Recycling and Packaging

One area of modern life that I think needs to be addressed in greater depth is the way packaging (and its attendant stress on landfill) has increased over the past few decades. When a package consists of paper, mylar, plastic, and other substances glued together, how in hell does a recycler deal with that? Since it’s a worldwide concern, are there other countries that deal with it in better ways than we do? Is there a way of incorporating the cost of (near-impossible) recycling this kind of packaging into the equation?

And more generally, what kind of research is being done to create packaging that is more amenable to recycling? I remember seeing something about using fungi (mushrooms or other mycological substances) for packaging. Of course, this material is not transparent, but if the rest of the package can be recycled it’s a start.

Coal crash in India

New coal plants in India have crashed to under 5 GW a year.

To cheer you up from a news diet of Trump, a chart from IEEFA of new generating plants in India:


Coal fell off a cliff two years ago. The coal additions in 2017-18 (India uses an April-to-April fiscal year inherited from the Raj) were only 4.2 GW. Coal Plant Tracker still reports 39 GW of coal under construction (with 97 GW suspended and a staggering 476 GW cancelled since 2010), but it’s very likely that much of this is walking dead. IEEFA predicts the real pipeline is 10-20 GW, after which no more will (I infer) ever be needed.

You don’t often see turning points advertised in neon like this. India has had since 2003 a modern split electricity market as in the UK and Texas, with a monopoly national grid, monopoly state distribution companies, and competitive generation. So you got a coal bubble, and a coal crash – far more dramatic than in dirigiste China or quasi-socialist USA. It’s pretty certain that the owners of the few plants coming online are not happy bunnies, and their shiny new assets are born lossmakers. India has large surplus capacity (the power cuts come from the rickety grid), so the average coal capacity factor is below 60% and heading down. New solar can beat existing coal on price by 20%, so it’s only going to get worse.

Indian banks have up to $38 bn of bad loans to power companies (Merrill Lynch). Modi’s government is business-friendly to the point of cronyism, so some sort of bailout will be arranged. It is even more voting-farmer-friendly, so the bailout will not be perfect. Gautam Adani will remain a rich man, but not as rich as he is today.

James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters

James Hansen puts himself wrongly in Jonah’s booth.

James Hansen is a great man. His testimony to the US Congress thirty years ago was the key moment when political leaders were made inescapably aware of the fact that humans are on a very dangerous path of heating up the Earth’s climate. Hansen’s predictions were absolutely right. He has continued to publish, in the face of incessant attacks by hired shills, who have SFIK never been able to land a serious blow on his research.

At first, it seemed he was being listened to. H.W. Bush signed the UN Framework climate treaty in Rio in 1991, and the US Senate consented to it by a 98-0 vote. The IPCC had already been set up in 1988, and provided a ready-made purveyor of consensus science as a basis for further action. Then it all slowly fell apart. The Kyoto protocol of 1997 provided the Rio framework with its first, limited emissions targets, and a complicated cap-and-trade emissions trading system designed by the best policy wonks. But it left out developing countries, notably China and India, who proceeded to build hundreds of gigawatts of coal-burning power stations, while the US never ratified. The fossil fuel lobbies organised faster and more effectively than their environmentalist adversaries, and succeeded in manufacturing a level of doubt and fear unsupported by the evidence and the overwhelming consensus of qualified scientists. Successive climate summits failed to advance beyond Kyoto. The free-rider problem was an insoluble obstacle.

Things changed only in 2015. The way the optimists such as me read it, two things broke the logjam. Continue reading “James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters”

Shock news: denialist hack trashes electric cars

Bret Stephens is out to lunch on electric cars.

NYT journalist Bret Stephens has written a column attacking Elon Musk as “the Donald Trump of Silicon Valley”. Musk, whose 27% share of Tesla stock is currently worth $13.2bn, can look after himself. Perhaps Stephens has friends in the dispirited coterie of Tesla bears who need a helping hand?

What interests me is Stephens’ undocumented attack on Tesla’s main product, electric cars.

Tesla, by contrast, today is a terrible idea with a brilliant leader. The terrible idea is that electric cars are the wave of the future, at least for the mass market. Gasoline has advantages in energy density, cost, infrastructure and transportability that electricity doesn’t and won’t for decades. […] Electric vehicles were supposed to be the car of the future because we were running out of oiluntil we weren’t.

