The MFP illusion

Expanding on a post a little while ago, I have a piece in Inside Story arguing that multi-factor productivity, the Holy Grail of microeconomic reform for the last few decades, is a residual that is and should be equal to zero.

From getting the idea to publishing it took me a few weeks. That’s a huge contrast from last century when the best I could have hoped for is an article in a low-prestige journal, taking a year or more and reaching an audience of, at most, a few hundred.

That’s great for me, as I’m more interested in reaching a large intelligent public than in impressing my fellow economists (I have to do that to keep my job, of course, but it’s not my top priority). By contrast, the general direction of the profession has been towards fewer and fewer articles in an ever-narrower range of prestigious journals.

The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, regular commenter James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end by 2030.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

Lamest. PM. Ever.

So, we’ve wasted $100 million on a postal survey that won’t decide anything. It’s already evident that, even with a thumping majority for Yes, the bigots on the LNP backbench will fight all the way to protect the right to be a bigot. They are, in my view, playing a dangerous game here. The existing law gives lots of special privileges to religious organizations that are justified only on the basis that we all need to get along tolerantly. If that rationale ceases to apply, all those privileges are open to question.

Meanwhile, all the fine words about letting the people decide have gone out the window when it comes to indigenous recognition. Even though Abbott has gone along with Turnbull on the decision, I think, if he were still PM. he might have done better on this issue.

In any case, this confirms me in the view that Turnbull is the weakest Prime Minister in living memory. I thought that Billy McMahon was a competitor for the title until I discovered that he took the decision to kill off Australia’s foray into nuclear power (they’d actually excavated the site at Jervis Bay) over the opposition of the redoubtable Sir Phillip Baxter who saw the project as a step towards an atomic weapons capability. The cancellation of this project was a bigger achievement than Turnbull can claim in his 20-odd years in public life, encompassing the Republic referendum, the Murray-Darling fiasco, the downgrade of the NBN and his two years as Prime Minister.

Nuclear starts stop

A steady stream of negative evidence hasn’t shaken the faith of believers in nuclear energy. Many of them are under the impression that the failure of nuclear energy is specific to the developed world, where some combination of environmentalism and NIMBYism prevents the adoption of an obviously sensible solution. It is widely imagined that China, India and other countries are forging ahead. This idea was plausible until fairly recently, but the latest evidence suggests that nuclear power is in terminal decline. Globally, only four nuclear plants commenced construction between 1 January 2016 and 30 JUne 2017. China hasn’t started any new plants this year and is sure to miss the 58GW target set for 2020.

The problem, simply, is that while China’s problems with delays and cost overruns have been less severe than those in the developed world, the same patterns are evident. New nuclear plants simply can’t compete with renewables.

I don’t expect that this will have the slightest impact on the Australian and US right, who have long since ceased to regard evidence as relevant to anything. But, for anyone who is still open to evidence, this debate ought to be over.