Ray Nothstine’s Acton commentary on the the ethanol boom and its impact on the poor was published today in the Christian Science Monitor as, “The unintended consequences of the ethanol quick fix.” His timely article was also picked up by a slew of other newspapers and Web sites, including the Bakersfield Californian, the Fresno Bee and the Atlantic City Press.
Over at the Becker-Posner blog, the gentlemen consider the question, “Do National Security and Environmental Energy Policies Conflict?” (a topic also discussed here.)
Becker predicts, “Driven by environmental and security concerns, more extensive government intervention in the supply and demand for energy are to be expected during the next few years in all economically important countries. Policies that meet both these concerns are feasible, and clearly would have greater political support than the many approaches that advance one of these goals at the expense of the other.”
Posner observes the difference between a gasoline and a carbon tax, noting that the former would “have a direct effect in reducing demand for oil, thus reducing, as Becker points out, the oil revenues of oil-producing nations.”
But for a policy that addresses both national security and environmental concerns, “a gasoline tax would be inferior to a carbon tax from the standpoint of limiting global warming, because producers of oil, refiners of gasoline, and producers of cars and other products that burn fossil fuels would have no incentive to adopt processes that would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of oil, gallon of gasoline, etc. A carbon tax would create such an incentive and would also have a strong indirect negative effect on the demand for fossil fuels.”
There’s a lot more to these posts worth mulling over.
“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” That’s a good rule, I think.
The Care of Creation blog is noting, however, that “people who work longer hours use more energy and generally contribute more to the decline of the ecological quality of life on planet earth.”
The basis for the claim is a report that comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and “finds that if all countries worked as many hours per week as U.S. workers do, the world would consume 15 to 30 percent more energy by 2050 than it would by following Europe’s model.”
As I’ve asserted before, calculations that simply take into account the outputs of various environmentally-relevant factors, like GHGs, without also noting the relevant economic variables, are highly flawed.
So perhaps per capita American workers do work longer hours and therefore use more energy than their European counterparts. But do the American workers also contribute more to their respective country’s GNP than do Europeans? I’m betting they do…and it shouldn’t be surprising that all these factors correlate, because of the energy-dependent nature of the economy in the 21st century. But as recent trends suggest, perhaps even that doesn’t mean that economies must increase GHG emissions to grow.
Who gets more bang for their energy buck? The EU’s share of gross world product (GWP) is roughly 20%. Estimates put the EU’s population right around 490 million. The US’s share of GWP is larger than the EU’s, somewhere between 20% and 30%, but accomplishes that with a fraction of the population, numbering barely above 300 million.
So, work less and “save” the planet, but also contribute less to the global economy. That’s a formula for disaster.
For another take on how you can do nothing and save the planet, see the May 21 edition of the Joy of Tech comic.
One more note related to the week’s reflections on energy and the environment. This brief piece from Marketplace highlights coal’s newfound popularity, “Coal makes a comeback” (here’s an in-depth and more technical piece from the NYT. HT: Instapundit).
Marketplace reporter Jeremy Hobson notes the need for coal to be integrated into an energy policy oriented toward independence: “The U.S. has more coal than any other country. $27 billion worth is mined every year. That’s why everyone, from unions to politicians to scientists, is getting on the coal bandwagon.”
Some scientists are arguing that the negative environmental impact of coal-burning power plants can be significantly mitigated by the advent of new cleaning technologies, presumably including the use of “scrubbers” which divert CO2 emissions from smoke stacks.
Many of these technologies, such as scrubbers, are focused on limiting the input of GHGs into the atmosphere. But there is a shift that is beginning to focus much more on sequestration and removal of GHGs. That is, there are two elements to consider: how much CO2 or other GHGs are put into the atmosphere and how quickly they are taken out, through both natural and artificial means.
Robert O. Mendelsohn, of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, made this point in his comments at the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004. He writes, “Although the bulk of carbon emissions in the future come from burning fossil fuels, policy makers should consider more than just energy policies to reduce carbon emissions. Another important policy option is to include carbon sequestration in forests. By growing timber trees longer and by setting aside vast tracts of marginal forestland for conservation, land use policies can sequester a large stock of carbon in living forests.”
