climate change

Why emissions tests are so exhausting

One problem I have with carbon tax is that due to lots of asymmetry of information the setting of a carbon tax rate is almost entirely arbitrary. Still, despite this, carbon tax does some good for the following reason. People change their bad consumption behaviour to accord with differing incentives like price changes. So for example, a tax on carbon dioxide emissions of £50 or £60 a tonne would affect our consumption habits in relation to products and services associated with carbon dioxide emissions, whether it be driving, flying or whatever. If this tax enabled the government to reduce taxes in other areas, then the carbon tax would help us change our habits and at the same time bring about selection pressure in the market for us to be more mindful of the environment.This is part of a general law of economics - when prices go up or down, people change their buying habits. If the price of red grapes goes up by 40% and green grapes stay the same, people will buy more green grapes and fewer red grapes. Similarly, if the price of emitting carbon goes up, people will lower their CO2 emissions, which will place selection pressure on consumers and on eco-unfriendly businesses. This means that as carbon/pollution taxes endure, people will look for more ways to be greener, making us as humans more mindful of our environment.

Alas, the government isn't happy with mere carbon taxes - it places superfluous and hence unnecessary additional burdens on us. It does this because politicians usually do not know the correct rate in a cost-benefit analysis between the externalities we emit and the freedoms we enjoy. Let me give you a personal example of this - the MOT emissions test. I drive a high-emission Subaru, and in order to enjoy this I am penalised with a higher rate of car tax. I also have a higher fuel bill than most. But both of these measures are fine by me in a free market where free-choice rules: I enjoy my Subaru and its fast-driving capacity so I soak up the additional cost. In a free society you may prefer something similar, or something very different, like, say, a more efficient Nissan Micra. You'll pay less than me in tax and fuel (per mile) but I'll beat you off the lights every time and probably get to my destination quicker than you. As long as we're both happy with that arrangement (and our choices indicate we are) then all is fine.

The trouble is, emissions testing at the MOT centre means that it doesn't stop there. Drivers cannot get an MOT certificate if their vehicle’s exhaust emissions are too high. This has come at a considerable extra cost to me (and other drivers like me). I had to pay £650 to replace a perfectly good sports-cat because it couldn't lower the emission levels to below the legal limit, and I will have to do this every few years for the same reason. Add to that the fuel costs and wear and tear each year getting the sports-cat hot enough to pass the test, and the fact that many other parts (oil, filter, lambda sensor, valves, etc) need changing more regularly to keep my emissions low enough, and this amounts to an unnecessary set of costs that I have to incur on top of the carbon tax I already pay to run a Subaru.

These costs are unnecessary for two reasons: firstly because they are going to have no significant bearing on future environmental changes at all. And secondly, a carbon tax (on my car tax and my fuel buying) already does the trick without imposing all the additional MOT emissions costs on me. If I find I want to lower my tax and insurance and reduce my fuel bill I can choose to sell the Subaru to a buyer who wants a fast car. Through that transaction we both win. If I can't sell it due to no one wanting such expensive car bills then it's a signal that my next car should be a more environmentally friendly car. In each case, autonomous decision-making rules. With the MOT emissions problem I have to fork out hundreds of pounds just to keep my car on the road. The government is already getting its pound of flesh through my increased road tax and fuel bills, it's unnecessary and hugely damaging to my bank balance to add MOT emissions expenditure to the mix.

There's also the unpredictability factor which gives us inopportune bills for which it is hard to save - and this affects not just high-emission drivers - all drivers have the same issue here. When your car tax and fuel bill is consistent with the kind of car you drive you can plan your year around it, knowing roughly what your expenditure is likely to be. If you end up with a part fault you can replace it knowing that the part needed replacing. But with these emission laws, bills can come in not through non-functionality of parts but through cars not being able to get through the MOT emissions test without having them replaced. As I and no doubt many drivers have found, this frequently brings about unexpected bills of hundreds of pounds that we need to pay, not to make the car roadworthy but to make it MOT emissions-worthy (a very different thing).

