Bad news that shouldn’t surprise us

The European Union is flaking on climate change, because doing anything about it will hurt GDP in the short run.  This is particularly nuts for them, because Europe is a lot further north than most people realize: the latitude of New York is also the latitude of Madrid and Rome; London is up there with lower Hudson’s Bay.  Of course, global warming might just put the Scots and Swedes in the wine or even banana business big time.  But it also might mess up the Gulf Stream that gives Paris a milder climate than New York rather than the climate of Fargo.

daumierSnow,real snow…I hadn’t seen any in Paris since 1822…it makes me feel thirty years younger!

Not only will a lot of Europe around the edges be going under water, but a lot more will be Arctifying while the rest of the world broils. This pullback is not surprising, unfortunately.  The hard truth about climate stabilization follows from the non-negotiable fact that the atmosphere is well-mixed, so a pound of CO2 released anywhere has about the same warming effect everywhere: the climate benefits of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction are diluted all over the world.  About a ninth of the people in the world live in Europe, so the European benefits of $1m worth of climate stabilization are only about $110,000: to be worth it for them, climate policy has to have a benefit/cost ratio of 9.  That’s really hard to achieve, and the math is much more discouraging for any single country in the EU. Even worse, the payoff comes after pretty much everyone in office is retired or dead.

What we have here, friends, is the granddaddy of all prisoners’ dilemmas, implicit in Hedegaard’s remark “It will require a lot from Europe. If all other big economies followed our example, the world would be a better place.” Even for countries as big as China or maybe India, and even there for policies with a nice fat B/C ratio like, say, 6, the smart move if you think the rest of the world will step up and act is to do nothing and coast on it, and if you think the rest of the world won’t, to do nothing and at least not be a chump. The collapse of European will results from tacit understanding of this game structure.

Human institutions have never dealt with a situation like this at this scale. Little wonder that we are invoking magical thinking (“we’ll all get rich making windmills!”. Climate stabilization is really expensive now. It’s worth it, but not soon and not for any jurisdiction acting by itself. At times like this, only the bitterness of Ambrose Bierce suffices:

A BEAR, a Fox, and an Opossum were attacked by an inundation. “Death loves a coward,” said the Bear, and went forward to fight the flood. “What a fool!” said the Fox. “I know a trick worth two of that.” And he slipped into a hollow stump. “There are malevolent forces,” said the Opossum, “which the wise will neither confront nor avoid. The thing is to know the nature of your antagonist.” So saying the Opossum lay down and pretended to be dead.

[edited for clarity 24/I/14]


Reality check

Note to climate-change deniers: Monsanto just bought Climate Corp. for $970M.

I’m not qualified to judge whether the sale of Climate Corporation to Monsanto is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, or how much of the “Monsatan” label Monsanto has actually earned.

But I’d like to hear the climate-change deniers explain why Monsanto wanted to pay almost $1 billion for a company whose business model is protecting farmers against increasing volatility in the weather, and whose models predict that Kansas will become inhospitable to corn and Alaska a good place to grow wheat.

Keystone Kop

George W. Bush sees no problem with the Keystone pipeline.

Former President George W. Bush Jr, to an oil industry conference on 14 November:

I think the goal of the country ought to be “how do we grow the private sector?” That ought to be the laser-focus of any administration. And therefore, once that’s the goal, an issue like [the] Keystone pipeline becomes a no-brainer.

He should know.

Limits to solar efficiency?

The efficiency of solar panels can still increase a lot.

Cambridge physics professor David Mackay is scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. In his online best-nonseller Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, page 39, he thinks we are already at the practical limit of PV efficiency:

Typical solar panels have an efficiency of about 10%; expensive ones perform at 20%. (Fundamental physical laws limit the efficiency of photovoltaic systems to at best 60% with perfect concentrating mirrors or lenses, and 45% without concentration. A mass-produced [photovoltaic] device with efficiency greater than 30% would be quite remarkable.)

Accordingly his scenarios assume 20% panel efficiency for residential and 10% for utility. That’s till 2050. In 100% renewable scenarios, the volume of solar is constrained by total roof area and competing land uses. So if you could plug in a higher efficiency, the limits shift too.

