Category Archives: Technology

The Silver Bullet Of Climate Change Policy

From Forbes.com:

By Bob Litterman and Gernot Wagner

Whenever the conversation turns to climate change, someone is sure to opine that there’s no silver bullet. The issue is simply too complex to have one solution. When you focus on all the changes that need to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally it seems like a multifaceted approach is the only way forward.

Most of the world’s vexing problems share that feature. Mideast peace, nuclear non-proliferation, Eurozone stability, and plenty of other national security problems have no single right plan of attack. Some past plans might have brought us tantalizingly close to a seeming solution, but then reality started interfering once again, reconfirming the complexity of it all.

Climate change must surely be in that category. No single country, no single technology, no single approach can seemingly solve this one for us once and for all. Picking a single technology will almost inevitably end in some form of disappointment. Bureaucrats, the saying goes, ought not to try to pick winners. Leave that to venture capitalists for whom failure is a way of life. For every Apple and Facebook, there are dozens who never make it out of the garage. And clean technology doesn’t yet even have a single Apple and Facebook as the standout approach revolutionizing the field.

It turns out, though, that how you frame the issue is crucial. If you think like an engineer there are dozens of challenges. If you think like an economist, there is one. It’s guiding the ‘invisible hand’. How can you create the appropriate incentive to decrease the pollution that’s causing climate change? For that, the government need not be in the business of picking winners at all. What it should—and can—do is identify the loser that’s been clear for decades: greenhouse gas pollution. And the solution is equally clear: create incentives to reduce emissions by pricing it. If we make this one change, most other actions that are needed will follow.

That’s what the European Union has done by capping carbon emissions from its energy sector, including large industrials, covering almost half of total carbon emissions. That’s what California is doing with over 80 percent of its total global warming emissions. It’s what China is experimenting with in seven city and regional trials, including in Beijing and Shanghai. All these systems put a price on greenhouse gas pollution.

On the other side of the ledger, there are still much larger incentives to consume fossil fuels in many other countries. The International Energy Agency estimates that global subsidies are well over $500 billion. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.

There’s one simple principle that’s been around in economics for so long that no economist worth his or her degree would question the conclusion: increase the price, watch the quantity demanded go down. It’s such a universal truism that economists call it the “Law of Demand.” Generations of graduate students have estimated the effects of price on demand for anything from the generic widget to demand for car miles driven. People may be irrational at times, but one thing that we know for sure is that they respond to incentives.

Everything we know from decades of the study of human behavior would lead us to believe that carbon pollution will go down as the price on emissions increases. The only interesting question is by how much.

The prescription then for anyone seriously concerned about climate change is simple: price carbon to the point where its now unpriced damages are incorporated into the price, and get out of the way. It’s simple. It works. It’s conservative to the core.

It’s also a silver bullet solution if there ever was one.

Bob Litterman is a Partner at Kepos Capital, LP. Gernot Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Newsflash: Clean Air Act saves lives, boosts GDP

We have sometimes been the bearers of bad news on jobs in the past. Not bad news, really. Realistic news. So excuse me for being a bit giddy at the sight of the latest piece of very realistic—and very good—news.

The EPA just released a new White Paper that turns out to be as green as it is red, white, and blue.

Lives and health at a bargain price

First, it starts with what really matters when considering the impact of the Clean Air Act—health and the corresponding social and economic benefits:

  • 18 million child respiratory illnesses prevented in 1990 alone,
  • 200,000 lives saved that year (160,000 in 2010),
  • total benefits outpacing costs 30:1 since 1990.

These are the key figures we need to keep in mind. Always.

Healthy kids means a healthy workforce

For anyone who isn't yet satisfied but worries about the economic impact of the Clean Air Act, there's more good news:

Protecting children from neurotoxins leads to workers with higher IQs.

That should be an obvious statement. It also turns out to come with real economic benefits. The latest study by Harvard's Dale Jorgenson et al shows that the Clean Air Act has boosted productivity and growth:

GDP in 2010 is 1.5 percent higher than it would have been without the Clean Air Act.

Again, that's GDP. Hard economic growth. The number that measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.

Clean and competitive

Lastly, the paper concludes with a look at competitiveness concerns. The verdict: the Clean Air Act does not harm competitiveness.

That's not as strong as saying that the Clean Air Act improves U.S. competitiveness. Improving productivity also improves competitiveness, and combining the standard competitiveness arguments with Jorgenson's productivity results may well show that to be the case.

But no one to my knowledge has done that yet credibly. (Of course, I'd love to be proven wrong on that point.) To the full credit of EPA and the credibility of its analysis, the paper does not go that far either.

