The Game Plan

The Game Plan : A solution framework for climate change and energy is a slick, Creative Commons licensed slide presentation covering issues of energy and climate change. It’s like a more numerically focused, more technical, open-source version of An Inconvenient Truth. Clearly, it is aimed at a very different audience. Still, it is interesting and potentially useful as a source of graphics and information.

A seven megabyte PDF version is also available. A PDF of the speaking notes, likewise.

Carbon trading, windfalls, and consumers

Air conditioners from above

This background note on carbon trading from the Sightline Institute does a good job of explaining the relevance of different modes of permit allocation to consumers. That sounds terribly dull, I’m sure, but it’s simple and important. The basic idea of carbon trading is that you set some level of allowable emissions for a facility, firm, sector, or economy. Say you want to reduce total national emissions by 2% over the next year. You multiply current national emissions by 0.98 and create permits for that quantity of emissions. What you do next is very important. You can either auction these credits to the highest bidder, requiring firms that produce greenhouse gasses to purchase them, or you give some or all of them away for free to such firms.

The critical point here is that these credits are money. Auctioning them does two things: it requires polluters to pay for their emissions and it raises funds. These can be invested in research, used to subsidize low-carbon technologies, or just used to fund general tax cuts. When these credits are given away for free, they give firms the option of either continuing to pollute for free or selling the right to pollute to someone else.

The point made in this document is that consumers end up bearing the cost from either approach. This is because unless firms are tightly regulated or in competition with other firms that don’t face emissions restrictions, they will both profit from any permits they are allocated for free and pass along the cost of permits to consumers. The analogy used in this document is a good one:

Try buying World Series tickets from a scalper. Would he charge you any less if he found the tickets on the ground? Of course he wouldn’t. Like energy, the street price of World Series tickets is based on supply and demand. The supply and demand for tickets is the same no matter how much the scalper paid for them, and so the price he charges you will also be the same no matter how he got them.

Of course, the scalper would much rather get his tickets for free – and that’s precisely the point. Polluters are financially much better off if permits are given away instead of auctioned, but the cost of cutting emissions and the resulting effect on energy prices will be the same no matter how the permits are delivered.

As such, the superiority of an auction system is further reinforced. Not only does it implement the Polluter Pays principle, but it also provides a mechanism through which governments can compensate consumers for the manipulative behaviour of firms.

WordPress 2.5

WordPress 2.5 doesn’t look much different from the perspective of the reader, but the administrative controls are much slicker. Upgrading seems to be relatively painless, and my plugins seem to work.

One really nice thing is that you can now change the default thumbnail size from within the interface (under Settings > Miscellaneous). My thumbnail size hack can now be cheerfully thrown into the dustbin of historical code.

I remain impressed that the WordPress team continues to produce such excellent free software – the best blogging platform available.

[Update: 14 Apr 2008] WordPress 2.5 seems to have a lot of bugs. Often, it hangs when I try to post comments, then tells me the comments are duplicate. I am getting lots of Error 500 pages. Sometimes, when I make a post WordPress says that it failed. It then becomes a draft with random incorrect categories attached to it.

The new page for writing posts has an awkward layout. The scheduled posts page doesn’t show the time when posts will appear. The image uploader sometimes refuses to let you add titles or descriptions to things you just uploaded, with the option to insert them into posts similarly vanished.

Hopefully, a new version that fixes all these issues will emerge soon.

[Update: 15 Apr 2008] The Flash uploader in WordPress 2.5 is quite terrible.

Of frogs and fungus

Ottawa stadium

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is devastating communities of amphibians worldwide. Strangely enough, this may partially be because of pregnancy testing. Between the 1930s and 1950s, a curious property of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) was exploited: human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which is present in the urine of pregnant women, stimulates egg production in these animals. As a result, commercial trading spread them – and the fungi that afflicted them – around the world.

Which the clawed frogs are affected by the fungus and act as carriers, it doesn’t kill them. Other species are not so fortunate. Now, more than 100 species of amphibian have been infected by the fungus, which colonizes the skin. The spread of the disease varies according to altitude and temperature. In the right conditions, it can kill 85% of the amphibians in an area.