The DECC online scenario calculator uses 10% PVefficiency load factor and apparently 20% efficiency throughout. This is plain wrong. [Update, correction: I confused efficiency and load factor. See endnote]. In SRoeCo Solar’s online database comparing 12,622(!) panels, the median panel at position 6,311 has an efficiency of 14.50%, and only the bottom 3% are below 10%. The best panel is at 21.57%.

Here’s why I don’t believe Mackay’s 20% (or SunPower’s 21.57%) is a limit. Continue reading “Limits to solar efficiency?”

Pass the Popkern*

The British approval of the costly Hinkley nuclear power station still faces major obstacles in Brussels.

* Explanation of awful bilingual pun at end

While my American readers settle down on Tuesday night to enjoy the end of the political ambitions of Ken Cuccinelli at the hands of a Democratic party hack with zero experience in government, I’m settling in for a long comedy serial: Sir Humphrey Appleby vs. European Commission in re Hinkley Point C.

Hinkley_we_599-300x183The dying nuclear industry (my take on the economics, politics, mascot) has just scored an extraordinary win in Britain. The government will commission EDF and its Chinese partners to build the £16bn, 3.3Gw, two-reactor Hinkley C plant. It’s a fixed-price contract: but to get this protection from the high construction risks, it has had to guarantee an FIT of £92.50 ($147.9, €109.3) per megawatt-hour for no less than 35 years from the supposed completion date of 2023, indexed for inflation. And EDF will be compensated for any curtailment from wind and solar.

The FIT is double the current British wholesale price, twice the current onshore wind FIT, and considerably higher than current German non-indexed FITs for on-and offshore wind and solar. The price of both wind and solar is bound to fall; the British government accepts this, but it lowballs the trend rates. It thinks the price of solar will only decline by 3% a year, far lower than experience and typical industry forecasts.

Whatever were they thinking of? I thought this was bizarre, but nevertheless a done deal. Not in fact. Continue reading “Pass the Popkern*”

Single-Family Homes: A Smart Growth Strategy

Peter Calthorpe's Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes
Peter Calthorpe’s Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes

Sunday’s New York Times features a story by Shaila Dewan asking, “Is Suburban Sprawl on the Way Back?”  Answer: not really, although highly compact urban development is hardly going to dominate, either.  The best quote from the whole piece comes from Smart Growth America President Geoff Anderson, who correctly observed,

The market isn’t all for smart growth, nor is it all for sprawl, The thing for the last 50, 60 years has been that we’ve done nothing but sprawl.

Very true.  And keep it in mind: despite the hysterics emanating from the fever swamps of the right, smart growth is a deregulatory, pro-market strategy.  Smart growth advocates believe that if consumers actually get what they want, we will have a much smarter growth pattern than we have seen since the Second World War.

But Dewan does play into the Dumb Growth advocates’ ideology by noting that although smart growth and compact development seems to be on the rise,

Single-family homes still define the American dream and prospective home buyers overwhelmingly prefer them.

Assuming that this is true, this hardly undermines a smart growth strategy and might in fact enhance it.  Going on 20 years now, urban planners and smart growth advocates have been busily building single-family homes.  They are simply a different single-family home footprint than we are used to.

Consider the massive front lawn characteristic of traditional suburban sprawl.  The front lawn is typically the most wasted space in a house — few families really use it — and in any event, reflects a demographic pattern more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than the present.  That pattern was the one-earner family: husband works, wife stays home with the kids, presumably supervising them on the front lawn.  Now, families look very different, and even if they are traditional two-parent families, both parents are working, with the kids in child care.

You can actually get pretty high density in a single-family neighborhood if you get rid of the front lawns.  And if you combine that with shared backyards, such as featured in the Backyardigans cartoon series for children, you can get even more density while losing very little usable space.  An example of this is Highlands Garden Village, as designed by new urbanist Peter Calthorpe: lots of single family houses, with lots of open space, but in a more compact pattern.  It’s smart growth and single family houses and there is no contradiction there.

