Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

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:

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.

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Categories: Economics - General, Environment 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:

Hand it back

October 29th, 2013 103 comments

The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed 35 economists and found 30 of them favored carbon price (tax, ETS or some mixture) over Direct Action. It quotes Chris Caton as saying “Any economist who didn’t opt for emissions trading “should hand his degree back”, says Chris Caton.

I’d take that a step further.

Anyone with a natural science degree in any field will find plenty of examples of denialist lies on everything from basic physics to bushfires. More generally, denialists have attacked the entire scientific enterprise with absurd conspiracy theories. No-one who endorses these attacks, explicitly or tacitly, deserves to call themselves a scientist.

Similarly, anyone with a degree that includes even minimal exposure to statistics should understand that denialists were misusing the concept of statistical significance when they claimed, a few years back there had been no significant warming since 1995. Subsequent hacks have had to move the goalposts forward to 1997. And that’s just one example of the cherrypicking dishonesty rife on the denialist side of the debate. So, anyone who claims to be a sceptic and hasn’t distanced themselves from claims like these should send back their math/stat degree.

Then there are those with university degrees, but without the training in science, maths or economics to assess the key issues independently. Anyone with a university education ought to be able to recognise the limits of their own expertise, and to be able to distinguish between bogus sources of information and the products of genuine peer-reviewed research. If they prefer the kind of nonsense circulated on denialist websites to the conclusions of scientific research, they should hand in their degrees and instead obtain one of the many qualifications available, for a modest fee and no work, on internet sites like those listed here.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Abbott’s Sister Souljah non-moment

October 25th, 2013 40 comments

As I said in my last post, Tony Abbott has set himself the tightrope-walking task of maintaining his government’s official endorsement of mainstream climate change, while keeping his denialist base happy. Having made a mess of this with his bushfire comments, he had a chance to rectify the situation when he gave an interview to denialist and conspiracy theorist Andrew Bolt. Newscorp ran in under the headline “Andrew Bolt tackles the PM on the big issues”, but Bolt was playing touch, not tackle.

The interview was a sycophantic exercise in mutual admiration, with all the tough questions you might expect from, say, Anne Summers interviewing Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd interviewing himself. But such interviews present smart politicians with the chance to play against type, by disagreeing with the interviewer on an issue dear to the base, but politically problematic for a would-be statesman. Presented with a soft lob question about the bushfires, Abbott could have taken the chance to define his own position as the “sensible centre”, by repudiating both Bolt’s denialism and the “alarmism” of those stressing the link between bushfires and climate. Bill Clinton famously did this when he denounced radical rap artist Sister Souljah, signalling the shift to the right undertaken by the Democratic Leadership Council of which he was part.

Instead, Abbott chose to dig himself deeper, extending his denialism on bushfires and further claiming that the observation of record high temperatures is not evidence of climate change. I mentioned in my last post that he would have a problem in formulating a response to the likelihood that 2013 will turn out to be the warmest year in the Australian observational record. He’s chosen his answer now, one that is unlikely to carry much credibility except with those already committed to denialism.

His summary of climate science, previously reported as “crap” has been replaced by “hogwash”, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of Greg Hunt, who took strong exception to being confronted with the previous term by a BBC interviewer. I won’t link to Bolt, but the relevant passages are quoted over the fold.

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Falling off the tightrope

October 24th, 2013 56 comments

Having gained office on the basis of three-word slogans, the Abbott government has the problem that it now needs to answer questions in complete sentences. As a result, Abbott has immediately faced some tricky tests, and failed most of them. “Stop the Boats”, for example, ran into the problem that it assumed the Indonesians could be strong-armed into doing our government’s bidding. Unsurprisingly, that proved false, though the inevitable backdown was managed reasonably smoothly.

The trickiest balancing act, though, is on climate change. The government needs to balance its base, the vocal elements of which are almost uniformly denialist[1], with the risks of adverse consequences to Australia if we repudiate our commitments on the issue, and the risks to its own credibility of being openly anti-science.

After only seven weeks in office, both PM Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, have fallen off the tightrope, rejecting the clearly established (and intuitively obvious) IPCC findings on bushfire risk in Australia [AR4 (2007) , WGII , Chapter 11, Executive Summary]

“The climate of the 21st century is virtually certain to be warmer, with changes in extreme events. Heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency (high confidence).”

These findings were reinforced in an interview with the head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres (listen to the audio,as the report may mislead)

Abbott’s response was to accuse Figueres of “talking through her hat”, while Hunt went to Wikipedia to discover that “bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year”.