In the case of some species that have been especially badly affected, conservationists have taken the desperate step of removing the last living creatures from the wild:

Rather than letting the animals become extinct, a number of conservationists have started gathering up frogs believed to be doomed — in some areas collecting every last individual of a species — in an effort to enable some to persist in captivity. Some believe it would be worth causing the extinction of a species in the wild if it prevents the species from disappearing altogether.

Some captive breeding programs have been more successful than others, but all are symbols of the unpredictable and destructive impacts of human activities on the natural world, as well as our imperfect ability to counteract them.

Even if the frogs are successfully kept alive in captivity, it is dubious whether they can ever be returned to the wild. In addition to ongoing climatic changes, the simple fact of their removal will fundamentally change the ecosystem in which they lived. Their absence might disrupt the food web, or some other creature might change its location or behaviour to fill the gap. In any event, it is unlikely that many of these frogs will ever be part of a natural breeding population in the wild again.

Carbon capture in Saskatchewan

A $1.4 billion carbon capture (CCS) equipped coal plant is on the drawing board in Saskatchewan. The projected output is 100 megawatts (MW). That works out to a price of $14,000 a kilowatt, compared with about $2000 and $4600 per kilowatt for wind turbines (according to Agriculture and Rural Development Alberta). Of course, unlike the coal plant, the wind turbines wouldn’t require fuel after being installed.

Unless the cost of CCS falls dramatically, it is never going to be able to ride in, horse at a gallop and sword drawn, to rescue the coal sector. The cancelled FutureGen project in the United States was one demonstration of this. Until there is at least one unsubsidized commercial facility out there that is producing electricity from coal and sequestering emmisions – all for less than the price of ‘expensive’ renewable technologies like wind and solar – a fair bit of skepticism about the technology is justified.

Earth Hour, and why it is a bad idea

Bank Canal Bridge

The news today is full of talk about Earth Hour. Frankly, I think the idea is stupid. Telling people to turn out the lights for one hour one day has a trivial impact. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with approaches that actually would. Shutting down the lights in a brief symbolic gesture does nothing to change the energy basis of our society. Replacing one ordinary light bulb with a compact fluorescent one would have a bigger impact in the long term, and would at least suggest an understanding that brief voluntary abstinence from energy use is no solution whatsoever. Earth Hour is akin to choosing to fast for one hour and hoping that it will send a strong message to the factory farming industry.

Earth Hour reinforces many of the fallacies people believe about climate change, such as:

  • It will mostly be solved through consumer choices
  • Voluntary efforts are enough
  • It’s the visible changes that really matter

As discussed at length here in the past, it is very likely that none of these things are true. Climate change will only be dealt with when the energy basis of society has changed enough that the most greedy and selfish people are nonetheless leading low-carbon lives. That requires massive infrastructure change over the course of decades – the progressive replacement of high carbon options with low carbon and finally zero carbon ones. Earth Hour is, at best, a distraction from this process.

[Update: 25 March 2009] Judging by the Google searches, another ‘Earth Hour’ is coming up. I still think the exercise is a pointless one. Moving to a sustainable society isn’t about reducing energy use for one hour, it’s about reforming the energy basis of society. Tokenistic environmental gestures do no good, and help to convince people that the real changes we need are trivially easy.

[Update: 24 March 2011] Looking back over it, what I have written about Earth Hour before is a bit harsh. Yes, I think the basic idea of turning out the lights for an hour is a weak one. At the same time, environmental groups presumable use Earth Hour as an opportunity to communicate with the public. It might have less value as a symbolic action, and more as a simple advertising opportunity, in terms of direct communication with the public and media exposure.

Photoshop express

Adobe has released a free web-based version of their most popular image editing program, called Photoshop Express. The software allows for a number of fairly basic modifications, including cropping, exposure correction, saturation and white balance changes, and sharpening. One nice touch is that it does allow the conversion of images to black and white using any of several virtual colour filters. The free service includes two gigabytes of storage, and seems to include mechanisms for integrating with Facebook, Photobucket, and Picasa.

The web version has nothing on the full version of Photoshop – lacking tools like levels and curves, not to mention paths, masking and the thousands of other things that make Photoshop so versatile. That said, it’s a nice thing to be able to use in a pinch, when nothing more capable is readily available.

