The world is not running out of resources after all, says new ASI monograph

The depletion of mineral reserves poses no serious threat to society, a new monograph published today by the Adam Smith Institute has concluded.

The No Breakfast Fallacy: Why the Club of Rome was wrong about us running out of resources” argues that outcries over resource availability from environmentalist groups are based on a misinterpretation of numbers and a misunderstanding of what mineral resources actually are.

The monograph, written by Adam Smith Institute Senior Fellow and rare earths expert Tim Worstall, says that groups that have warned about the world running out of rare mineral resources, such as The Club of Rome, have been using the wrong sets of data, mistaking the exhaustion of mineral reserves for the exhaustion of mineral resources.

Mineral reserves, the monograph explains, are simply the minerals that have been prepared for use for the next few decades; they are minerals that can be mined with current technology at current prices. Some reserves are going to run out in the near future, but this is a normal process. Every generation runs out of mineral reserves.

Mineral resources, however, refer to a concentration of minerals of a certain quality and quantity that have shown reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction. These are much larger than mineral reserves.

Organic farming, for example, may be a useful idea, the monograph asserts, but the idea that it is a necessity because we’re about to run out of inorganic fertilisers is based on a falsehood. The reserves for minerals used in fertilizers may exhaust in the next few hundred years, but the exhaustion of resources is not estimated to occur for 1,400 years for phosphate and 7,300 years for potassium.

The report concludes that efforts to conserve and/or recycle mineral resources are wasteful and often end up being net harms to society, by diverting economic activity from more productive uses.

Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute and author of the report, Tim Worstall, said:

We have a basic problem in our discussion of resource availability. Which is that most of the people in that discussion are grievously misinformed about what a resource is and how much of any of them we might have. It really is true that Paul Ehrlich, Jeremy Grantham, the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth and the rest are looking at the wrong numbers when they consider how much of any mineral or metal there is that we might be able to use.

This is not some arcane economic point. It is not some mystery explained only to the illuminati. Quite simply, most people assume that mineral reserves are what we have left that we can use. This is not so: mineral reserves are only what we have prepared for us to use in the next few decades. As such, it’s really no surprise at all that mineral reserves are generally recorded as being going to last for the next few years.

This book explains this simply enough that even a member of the Green Party should be able to grasp the point. We are no more going to run out of usable minerals because we consume mineral reserves than we are to run out of breakfast because we eat the bacon in the fridge.

To read the full press release, click here.

The Swansea Barrage is still an absurd idea

As Christopher Booker points out, the Swansea Barrage is an absurd idea. Not because the idea of tidal power itself is absurd, but because we’ve actually studied this version of it and come to the conclusion that it is, well, absurd:

Yet, as I reported on April 18, under the headline “Will Welsh eels scupper the craziest ‘green’ project ever?”, in practical terms this scheme should be a non-starter. On the developer’s figures, the 16 tidal-powered giant turbines, built into a six-mile long breakwater round Swansea Bay, will intermittently generate only a pitiful amount of the most expensive and heavily subsidised electricity in the world. They will require constant back-up from fossil-fuel power stations for all the many hours when they are producing little or no power. In return for the developers receiving a mind-boggling £168 per megawatt hour for electricity, including a subsidy of 240 per cent, even more than that for offshore wind, we shall on average get just a derisory 57 megawatts. Yet the £1 billion gas-fired power station recently built down the coast at Pembroke can produce 35 times as much electricity, whenever needed, without a penny of subsidy.

As one of us pointed out some time ago this really does not make economic sense.

There’s been a large study of all of the different variations of a plan to generate tidal power from the Severn Estuary. They compared the cost of that tidal power against the cost of natural gas fired stations. And they included the cost of the gas rising into the future, the taxes that would have to be paid on CO2 emissions and so on and on. It was a proper cost benefit analysis done properly. And they found that the larger we built the tidal power plant the more money we lost on it. This being indicated by the net present value of each of the different variations of the plan. The larger it was the greater the negative amount showing up as that net present value.

We can get to the same result by looking at the price for that contract for difference for the energy to be produced. All in costs (including carbon taxes!) for gas fired plants are in the £80 to £100 level. Anything that costs us more than this loses us money. We might, maybe, perhaps, accept small installations that are loss making as a method of encouraging a new technology. Vast monsters of plants designed to work for a century and more do not meet this test, of course.

It’s really very simple indeed. Whatever is it that we need to do about climate change deliberately setting out to do so in a manner that makes us poorer just isn’t the right way to start. Yet that’s what the Swansea Barrage does, as we can see from the two sets of numbers we can use to check it. It has a negative net present value and a requirement for a contract for difference vastly above other potential power sources.

We just shouldn’t even be entertaining the idea of building it. Well, not with our money, at least. Someone wants to go and lose their own on it then fine: but that means no contract for difference.

