Monthly Archives: April 2007

Third time’s not the charm for the IPCC

Icebergs in Chilean PatagoniaThe first two working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have produced two extraordinarily useful reports.

The first examined the science behind climate change, reconciling the various models to show what, on a global scale, is likely to happen under different possible concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. (The “summary for policymakers” — link goes to a PDF — is what got all the attention, though some skeptics insisted we needed to wait for the full document before taking it seriously. It’s now out, and I look forward to hearing the skeptics’ comments on it, in all its stupefying detail.)

The second examined specific effects that can be expected in different parts of the world (PDF), from rising sea levels to screwed-up agriculture to animal die-offs. It’s still in the summary-for-policymakers stage.

These groups’ reports are so worthwhile because they represent a consensus, a baseline on stuff that everyone involved in the climate-change issue ought to be able to agree on. Vast panels of scientists have reviewed the work that goes into the final documents, along with vast panels of diplomats from every country in the world, including skeptical governments like those in Canada, China, and the United States. These constitute a sort of agreed-upon statement of facts among parties who might not agree on much else. The governments have signed off on a process in which they agreed to participate; they can’t legitimately say the results are full of it.

You’re free to differ with them yourself, of course, but doing so means challenging the closest thing you’ll ever find to a scientific and international diplomatic consensus. Science isn’t done by consensus, it’s true, but claiming that all these professionals simply have it wrong means challenging the very idea of expertise as the rest of us understand it. We’re not talking here about whether the designated-hitter rule is good for baseball, but the twin edifices of modern science and education.

The third working group is due to report this Friday, on mitigation measures and things we might do to prevent human-induced climate change from getting too bad. An outline of the thing is here (PDF), though it’s not very informative.

It appears, according to the Associated Press’s Michael Casey who’s on the scene in Bangkok, that the scientists are battling very seriously with the diplomats and might not be able to find a consensus.

The report being debated this week in Bangkok stresses the world must quickly embrace a basket of technological options – already available and being developed – to limit the temperature rise to two degrees C. More than 200 delegates will examine the IPCC report and recommend changes before it is finalized.

The U.S. wants clauses inserted saying the cost of current available technologies to reduce emissions “could be unacceptably high,” and calling for a greater emphasis on “advanced technologies,” many of which are aimed at extending the use of coal.

But maybe they shouldn’t really be trying to find a consensus. What they’re doing, in the third IPCC working group, is trying to make policy recommendations — or, if the IPCC’s mandate is to be strictly interpreted, policy decisions, where the first two groups were just making statements of fact. How much warming is too much to bear? What’s a reasonable cost to incur in arresting it? What complex social effects, and unintended consequences, might particular technologies have?

Maybe if the politicians and diplomats got to shove their oars into discussions of the facts, the climatologists and algae biologists should get to shove theirs into discussions of the policy prescriptions, but even if that’s fair, it’s not necessarily helpful. Defining what’s real is the province of science, and if you can get politicians to formally agree with what a thousand scientists come up with, that should form the basis of good policy. Defining what’s good is the province of politics, and there’s no reason to think any scientist has any more to say about that than anybody else does.

Photo credit: Flickr/Steve Deger

Devising a middle-class transit system

Despite the Santa Clara County bus system’s having lost about 30 per cent of its riders in the past few years, most local governments would still be pretty pleased to have a transit system on the financial footing of the Valley Transit Authority. According to the San Jose Mercury News (free registration required), the VTA has “nearly broken even” for several years despite the pounding taken by Silicon Valley’s economy and a plunge in ridership from about 150,000 a day to 100,000.

Still, in the interests of attracting more riders again, the VTA is hoping for political support for a plan to cut its prices.

Among the lost riders: a 25 percent drop in the number of youths taking the bus and a 35 percent drop in elderly and disabled passengers.

That decline led to a task force of transit advocates, elected officials and riders that concluded lowering fares would be the best way to attract people back on buses.

“We questioned how much ridership would drop off when fares were hiked,” said Dolly Sandoval, a VTA board member from Cupertino, recalling the decision to raise rates. “Unfortunately, we did not expect such a large number of riders would drop off.

“If we want people to ride our system, we not only need to make it more convenient, we need to make it economically feasible.”

Comparisons of this sort of thing are difficult because populations and geography don’t match, but for reference, Santa Clara County has a population of about 1.6 million; Ottawa’s transit system (which is mostly buses) carries about 350,000 people a day on a population of about 800,000; and Edmonton’s ETS carries about 120,000 out of 1 million or so in greater Edmonton, so despite its almost breaking even, the VTA is not an enormous transportation success.

The price cut is not what you’d call significant: a day pass for an adult will go from $5.25 to $5, and a monthly pass for an elderly or disabled person from $26 to $20. Twelve-and-a-half cents per commute seems an incentive unlikely to get them flocking onto the VTA’s buses like they did in the old days.