The White Paper stays well within the mainstream of economic analysis of the Clean Air Act and bears plenty of good news for health, wealth, and the planet.

Read it at your own peril. It may well be the first piece of economic analysis that makes you giddy yourself.

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The long and the short of energy efficiency

David Owen asks a provocative question in the current New YorkerIf our machines use less energy, will we just use them more? He more or less says yes. The real answer comes in two parts.

For now—over days, weeks, months, and even years—energy efficiency will decrease energy use and emissions. Screw a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb into a socket that used to hold an incandescent and your energy use will go down. Chances are you won't leave the lights on four times as long just because light now costs a quarter.

Over time—years, decades, centuries, and millennia—more energy efficient lights and appliances will indeed mean that more people use more of them. CFLs make light more affordable. That doesn't matter to the typical U.S. household, where few light sockets remain unused because of energy costs. But globally—and over time—it does make a difference.

The Jevons Paradox

William Stanley JevonsOwen goes back to 1865 and William Stanley Jevons who at 28 came up with what has later been called the "Jevons Paradox":

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Jevons is right, of course. We have seen dramatic increases in energy efficiency over centuries while energy use has gone up by orders of magnitude.

Does that mean we shouldn't increase energy efficiency? Of course not. We just need to be clear about what we are getting in exchange.

Energy over the millennia

Sperm WhaleBy the mid-1800s, the latest and greatest in lighting technology was spermaceti, a fat from the head of sperm whales. It cost around $1,500 a barrel in today's dollars and its price was only going to go up as whales became ever scarcer. Since then, we have seen gas lights come and go and by now electric lights cost less than a thousandth as much as the equivalent in lighting power back then.

That's not a recent phenomenon. Bill Nordhaus went back to 500,000 BC. Lighting cost a million times [PDF] as much then as it does today. Needless to say, we are using much more of it now.

Another word for this phenomenon is “technological progress.” That’s really what’s behind the whale oil story, and we want more of it. There is still plenty of energy poverty [PDF] in the world. We clearly want affordable, clean energy for as many people as possible.

Of course, misguided “progress” has also led us to a planet on the brink of breakage. We need to limit greenhouse gas emissions—and do so sooner rather than later.

Will energy efficiency save the climate?

Should we look to energy efficiency as a way to do some of that? Absolutely. Energy efficiency is cheap, quick, clean, and often underutilized.

McKinsey has looked for zero-cost energy efficiency opportunities in the United States and has found possible savings of above 20 percent of total demand in 2020.  Those savings, could go a long way toward meeting commonly discussed climate policy goals.

But won’t those energy savings just mean that we are using more energy eventually? History has shown it to be true after all.

In the short run—over days, weeks, months, and even years—the Jevons Paradox manifests itself in a well-documented “rebound effect” of around 10 percent. On average, you would indeed leave your CFL on for a bit longer than you would an incandescent. We lose a tenth of energy savings to increased use. (Owen cites the 10 percent figure but then goes on to overstate some of the implications dramatically.)

That leaves 90 percent in true savings and points to the clear win-win potential of energy efficiency measures.

Not by energy efficiency alone

In the long run—over years, decades, centuries, and millennia—cleaner and cheaper energy also means more people will be using more of it.

Does that mean energy efficiency is bad? Of course not. Energy inefficiency is another term for waste. And we clearly want less of that. But the problems our planet faces are too large to address through waste reduction (“reduce, reuse, recycle”) alone.

To get emissions down in the long run, there’s no escaping the (gasp) inconvenient truth that we must limit pollution directly—ideally though a declining cap on total emissions.

A cap on emissions—and the ensuing price on carbon pollution and race to invent cleaner energy sources—is the only mechanism we know that can break the link between emissions and energy use.  It limits the former and makes clean energy cheaper relative to fossil fuels.

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There They Go Again, Part Two: Mercury

Sometimes cap and trade isn't the best solution. Call me a purist, but I want my kid's amniotic fluid to be toxin-free. In the case of mercury, direct regulation is the best way to go.

It also shows that carbon can have some good uses after all. Activated Carbon Injection can reduce mercury pollution from power plants by 90 percent. It's clean(er), readily available, already deployed large scale, and affordable. Now it's up to EPA to set the proper rules.

Steve Cochran tells the full story. Second in a series.

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One person's cost, another's opportunity

Transitioning into a new, low-carbon energy future costs money. No doubt about it. Yet the flip-side of cost is opportunity.

Pew just released a new study on Global Clean Power: A $2.3 Trillion Opportunity. Is this just a smart attempt at rebranding the inevitable, or is there more behind this?