Set aside the easily checked fact that governments do not subsidise electric cars because they worry the world is running out of oil, but because of climate change and urban air pollution – plus a good dose of energy independence, as in China and India. Let’s see how electric cars have actually been selling. A chart from the IEA:

Source: IEA, Global EV Outlook 2017, data in Tables 4-6

The 5-year CAGRs are: PHEVs 143%, BEVs 85%, all EVs 107% (see spreadsheet). Continue reading “Shock news: denialist hack trashes electric cars”

Royal bus wedding

Buses at the royal wedding, and the e-bus revolution.

This is SFIK the first royal wedding to feature buses. Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams and the noisy cast of Suits took up the option of the bus transport to the Harry-Meghan extravaganza provided by Kensington Palace. (Buses are surely an important cultural and political reference to black Americans.) They must have saved quite a bit on taxis, as prices were no doubt gouged on the day.

Meanwhile, the Thames Valley plod* impounded a bus used by an NGO to offer shelter to homeless people in Windsor. Can’t let sordid reality spoil the careful constructed image of multicultural bliss. I can’t find a photo of the guest buses, so the homeless one gets the RBC nod.

A-list celebrities are exquisitely sensitive to subtle shifts  in style and taste. Is the humble proletarian bus making a social comeback?

If it does, it will probably be on the back of electrification. Electric buses are much quieter and smoother than diesel ones, as well as non-polluting. The market is growing fast, led by China’s 100,000 a year (ca. 20% market share). Shenzhen, part of the Pearl River megalopolis and home to leading manufacturer BYD, already has a 16,000- strong all-electric fleet, a small part of which is pictured here.

Cities and other bus operators outside China are beginning to place serious orders, after several years of messing about with small trials. London; Nottingham; Oslo; Hamburg; Los Angeles; Schiphol and LAX airports. That’s a very incomplete list, the bandwagon is rolling. San Francisco, promising an all-electric fleet by 2035 with first orders only in 2020, comes across as a greenwashing shilly-shallier.

The dramatic shift is driven by a combination of greenery and costs. Many city halls are now aware of the devastating health costs from urban air pollution, much of it from diesel vehicles, much of that from buses. On the cost side, thanks to sharp falls in the cost of batteries, electric buses are now competitive with diesels and CNG (natural gas) on a total-cost-of ownership basis (TCO). BNEF (link to pdf):

As battery prices continue to decline, e-buses will have a lower total cost of ownership than
comparable diesel or CNG buses for all of the options discussed here, even at lower annual
distances covered. Using the same battery price projections as in the upfront cost analysis, we estimate that the TCO for the most expensive e-bus configurations – the 350kWh e-bus coupled with slow charging at the depot and the 110kWh e-bus coupled with wireless charging – will reach TCO competitiveness with a diesel bus as soon as this year (2018).

Buses are just now as important as cars in the overall battery market (BNEF, page 21, Figure 10).

So for Hizzoner or Herroner at City Hall, and the rival politicians seeking to supplant them, buying electric buses is a free move. It gains green cred with voters, for real not phony reasons, and it doesn’t cost anything using sensible accounting. And the riders and drivers get more comfort and less vibration and noise.

*     *     *     *

*Plod: Br.E. informal: a police officer; by extension (“the plod”), the police force. Probably from the character PC Plod in the successful Noddy children’s book series by Enid Blyton, 1950s.


Stuff and nonsense

The dematerialisation of growth seems to be on track.

Are we doomed to drown in stuff, or run out of the raw materials to make it? After the midwinter potlatch I was ready for some good fire and brimstone on this well-worn theme. George Monbiot is usually a reliable Savonarola, but I found his latest Christmas diatribe against growth and consumerism disappointing.

Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunas, portable watermelon coolers and smart phones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3-D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go.

Personally, I’d have gone with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now twice the size of France. [Update: you can of course follow her on Facebook.] The trouble with anecdotes, however stomach-churning, is that they don’t tell you anything about the trend. Are Monbiot’s ghastly examples typical, or the reflection of the fact that most middle-class people in rich countries already have all the material possessions they need and most of what they want? In that environment, finding affordable presents the recipients will actually like is getting harder and harder, before we finally stop the pointless exercise.