If we think it's reasonable to pay a bit more to run gas guzzlers, then it's true we need some mechanism to know whether people are running high-polluting vehicles or not. But we already have this mechanism in the form of higher fuel bills for gas guzzlers and higher car tax to account for those emissions, which, to me, renders the additional (and superfluous for reasons I indicated) MOT emissions test unnecessary. I'm not saying we don't need an MOT test at all - we just don't need the emissions part.

But Minister, we don't do this sort of central planning around here


Ed Davey seems to be a little confused as to his correct role in the matters of the world:

Investing in fossil fuels is becoming increasingly risky because global action to tackle climate change will curb demand, forcing companies to leave unprofitable reserves in the ground, Ed Davey, the energy secretary, has warned.

Financial authorities must examine the risks posed by coal, oil and gas companies to prevent pension funds investing in what could become “the sub-prime assets of the future”, Mr Davey said.

The comments are Mr Davey’s first intervention into the debate over the “carbon bubble”, the theory that the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves are overvalued because the majority must be left unburned in the ground if extremes of global warming are to be avoided.

Mr Davey told the Telegraph: “One has got to worry about the investments for pensioners.

"If pension funds are investing in companies or banks have on their balance sheets huge amounts of assets in fossil fuels, and those assets don’t give the return that people expect – because of changes in technology where low-carbon becomes cheaper or because of the world having to take action against carbon emissions – one has got to protect those pensioners and those investments.”

It's obviously entirely correct that the minister in charge of worrying about climate change should worry about climate change. Even, where and if action is necessary on the subject, suggest what action is necessary. However, in a market society that's as far as it goes. How people react to those plans and suggestions is entirely up to them and that includes where and how they invest their money.

Go away Mr. Davey, it's just none of your damn business.

As to the basic notion that fossil fuel reserves are going to be worth nothing in 50 years' time that's not particularly a problem. Anyone familiar with any part of the climate change debate should know about the controversy over discount rates: what interest rate should we use to consider the value of things that happen in the far future? Similarly, all should know that Stern and others have had to use a very much lower than market interest rate to reach the conclusions that they do. But note that these assets, the future values of fossil fuel reserves, are discounted at a market interest rate. Meaning that the value of reserves in 50 years' time is, in net present value encapsulated in share price4s, pretty much nothing. For that's exactly what discounting over long periods of time does: thus the problem that Stern had and the need to *not* use market rates in order to bolster the case to do something. This works both ways, of course it does. Just as the use of market rates would lead to future damage from climate change being so trivial in present values that we'd do nothing about it, the use of market rates to value reserves in the far future means that value is so trivial we do not much about them.

And yes, amazingly, markets do value reserves using market interest and discount rates.

Oh: and there's another thing. The big oil companies already include in their evaluations of those future values the effects of a substantial carbon price. They're already valuing everything after the effects of the policies that you're pursuing Mr. Davey.

Firms can pay us to recycle


Recycling comes more instinctively for those on low incomes and who live in low-income countries compared to their respective high-income counterparts. To increase the amount that we recycle and conserve, we must privatise the process and enable private companies to people for recyclable goods. In many areas, if people put out more goods for recycling than their allotted quota, the local authorities refuse to collect it. Private companies, however, have incentives to collect as much as they can and would do otherwise. By further incentivising households via fair compensation, we could significantly increase the rate of recycling. Furthermore, why should we, as suppliers of recyclable goods, be expected to hand over our products for free?

Also, given the tough socioeconomic climate, extra income derived by providing an additional, monetary reward to households that recycle whilst cutting government expenditure would be helpful.

