SRES – We've got a bigger problem now

Recently Pielke, Wigley and Green discussed the implications of autonomous energy efficiency improvements (AEEI) in IPCC scenarios, provoking many replies. Some found the hubbub around the issue surprising, because the assumptions concerned were well known, at least to modelers. I was among the surprised, but sometimes the obvious needs to be restated loud and clear. I believe that there are several bigger elephants in the room that deserve such treatment. AEEI is important, as are other hotly debated SRES choices like PPP vs. MEX, but at the end of the day, these are just parameter choices. In complex systems parameter uncertainty generally plays second fiddle to structural uncertainty. Integrated assessment models (IAMs) as a group frequently employ similar methods, e.g., dynamic general equilibrium, and leave crucial structural assumptions untested. I find it strange that the hottest debates surround biogeophysical models, which are actually much better grounded in physical principles, when socio-economic modeling is so uncertain.

Continue reading “SRES – We've got a bigger problem now”

Business & Climate – What to Wish For?

One observation from my recent experience with climate policy in California is that businesses – even energy intensive ones – are uncertain how to engage in the public debate. Climate policy is a messy space with many competing options, and it’s hard to know what to wish for. With that in mind, here’s a quick survey of what various business groups are saying.

Continue reading “Business & Climate – What to Wish For?”

The Switch to Small Cars – Not So Fast

The NYT reports that a switch to efficient cars is underway, as evidenced by, among other things, an increase in market share for small cars from an eighth of the market at the height of SUV-mania to a fifth today, together with a sharp drop in large truck and SUV sales.

If sustained, such a shift would signal a very significant sensitivity of vehicle efficiency purchasing habits to fuel prices – perhaps much larger than the low short run price elasticity of gasoline demand. However, I think there is reason to interpret these recent events cautiously, lest they prove a little less astonishing in the long run. Continue reading “The Switch to Small Cars – Not So Fast”

It's the crude price, stupid

The NYT reports that Hillary Clinton and John McCain have lined up to suspend federal excise taxes on fuel:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season. But Senator Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic rival, spoke out firmly against the proposal, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to curtail oil consumption and imports.

Mrs. Clinton would replace that money with the new tax on oil company profits, an idea that has been kicking around Congress for several years but has not been enacted into law. Mr. McCain would divert tax revenue from other sources to make the highway trust fund whole.

On April 22, EIA data put WTI crude at $119/bbl, which is $2.83/gal before accounting for refinery losses. Spot gasoline was at $2.90 to $3.14 (depending on geography and type), which is about what you’d expect with total taxes near $0.50 and retail gasoline at $3.55/gal. With refinery yields typically at something like 85%, you’d actually expect spot gasoline to be at about $3.30, so other, more-expensive products (diesel, jet fuel, heating oil) or cheaper feedstocks must be making up the difference. The price breaks down roughly as follows:

Gasoline price breakdown
Continue reading “It's the crude price, stupid”

Life Expectancy and Equity

Today ScienceDaily brought the troubling news that, “There was a steady increase in mortality inequality across the US counties between 1983 and 1999, resulting from stagnation or increase in mortality among the worst-off segment of the population.” The full article is PLoS Medicine Vol. 5, No. 4, e66 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050066. ScienceDaily quotes the authors,

Ezzati said, “The finding that 4% of the male population and 19% of the female population experienced either decline or stagnation in mortality is a major public health concern.” Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and co-author of the study, added that “life expectancy decline is something that has traditionally been considered a sign that the health and social systems have failed, as has been the case in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. The fact that is happening to a large number of Americans should be a sign that the U.S. health system needs serious rethinking.”

I question whether it’s just the health system that requires rethinking. Health is part of a complex system of income and wealth, education, and lifestyle choices:

Health in context

Continue reading “Life Expectancy and Equity”

The Volunteers Have No Clothes

Naked Capitalism asks Why Companies Aren’t Fighting Climate Change, citing interesting new work by Karin Thorburn and Karen Fisher-Vanden, which indicates that firms lose value when undertaking (or at least signaling) greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Specifically, we studied the stock market’s reaction when companies joined Climate Leaders, a voluntary government-industry partnership in which firms commit to a long-term reduction of their greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, when the firms announced to the public that they were joining Climate Leaders their stock prices dropped significantly.

Naked Capitalism concludes that, “the stock market doesn’t get it.” Thorburn and Fisher-Vanden actually go a little further,

The negative market reaction for firms joining Climate Leaders reveals that the reduction of greenhouse gases is a negative net present value project for the company. That is, the capital expenditures required to cut the carbon footprint exceed the present value of the expected future benefits from these investments, such as lower energy costs and increased revenue associated with the green goodwill. Some may argue that the decline in stock price is simply evidence that the market is near-sighted and ignores the long-term benefits of the green investments. Notice, however, that the stock market generally values uncertain cash flows in a distant future despite large investments today: earlier work has shown that firms announcing major capital expenditure programs and investments in research and development tend to experience an increase in their stock price. Similarly, the stock market often assigns substantial value to growth companies with negative current earnings, but with potential profits in the future. In fact, only two percent of the publicly traded firms in the United States have joined the Climate Leaders program to date, supporting our observation that initiatives aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions largely are value decreasing.