For the trend, we need models and numbers. I’ve already written about solid research by Thomas Wiedmann et al that Monbiot pointed me to, showing that:

1. The material intensity of world GDP has been going down.

2. It is still coupled to GDP, and there is no complete dematerialisation of growth.

So far so so-so. Wiedmann’s data stop in 2009, and he hasn’t updated yet. To fill the gap, Monbiot pointed to a new paper by Australian economist James Ward et al, purporting to show that decoupling of economic growth from material inputs is an illusion. IMHO this is question-begging hothouse orchid-growing; a wearisome takedown below the jump.

To get an idea of what’s been happening recently, I had a go myself with rustic methods. I constructed indices of world consumption for five significant materials (steel, aluminium, copper, cement, paper and board), normalised to 2005, before the financial crisis. Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels track their production. I couldn’t find world data for construction sand and gravel, so I threw in data for the USA: it’s interesting because these are very cheap and widely available, so consumption cannot be significantly affected anywhere by price or supply constraints. Here’s the result. A pretty chart; spreadsheet with working and data sources here. [Update 5 April: following a suggestion by commenter Nick at John Quiggin’s blog, I’ve added gross shipping tonnage to the charts and spreadsheet.]

This clearly suggests that the partial decoupling established by Wiedmann has got stronger recently. The inflection seems to have happened around 2013.

This is pretty crude, but it tells a clear story. Raw materials only lagged GDP by a little up to five years ago. Since then – and without any global recession – they are running at about half of GDP growth, and only a little faster than population. There is just one outlier in my basket, aluminium, which is still replacing steel as lighter and more durable. We have not yet quite reached Peak Stuff. But the strong dematerialising forces that created the moderation are still at work. It is a reasonable hope that we will pass the peak in the coming decade.


Timeline of my posts on this topic, changing my mind twice (new information, you see, and no help from the stars of the economics profession):

June 3, 2014

January 14, 2016

February 21, 2016

Long comment on the James Ward paper below the jump.

Continue reading “Stuff and nonsense”

Burying carbon, a primer

Massive carbon sequestration: we will have to do it, and it’s feasible.

The Paris Agreement includes in Article 2.1.a an alternative 1.5C target for global warming, as an aspiration. The IPCC has been tasked with preparing a special report on what this target implies. Somebody with political guile leaked an early working draft of the summary for policymakers of the report.  This has interesting things to say on sequestration, page 18.

3.5 All mitigation pathways compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2100 involve removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. […] The total amount of CO2 removal projected in 1.5°C pathways in the literature is of the order of 380-1130 Gt CO2 over the 21st century.

Converting from CO2 to carbon (the ratio is 3.67, from the atomic weights in the molecule – no guesswork here), we get a wide range from 104 to 308 Gt carbon. Annual emissions today are about 9 Gt.

Suppose we allow ourselves 50 years for the task. Assuming that 1.5 degrees becomes the policy goal, we will have to bury 2 to 6 Gt a year. Ouch.

BTW, we should convert to carbon. Nobody can imagine a tonne of a gas, but carbon is a solid. A tonne of carbon in coal is for instance typically 1.2 m3. Using my proposed journalistic unit of the Cheops (the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza), the sequestration effort will be from 1,000 to 3,000 pyramids’ worth. Every year.

There is a one-stop miracle fix. From 1 January 2020, just say to all fossil fuel companies, in the spirit of the Spanish proverb: “Take what you like, said God. Take it, and pay for it”: anyone can emit as much CO2 as they like, but must put it back within ten years. No pesky negotiations over the carbon tax are needed. Simple!

Somehow I don’t feel this is likely to gain acceptance, so we need to work on the costs, technologies, and incentives that could conceivably inform policy in the real world. My initial thoughts below the jump. Continue reading “Burying carbon, a primer”

Incapax imperii, nec fossores laborant

The FERC rejection of Perry’s coal proposal as an example of the general incompetence of the Trump Administration.

President Trump, first SOTU:

We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.

The past tense is a nice touch. Like Napoleon returning to Paris from Egypt, he just declares that defeat is victory.

Candidate Donald Trump promised not only to stop the decline in coal mining jobs but to bring lost ones back. This wasn’t a casual campaign lie, like support for LGBTQ rights, abandoned from the inauguration. Trump, Pence and Cabinet members repeated the promise after the election, for instance in May. The promise was critical to securing votes in rural counties in Pennsylvania. It was part of the wider narrative of support for the white American working class, which won him crucial defections from the Obama coalition in Michigan and Wisconsin. This was a central Trump commitment. How is it working out?