People who recycle out of necessity are aware of the economic value of those goods; in India, consumers are paid to hand over their recyclable goods such as glass bottles, plastics, newspapers, etc. by various private companies and this initiative is practiced voluntarily across society due to the mutual financial benefits it incurs. In the UK, there are some places where we can ‘cash in’ our bottles, cans and newspapers but they are few and far between – it is also inconvenient for us as suppliers. Furthermore, if firms in India are able to collect from peoples’ houses and also pay for those goods, why are our firms unable to do the same? One reason could be that India has a relatively flexible labour market and lower wages. However, even though higher wages are prevalent in Britain, relatively advanced technology can still make this feasible by keeping costs down and financially rewarding those whom they procure goods from. Alternatively, and preferably, we could ease up on immigration restrictions a bit more, remove the minimum wage and instantly make this business model feasible.

In the UK, the financial benefits of recycling are neither directly felt by the consumer nor properly managed by the collection authority. Instead, it is squandered by inefficient management and stunted by unfair outcomes. If government continues to subsidise and undertake this activity then this inefficiency and its corresponding sub-potential recycling volume will continue.

Subsidising green tech could be self-defeating


One of the only arguably beneficial impacts of taxing petrol as heavily as the government does is, theoretically, to encourage the production of ‘fuel-efficient’ vehicles. A tax on fuel increases its price and consumers will seek fuel-efficient alternatives to current vehicles. This increased demand has encouraged car manufacturers to develop vehicles that are more fuel-efficient. Since subsidies are the inverse of taxation, the effect of subsidising green technology on innovation is inverted. Subsidising green technology means that producers have less incentive to continue innovating and producing even more efficient technology since the government basically favours the status quo or a particular benchmark. If we must have subsidies, this benchmark (as in, a certain level of efficiency) must be constantly revised upwards so that: 1. We don’t subsidise as many firms’ products, 2. Cash transfers to firms require constant innovation and improvement. Cutting back subsidies for fuel-efficiency and green technology in conjunction with these high fuel taxes (let’s face it, they’re not coming down anytime soon) should encourage innovation whilst tackling the budget deficit.

A similar logic applies to subsidising solar panels, wind farms etc. because the government has essentially signalled to the producers that, although their inventions are not cost-effective, the remaining burden will be imposed upon the taxpayer. This means that these alternative energy sources will not be developed to their full potential as quickly as they would otherwise be. Why delay innovation on the basis that we are happy with what we have compared to what we used to have? Surely, we should encourage the production of new, more efficient ‘green’ energy technologies sooner rather than later; this can be achieved by cutting subsidies for existing green technologies and thereby preventing such firms from being comfortable with inefficiency.

The horrible, horrible, error in the IPCC's latest report


Oh dearie me, this is something of an error at the heart of the IPCC's latest report into the perils of climate change. And it all stems from a thoroughly incomplete look at the economic models about what might happen. Here's what they say:

Without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, global emission growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities (Figure 3.1) (high confidence). Global GHG emissions under most scenarios without additional mitigation (baseline scenarios) are between about 75 GtCO2eq/yr and almost 140 GtCO2eq/yr in 210016, which is approximately between the 2100 emission levels in the RCP 6.0 and RCP 8.5 pathways (Figure 3.2)17. Baseline scenarios exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2eq by 2030 and reach CO2eq concentration levels between about 750 ppm CO2eq and more than 1300 ppm CO2eq by 2100. Global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 range from about 3.7°C to 4.8 °C above the average for 1850-1900 for a median climate response. They range from 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty (5th to 95th percentile range)18.

It's important to understand something here. "Additional efforts" does not mean that we simply install more solar panels (just as an example) for price, ethical or market reasons. It means that policy is changed so that more solar panels (again, just as an example) are installed. It means that we've got to change the incentives under which people operate, through legislation or regulation, in order to get people to change their behaviour.

This has been true right from the start of the worries about climate change: business as usual forecasts of emissions look at varying levels of wealth, population and technology and assume that all of those various scenarios could happen without government intervention. "Mitigation", like "effort" here, means intervention to reduce emissions below some or any of those business as usual scenarios.

And here's the problem with the assumption they're making about future emissions. Absolutely no one (no one sane at least) believes that we're ever going to get anywhere near the levels they've just assumed above. As Matt Ridley has put it:

The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and technology in the 21st century and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous, according to the scientific consensus. That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.