Well-planned and properly planned reforestation is indeed an important part of that second element by sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. But new technologies like carbon capture devices also will be an important feature of any attempts to manage the climate.
According to reports published last week (HT: Slashdot), Global Research Technologies, LLC (GRT) has announced the first successful “demonstration of a bold new technology to capture carbon from the air. The ‘air extraction’ prototype has successfully demonstrated that indeed carbon dioxide (CO2) can be captured from the atmosphere. This is GRT’s first step toward a commercially viable air capture device.”
It’s an encouraging step to see that the media and politicians, but most especially commercial businesses, are beginning to pay attention to the possibilities for sequestration and GHG removal and not just focusing on consumption and emissions. There’s definitely going to be a commercial demand for carbon capture devices. Maybe someday we’ll all wear some sort of mask that mitigates the .3 tons per year of CO2 that a human being emits just by breathing.
John Stossel must have been on vacation last week.
Schadler pointed out that even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s energy. It’s a typical canard trotted out by those who want to depict us ugly Americans as “energy hogs.”
But instead of taking a deeper look at these kinds of statistics, the stats usually appear at the intro of a news piece as a hook leading into some other point about alternative energy.
But let’s take a brief look at the implications of such statistics. Let’s even accept them at face value. What such conclusions about the wastefulness per capita of American energy consumption overlook is the inherent connection between economic productivity and energy usage.
Yes, let’s say America’s share of worldwide energy usage is 25%.
But what is America’s share of the global economy? Somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of gross world product. So just maybe there is in fact a link between economic output and energy consumption.
Another aspect of this relationship appears when you run a historical series comparing per capita CO2 emissions and income growth on Google’s Gapminder software.
“The environment is begging for the Wal-Mart business model,” says H. Lee Scott Jr., CEO of Wal-Mart Stores in a NYT article, “Power-Sipping Bulbs Get Backing From Wal-Mart.”
The piece discusses Wal-Mart’s campaign to increase the sales of compact fluorescent bulbs, as compared to traditional incandescent bulbs. As Michael Barbaro writes, “A compact fluorescent has clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb. But it is eight times as expensive as a traditional bulb, gives off a harsher light and has a peculiar appearance.”
I’ve converted probably half of the bulbs in my home to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights), but have run into problems when trying to use them in some places. Lights that use dimmer switches, for instance, don’t work well with CFLs. And some CFLs won’t fit into light fixtures designed to accommodate incandescent bulbs.
Wal-Mart’s clout has begun to affect the light bulb manufacturing business, as producers like GE struggle to change their emphasis from production of incandescents to CFLs.
And on the demand side, what’s called for in convincing consumers to go with the CFLs is a basic economic lesson: you are sometimes better off spending more in the short-term for long-term gain: “Wal-Mart will have to persuade its traditional consumers that it is worth paying a bit more at the checkout counter to save a significant amount money down the line, a seemingly simple task that few companies ever accomplish. It is particularly difficult at a retailer that has long emphasized ‘always low prices.’”
As is so often the case, the best economic decision is the one that makes best use of both financial and environmental resources.
THE FUTURE OF ENERGY
Expanding supply or managing demand?
In the opening articles, five commentators address the question from different viewpoints.
ADAM VAUGHAN, online editor, New Consumer magazine argues that saving energy is the way forward: ‘By taking a number of simple steps, consumers can save energy and money – and help save the planet.’
JOE KAPLINSKY, science writer, spiked, believes that we need to greatly expand energy supply: ‘The best thing that we could do for future generations is to build a new energy infrastructure, bigger and better than the old one.’
MALCOLM GRIMSTON, associate fellow at Chatham House, argues that we need to embrace nuclear power: ‘Nuclear energy remains the only proven large-scale option that can deliver major saving in greenhouse gas emissions.’
MARK JACCARD, professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver believes that fossil fuels, particularly coal, remain central to energy supply: ‘Zero-emission fossil fuels will remain cost competitive for at least a century.’