This was really an unforced error by both Abbott and Hunt. They could have ducked the issue by resorting to the standard formula that climate predictions are about frequencies, not about individual events. Abbott could even have cited Figueres who was careful to say that “the World Meteorological Organisation has not yet established a direct link between the these fires and climate change.” (emphasis very clear in audio). Hunt scrambled back to the script at the end of his interview, but after the Wikipedia reference, it was far too late.

Given Abbott’s earlier “total crap” statement[2], it’s going to be hard for him to walk back a second time. He now faces two problems. On the one hand, now that he’s outed himself as one of them, the denialist base will be encouraged to demand the scrapping of his Direct Action policy. On the other hand, locking the LNP into denialism is a recipe for long-term disaster, especially with Malcolm Turnbull waiting in the wings.

It’s highly likely that 2013 will turn out to be the hottest calendar year on record for Australia. The frequent occurrence of record highs like this is a predictable consequence of climate change. Abbott had better get his spin doctors working on a form of words to handle the inevitable questions.

fn1. I’ve decided to abandon “delusionist”, my own coinage, in favor of the more standard term “denialist”. I’ll write more on this later.
fn2. In fairness, this statement was presented as a view his audience might hold, rather than as Abbott’s own. But since he’s held every possible view on this topic, and some that seem impossible, fairness can only go so far.

Free riders

October 23rd, 2013 47 comments

It’s widely assumed that small rich countries, like Australia, can choose to do nothing about climate change, without suffering any adverse consequences. Like a dozen or so other countries, we contribute about 2 per cent of total emissions. So, whether we reduce emissions or not won’t (at least directly) have a big impact on the climate change we experience, just as an individual decision to engage in (or refrain from) littering, won’t have much impact on the amount of litter they see.

But this analysis assumes that countries that do make a serious effort won’t impose any sanctions on those that don’t. Until recently, this was a reasonable assumption since the most prominent laggards were China and the US, both of which can do pretty much as they please in international matters. But China and the US are taking their commitments seriously now, and are taking some big steps to reduce emissions. That changes the calculation for a would-be free rider.

The Harper government in Canada is already discovering this. Harper is a (barely concealed) climate denialist, who has attacked climate science, and promoted the work of ‘sceptics’. Having repudiated Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it interfered with Canada’s aspirations to be an ‘energy superpower’ Harper imagined he would have no trouble securing agreement for the Keystone Pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil from the hugely destructive Alberta Tar Sands projects to markets in the US.

Canada is in the inner core of US allies, historically distinguished by its devotion to being a global ‘good citizen’. Unsurprisingly, the Canadians had plenty of favors to call in at the US State Department, which duly reported that the project was environmentally benign and should be approved.

But then everything went wrong for Harper.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

“We got it wrong”, says Oz, but they’re still wrong

September 21st, 2013 42 comments

Along with many others, I pointed out the absurdity of Graham Lloyd’s piece in the Oz, headlined “We got it wrong, says IPCC”. The Oz has printed a “correction”

blaming their absurd error on “the production process”. In the sense that the processes of the Oz, from the hiring of general editor Chris Mitchell and environment “reporter” Graham Lloyd, combined with uncritical reproduction of claims by discredited sources like David Rose “produced” the error. I guess this is true. But, this is part of a consistent pattern. Errors like this have been produced routinely in the past, and will continue to be produced in the future. Regular, but inadequate, retractions are part of this process.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, #Ozfail, Environment Tags:

A new two-step

September 13th, 2013 125 comments

I’ve always been envious of John Holbo’s discovery of the two-step of terrific triviality, a manoeuvre we’d all seen, but never properly identified. I’d like to solicit names for a manoeuvre I run into all the time in debates over climate policy which goes along the following lines

A: The planet is doomed unless we abandon industrial civilization/adopt my WWII-scale emergency program

B (me): On the contrary,we could cut emissions by 50 per cent quickly and with minimal effects on living standards.[^1]

A: What about cars, methane from ag production, air travel etc?

B: (me) We could cut vehicle emissions in half just by switching to the most fuel-efficient cars now on the market, methane by eating chicken instead of beef, air travel by videoconferencing and taking one long holiday in place of two short ones. The same for most other sources of emissions.[^2]

A: That’s absurd. No one would ever stand for that.

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre, or, alternatively, a defense of this kind of argumentation

[^1]: Actually, we need a 90 per cent reduction by 2050. That would be a bit harder, but once you accept the idea that we could greatly reduce emissions without harming living standards, we’re down to arguing about parameter values in economic models. All economic models yield the conclusion that we could decarbonize the economy over 40 years while still improving living standards greatly.
[^2]: I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s better to bring this about using prices (eg a carbon tax) or direct controls. My preferred answer is a bit of both, but either will work for the purposes of this example.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Declining electricity consumption in Australia

July 25th, 2013 68 comments

I missed this when it came out a few weeks ago, but the Australian Energy Market Operation (AEMO) has released new forecasts of electricity demand to 2020. The forecasts represent a further reduction on the big cuts in estimated demand made between 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the medium forecast was for nearly 250 000 GWH by 2020, up from 200 000 in 2010. The latest medium forecast is 211 000 GWh for 2020, and the low forecast stays below 200 000 out to 2022-23. These forecasts would be even lower if it were not for three large export LNG projects in Queensland.