Here in Ottawa, the city is financially strapped thanks to Ontario’s messed-up system of putting social programs on municipalities’ tabs and a public unwillingness to pay any higher taxes (Mayor Larry O’Brien was elected partly on the strength of one slogan: “Zero means zero”), and the transit system is in the midst of a five-year program to hike fares by something approaching 50 per cent. The theory, according to the city manager, is that the system’s biggest problem isn’t price, it’s quality of service.

As a bus-rider myself, I’ve whiled away many minutes waiting at bus stops in the bitter cold and grinding my teeth while the noise bleeding from some guy’s earphones half-deafens me, calculating just how much cheaper this single ride is compared to what it would cost if I were driving myself. Roughly speaking, I spend $900 a year on tickets, maybe an eighth of the typical cost of ownership of the Mazda 3 I test-drove a few summers ago. There’s really no comparison, and it’d get worse if drivers paid any significant fraction of the cost of the public roads they use. Price is pretty definitely not the issue, especially for the middle-class riders who get to and from work in private cars in droves. They’re happy to pay a hell of a lot more for the convenience and comfort of their own vehicles.

If the reader comments on the Merc story are anything to by, Santa Clara County has much the same challenge. I suspect they’d be a lot better off if they stuffed the fare cut and invested the money they kept in improved service. The objection to that, of course, is that public transit isn’t just a means of saving on the public cost of roads, but also of helping people with less money get around the sprawling municipalities that are the result of cheap oil, free road travel, and loose zoning codes.

My solution, assuming that tightening up density requirements and charging private drivers for the convenience of using public roads aren’t options, is a two-tier transit service. It’s virtually impossible to turn a profit on a transit line except in the densest development (and even then, only at limited times of the day), but let private companies have those concessions, and let them operate intra-city transit the way they do inter-city motor coaches: let them charge whatever they can get away with, but provide comfortable middle-class-level service in exchange.

A candidate in Ottawa’s municipal election proposed almost exactly this last fall and a disappointing number of people found the idea laughable. Even if transit exists partly to serve those too poor and/or young to buy cars, if you run a system as though they’re the target market, they’re the only riders you’re going to get.

(Via Planetizen.)

A plastic-bag vignette

Groceries in a knapsackShopping for groceries in the Byward Market this morning, we saw some trifling but real evidence that the people are indeed ahead of the politicians.

At the fruit and vegetable shop, while we loaded our celery and sweet potatoes into our knapsacks, the fellow just before us returned to hand back one of his two plastic bags. “It all fits in this one,” he said.

At the Italian grocery, the guy in front of us stopped the clerk from double-bagging his purchases by rebalancing the load among other sacks he already had. The people after us declined bags altogether: “It’s OK, we’ve got our own,” the woman said.

This is small stuff, but the sheer frequency of it was telling, I hope.

The case against carbon offsets gets stronger

The New York Times looks into carbon offsets — paying someone to plant a tree or something so you can say your SUV (or new corporate HQ, or presidential campaign )is carbon-neutral — and finds that not even their defenders think they’re so great.

“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”

“This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther,” Mr. Hayes added.

The pro case doesn’t even seriously contend that offsets fully compensate for most carbon emissions, particularly given how quickly you can burn a tank of gas versus how long it takes a dozen trees to grow. Its strongest argument is that buying carbon offsets builds awareness and, heck, at least it’s doing something, right?

I have some sympathy for this, but the point is that offsets don’t get us where we need to be.

A decade’s delay for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline

Mackenzie RiverLiterally for decades, major energy companies have been trying to build a massive pipeline from natural-gas fields in Canada’s far north to the oil-and-gas heartland of Alberta. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project would run 1,220 kilometres (750 miles) not only to bring gas from the Mackenzie Delta on the Arctic Ocean to market, but also to fuel massive expansion in Alberta’s oilsands.

The project would employ thousands of people in depressed northern communities, particularly Aboriginal ones, and native bands would stand to make small fortunes in exchange for the right to lay pipeline across their land. A significant sticking point has been in figuring out how to cushion all the negative effects of sudden wealth and cultural mixing on towns and reserves that have historically been extremely poor and isolated.

Environmentalists are worried the project itself would disrupt wildlife habitats (the Mackenzie Delta is close to the U.S.’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the concerns are similar) and encourage yet more exploration and drilling in the Mackenzie Delta. Not to mention that much of the gas would travel down the pipeline only to be burned the service of extracting more oil in Alberta.

In the 1970s, when the project was first proposed, some people called it the largest project in the history of free enterprise. The price tag more than doubled from $7.5 billion to $16.2 billion in a new estimate released last March; ironically, the oilsands expansions that make the pipeline project seem all the more urgent are also causing labour costs to shoot through the roof.