Planners have known this for years.  In a celebrated 1996-7 debate between Reid Ewing and Peter Gordon in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Ewing pointed out that Gordon’s entire critique of smart growth, viz. that people like single-family homes, rests upon an assumption that is demonstrably false, viz. that smart growth rejects the single family home.  It doesn’t, Ewing pointed out: it simply advocates 1) for the market to guide choices (with appropriate pricing for environmental degradation and other damage caused by sprawl); and 2) for single-family homes to reflect the far more compact character that would come from accurate pricing.

This may be what eventually develops, as Dewan points out: a town centers concept where people can live close to their individual town center but in a single-family house.  This is a smart growth strategy, and also will reduce VMT: the majority of VMT are for in-town trips, not commutes, so bringing houses closer to town centers would have a positive climate impact.

Single family homes are a smart growth strategy as long they are planned and developed, well, smartly.  One can’t help but wonder if smart growth critics ignore this because they don’t understand it, or because they do.

Lawrence Summers as Fed Chair: The View From Climate Policy

Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?
Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?

Lots of debate in Blogistan and elsewhere about President Obama’s apparent desire to appoint Larry Summers as Fed Chair.  We know (or at least we think we know) that he is brilliant, but he has a strange tendency to get matters of judgment wrong.  He supported the abolition of Glass-Steagall, endorsed deregulation of the financial industry, and seems to have little desire to admit that he got these things wrong.  Plus, there are sexist overtones to the seeming refusal to want to appoint current Fed vice-chair Janet Yellen, an outstanding economist in her own right.

All right.  But what does this have to do with climate policy?

Interestingly, a few years ago, Summers participated in a Council on Foreign Relations task force regarding climate policy options.  Like all CFR task forces, this one was self-consciously centrist, chaired by former New York Governor George Pataki (relatively moderate Republican, especially on climate issues) and former Iowa Governor (and now Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack (moderate Democrat).  Its report, Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for US Foreign Policy, is a quite comprehensive view of the stakes of climate policy, at least as of June 2008, when it was written.  It recommends putting a price on carbon, reducing emissions to the Kyoto level, and several other policy options.  Summers signed it.

But interestingly, Summers also appended a very short “comment” to the report, which says something about potential behavior as Fed Chair (how much is up to the reader).

Here are the two key graphs of his comment:

I have signed this report because it makes the need for urgent action on climate change clear and presents a smart and thoughtful agenda for reducing U.S. emissions, building international consensus, and promoting international action, with which I broadly concur.

The Task Force rightly notes that the costs of addressing climate change are highly uncertain, but I remain concerned that many policymakers do not sufficiently appreciate how large these uncertainties are or the consequences of paying them insufficient attention. Environmental certainty enjoys much attention while uncertainty over the cost of cutting emissions receives too little. This balance is wrong, particularly in the short term, since emissions in any given year matter little, while high costs, even for a short period, can cause substantial economic harm, particularly to the most vulnerable.

A few things jump out here:

1)  Summers gets the politics of climate change exactly 100% wrong.  The gravamen of his argument, i.e. “we are hurtling toward overregulation in the climate sphere” was wrong at the time and has been proved to be completely inaccurate.  To the extent that a Fed Chair has to be cognizant of political trends, this is not a good sign.  Anyone can get political prognostication wrong: but to go out of your way to get it wrong is a black mark.

2)  Summers makes no real substantive contribution in his comment.  He seems simply to want to emphasize, “I am thinking about things that no one else is.”  This on a task force with some of the leading thinkers in the field.  This does not bode well for a position like Fed Chair, which requires building consensus.

3)  He was wrong about what other people are thinking about.  Scholars and policymakers have been thinking about uncertainty all the time and had done so for more than a decade.

4)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a sub silentio call for a carbon tax, he was also wrong about its salience: the carbon tax idea was being promoted literally by dozens of scholars and policymakers.

5)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a restatement of the need of a high discount rate, it is not backed up by any facts or reasoning.  It also is wrong on the absence of short-term costs.

I keep hearing that Summers is a very brilliant man, and would do a wonderful job as Fed Chair.  To the extent that his intervention in climate policy is any indication, there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in fact the evidence demonstrates the opposite.  I’m assuming for the time being that the Emperor has clothes: but it would be nice to see them eventually.