Even more striking is the forecast for residential and commercial consumption per persom. In much of the debate around energy issues, it is assumed that increases in living standards must go hand in hand with higher consumption of all forms of energy. But AEMO, assuming moderate rates of economic growth, is predicting that consumption per person will drop to 6000 KwH per year by 2020. In 2005, it was around 7200 KwH, so that’s a drop of more than 15 per cent. Over that time, income per person is likely to rise by around 30 per cent.

The AEMO measures don’t include rooftop solar, but they do include large-scale renewable energy (wind and grid-connected PV). Current policy calls for an additional 20 000 GWh of large-scale renewables by 2020, which would imply a significant reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions over the next decade.

Of course, a lot of this is the fortuitous result of high electricity prices, driven mainly by distribution costs. But it’s certainly an impressive demonstration that lower energy consumption does not mean lower living standards.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

July 23rd, 2013 113 comments

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, here and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

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Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The return of the ETS

July 17th, 2013 56 comments

As a member of the Climate Change Authority, I’m constrained to some extent in what I can say about the plan to bring forward the date at which emission permits will become tradeable, so I’m going to make a few points, and leave discussion to others

* The really big change, which went largely un-noticed, was the link to the EU scheme, announced by Greg Combet shortly after the carbon price came into effect. Bringing this forward by a year is a minor adjustment by comparison

* The offsetting savings announced today are mostly good, the most obvious exception being the biodiversity fund. I supported assistance to Carbon Capture and Storage in the past, on the general principle of backing every horse, but it’s time to admit that this horse won’t run

* The tightening of Fringe Benefit exemptions for cars is, I hope, a recognition that subsidising motor vehicle use in general isn’t going to save the domestic car industry, which has a small and shrinking share of the market. The impending demise of the Falcon should kill the presumption that fleet cars are likely to be Australian-made I hope this view is taken more generally. Preservation of the domestic industry is probably a lost cause, but if governments are going to try, they should do so with direct subsidies to domestic production not subsidies to car use in general.

* I hope Parliament sits again, and that the government puts the necessary legislation forward. The amusement of watching Tony Abbott voting *for* the carbon tax would be well worth the price of admission.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Hope and climate change

June 25th, 2013 57 comments

According to various reports, Obama is making a speech today in which he will announce limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These limits can be imposed by regulation, and are justified by court decisions requiring the Environmental Protection Authority to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

Going from realistic hope to wishful thinking, a sufficiently positive reaction on this might give him the nerve to block the Keystone pipeline. But strong action on power plants would be enough for me – it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Decarbonising Australia (updated)

May 7th, 2013 214 comments

I’ve been meaning to post about the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report on the feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply system for Australia (H/T commenter Ben). In the meantime, Brian Bahnisch at LP has done a detailed summary, so I’ll refer you there and make a few points of my own.

First, this study should kill off, once and for all, claims made here and in many other places (notably, at Brave New Climate) that the intermittency of renewable electricity is an insuperable problem.[1] The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

Second, the estimate cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform. If we wound back those costs, we could actually end up with both 100 per cent renewables and cheaper electricity.

Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.

Finally, if we take Tony Abbott at his word in wanting direct action to deal with climate change, this report provides him with a blueprint. If we want to, we can eliminate the great majority of domestic CO2 emissions simply by mandating renewable technology and electric vehicles. The cost would be substantial in dollar terms ($250 billion for the electricity component). But, over a couple of decades, it would be a barely detectable deduction from growth in national income.

Update As it turns out, there’s a response at Brave New Climate from Martin Nicholson. Nicholson reports on a study of his own, in which nuclear is included in the mix. On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal. But obviously, renewables have much lower operating costs and Nicholson estimates the levelised cost for his system at $124/MWh to $126/MWh. As he says:

As this is in the middle of the AEMO range, wholesale prices are likely to be similar with or without nuclear

Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

Sadly, I think most of the BNC readership are locked into a position that nuclear must be the answer, which requires them to believe that renewables won’t work. Even a comprehensive demonstration that renewables can deliver a 100 per cent solution at a cost comparable with optimistic estimates for nuclear isn’t going to shift them.end update

fn1. This is part of a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at pushing the conclusion that nuclear is the only feasible zero-carbon option. Once it’s admitted that 100 per cent renewable electricity is feasible, nuclear advocates need to present a case based on comparative costs. In the Australian context, it will be very hard to make that case, given the need to set up a complete nuclear infrastructure from scratch.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Some electricity links

April 30th, 2013 21 comments

The Australia Institute has a report out making the point that the growth in the administrative and marketing costs of electricity companies, following the reforms of the 1990s, has added more to electricity prices than has the carbon price.

