Two nuclear plants are also to be restarted, and presumably most of the rest will follow eventually. The government still wants to build more,

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

High-cost basin plan water is bad for all

June 2nd, 2012 22 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece, at ABC Environment. It’s over the fold
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Murray-Darling plan: a disastrous process, a sliver of hope

May 31st, 2012 18 comments

That’s the headline on my Crikey article on the revised Proposed Basin Plan for the Murray Darling Basin. It’s over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The green fields of nuclear power (updated)

May 24th, 2012 187 comments

Despite Fukushima and the failure of the US “nuclear renaissance”, nuclear power still has plenty of fans in Australia. A question which opponents routinely ask is “where are the nuclear power plants going to go?”.

That’s obviously a difficult question, but there’s a subtly different, and even nastier, question behind it, namely “How should we decide where a nuclear power plant should go”. There are obviously all kinds of issues to be resolved. For example, should it be on the coast, and therefore potentially vulnerable to a tsunami? Should it be near or far from population centres?

If we in Australia made a decision to go for nuclear power, then decided to answer all these questions from scratch, it would take years, maybe a decade or more before we even picked a site (look how long we took over the much easier question of a site for the national capital). And, until we answered the siting question, any estimate of the costs of nuclear power would be a stab in the dark anyway. A plant located in the centre of the Nullarbor would be about as safe as you could get, but hopelessly uneconomic.

So, the obvious answer is; Look at what other developed countries have done when faced with the same problem. But it turns out there is a small difficulty. The answer, according to the US, Britain and every other developed country I’ve looked at, is “put your plant next to an existing one, so there won’t be any more trouble than you already have”.

Of course, it’s logically impossible that they always worked that way. But, as far as I can tell, the last time a new site was picked for a nuclear power plant in a developed country was in the 1970s, before Three Mile Island, let alone Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even supposing that experience were relevant, it’s lost in the mists of time – the decisionmakers involved are long since gone, and any records they left are probably buried in the archives.*

So, unless we can solve a problem that every other developed country in the world has chosen to duck for 30-odd years, we will never even get to the starting gate with nuclear power.

*Update It turns out to be fairly easy to retrieve material from the National Archives, for example, on the proposal, made in the late 60s and abandoned in the early 70s, to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay. Thanks to commenter Andrew for picking me up on this.

*Further update Contrary to the claim in the post, a Finnish company has announced a proposed site for a new reactor, though it is not clear that any proper approval process has been undertaken. I doubt that Finnish administrative processes will translate easily to Australia, but it looks like a counterexample to my claim.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Info item on modular nuclear reactors

April 30th, 2012 29 comments

Since lots of readers are interested, or, perhaps, a few are very interested, I thought I would mention that the US Department of Energy is beginning an effort to promote the development of modular nuclear reactors in the US. The plan is to choose two designs, with the object of having them in production by 2022. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that one of them will be the Westinghouse SMR, a cut down version of the Westinghouse AP1000 which is the only serious contender remaining as far as conventional reactors are concerned. That leaves one spot for another contender, call it SMRX.

I therefore need to revisit my previous conclusion on SMRs, namely, that none of them except the Westinghouse have any prospect of being in operation before 2020. First, I think it’s pretty clear that the designs that don’t make the DOE cut are finished – in a generally dire funding environment, who is going to back a horse that has already placed third or worse. Second, the DOE 2022 date is an aspirational target that is virtually certain to be missed, at least by SMRX. But, if things go well, 2025 is a possibility. So, by then we might have one conventional design and two SMRs in production on a serious scale.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future

April 26th, 2012 114 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece for The National Interest. The first three paras are below.

In the wake of the meltdown last year at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the viability of nuclear power has been called into question yet again. The Japanese government has closed down all but one of the country’s nuclear plants (though there are plans to start reopening them), and Germany has abandoned a previous decision to keep existing nuclear plants operating. Concern about nuclear power has also increased in the United States, with most opinion polls now showing a majority opposed to further expansion of the industry.

On the other hand, some commentators have been struck by the fact that the disaster did not cause any direct loss of life and that estimates of the adverse health effects of the radioactive releases are very modest. A striking example is English writer George Monbiot. An opponent of nuclear power before Fukushima, Monbiot has switched to the view that nuclear power should be supported as a response to climate change.

Unfortunately, this debate has taken place without much attention to the economics of electricity production. The critical question is whether nuclear power can be a cost-effective alternative as compared to renewables, investments in energy efficiency or even such long shots as carbon capture and storage. A look at the economic cost of the Fukushima meltdown suggests that the path to a nuclear future is steeply uphill.

I’m too busy to referee another fight over nuclear power today, so I’m delaying opening comments here until tomorrow. The TNI post is open to comments there, so that will give everyone a chance to get started straight away.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Behind the Seams Fundraiser

March 20th, 2012 Comments off

Behind the Seams has been an innovative project blogging the issues around Coal Seam Gas and the Queensland election. I’ve contributed some text, but the real work has been done by Mark Bahnisch, Pandora Karavan and a few others. They’ve incurred some pretty substantial expenses travelling to areas where farmers are dealing with CSG and spending unpaid time. There’s a final chance to contribute to the costs of the project here.

Categories: Environment, Metablogging Tags:

A win all round?

March 15th, 2012 43 comments

The news that both the Opposition and the Greens are to oppose the reduction in company tax proposed by the government (to be financed by the Minerals Resource Rent Tax) gives the Gillard government a golden political opportunity, if they are competent enough to take it. All they need to do is put the bill up once and, when it is rejected, announce that they will come back again next year. Meanwhile, they can bank the proceeds which will go a long way towards meeting their (ill-advised) commitment to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13. Then, next year they can do a deal with the Greens to make a cut for small business only. That will leave Abbott promising both to reverse the small business cut, and to impose a new levy on big business to pay for his parental leave scheme. This seems to me to work pretty well for both Labor and the Greens, and it gives Abbott the outcome he has chosen, so maybe it’s a win all round.

Meanwhile, and perhaps more significantly, some news on EU cabon prices, which have been the subject of numerous beatups to the effect that a low price will create budget problems for the government. The EU recognises that the low prices means they can make bigger cuts in emissions at low cost. A proposal to do that was vetoed by Poland at a recent ministerial meeting. But a similar proposal is going forward and will be the subject of qualified majority voting in the EU Parliament, probably in June. The most ambitious versions will require emissions cuts of 80-95 per cent by 2050, with milestones along the way.

Categories: Environment Tags: