Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Atlanta and downstream friends

(Dan here…another  of David Zetland’s students Johanna writes on groundwater…a reminder of what also matters during this heated political climate, and from a younger generation. The first mention of water wars at AB was 2007 I believe.)

Atlanta and downstream friends

Johanna writes*

This post offers some insight into the problems of water management in Atlanta (the capital of Georgia) and the effects of those problems on its downstream neighbors Florida and Alabama. These problems are part of a 30-year water allocation drama in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (AFC) basin.

 (Map source)

In Atlanta, population growth, legal disputes, and droughts result in water scarcity. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing urban cities in the US, relying only on surface water supplies drawn from the Chattahoochee River, the source of the Tri-state water dispute with Alabama and Florida. The litigation began in 1990 when Alabama sued the Corps to stop allocating water to Atlanta. In 2014 Florida filed a complaint in the Supreme Court stating that Georgia has harmed the environment downstream and a bid for equitable apportionment (background on the litigation).

Comments (7) | |

How to roast the planet with good intentions: The Climate Equity Act

I have suggested (here and here) that idealism is leading progressives astray.  Unfortunately, climate policy offers many examples.

Consider the Climate Equity Act of 2019.  The CEA was, I believe, the first concrete piece of legislation proposed as part of the Green New Deal.  Unfortunately, it illustrates several of the problems with progressive idealism.  The CEA is moralistic rather than strategic.  It does not take policy analysis seriously; it assumes that Congress can simply write a law requiring justice and that justice will magically appear.  In practice, the CEA will do little to promote justice, but it will put a powerful weapon in the hands of opponents of a clean energy transition.

The purpose of the CEA is to ensure all people a right to a healthful environment, and to address systemic environmental injustices and inequities.  To achieve these goals, the CEA imposes extensive procedural and analysis requirements on federal rules that affect “frontline communities”, which the act defines as low income communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, deindustrialized communities, vulnerable elderly communities, unhoused populations, people with disabilities, and communities dependent on fossil fuel industries.

Protecting frontline communities is a worthy goal.  However, the federal rulemaking process is already too cumbersome to address a problem like climate change, which will require rapid, economy-wide changes.  The CEA will make the problems with the federal rulemaking process much worse.  The CEA 1) requires agencies to engage in a comprehensive review of proposed rules and possible alternatives to proposed rules that minimize negative economic, environmental, and health consequences on frontline communities, or maximize benefits to these communities, 2) fails to specify a clear standard for agencies to use when evaluating alternative rules, and does not explain how conflicts between or within frontline communities should be resolved by government agencies, and 3) gives members of any aggrieved frontline community the right to judicial review, including the right to block enforcement of agency rules.

If progressives care about preventing climate change, this is insane.  Requiring agencies to evaluate multiple options using vague standards and giving a wide array of groups easy access to the courts will turn the CEA into a powerful weapon against all federal rulemaking, including rules that are essential for stopping climate change.

For example, creating a renewable energy system may require construction of a new network of high voltage power lines to shift electricity from areas where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining to areas where it is calm or cloudy.  It is far from clear that our political system will be able to overcome the NIMBY forces that will predictably resist every power line location decision.

Instead of helping to solve this problem, the CEA will make it far worse.  The government will have to investigate the impact of multiple power line routes on different frontline communities.  There will be conflicts between frontline communities and within such communities.  The law is silent on how these conflicts should be resolved, but everyone gets to go to court.  Fossil fuel producers resisting clean energy growth will have no trouble creating “astroturf” organizations to challenge rules they dislike.  The same problems will arise with siting decisions for wind and solar farms and the location of dams for hydro power.  Stalemate rather than progress will be the order of the day.

Even rules limiting the burning of fossil fuels will be snarled in lawsuits.  Suppose EPA tries to limit the burning of coal to generate electricity.  Such a rule would be vulnerable to attack by coal producers (recall that communities dependent on fossil fuels are frontline communities).  Coal producers or their allies would not have to argue that regulation is impermissible, they would just have to argue that the agency failed to consider an alternative rule that would be less economically harmful to communities dependent on fossil fuels – say, a rule with a somewhat slower timetable for reducing coal use.  On the other hand, children with asthma could sue the agency for not reducing coal use fast enough.  (Are children with asthma covered by the CEA?  This question seems to turn on whether asthma counts as a “disability” under the law, because people with disabilities are a frontline community.  No matter how an agency decides this question, it will be vulnerable to a lawsuit.  The possibilities for legal wrangling and delay are literally endless.)

Decarbonizing the United States economy will be a massive undertaking, and even progressives who care about a just transition to a carbon-free world should think twice about turning administrative procedure into an all-purpose weapon at the disposal of anyone seeking to block change.  This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the very real burdens imposed on disadvantaged groups.  But instead of adding more veto-points to our already creaky environmental rulemaking system, we need to figure out what types of assistance different communities need and get it to them directly.  Fossil fuel workers and communities need job training, relocation assistance, pensions and other forms of assistance.  Unhoused populations need housing.  Giving people the assistance that they actually need will do far more to alleviate hardship than suffocating the rulemaking process in a blanket of CEA lawsuits.