I personally don’t drink enough of the economic Kool-aid to take it on faith that market perceptions are consistently right. For one thing, high oil prices haven’t been around for very long, which means that firms haven’t had a lot of time to take profitable actions. Markets haven’t had a lot of time to believe in the staying power of high oil prices or to separate the effects of firms’ energy and carbon efficiency initiatives from the noisy background. Expectations could easily be based on a bygone era. However, even if there are some $20 bills on the sidewalk at present, Thorburn and Fisher-Vanden are certainly correct in the long run: emissions reductions will entail real costs at some point. Continue reading “The Volunteers Have No Clothes”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Last Wednesday, President Bush called for the US to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025:

‘It is now time for the U.S. to look beyond 2012 and take the next step,’ Mr. Bush said, a reference to his previously stated national goal, announced in 2002, of an 18 percent reduction in the growth of emissions of heat-trapping gases relative to economic growth by 2012. Mr. Bush said the nation was on track to meeting that target. – NYT

Those who remember the 2002 commitment may recall that, at the time, emissions intensity had historically fallen by 1.3% per year on its own, so that the administration policy actually committed only to an additional 0.4% decline (assuming continuity with history). With GDP growth at about 3% per year, that would leave absolute emissions growing at about 1.7% per year. In fact, intensity has fallen about 2.5% per year since 2002, with much of that in 2006. Since it’s way too soon for investments in climate-related R&D to be having any effect, it’s likely that the savings are due to $100 oil. That is not an emissions reduction method that is likely to pass a cost-benefit test.

CO2 intensity data

EIA data

In the context of the long term,-2.5% over 4 years is still hard to separate from noise. Continue reading “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

Dangerous Assumptions

Roger Pielke Jr., Tom Wigley, and Christopher Green have a nice commentary in this week’s Nature. It argues that current scenarios are dangerously reliant on business-as-usual technical improvement to reduce greenhouse gas intensity:

Here we show that two-thirds or more of all the energy efficiency improvements and decarbonization of energy supply required to stabilize greenhouse gases is already built into the IPCC reference scenarios. This is because the scenarios assume a certain amount of spontaneous technological change and related decarbonization. Thus, the IPCC implicitly assumes that the bulk of the challenge of reducing future emissions will occur in the absence of climate policies. We believe that these assumptions are optimistic at best and unachievable at worst, potentially seriously underestimating the scale of the technological challenge associated with stabilizing greenhouse-gas concentrations.

They note that assumed rates of decarbonization exceed reality:

The IPCC scenarios include a wide range of possibilities for the future evolution of energy and carbon intensities. Many of the scenarios are arguably unrealistic and some are likely to be unachievable. For instance, the IPCC assumptions for decarbonization in the short term (2000’“2010) are already inconsistent with the recent evolution of the global economy (Fig. 2). All scenarios predict decreases in energy intensity, and in most cases carbon intensity, during 2000 to 2010. But in recent years, both global energy intensity and carbon intensity have risen, reversing the trend of previous decades.

In an accompanying news article, several commenters object to the notion of a trend reversal:

Energy efficiency has in the past improved without climate policy, and the same is very likely to happen in the future. Including unprompted technological change in the baseline is thus logical. It is not very helpful to discredit emission scenarios on the sole basis of their being at odds with the most recent economic trends in China. Chinese statistics are not always reliable. Moreover, the period in question is too short to signify a global trend-break. (Detlef van Vuuren)

Having seen several trend breaks evaporate, including the productivity miracle and the Chinese emissions reductions coincident with the Asian crisis, I’m inclined to agree that gloom may be premature. On the other hand, Pielke, Wigley and Green are conservative in that they don’t consider the possible pressure for recarbonization created by a transition from conventional oil and gas to coal and tar sands. A look at the long term is helpful:

18 country emissions intensity

Emissions intensity of GDP for 18 major emitters. Notice the convergence in intensity, with high-intensity nations falling, and low-intensity nations (generally less-developed) rising.

Emissions intensity trend for 18 major emitters

Corresponding decadal trends in emissions intensity. Over the long haul, there’s some indication that emissions are falling faster in developed nations – a reason for hope. But there’s also a lot of diversity, and many nations have positive trends in intensity. More importantly, even with major wars and depressions, no major emitter has achieved the kind of intensity trend (about -7%/yr) needed to achieve 80% emissions reductions by 2050 while sustaining 3%/yr GDP growth. That suggests that achieving aggressive goals may require more than technology, including – gasp – lifestyle changes.

6 country emissions intensity

A closer look at intensity for 6 major emitters. Notice intensity rising in China and India until recently, and that Chinese data is indeed suspect.

Pielke, Wigley, and Green wrap up:

There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary ’” it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

There’s a second risky game afoot, which is assuming that “creating the conditions for such innovations to occur” means investing in R&D, exclusive of other measures. To achieve material reductions in emissions, “occur” must mean “be adopted” not just “be invented.” Absent market signals and institutional changes, it is unlikely that technologies like carbon sequestration will ever be adopted. Others, like vehicle and lighting efficiency, could easily see their gains eroded by increased consumption of energy services, which become cheaper as technology improves productivity.

Unintended Consequences

Olive Heffernan has an interesting tidbit on Climate Feedback about unintended consequences of climate policy.

It’s worth noting that most of these side-effects are not consequences of climate policy per se. They are consequences of pursuing climate policy piecemeal, from the bottom up, and seeking technological fixes in the absence of market signals. If climate policy were pursued as part of a general agenda of internalizing environmental and social externalities through market signals, some of these perverse behaviors would not occur.

The side effects of the corn ethanol boom should not be laid at the door of climate policy. Apart from hopes for cellulosic, ethanol has little to offer with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps much to answer for. Its real motivations are oil independence and largesse to the ag sector.