Solving climate change for $2 billion


Now this is a piece of research into climate change that I can really get behind. It's one of those win/win policies that environmentalists like to tell us are out there. It might even be "no cost" for the value of the fisheries created might be more than the cost of doing the work, the climate change effect coming for free.

OK, OK, reality time, this is very much early stage work and no, we don't know how effective it is going to be.

As a result of the findings, a ground-breaking experiment will be held this month off the British island of South Georgia, 800 miles south east of the Falklands. It will see if the phenomenon could be harnessed to contain rising  carbon emissions. Researchers will use several tons of iron sulphate to create an artificial bloom of algae. The patch will be so large it  will be visible from space. Scientists already knew that releasing iron into the sea stimulates the growth of algae. But environmentalists had warned that to do so artificially might damage the planet’s fragile ecosystem.

We know very well that the basic idea works. Large areas (up to 70% of the global ocean) of the sea are nutrient poor, specifically iron poor. We can see what results when there's a storm in the Sahara for example, and iron rich dust gets blown over the Atlantic: algal blooms. Some such algae, when they die, fall to the ocean floor and lock up the carbon they contain. Others become the beginning of a food chain that results in lots more yummy tuna for us to eat. So, if we deliberately throw iron into the ocean can we create such blooms, such richer fisheries and such carbon sequestration? 

As I say, we know that this basic idea does in fact work, we just don't know how well. We do know that there won't be any appalling side effects, for we actually did this once before: all that soot and slag from all those coal fired ships for a century or so did not lead to catastrophe after all (and yes, they did create areas of higher nutrients and thus more algal growth). But what we want to find out is how much of that carbon captured from the atmosphere goes to the bottom of the ocean and how much goes right back, either from the algae themselves or the fish (and us! Yum!) that feed upon them? A commercial company called Planktos that wanted to conduct this very experiemnt a could of years back thought that 20% was sequestrated for the long term.

20%? On a blog a long time ago and far away I ran through these numbers. Given the cost of iron powder (or as here, iron sulphate) the cost of sequestrating one tonne of carbon would be around 3.3 US cents. Yes, that really is 0.033 of a dollar. To sequestrate all of the 5 billion tonnes of current anthropogenic emissions would thus cost under $2 billion dolllars. Erm, in raw material costs.

Yes, of course, these numbers are wrong. Entirely wrong, very much back of a fag packet wrong. Let's say they're an order of magnitude out. Still costs less than $20 billion annually. Two orders out: still less than $200 billion. Even that, as an annual cost, pales into insignificance against the cost of, say, the Stern Review's prescriptions.

OK, let's imagine that this is indeed wrong. That there's some error (in my calculations, in the basic idea itself perhaps). That still leaves us with a very large question. Why is only one experiment being done upon this? We're being asked to spend trillions upon trillions of dollars over the next few years to "beat climate change" so why isn't everyone and their granny investigating such possibly low cost methods of doing so?

Thre's a cynical little voice in me that says that it's because there's an awful lot of people who aren't as interested in solving climate change as they are in using it as an excuse to impose their vision of the good life upon us.

On the twelfth day of Christmas...


My true love sent to me: twelve drummers drumming. It probably means the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

Research conducted jointly by Gloucestershire and Chichester Universities shows that playing the drums for a rock band requires the stamina of a premiership footballer. Tests on Clem Burke, the veteran Blondie drummer, showed that 90 minutes of drumming could raise his heart rate to 190 beats a minute. An hour in concert could burn between 400 and 600 calories.

A dedicated drumming laboratory is now being built at the Gloucester campus to continue the study. Which makes you wonder why our tax-funded universities haven’t got anything better to research.

Accountability remains at large


This government is a lot like a rottweiler chewing on a postman's leg: one thing is certain, it's never going to let go. Yet another example of this is the dropping of the plan for directly elected members of police authorities. The ever-increasingly irrelevant Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, caved into pressure from senior officers and Labour council chiefs, both groups only interested in protecting their much vaunted positions of power from the threat of being made accountable to the meagre serfs of this country.

What is truly eye opening, and eye wateringly painful, are the reasons that were proffered. The weakest argument comes from Ms Smith: that the police force would become 'politicised'. Ahem. I think if she looks at how her department acts with regard to the police force, she may find this has already happened. Then there is the downright crass from Keith Vaz, who fears that a far right organization could capture police authorities. Another politician who needs to open the window and have a look round: the police have already been captured by a bunch of fascists (i.e. the government). And to add further insult to the voters, he piles on the idiocy by claiming that electing authority members would reduce accountability. To this swamp of ineptitude we'll add the vested interests of the Labour Group of the LGA (Local Government Association) who feel that it would fragment the relationship between police and councils. Which can't be a bad thing, considering that the police aren't supposed to be at the beck and call of councillors, unless of course the councillor is a victim of crime.