But what about the fourth scenario? This is known as RCP8.5, and it produces 3.5 degrees of warming in 2081-2100. Curious to know what assumptions lay behind this model, I decided to look up the original papers describing the creation of this scenario. Frankly, I was gobsmacked. It is a world that is very, very implausible.

For a start, this is a world of “continuously increasing global population” so that there are 12 billion on the planet. This is more than a billion more than the United Nations expects, and flies in the face of the fact that the world population growth rate has been falling for 50 years and is on course to reach zero – i.e., stable population – in around 2070. More people mean more emissions.

Second, the world is assumed in the RCP8.5 scenario to be burning an astonishing 10 times as much coal as today, producing 50% of its primary energy from coal, compared with about 30% today. Indeed, because oil is assumed to have become scarce, a lot of liquid fuel would then be derived from coal. Nuclear and renewable technologies contribute little, because of a “slow pace of innovation” and hence “fossil fuel technologies continue to dominate the primary energy portfolio over the entire time horizon of the RCP8.5 scenario.” Energy efficiency has improved very little.

These are highly unlikely assumptions.

They're not just highly unlikely assumptions: they're near insane ones.

What has actually been done is to take current emissions levels (actually, from a few years ago) and then draw a straight line inference about what will happen if they carry on growing as they have been. Completely ignoring the fact that we've already done a great deal to change what's likely to happen in the future. After all, as we keep being told, solar PV is now just about cost competitive with coal and will be cheaper in only a few short years (by 2020 is a serious and sober prediction). At which point why on earth would people start to use more coal than we do today? For a higher portion of our energy desires?

That simply doesn't make any sense whatsoever. And that brings us to that distinction between "effort" and market processes. If solar PV does become cheaper than coal (as is obvious it will) then it becomes a market process to install it. No "effort" in the sense of government action is required.

Another way to make this same point is that the IPCC is completely ignoring all of the work that we've already done to try to beat climate change. They're not taking account of the fall in the costs of renewables and therefore not including the obvious fact that more renewables are going to be installed in coming years. Whatever governments do or propose. The same can be said for LED light bulbs (not quite right yet but they very soon will be) and myriad other technologies that have been developed in recent years.

It's a basic and obvious piece of logic that if we see that we've got a problem ahead of us we should, when we consider what we should do about it, take into effect the results of the things that we've already done to solve said problem. And it's this that the IPCC is not doing. They are predicting future emissions without taking account of the technologies we've already developed which will reduce emissions. They are thus arguing that there's too much still to do.

It's a horrible, horrible, mistake.

The terrible error of Naomi Klein


Naomi Klein tells us that the polluter must pay. Something that is both logical and true. Then she tells us that the fossil fuel companies must be made to pay for the damage that they do. Also logical and true:

Up until the early 1980s, that was still a guiding principle of environmental law-making in North America. And the principle hasn’t totally disappeared – it’s the reason why Exxon and BP were forced to pick up large portions of the bills after the Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.

We might quibble about whether the damage was quite what was described or paid for but the basic principle is entirely fair. However, here comes the error:

The astronomical profits these companies and their cohorts continue to earn from digging up and burning fossil fuels cannot continue to haemorrhage into private coffers. They must, instead, be harnessed to help roll out the clean technologies and infrastructure that will allow us to move beyond these dangerous energy sources, as well as to help us adapt to the heavy weather we have already locked in. A minimal carbon tax whose price tag can be passed on to consumers is no substitute for a real polluter-pays framework – not after decades of inaction has made the problem immeasurably worse (inaction secured, in part, by a climate denial movement funded by some of these same corporations).

Assume, for a moment, that CO2 emissions are indeed causing damage. So, who is responsible for those emissions? Who is the polluter here who must pay?

