Missing the point about efficiency rebounds … again

Breakthrough’s Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) spot a bit of open-loop thinking about LED lighting:

ON Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to three researchers whose work contributed to the development of a radically more efficient form of lighting known as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

In announcing the award, the academy said, “Replacing light bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs will lead to a drastic reduction of electricity requirements for lighting.” The president of the Institute of Physics noted: “With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.”

The problem of course is that lighting energy use would fall 20% to 4% only if there’s no feedback, so that LEDs replace incandescents 1 for 1 (and of course the multiplier can’t be that big, because CFLs and other efficient technologies already supply a lot of light).

N&S go on to argue:

But it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption.

Why? Because rebound effects will eat up the efficiency gains:

“The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency.”

“The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally.”

Notice the sleight-of-hand: the first statement implies a rebound effect greater than 100%, while the evidence they’re citing describes a rebound of 50%, i.e. 50% of the efficiency gain is preserved, which seems pretty significant.

Presumably the real evidence they have in mind is http://iopscience.iop.org/0022-3727/43/35/354001 – authors Tsao & Saunders are Breakthrough associates. Saunders describes a 100% rebound for lighting here http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/understanding-energy-efficiency-rebound-interview-with-harry-saunders

Now the big non sequitur:

But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.

Let’s assume the premise is true – that the lighting rebound effect is 100% or more. That implies that lighting use is highly price elastic, which in turn means that an emissions price like a carbon tax will have a strong influence on lighting energy. Therefore pricing can play a major role in reducing emissions. It’s probably still true that a shift to clean energy is unavoidable, but it’s not an exclusive remedy, and a stronger rebound effect actually weakens the argument for clean sources.

Their own colleagues point this out:

In fact, our paper shows that, for the two 2030 scenarios (with and without solid-state lighting), a mere 12% increase in real electricity prices would result in a net decline in electricity-for-lighting consumption.

What should the real takeaway be?

  • Subsidizing lighting efficiency is ineffective, and possibly even counterproductive.
  • Subsidizing clean energy lowers the cost of delivering lighting and other services, and therefore will also be offset by rebound effects.
  • Emissions pricing is a win-win, because it encourages efficiency, counteracts rebound effects and promotes substitution of clean sources.

Reading between the lines

… on another incoherent Breakthrough editorial:

The Creative Destruction of Climate Economics

In the 70 years that have passed since Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction,” economists have struggled awkwardly with how to think about growth and innovation. Born of the low-growth agricultural economies of 18th Century Europe, the dismal science to this day remains focused on the question of how to most efficiently distribute scarce resources, not on how to create new ones — this despite two centuries of rapid economic growth driven by disruptive technologies, from the steam engine to electricity to the Internet.

Perhaps the authors should consult the two million references on Google scholar to endogenous growth and endogenous technology, or read some Marx. Continue reading “Reading between the lines”

What a real breakthrough might look like

It’s possible that a techno fix will stave off global limits indefinitely, in a Star Trek future scenario. I think it’s a bad idea to rely on it, because there’s no backup plan.

But it’s equally naive to think that we can return to some kind of low-tech golden age. There are too many people to feed and house, and those bygone eras look pretty ugly when you peer under the mask.

But this is a false dichotomy.

Some techno/growth enthusiasts talk about sustainability as if it consisted entirely of atavistic agrarian aspirations. But what a lot of sustainability advocates are after, myself included, is a high-tech future that operates within certain material limits (planetary boundaries, if you will) before those limits enforce themselves in nastier ways. That’s not really too hard to imagine; we already have a high tech economy that operates within limits like the laws of motion and gravity. Gravity takes care of itself, because it’s instantaneous. Stock pollutants and resources don’t, because consequences are remote in time and space from actions; hence the need for coordination. Continue reading “What a real breakthrough might look like”

The neo-cornucopians, live from planet Deepwater Horizon

On the heels of the 40th anniversary of Limits to Growth, the Breakthrough crowd is still pushing a technical miracle, just around the corner. Their latest editorial paints sustainability advocates as the bad guys:

Stop and think for a moment about the basic elements of the planetary boundaries hypothesis: apocalyptic fears of the future, a professed desire to return to an earlier state of nature, hypocrisy about wealth, appeals to higher authorities. These are the qualities of our worst religions, not our best scientific theories.

Who are these straw dog greenies, getting rich and ruling the world? Anyway, I thought the planetary boundaries were about biogeophysical systems, appealing to “higher authority” in that the laws of physics apply to civilizations too. Ted Nordhaus doesn’t believe it though:

To be sure, there are tipping points in nature, including in the climate system, but there is no way for scientists to identify fixed boundaries beyond which point human civilization becomes unsustainable for the simple reason that there are no fixed boundaries.

The Breakthrough prescription for the ills of growth is more growth: Continue reading “The neo-cornucopians, live from planet Deepwater Horizon”

Elasticity contradictions

If global oil shock reduces supply 10%, the price of crude will rise to $20,000/barrel, with fuel expenditures consuming more than the entire GDP of importing nations.

At least that’s what you’d predict if you think the price elasticity of oil demand is about -0.02. I saw that number in a Breakthrough post, citing Kevin Drum, citing Early Warning, citing IMF. It’s puzzling that Breakthrough is plugging small price elasticities here, when their other arguments about the rebound effect require elasticities to have large magnitudes. Continue reading “Elasticity contradictions”

The emerging climate technology delusion

What do you do when feasible policies aren’t popular, and popular policies aren’t feasible?

Let’s start with a joke:

Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are travelling together on a train. Unexpectedly the train stops. Lenin suggests: “Perhaps, we should call a subbotnik, so that workers and peasants fix the problem.” Kruschev suggests rehabilitating the engineers, and leaves for a while, but nothing happens. Stalin, fed up, steps out to intervene. Rifle shots are heard, but when he returns there is still no motion. Brezhnev reaches over, pulls the curtain, and says, “Comrades, let’s pretend we’re moving.” (Apologies to regulars for the repeat.)