Comments (6) | |

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a story about Bellingham, Washington, a picturesque town that looks out across Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, but rational thought is in short supply when it comes to climate activism.

What got the country’s attention is a proposal before the city council to require all homeowners to switch from natural gas to electric heating by 2040. A number of cities already require new construction to use electric heat, but Bellingham would be the first to mandate a complete phaseout for everyone.

The opposition is spearheaded by, surprise, the privately owned gas and electric utilities, which plan a PR campaign talking up the wonders of CH4. Real estate interests are unhappy too. They will face off against the enviros, who all seem to see this as a big step toward municipal carbon neutrality.

Comments (4) | |

Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Well, I can’t miss them because I’m in them.  You can, but why would you?

Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Green New Deal and More
Union for Radical Political Economics: Paper Session
Friday, Jan. 3, 10:15am–12:15pm
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego – La Jolla B

“Financial Bailout Spending Would Have Paid for Thirty Years of Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Global Green New Deal and Marshall Plan” – Ron Baiman, Benedictine University

“Green New Deal: Interdisciplinary Heterodox Approaches” – Mathew Forstater, University of Missouri–Kansas City; Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University; Michael Murray, Bemidji State University

“The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Issue Is the Issue, After All” – Peter Dorman, Evergreen State College (emeritus)

Chair: Ron Baiman

Comments (3) | |

Do we need a World War II style mobilization to decarbonize the United States Economy?

The American Prospect has a new issue out on climate change, and I highly recommend the article by Jeffrey Sachs.

Sachs does an excellent job explaining why we do not need a World War II style mobilization to decarbonize the United States economy.  We can achieve a high level of decarbonization by 2050 at a modest aggregate cost (Sachs guesses 1 to 2% of output) by replacing existing power plants, vehicles, furnaces, etc. with green technologies at the end of their useful lives, using the resources that would have been used for this purpose anyway.

Sachs also explains very clearly how accelerating the timetable for a clean energy transition will greatly increase the cost and economic disruption for small gains and is probably not justifiable.  This point does not seem to be widely understood.  Here is Sachs:

Consider, for example, the challenge of decarbonizing the U.S. fleet of some 200 million light-duty vehicles. Suppose, as an illustration, that cars last for 20 years, and that ten million vehicles are currently retired each year and replaced with ten million newly produced vehicles. The industry’s production capacity is geared to ten million sales per year. In order to shift the U.S. automobile fleet to electric vehicles, the industry must be retooled.

Comments (12) | |

The Case for Carbon Taxes, Part II:  Political Sustainability

by Eric Kramer

The Case for Carbon Taxes, Part II:  Political Sustainability

In a prior post, I argued that carbon taxes are not vulnerable to political subversion by hostile courts and regulators, and that this is an important advantage of carbon taxes over traditional regulation based on mandates, and also an advantage over subsidies.  Once they are passed, carbon taxes can work more or less on auto-pilot to drive a clean energy transition, unless they are affirmatively repealed by Congress.  In this post I consider whether carbon taxes are likely to sustain the support they need to remain in place.  There is certainly no guarantee of this; any ambitious climate policy is likely to remain controversial.  However, there are reasons to be optimistic that a carbon tax will not provoke a self-defeating backlash, and mandates and subsidies will also encounter political headwinds.

When it comes to political viability, it is natural to think that subsidies are the best policy, mandates are second-best, and carbon taxes rate poorly.

Subsidies are politically popular – at least if they are funded through deficit spending – because the benefits to voters are clear and they seem to reward people for virtuous behavior (like buying an electric vehicle), but the costs of deficit spending are indirect and hidden from view.  Subsidies do not force anyone to do something that they would rather not do, like convert from natural gas to electric heat, or purchase an electric vehicle.  They are all carrot, no stick.  (This advantage of subsidies is entirely dependent on deficit financing.  Telling people that we will give them a $10,000 tax credit to use on the purchase of an electric vehicle at some point over the next ten years is not particularly appealing if we also tell them that their taxes will go up $1,000 per year to pay for it.)

Comments (5) | |

Plastic: Part of the Problem . . . Part of the Solution – Part 4: Efficient Use of Recyclates

The problem of plastic waste seems insurmountable. The good news is plastic recycling is on the rise and that is good for the circular economy. In parts 1, 2 and 3, we delved into the role of the waste management and recycling industry and how material sorting technologies can help. Part 4 is all about the increased use of recyclates as an essential part of properly closing the plastic cycle.

The plastics industry is facing a great many challenges. Harvesting recyclates from waste is only worthwhile if the plastic has been properly sorted and does not contain any metal, and if the products made from the secondary raw material are similar in quality to those made from new plastic.

Manufacturing recyclates from plastic waste is the first step. But in order to fully close the plastic cycle, more recyclates need to be used in the manufacturing of new products. This is a lucrative business for plastics processors, as recyclates are cheaper than new materials.