Brief survey: the value of humanity

You versus the lot:

  1. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to stop yourself from dying instantly in 1 year’s time?
  2. If you were certain to die in one year’s time, what proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to prevent all of humanity from becoming extinct at that precise moment?
  3. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to stop yourself from dying instantly in 10 years’ time?
  4. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to prevent humanity from becoming extinct in 10 years?

The long-term perspective

  1. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to prevent humanity from becoming extinct in 100 years?
  2. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to prevent humanity from becoming extinct in 1000 years?

Delaying versus preventing

  1. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to delay human extinction by 100 years, assuming it will otherwise occur in 100 years? That is to say, what would you pay to extend the length of the human species’ existence by 100 years?
  2. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to delay human extinction by 100 years, assuming it will otherwise occur in 1000 years?
  3. What proportion of your income would you be willing to give up to delay human extinction by 1000 years, assuming it will otherwise occur in 1000 years?

The relevance of the questions

  1. Do you feel strongly about all of these possibilities, about some but not others, or about none at all?

Green energy ‘war’

5 on a fence

A new blog written by a former California energy commissioner chooses to discuss the fight against climate change as a ‘war.’ At one level, this reflects the silly American tendency to discuss non-military problems using military language: the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, etc. At another, the choice reflects the serious disjoint between what most people have publicly accepted about climate change and what the problem really involves.

The public consensus seems to be: climate change is happening and it will have some bad effects. Technology and consumer choices will probably deal with it. Hybrids and fluorescent lights for all! Some of the big issues missed in this viewpoint are:

  • Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations is a massive undertaking. It requires deep cuts (50-95%) in emissions from all countries, rich and poor alike.
  • Time is of the essence. Stabilizing at an atmospheric concentration likely to avoid catastrophic impacts probably requires global emissions to peak within the next ten years and fall dramatically within the next forty.
  • Once concentrations are stabilized, continued effort and restraint will be required to maintain that. Human emissions will need to be kept in balance with natural absorption of carbon dioxide forever.
  • Abrupt or runaway climate change could completely undermine the basis for the global economy. Potentially, it could even make the planet uninhabitable for human beings for thousands or millions of years.

Referring to the situation as a war does have some potential benefits. People expect sacrifice and the suspension of normal ways of operating during wartime. The lower quality of light from fluorescent bulbs seems less significant when the future of humanity is at stake; the same goes for bans on short-haul flights or inefficient cars. At the same time, there are huge problems with the war analogy. Wars end. While it is possible that we will eventually have such excellent zero-emission technology that the world’s coal reserves and tropical forests will not tempt us, that seems a distant prospect.

What this underscores is the degree to which climate change is a challenge of an altogether new and different type for humanity. It’s one that our previous ideas about collective action, the ethics of an individual in society, and the cooperation of sovereign entities need to grow to accommodate. While the seriousness and focus sometimes applied to warfare will surely be required, the metaphor probably ultimately distorts more than it clarifies.

Population and GDP

The Economics Focus in this week’s Economist makes some excellent points. Most importantly, it demonstrates the degree to which looking at national rates of GDP growth independently from national rates of population growth produces a misleading impression of what is really happening.

America and Australia usually have the kind of economies that people understand to be growing rapidly – a fact often attributed to their dynamism, lack of enthusiasm for income redistribution, etc. By contrast, Germany and Japan tend to be lamented as low-growth laggards. If you consider the changes in GDP per capita, Japan grew more quickly than either Australia or the United States between 2002 and 2007. Because of relatively high rates of population growth, the American economy needs to ‘run just to stand still.’ The problem is even more acute in places with still higher rates of population growth.

Arguably, this offers one more reason to cheer falling populations as a sign of national maturity. While an aging population does put strain on pay-as-you-go pension and health care systems, that is a one-time cost of adjustment. Once it has been borne, a diminishing population means fewer resource constraints, a higher level of physical and financial capital per person, and a increased factor price for labour, yielding improved economic returns for workers.

For both environmental and economic reasons, we may thus have good reason to hope for fewer members in each subsequent generation.