The Soviet approach would be funny, if it weren’t the hottest new trend in climate policy. The latest installment is a Breakthrough article, The emerging climate technology consensus. An excerpt: Continue reading “The emerging climate technology delusion”

Stop talking, start studying?

Roger Pielke Jr. poses a carbon price paradox:

The carbon price paradox is that any politically conceivable price on carbon can do little more than have a marginal effect on the modern energy economy. A price that would be high enough to induce transformational change is just not in the cards. Thus, carbon pricing alone cannot lead to a transformation of the energy economy.

Put another way:

Advocates for a response to climate change based on increasing the costs of carbon-based energy skate around the fact that people react very negatively to higher prices by promising that action won’t really cost that much. … If action on climate change is indeed “not costly” then it would logically follow the only reasons for anyone to question a strategy based on increasing the costs of energy are complete ignorance and/or a crass willingness to destroy the planet for private gain. … There is another view. Specifically that the current ranges of actions at the forefront of the climate debate focused on putting a price on carbon in order to motivate action are misguided and cannot succeed. This argument goes as follows: In order for action to occur costs must be significant enough to change incentives and thus behavior. Without the sugarcoating, pricing carbon (whether via cap-and-trade or a direct tax) is designed to be costly. In this basic principle lies the seed of failure. Policy makers will do (and have done) everything they can to avoid imposing higher costs of energy on their constituents via dodgy offsets, overly generous allowances, safety valves, hot air, and whatever other gimmick they can come up with.

His prescription (and that of the Breakthrough Institute)  is low carbon taxes, reinvested in R&D:

We believe that soon-to-be-president Obama’s proposal to spend $150 billion over the next 10 years on developing carbon-free energy technologies and infrastructure is the right first step. … a $5 charge on each ton of carbon dioxide produced in the use of fossil fuel energy would raise $30 billion a year. This is more than enough to finance the Obama plan twice over.

… We would like to create the conditions for a virtuous cycle, whereby a small, politically acceptable charge for the use of carbon emitting energy, is used to invest immediately in the development and subsequent deployment of technologies that will accelerate the decarbonization of the U.S. economy.

Stop talking, start solving

As the nation begins to rely less and less on fossil fuels, the political atmosphere will be more favorable to gradually raising the charge on carbon, as it will have less of an impact on businesses and consumers, this in turn will ensure that there is a steady, perhaps even growing source of funds to support a process of continuous technological innovation.

This approach reminds me of an old joke:

Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are travelling together on a train. Unexpectedly the train stops. Lenin suggests: “Perhaps, we should call a subbotnik, so that workers and peasants fix the problem.” Kruschev suggests rehabilitating the engineers, and leaves for a while, but nothing happens. Stalin, fed up, steps out to intervene. Rifle shots are heard, but when he returns there is still no motion. Brezhnev reaches over, pulls the curtain, and says, “Comrades, let’s pretend we’re moving.”

I translate the structure of Pielke’s argument like this:

Pielke Loops

Implementation of a high emissions price now would be undone politically (B1). A low emissions price triggers a virtuous cycle (R), as revenue reinvested in technology lowers the cost of future mitigation, minimizing public outcry and enabling the emissions price to go up. Note that this structure implies two other balancing loops (B2 & B3) that serve to weaken the R&D effect, because revenues fall as emissions fall.

If you elaborate on the diagram a bit, you can see why the technology-led strategy is unlikely to work:


First, there’s a huge delay between R&D investment and emergence of deployable technology (green stock-flow chain). R&D funded now by an emissions price could take decades to emerge. Second, there’s another huge delay from the slow turnover of the existing capital stock (purple) – even if we had cars that ran on water tomorrow, it would take 15 years or more to turn over the fleet. Buildings and infrastructure last much longer. Together, those delays greatly weaken the near-term effect of R&D on emissions, and therefore also prevent the virtuous cycle of reduced public outcry due to greater opportunities from getting going. As long as emissions prices remain low, the accumulation of commitments to high-emissions capital grows, increasing public resistance to a later change in direction. Continue reading “Stop talking, start studying?”

Strategic Excess?

I’ve been reading the Breakthrough Institute’s Waxman Markey analysis, which is a bit spotty* but raises many interesting issues. One comment seemed too crazy to be true: that the W-M strategic reserve is “refilled” with forestry offsets. Sure enough, it is true:

726 (g) (2) INTERNATIONAL OFFSET CREDITS FOR REDUCED DEFORESTATION- The Administrator shall use the proceeds from each strategic reserve auction to purchase international offset credits issued for reduced deforestation activities pursuant to section 743(e). The Administrator shall retire those international offset credits and establish a number of emission allowances equal to 80 percent of the number of international offset credits so retired. Emission allowances established under this paragraph shall be in addition to those established under section 721(a).

This provision makes the reserve nearly self-perpetuating: at constant prices, 80% of allowances released from the reserve are replaced. If the reserve accomplishes its own goal of reducing prices, more than 80% get replaced (if replacement exceeds 100%, the excess is vintaged and assigned to future years). This got me wondering: does anyone understand how the reserve really works? Its market rules seem arbitrary. Thus I set out to simulate them.

First, I took a look at some data. What would happen if the reserve strategy were applied to other commodities? Here’s oil:

Oil prices & moving average cap

Red is the actual US weekly crude price, while purple shows the strategic reserve price trigger level: a 3-year moving average + 60%. With this trajectory, the reserve would be shaving a few peaks, but wouldn’t do anything about the long term runup in prices. Same goes for corn: Continue reading “Strategic Excess?”