With material costs in the plastics industry accounting for 40% to 80% of total expense, depending on the segment, using recycled materials can significantly increase profitability. In addition, the secondary raw material in its ultra-pure state has practically the same characteristics as new plastic.

Yet there are still a number reservations in the industry when it comes to recyclates. The quality of the input material is particularly important in this regard. Recyclates must be free from any contamination to protect processes and machines from damage and ensure that the final products meet high standards of quality.

Survey on the Use of Recyclates by Processers on the Leap

Tags: Comments Off on Plastic: Part of the Problem . . . Part of the Solution – Part 4: Efficient Use of Recyclates | |

Plastic: Part of the Problem . . . Part of the Solution – Part 3: Sorting Technology

As I mentioned, this 4 part presentation is being done by Sesotec GmbH, a company which manufactures recycling equipment. Even so the information given by Sesotec is to the point on the topic of pollution by man made packaging and products which can be sued again and again and in some cases up to 8 times. Fair warning as the pitch comes with regards to Sesotec’s abilities.

Around 70 years after the first plastic product hit the market, a world without plastic waste now seems like a distant vision. It’s time for a new perspective on this supposed waste. In the third instalment of our series, we focus on how we must all manage how we deal with plastics in future, and the role materials sorting technologies and contaminant detection systems play in recycling.

Each year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste. At a global level, 78 million tonnes of plastic waste is created annually. The world has to respond to this global problem together, as recycling rates everywhere have been at a low level so far: 30% in Europe, 25% in China, and just 9% in the USA (Plastikmüll-Statistik 2017). A large portion of the supposed waste is still incinerated, or ends up in landfills and the environment, which harbors risks for our water, air, and food chain.

To achieve a Circular Economy, it’s important that all players contribute to this task: from product design and manufacture on the part of the plastics industry, along with conscious use and avoidance of plastics as well as waste separation on the part of consumers, followed by proper recycling and sorting by the waste and recycling sector, all the way up to conversion into high-quality secondary raw materials and their use in the manufacture of new products.

Past the leap, how a Circular Economy will work.

Tags: Comments Off on Plastic: Part of the Problem . . . Part of the Solution – Part 3: Sorting Technology | |

Chaos Theory And Global Climate Change

Chaos Theory And Global Climate Change

I am currently attending the Southern Economic Association meetings in Fort Lauderdale, where the street facing the hotel was underwater during the most recent hurricane to pass through.

Anyway, I saw a talk today that took me back to when I first learned about chaos theory, actuallly in the early 1970s before the word “chaos” was used for it. I learned about it and the butterfly effect, aka sensitive dependence on initial conditions, while working on a combined model of global climate change and food production.  It was called “irregular dynamics” back then, and the model showing it was climatologist Edward Lorenz, published in 1963.  Blew my mind then.  Anyway, it is widely accepted that the global climate system is chaotic, which is why one can only make weather forecasts for fairly short periods of time into the future, although one can forecast longer run average changes of averages such as average global temperature.

Anyway, I saw a talk by Emmanuele Masssetti of Georgia Tech that reminded me of all that, a talk thet explicitly drew on this chaotic effect.  So he has been simulating future climate using different assumptions for the various climate models the UN has been using for its IPCC reports.  What he found was that indeed the overall average temperature change projected did not vary as he varied initial conditions by small amounts. But what the projection for particular regions of the world did vary, indeed very much so as in the butterfly effect. So, for exmple, the Great Plains of the US would warm a lot under one simulation, but then actually cool for a simulation following a slightly changed initial conditions.  This is atunning, but not really surprising given the underlying chaotic nature  of th global climate system.

Another talk was a keynote  by Richard Zeckhauser of Harvard, who was pushing for us to study geoengineering.  He made a strong case for it.

Barkley Rosser

Comments (3) | |

Methane Fuel Cells

OK so I don’t really have a post to go with the title. I just googled methane fuel cells. As usual, some engineers promise that they have solved the problem.

The claim is that, with a new catalyst, methane (and oxygen of course) can be used to generate electricity at the temperature of an auto engine (500 c). They do not promise that the fuel cell is stable and especially don’t promise that it is stable if the fuel isn’t pure methane but rather contains, to use the technical term, smelly stuff.

The reason I am interested is that lots of shit and garbage and stuff produces methane which is a potent greenhouse gas. If fuel cells converted it to C02 and also paid for themselves by producing electricity, that would be wonderful. The methane from landfills and swine feces lagoons now escapes into the atmosphere. It isn’t worth collecting and purifying it (do you want to buy it ? How much would it cost to make it smell like pure methane (that is not at all)) ? A practical methane fuel cell would be very useful.

I have no understanding of the chemistry and engineering and even less of the economics. But I think that this is an important technology.

To be really impractical, I imagine dealing with the methane in frozen tundra in a way that it is C02 before it gets in the atmosphere.

Comments (9) | |