Wresting control of the levers of power from any politician these days is nigh on impossible; if they are wearing a red rosette it's even harder. In the meantime we shall continue to dream of the day the police are allowed to protect us and do their jobs how they want to. For now they will remain nothing more than a private army for the government to direct against the population.

Blog Review 830


A very interesting indeed speculation about how advancing science might make certain moral certitudes untenable. It's already true that the ideas of Simon Baron Cohen on systemising and empathic aptitude (on average!) differences between men and women are rejected, not because they are wrong (which of course they might be) but because the implications are uncomfortable to certain such certitudes.

Yes, of course the current crises have people arguing for what they want anyway....whether or not it solves any of the current crises.

This gas crisis. The gas gas crisis, not the American petrol one. Something that would simply go away if we had a proper competitive market.

And no, we do not need to have masses more storage for said gas. It's stored very well right where it is, underground.

Perhaps (and no, this isn't satire) the return of town gas would be a good idea?

All hail the "Lilley Option". It often is the correct thing to do: nothing.

And finally, yes, the rules for the rulers are different from those for the ruled.



The Daily Outrage


The Daily Mail has a large story about how much the NHS is paying to hire agency staff to cover holes in the payroll.

Millions of pounds of health service funds are being wasted employing agency nurses on up to £128 an hour. This is almost ten times the amount paid to an experienced staff nurse  -  and equates to a salary of £250,000. Overall, the health service spent almost £800million on agency doctors, nurses and consultants in 2006-07, according to the figures uncovered in a Freedom of Information request. That could fund around ten hospitals or employ 30,000 full- time experienced nurses.

But the important line is I think this:

He said many nurses were emigrating, partly because the NHS could not help with high housing costs in many areas.

Or if you want to put that more properly, the NHS cannot vary wages across areas with different living costs, for it is bound into a rigid straitjacket of national pay scales. We looked at this near the beginning of last year.

Wages and living costs vary widely across the country but NHS pay (bar a too small London weighting) does not. Thus a nurse of a specific grade trying to live in the SE is in poverty compared to one on the same wage elsewhere. Not surprisingly those parts of the NHS in the more expensive areas of the country find it difficult to recruit and retain staff. They thus have to hire agency staff at great expense....and note that being agency staff is the only way that staff in such expensive areas can earn more than the nationally set NHS wages. This leads to less than desirable outcomes: 

A 10 percent increase in the outside wage is associated with a 4 percent to 8 percent increase in AMI death rates.

That is, in richer areas of the country, where wages are higher, death rates from heart attacks are higher than in areas with lower general wages, because the NHS national wage rate makes hiring and retaining staff more difficult. It isn't just the cost of those agency staff which is the daily outrage, it's that people are dying because we have a national pay scale.

The obvious answer is to abolish the national pay scale and tell hospitals to pay whatever they need to to attract the necessary staff. Sadly it won't happen, for there are those who would insist that death for some is better than any violation of their sense of what is just or righteous. Like, for example, wages set upon supply and demand rather than central planning.

Oxymoronic compulsory volunteering


A few weeks ago Melanie Reed wrote a piece in The Times in which she called for voluntary work to be made compulsory. Waiting for the punch line I now realize that she was not joking. She does indeed believe that we should be forced to volunteer.

This is how Reed’s vision play out:

What we must do, I suggest, is introduce a new concept of universal compulsory volunteering. (As practised in the Army: “Right lads, we need three volunteers - you, you and you.") Everyone aged 12 to 85 would have to devote a minimum of 12 days a year to the service of others - causes of any kind, as long as they are worthwhile. It might be giving financial advice to a charity, walking dogs, mentoring young offenders, gardening for the elderly. People could choose; but they must make a commitment.

What, you might ask, would happen to you if you choose not to volunteer? Well, “months of community service, or raised taxes“. One wonders whether Reed had even thought before writing this, and more importantly why she is not writing for The Guardian. The main reason people don’t volunteer is because politicians have stripped us of so much power, money and time that we have little left to give. Forcing us to volunteer would be the pièce de résistance in the historic failure of public policy as social engineering.

Let’s hope Cameron doesn’t read The Times. He has already dabbled with the idea of forced volunteerism before. With a bit of a facelift we could see this become Conservative policy. It is entirely possible; take a look at Obama’s plans to forced volunteering.

On the eleventh day of Christmas...


My true love sent to me: eleven pipers piping. It might refer to the eleven loyal apostles.