When I drive to the shops it is me making the decision to do so, me making the decision to emit CO2 in gaining my supply of comestibles. I am therefore the polluter. That's why, if there is to be a tax on polluters it should be upon me, the polluter. Which is the entire point of a carbon tax that can be passed on to the consumers. It is we consumers who are the polluters which is why we should have that tax which falls upon the polluters.

This is the most appalling and most basic error by Klein. We do not consume fossil fuels because Teh Eeevil Corporations force them upon us. We consume them because they provide us with things that we desire, transport, heat, light and so on. The fault, as it were, is not in our suppliers but in ourselves.

Of course, as many do around here, it's entirely possible to reject the entire thesis. But working within the logical structure of the IPCC we still end up with the result that a tax which falls upon consumers is the correct action: as every single economic report about the problem, from Stern through Nordhaus and the IPCC itself, has pointed out. Because it's the consumers who are the polluters and yes, the polluters should pay.

Amazingly, fossil fuel reserves are different from fossil fuel resources


Bloomberg has shocking news for us. When fossil fuel companies report their reserves they give us different numbers from when they report their resources. They why seems to have escaped the news organisation:

Lee Tillman, chief executive officer of Marathon Oil Corp., told investors last month that the company was potentially sitting on the equivalent of 4.3 billion barrels in its U.S. shale acreage. That number was 5.5 times higher than the proved reserves Marathon reported to federal regulators. Such discrepancies are rife in the U.S. shale industry. Drillers use bigger forecasts to sell the hydraulic fracturing boom to investors and to persuade lawmakers to lift the 39-year-old ban on crude exports. Sixty-two of 73 U.S. shale drillers reported one estimate in mandatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while citing higher potential figures to the public, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD) Co.’s estimate was 13 times higher. Goodrich Petroleum Corp.’s was 19 times. For Rice Energy Inc., it was almost 27-fold.

That why being that reserves and resources are different things. This being the way that language tends to work: when we want to describe something that is different we use a different word to do so. Thus helps us distinguish between those different things we're talking about. In general for minerals and fossil fuels a reserve is something that we've proven is there, we've proven that we can extract it, in the volume we say we can, using current technology and also we can make a profit doing so at current prices. Resource is a looser concept: we've good evidence that there's what we say is there there, that we can extract it, using current technology, at current prices, and make that profit. But there's only good to reasonable evidence, we've not spent the money to prove this as yet. There's also a gradation: proven reserves, probable reserves, inferred resources and so on but that's the general structure. So why do companies talk about the different numbers? Because different people are interested in different things. The SEC (and other regulators, the LSE is pretty similar) wants investors to have access to the best hard numbers there are. Great, so, report reserves according to the rules they insist upon. But investors are also interested in what might happen, what could happen and what's likely to happen. After all, if we've two companies, one with 1 billion barrels of reserves and no resources and one with one billion of reserves and 2 billion of resources then that second is logically worth more than that first. So, that's why the use of the different numbers. Because they're referring to different concepts, each useful in a different manner. And that, of course, is why we use different words to describe them, so that we can distinguish between those different concepts. Seriously, it's not that difficult to understand, this is only geology, it's not rocket science or anything.

Surprise! If you set a target then people will game that target


This shouldn't come as the greatest surprise to anyone ever but sadly it does to those who would plan our lives. If you set people a target for something then they will game that target. This is true whether it's of bankers vying for bonuses and pushing losses outside the bonus period, people making tractors where if you measure them by the tonnage they'll make heavy tractors and, in today's example, if you set car manufacturers mpg targets for their vehicles then they'll game the measurement of mpg:

Motorists are usually advised that smaller cars can travel more miles per gallon (mpg) than those with larger engines, making them cheaper and more environmentally friendly to run.

But manufacturers’ estimates of fuel economy, based on official laboratory tests, may not reflect the reality when the vehicles are driven on the road.

Tests on 500 vehicles, half petrol, half diesel, each driven for three hours on roads in Britain, found that the cars travelled on average 18 per cent fewer miles per gallon than stated in manufacturers’ specifications.