Not well. True, US coal production and jobs have ticked up in 2017:

(Data to January 5. The chart being from FRED, you can update it from here whenever you like.)

The increase came entirely from exports. French nuclear power stations had unexpected maintenance issues. Chinese planners miscalculated and shut down dozens of small coal mines ahead of the trend fall in consumption, which surprisingly ticked up too. These are just blips. The world trend in coal is steadily down, and imports are vulnerable everywhere. Continued export growth is most unlikely. US consumption, the only solid basis for American coal mining, fell by 2.6%.

The domestic prospects are even worse. In 2017, US utilities closed 8 GW of coal capacity and announced the retirement of 27 coal plants over time.  It takes roughly 6 GW of operating coal capacity to support a thousand mining jobs, so the annual rate of job loss should be around 2,000 at current rates, allowing for the fact that the high-cost, labour-intensive mines will go first.  This will accelerate. The coal generating fleet (290 GW nameplate in 2016) is old. The mean weighted age is 40 years, a typical design life. Just carrying on is often not an option: it’s an expensive refit or closure. According to Lazards,

As LCOE values for alternative energy technologies continue to decline, in some scenarios the full-lifecycle costs of building and operating renewables-based projects have dropped below the operating costs alone of conventional generation technologies such as coal or nuclear.

This is already happening in Texas and Colorado. It doesn’t look as if coal closures will stay as low as 10 GW a year, or the industry survive 30 years. No US coal plant is safe for long, ergo no coal mine or mining job. This has nothing to do with the suspended CPP, a paper tiger, which basically put a diplomatic gloss on current economic trends.

So how is President Canute’s plan to stop the tide (endnote) going? Let’s look at this through the lens of the recent FERC decision throwing out Perry’s proposal for a coal and nuclear subsidy. Continue reading “Incapax imperii, nec fossores laborant”

Getting biofuels wrong, wrong, wrong

The European Parliament is about to decide whether to stop counting forest biomass as a “green fuel”, that is, fuel having no global warming impact, and restricting that status to residues and wastes. This is important because their current rules do not assign a carbon cost to whole trees harvested for fuel and burned.  The theory behind the current rule is that the tree got its carbon from the air, but it’s deeply absurd; coal got its carbon from the air too. Forests store a lot of carbon, and putting it into the atmosphere is very much like burning fossil fuel; trees may be replanted and then may be allowed to regrow and recapture carbon, but for the decades that takes, the carbon from the harvest is in the air warming the planet.

Do you live in the EU? Know people who do? Find your MEPs here and give them a heads up, as the authors of the letter at the bottom of this page have done. This is important.

Popper and Kahneman visit an Indian coal mine

Indian coal offers a nice moment of Popperian falsfication.

Daniel Kahneman has a simple explanation why we don’t think things through: laziness. It’s no work to rely on the sloppy, but fast and efficient, Hare mental system, using short cuts and stereotypes to get a response that is, under the current US President, good enough for government work. Rigorous thought is hard.

Karl Popper offered a short cut through the hard part that is still rigorous: falsification of hypotheses. One false prediction and you’re out. A nice idea, but it rarely works. You can save almost any hypothesis with tweaks, including Ptolemaic astronomy. So it’s back to comparing the best shots of the competing hypotheses, hard work again.

Just occasionally, life presents us with a simple Popperian test. Here is one I spotted, on the recondite but important subject of Indian coal burning. There are two entrants. Goliath is the IEA, a stuffy but reputed intergovernmental policy and data shop in Paris. David is IEEFA, a small energy policy think tank in Cleveland.

IEA: India’s coal consumption will more than double by 2040. (IEEFA pdf, page 1.) The source is presumably the IEA World Energy Outlook 2017, paywalled; it’s not in the free summary. See also this IEA FAQ:

The positive IEA outlook for coal demand through 2020 is based in part on growth in India and Southeast Asia that will more than offset structural declines in Europe and the United States.


The headline to the chart understates the predicted change: growth will be trivial after next year. This means that India’s overall carbon emissions may stabilise in less than a decade, assuming the electric transition goes as fast in transport as the government plans.

Who’s right? Continue reading “Popper and Kahneman visit an Indian coal mine”