Costs now, savings later

Cash flow graphFirst, a quick qualifier on costs. Yes, investing in low-carbon technology costs money upfront. It's also true, though, that many investments in clean technology reap savings later.

The up-front capital expenditures for wind, solar, nuclear, and other low-carbon technologies are large. But operating costs are much cheaper than using fossils fuels (and I'm not even including the costs of climate change from carbon emissions, which have long been socialized).

CapEx OpEx tableThat still doesn't make the transition a freebie, but it makes it much cheaper over time. McKinsey has run the numbers. Global net incremental capital expenditures for a clean energy future are significantly lower than upfront capital investments, once we consider operational cost savings.

These operational cost savings could, in fact, be called "opportunities." But that's not what the Pew report has in mind. It refers to the actual costs.

Cost = Opportunity ?

Higher costs imply more money changing hands. So costs do, in fact, equal opportunities in a very real sense for anyone on the receiving end of the transaction.

If you decide which career to pursue, you may well want to opt for renewables instead of, say, petroleum engineering. Your chance of landing a job is much greater. The former will add many more jobs in the foreseeable future. And once you are in a particular industry, you want as much money to come your way as possible. (Of course, a scarcity of petroleum engineers would imply a salary premium for the few who do opt to study a 19th century technology.)

That is different from society's and especially the government's perspective, where cost minimization is de rigueur. That's also what makes market incentives—a cap on carbon emissions—so crucial: it unleashes private investment dollars without government spending.

Investment + Recession = Opportunity

But even the social picture changes completely once we find ourselves in a situation we are in right now.

In a recession, with lots of spare capacity and industry literally sitting on $1 trillion in idle cash, creating incentives for more spending is exactly what we want to do as a society.

Investing in renewable energy, of course, has the added benefit that it also comes with an enormous social benefit—by decreasing the now socialized costs of carbon emissions. That's one cost we definitely want to avoid.

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Everything's Amazing, until you illuminate it

We live twice as long as people only ten generations ago. We are richer, much richer than anyone alive two generations ago. Or in other words, it once took weeks, months, or years to make it from sea to shining sea. Now, flying from California to New York means "you watch a movie, take a dump, and you are home."

Not if, when

But flying is more than watching movies. It also comes with real pollution. Lots of it. A flight from New York to Delhi creates more carbon pollution than the average Indian produces in a year. Individually that has little impact on the planet. Collectively it makes all the difference.

It's  no longer a question of if, it's when vast coastal areas will be under water, if we don't change course soon. We are distorting the global nitrogen cycle beyond recognition. Our oceans face multiple assaults from collapsing fisheries to ocean acidification and often still unknown consequences from oil spills and other toxins.

It may well be both. Many things are getting better most of the time, largely due to awesome technological innovations. Yet we are also facing enormous challenges of unprecedented proportions.

Nightfall or Singularity?

Ian Morris's magnum opusStanford historian Ian Morris argues in his impressive magnum opus, Why the West Rules—for Now, that we face a choice. But the choice is not what you think.

It's not about educating American children and investing in American ingenuity to fend off the inevitable ascendancy of the "East." It's about educating American children—all children—and investing in global innovation to ward off something much bigger: the possibility of planetary mayhem akin to total nuclear annihilation, "Nightfall." His words, not mine.

Levels of innovation—"progress"—are so rapid, so unprecedented in human history that the question is not whether we will be making cross-country flights even faster or more convenient than they were only thirty years ago, or whether China or India will build faster planes than Boeing or Airbus. We don't know what the frontiers of travel itself will look like thirty, twenty, or ten years from now. The question, according to Morris, is how to avoid the entire system spinning out of control.

The happy opposite of Nightfall is "Singularity," a state where everyone, all humans, live at unprecedented levels of wealth, and in harmony with each other and the planet.

That's quite a tall order. The question is how to get there.

Make Wikipedia history

First and foremost, it's about channeling human ingenuity to work for rather than against us. That comes down to finding governance systems to guide market forces in the right direction.

The single most important step is to make everyone accountable for their full actions. "Privatizing profits and socializing losses" has its own Wikipedia page. That page, for now, only talks about the financial crisis as a classic symptom of the misguided mantra.

The planet is in exactly the same boat. Profits accrue to each and every one of us, personally. The losses are spread across everyone—you, me, your children, my unborn children.

You don't have to believe in Morris's stark choice between Nightfall and Singularity—although after reading his book, he will likely have convinced you—to realize that the planet will be getting worse unless, and only unless, that Wikipedia entry becomes a historical footnote.

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