Emissions Analytics, a data company which measured the cars’ fuel consumption and emissions, explained that this was due to cars accelerating more and travelling at higher speeds on the road than in official testing regimes.

The test drivers are of course all practicing perfect economical driving while, and this problem is worse for very small engines, we real drivers give it a bit of welly to compensate for those very small engines. And of course this is a general fault with any and every target of this type. Showing, once again, that if you want to ration something (here the desire is to ration fuel consumption) the best way to do your rationing is by price. For price is the one thing that doesn't lie in these circumstances.

It's such a simple concept that it really is amazing that those who would plan our lives still don't get it.

Well of course the 2 degrees climate change target should be ditched


The reason that 2 degree climate change target should be ditched being that it was always an entirely economically illiterate target to set in the first place. Sadly, that's not the point being made in Nature on it. As The Guardian reports:

But two academics in the prestigious journal Nature now argue that the 2C target has outlived its usefulness. They say it should be abandoned and replaced with a series of measures – “vital signs” of the planet’s health.

Under the headline, “Ditch the 2C warming goal”, they argue the 2C limit is “politically and scientifically ... wrong-headed”, it is “effectively unachievable” and it has let politicians off the hook, allowing them to “pretend that they are organising for action when, in fact, most have done little.”

The reason it should be ditched is that it should never have been a target in the first place. For we should not be trying to target a particular change in temperature: we should be trying to target a certain cost of action.

Think back to what every economic report on this issue has said. That there will be costs associated with allowing climate change to happen. Also that there will be costs with preventing climate change from happening. And in such circumstances the correct answer is that we should spend up to the price of those costs on trying to prevent it happening. But we should not spend more than those costs: nor, obviously, should we spend less.

Thus whatever climate change target is set (for those who want to set one at all) it always has to be set in terms of the costs of the actions we are going to take. And this does have very important effects. For example, if we attack the problem in the most efficient manner possible (say, a carbon tax) then we can avert more climate change by doing so than if we try to avert it in less efficient manners (say, regulation or legislation). And that's why we really do want to always keep the costs in mind. Because if we set a temperature target, as we have, then people will say that we should do anything at all to meet that temperature target. But that's the very thing that we've already proven is not true: we should not do anything at all to avert warming. We should only do however much is economically rational: which brings us back to the costs of action as against the benefits of it.

So ditch the two degrees by all means. Then concentrate on what actually matters: the costs of whatever actions are taken.

Greenpeace really is getting desperate here


Desperate in the sense that they're now claiming that if the people whose lives get disrupted by fracking get a share of the money from fracking then this would be bribery. Rather than what we might normally call it, compensation:

Jim Ratcliffe, the 61-year-old industrialist who founded the chemical giant Ineos, is promising to hand more than 6% of future shale gas revenues to those sitting on the reserves or affected by their extraction, in an effort to replicate efforts in the US where shale gas has created scores of new millionaires. The situation in America contrasts starkly with that of the UK, where efforts to develop the controversial new energy source have been delayed by landowners, environmental groups and the planning system.

Simon Clydesdale, UK energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “This is just more of the same bribes and bulldozers approach that has already proved a failure. With one hand the fracking industry goads the government into steamrolling people’s right to oppose fracking under their homes, with the other it offers cash incentives.

“The industry forgets people have legitimate concerns about fracking that won’t be easily assuaged by cash sweeteners."

It's all very Dave Spart isn't it?

Leaving the Trotskyist Hippies aside the interesting part of this is that we seem to have reversed, to some extent, the nationalisation of fossil fuel reserves that happened many decades ago. It's a standard of landowning law that the landowner owns the minerals underneath it. Except for gold and solver and then later we added fossil fuels to the list nationalised. Given that there would therefore be no benefit to landowners of fracking under their land there's been a certain resistance to allowing it.

However, the government has lowered the tax rate on gas and oil brought up through fracking: allowing that Coasean bargain to be struck again between the drillers and the landowners. There's now room in the sums for compensation to be offered: and thus compensation is being offered.