JIM SKEA, research director, UK Energy Research Centre argues that renewables are not a panacea to all our energy problems, but ‘A variety of renewable technologies may play an important part in energy generation in the future.’
spiked is keen to find out what readers think, and you can respond to the debate here.
I would also briefly mention that you can read a related article by me here, and that in general I think the options posed in the debates subtitle (reduction of use or expansion of supply) is similar to the options posed by the problem greenhouse gas emissions (reduction of emissions or increase of sequestration).
Most of the policy recommendations I’ve seen regarding CO2 emissions have focused on reduction of emissions rather than an increases in the rate and amount of carbon sequestration (in forests and so on). There’s a lot of work to be done on that latter point, especially if largescale reduction of emissions is untenable both politically and economically for the foreseeable future.
In the midst of rising oil prices, massive energy bills, speculation about our supplies of oil – not to mention global warming – a small beacon lights up in Ireland. A technology company named Steorn has made an announcement that it has discovered free energy. I’ll admit, like most others probably will at this point, that I’m a little skeptical, but Steorn says that it has created “test-rigs” that use only magnetic fields (with no electromagnetic components) to create energy out of nothing. This, of course, breaks the first law of thermodynamics, and if this does turn out to be true, many hours that I spent studying physics will have turned out to be a waste of time, as one of the main premises of those hours was that the first law holds. (On the other hand, I can justify now why some of it didn’t make much sense to me.)
The company is proposing a panel of 12 skeptic phsyicists to test their rigs, to study the mathematics and physics, and tell the world whether or not the technology is actually real, or not. If it does turn out to be real, the technology is apparently scaleable, which means that it could power your car, or your cell phone. Much of the energy we use from day-to-day could be generated with this new technology which would have a tremendous impact on our economy.
“Throughout history, shortages of vital resources have driven innovation, and energy has often starred in these technological dramas. The desperate search for new sources of energy and new materials has frequently produced remarkable advances that no one could have imagined when the shortage first became evident.” So says Stephen L. Sass, a professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell, in today’s NYT op-ed, “Scarcity, Mother of Invention.”
He concludes, “If there is anything to be learned from history, it’s that we need to face the harsh reality of fossil fuel scarcity and begin something like a Manhattan project to develop clean, economical, and preferably sustainable new sources of energy. Just as importantly, we need to innovate on the side of conservation and efficiency.” While there is valid dispute about just which point we are at with regard to the scarcity of fossil fuels, the larger considerations stand.
I made a similar point in my most recent Acton Commentary, “Transcendence and Obsolescence: The Responsible Stewardship of Oil,” in which I argue that “human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”
On a related note, check out this WaPo story, “Md. County Offers Incentives To Boost Nuclear Operation”:
There may be growing acceptance of nuclear power, owing to concerns over global warming, dependence on foreign oil and skyrocketing energy costs. Some leading environmentalists are saying nuclear energy should at least be explored as a way to offset global climate change.
But Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace International, said nuclear power remains unsafe and is too dependent on government subsidies. He is keeping an eye on Calvert County developments. “No ifs, ands or buts,” he said. “Until the last dog dies, Greenpeace will be anti-nuclear.”
Might these be the new “Cuisinarts of the sea”? This story, “Energy from the Restless Sea,” in today’s NYT examines the efforts of experimental inventors to find machines that excel in “harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean and turning it into a commodity in high demand: energy.” There are a variety of designs and types of machines, so of course not all of them are a danger to chop up hapless fish.
These innovators are facing huge bureaucratic and regulatory burdens. Verdant Power, for example, “embarked on a new East River turbine project in 2003, but it has taken two and a half years to get regulatory approval for the project from environmental agencies and the United States Army Corp of Engineers.”
To comply with the concerns of regulators and environmental groups, Verdant “is installing $1.5 million in underwater sonar to watch for fish around the turbines ’24 hours a day, 7 days a week,’ and the data will be shown online.”
In some sense, these are just twenty-first century versions of innovations that are, shall we say, somewhat older. Watermills have been found at Cistercian abbeys dating from the twelfth century. See, for example, the Fountains Abbey Mill, opened in June 2001 at the Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.