So Britain has solved climate change then

As regular readers will know we’re pretty simple in our approach to climate change around here. If it’s happening, we’re causing it, then the thing to do about it is a carbon tax. That lovely Pigouvian Tax on externalities, just as Mssrs. Stern, Nordhaus and Tol tell us is the solution. And, for the sake of argument, while we think it’s too high, we’re willing to at least consider Stern’s rate of $80 per tonne CO2-e. Which brings us to:

Environmental taxes hit a new record high of £44.6 billion in 2014, official figures show, as the bill for renewable energy levies rose to almost £3 billion.
The data from the ONS shows that the green tax burden has more than doubled over the past two decades, from £19.4 billion in 1994.
Last year saw the ninth consecutive increase in the tax burden, which stood at £43 billion in 2013.
The vast majority of the taxes are those levied on transport fuels such as petrol and diesel, accounting for £27.1 billion. Vehicle duties accounted for £6 billion of the total and air passenger duty £3.2 billion.
The cost of renewable energy taxes to subsidise wind and solar farms rose by more than a fifth to £2.9 billion.

So, the UK has already solved climate change. We’re done and dusted. Emissions are of the order of 500 million tonnes a year in this country. That’s $40 billion in taxes righteously required in order to adjust market prices. We’re already charging ourselves more than that. We’re done.

This is of course somewhat in contrast to the repeated squeals that much more should be done. But this is absolutely the mainstream scientific opinion here that we are cleaving to. If climate change, then carbon tax. And when the appropriate tax is in place then no more need be done, we can just wait for that alteration of prices to work through the market system.

So, what’s it like to live in the first country that has actually dealt with the major environmental challenge of our times? And wouldn’t it be just lovely if those who rule us realised that they’ve already managed that feat?

Why William Nordhaus was right and Nick Stern wrong

Given that coal fired power stations seem to be closing down left right and centre we might think this is a victory in the fight against climate change. Sadly though what we’re actually seeing is the result of people following the advice of thwe wrong economist. It was William Nordhaus who was correct, Nick Stern who was wrong.

Ambrose:

The British electricity group SSE (ex Scottish and Southern Energy) is already adapting to the new mood. It will close its Ferrybridge coal-powered plant next year, citing the emerging political consensus that coal “has a limited role in the future”.

The IMF bases its analysis on the work Arthur Pigou, the early 20th Century economist who advocated taxes to stop investors keeping all the profit while dumping the costs on the rest of society.

Tony Lodge:

So why has the power station closed early, citing soaring running costs, when coal prices are at an eight-year low and when it was modernised to stay open until 2023?

The Carbon Price Floor is arguably one of the most hidden and unknown but ultimately damaging pieces of modern industrial taxation. To use a shorter and more descriptive title, this carbon tax is slowly forcing the premature closure of the backbone of our electricity generating base.

As we regularly say around here, if there is an externality, one which cannot be dealt with by market or private means, then yes Pigou and his tax can be the right solution.

However, there’s a difference possible in the way that it’s applied. Roughly speaking the UK government has followed Stern’s advice: here’s the amount the tax should be, impose it now. Which is why these plants are closing at such great expense in stranded assets.

What should have been done is the Nordhaus approach. Sure, we need the tax but it would be better to work with the capital and technological cycle than against it. Thus, have a low tax now rising into the future. In this manner we’ll still get the use of those capital assets that we’ve already built while also making sure that the next generation, to replace the current as they fall to bits, are non-emitting.

Don’t forget, we’re not imposing this tax to raise revenue: we’re imposing the tax to reduce future emissions. And we obviously want to do this in the cheapest manner possible. Which is, as above, to use the current installed base until it falls apart and then rebuild it differently. Not, as the Stern prescription makes us do, close down perfectly good plant right now.

We should, obviously, be at least somewhat grateful that the government did listen to economists on this. It’s just rather sad that they listened to the wrong one.

When a fossil fuel subsidy is not a subsidy

You may have seen an IMF report in the news last week claiming that fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of over five trillion dollars every year. This made good headlines, but only because the IMF chose to describe untaxed externalities as ‘post-tax subsidies’. This is unusual and misleading. I wrote about why in The Daily Telegraph:

The IMF’s idea of “subsidies” to fossil fuels refers to something completely different. They have taken the indirect costs to society of using energy – air pollution, traffic congestion, climate change – and, if governments haven’t imposed special taxes on one, called it a “subsidy”. The problem is, we already have a word for these things: externalities. And there is something rather Orwellian about describing a failure to tax something as a subsidy. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about: when my neighbours play loud music at night, it makes me worse off. I’d pay, maybe, £20 for them to shut up, if it wasn’t so awkward to go to the flat downstairs, knock on their door and start negotiating prices. Economists would say that they are imposing a £20 externality on me, and that in a perfectly efficient world, my building would charge residents around that much to play music, and give it to sleep-deprived neighbours like me. But, in the absence of that charge, nobody would say that those neighbours are being subsidised by me. It’s just not what the word means. Except, apparently, to the IMF.

That isn’t to say that externalities should never be taxed, if a private solution can’t be found. But we already have high fuel taxes in most of the developed world, and in the developing world these taxes will hold back growth. Since economic development has positive externalities, it’s not obvious that the negative externalities of fossil fuels outweigh the positives. You can read the whole piece here.