Also, the Centre for Policy Development has a nice piece on solar PV coming out soon. Look for it.

Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for the The Economic and Labour Relations Review in 2001. Conclusion over the fold. I think it stacks up pretty well, certainly compared to the gushing praise for reform that was commonplace at the time.

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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Another encouraging graph

March 30th, 2013 90 comments

Wandering around the web, I found this OECD graph on per-capita oil use in residential/commercial/agricultural uses reproduced here


It raises some interesting points
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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The good news

March 14th, 2013 58 comments

Discussions about reducing CO2 emissions often have a dismal tone, saying that we can’t reduce emissions without a drastic reduction in living standards. Sometimes the inference is that we should do nothing, other times that we should embrace drastically lower living standards (but probably won’t). Most people share this intuition to some extent, particularly as regards activities like driving, that seem central to a modern lifestyle. So, it’s striking to see what’s been happening to per capita gasoline consumption in the US


There’s a lot going on here: prices, fuel economy regulations, ethanol and general cultural shifts which have reduced distances driven. But the big point is that this drastic decline has happened with only modest policy measures, and without any obvious impact on living standards (US living standards haven’t done well in the 2000s, but for entirely different reasons). Looking ahead, Obama’s fuel economy regulations and sustained high prices should drive US gasoline consumption much lower.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Motes and beams

March 13th, 2013 41 comments

The Oz and Andrew Bolt have a tag team attack on me today (Google it if you want). Most of it consists of quotations, with lots of ellipses, that are meant to show me as a dangerous radical. I can’t say I’m too upset by that – from their perspective, it’s a fair assessment. But Bolt also repeats his claim that I made a factor-of-5 error in my estimate of the impact of Australia’s current 2020 target on global temperatures.

This is a striking piece of chutzpah, given that this estimate was made in the process of correcting a calculation by Bolt, which was out by two orders of magnitude. But it has finally provoked me to clear up some of the confusion on this. The starting point was this post by Bolt who used a calculation 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 made the calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees, and treats this as an estimate of the impact of the policy.

This is an amazing howler on Bolt’s part. He’s only counted one year of emissions reductions for a policy that is supposed to permanently reduce emissions. I made the very quick calculation that, if the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions was maintained over this period, the number used by Bolt would imply a reduction of 0.02 degrees. I did another rough calculation that came out the same way.

Bolt came back with a lower estimate by Roger Jones, who suggest that the policy would reduce temperature by only 0.004 degrees, lower by a factor of 5 than my estimate, but higher by a factor of 20 than Bolt’s silly calculation.

At this point I slipped up. As a result of a misunderstood conversation with Roger, I gave an incorrect explanation for the discrepancy. Roger subsequently advised that he had made his calculation using a standard modelling tool called MAGICC. I finally got around to downloading MAGICC, and trying it out, so I can now give an explanation for why our estimates differ. There are three main points

(1) The most important factor is that we are estimating two different things. MAGICC produces estimates of the temperature change by 2100, but the atmosphere takes a long time to reach equilibrium. For reductions in CO2 emissions spread out over the rest of this century, the change by 2100 is only about half the long run equilibrium change.

(2) Estimates of the sensitivity of the global climate to changes in CO2 concentrations vary. The most common measure is the equilibrium temperature change for a doubling in atmospheric CO2. Until recently MAGICC used 2.6 degrees as the default, on the low side of most estimates. I used 3.5, which gives a value around 30 per cent higher

(3) Finally, while it’s obviously silly to assume, like Bolt, that the policy is in effect for only one year, it’s not entirely clear how we should project its impact into the future. That depends on baseline projections of emissions from which to calculate percentage reductions. My simple estimate takes a constant reduction over 80 years, which is probably a bit on the high side. If you assumed that emissions were going to decline anyway over the second half of this century, the effect of the policy would be reduced, perhaps by half.

Those three factors, taken together, would account for the discrepancy in the two estimates. I don’t claim that I’ve got them exactly right and there may be points I’ve missed. But for someone like Bolt to pontificate on a subject like this, when he is incapable of avoiding or correcting even the most absurd errors, brings to mind Matthew 7:3-5.

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Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

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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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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