Pipers are becoming harder to get, because of noise at work regulations. Scotland’s army pipers are only allowed to practice 25 minutes a day to protect their hearing.

When the regulations were put forward a year ago, some bright spark pointed out that the crowd roar at Anfield, Old Trafford and the like often exceeds the 90p decibel limit, so presumably premier league footballers should be wearing ear muffs. Likewise orchestras playing the 1812 Overture. There were red faces all round, but the regulators gave the entertainment industries eighteen months to find a solution to their problem. Their problem? It’s the regulators’ problem!

Blog Review 829


One the first and second laws of supply and demand. Or why we shouldn't be freaking out about markets.

How about a list of famous errors made by economists? Worth pointing out that a hypothesis struck down by an ugly fact subsequently being rejected as a hypothesis is one of the marks of the scientific method.

10% of HMRC's records are wrong. Bodes well for the ID card system, doesn't it? And shy is such a computer system so darn expensive?

Things you shouldn't do (but which people have done) when looking for a job as an economist.

The inanity of targets in the NHS.

Just what is a Nobel Prize worth?

And finally, tractor production is up Comrades!

Agreeing with James Hansen on climate change


I know, I know, this is near heresy. But James Hansen, one of the more apocalyptic prophets of climate change, has written an open letter to Barack Obama and I find myself agreeing with one of his major points. It has to be said that I disagree on many others: my longstanding view has been that climate change is not an immediate nor a catastrophic problem, it's a chronic one that we can deal with quite easily as long as we give ourselves the requisite decades to a century to do so. This is the part that I do agree with:

A rising price on carbon emissions is the essential underlying support needed to make all other climate policies work. For example, improved building codes are essential, but full enforcement at all construction and operations is impractical. A rising carbon price is the one practical way to obtain compliance with codes designed to increase energy efficiency. A rising carbon price is essential to "decarbonize" the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels. The public's near-term, mid-term, and long-term lifestyle choices will be affected by knowledge that the carbon tax rate will be rising.....A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective. It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead. The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases. Effects will permeate society....."Cap and trade" generates special interests, lobbyists, and trading schemes, yielding non productive millionaires, all at public expense. The public is fed up with such business.

I've deliberately left out his proposal that the tax should be returned as a dividend, I don't think it's necessary. Reducing other taxes instead would work just as well: the important point would be revenue neutrality.

But this is I think the correct way to go about things. We don't have to ban anything, like planes or runways, we don't need a "fundamental change in the structure of our society", we don't need to cripple the economy and we certainly don't need vast amounts of central planning. We just need to incorporate the externalities of carbon emissions into the market. Cap and trade does that with too much politics involved so a carbon tax (or as it is called, a Pigou Tax) looks better to me.

Now all we need is to work out what that carbon tax should be? The logic of Pigou taxation is that the tax should equal the harm being done. We have our number for the harm from the Stern Review, that $85 a tonne CO2. Or as Defra (the number is different but the same for technical reasons) has it, around £30 per tonne CO2. Given our total emissions of some 500 million tonnes a year from these islands that means a tax burden of some £15 billion a year and reasonable estimates are that we already pay that amount in emissions taxation.

See, I told you we could deal with this quite easily for we already do have the appropriate tax levels. Problem solved.

On the tenth day of Christmas...


My true love sent to me: ten lords a-leaping. This probably refers to the Ten Commandments, but lords today aren't exactly leaping to do anything, particularly to reform the House of Lords.

The subject has been talked about for decades. Everyone has agreed that reform is needed, but nobody has ever been able to decide exactly what. The trouble is that the House of Lords has actually worked quite well. It has checked the House of Commons, but not been able to override it. The hereditary peers might have been overwhelmingly old, white, posh, bumbling prats, but in fact the system brought in lots of people you never see among the serried ranks of lawyers and political careerists in the Commons - more young people, more women (until recently), more people of all classes (Lord Nelson was a policeman, I recall), more communists, more libertarians...

Tony Blair took a major step in abolishing the heredities - or most of them: these peers are pretty nifty politicians, having had the gene in their families since Tudor times. But that leaves us with a House of Lords that is appointed. This can be good - non-politicians like the medical pioneer Lord Winston bring enormous depth to the House's discussions. And even ex-politicians can bring a lot of experience. But a House full of the Prime Minister's chums is not a delectable prospect.

Nor is an elected House - it will just fill up with the same political lawyers we have in the Commons. If we're going for elections, it needs to be a completely different system, with different constituencies, and radically different rules. Personally, I'd prefer the first 500 people out of the phone book. Or almost anyone, provided they didn't want to do the job.