Now it looks like the project is to be delayed another decade or more, according to the Calgary Herald, since nobody in a consortium that includes Imperial Oil and Shell is willing to cough up the money to build it. They hope the Canadian government will kick in:

[TransCanada Corp. chief executive Hal] Kvisle said there is “no bigger picture solution” to the problems plaguing the Mackenzie Valley line, which include a time-consuming regulatory process in addition to higher costs.

He estimated the pipeline proponents have spent a combined $600 million to steer the project through the regulatory process to date.

Painted against a backdrop of rising costs and regulatory delays is an uncertain outlook for natural gas prices.

Earlier this week Calgary-based Tristone Capital said the current proposal is uneconomical without substantial government aid.

Further, Tristone analyst Chris Theal said failure of Canadian companies and agencies to agree on fiscal terms could delay the project up to 15 years.

Woe is them. This seems like a superb opportunity for the Canadian government to not support an economically marginal project with potentially enormous environmental and social costs.

Photo: The Mackenzie River, Flickr/EclecticBlogs

This blog has a new URL

I’ve rearranged things so that this blog’s public face is at instead of the déclassé Everything should work exactly as it did before, including existing RSS-feed subscriptions and links and bookmarks, but if you find something broken, this is probably why. You can also find your way here using

Bjorn Lomborg and the challenges of mitigation

The Danish political scientist and statistician Bjorn Lomborg is a hugely controversial figure in the climate-change discussion and I hesitate even to bring him up. But what the hell.

If you’re not familiar with him, the 30-second summary is that Lomborg describes himself as an environmentalist and says he believes climate change is happening and that human beings are significantly responsible for it, but he’s used several lines of argument over the years to propose that responding to the situation by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is the wrong move. He wrote a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist that has been quite popular in certain quarters, though many, many professional earth-scientists (as opposed to political scientists) in the relevant fields have challenged both its premises and its conclusions.

His argument, articulated at length in an interview on PBS’s NewsHour, is that we’d end up better off if we accept that climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, take the money we’d spend cutting greenhouse-gas emissions (which he estimates at about $180 billion per year globally in today’s dollars) and apply it to mitigating the effects of climate change and a host of other problems such as malaria and poor nutrition and to research on easier ways of cutting emissions so that countries like China will want to and be able to afford to get on board.

Well, basically, Ray [host Ray Suarez], the point is to say, we don’t care particularly about climate change, per se. We care about, what are its impacts? We care about the people who are going to get more risk in flooding, the people who are going to get more exposed to malaria, the people who are going to die more because of heat waves. And those are the people we actually want to help.

So the question is: Can we do better? And my argument is simply, if you look, for instance, at the Kyoto Protocol, even if everybody did the Kyoto Protocol, including the U.S., it would have very little impact. It would basically postpone global warming by about five years at the end of the century, at a cost, as you mentioned, of about $180 billion a year.

Now, if you look at some of the other things, you could do great good in the world. You could actually do amazing amounts of good to many of the people who are going to get hardest hit by climate change through focusing on HIV-AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, free trade, agricultural research.

The point is that most of the impact that’s going to come throughout the 21st century will come from emissions from third world countries like China and India. And the idea is to say, as long as it costs $30 to cut a ton of carbon dioxide, rich countries may do a little, but poor countries, like China and India, are not going to do anything. What we need to do is to cut the cost of cutting carbon emissions from $30 down to $3. If it costs $3, then maybe they would.

So this is about a long-term strategy. Instead of these, “Let’s cut a lot now,” that makes us feel good, but end up doing very little good, it’s about making sure that we end up making much better technologies available to everyone in the world so that we can cut carbon emissions cheaply.

That’s about investing in research and development, and that’s why I’m suggesting spend perhaps $25 billion a year on research and development in low-carbon emitting energy technologies. That will likely do much more good than the Kyoto Protocol at a much lower cost.

Put aside all the other stuff Lomborg has said about climate change in the past. This is, on its own merits, an interesting economic and utilitarian argument.

The premise of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is that we will be able to make a difference globally — that the total worldwide emissions will be able to be cut drastically and permanently, and that that will slow down and ultimately halt climate change before it makes things too uncomfortable for too many people. The premise assumes that although the United States, China, India, Brazil and other emerging economic powers that pollute a lot are not now doing very much to reduce their emissions, they will be persuaded to do so in the future.

A further premise is that two forces will act on these laggards if most of the world’s other countries do cut their emissions. The first is moral suasion, which can only come from leading by example. The second is economic opportunity, if it can be shown that cutting emissions ultimately leads to greater prosperity through more efficient industry.

This second point is the basket into which I put my rhetorical eggs — that this stuff is good for an economy completely independent of climate change, and the sooner we start, the better. I’m irked that Lomborg looks at costs and not benefits for the people doing the spending.

I’m also not convinced that China or the United States is a hopeless cause. China is reaching an environmental turning point where the health costs of its coal plants are practically exceeding the benefits of the electricity derived from them. A Democrat president and a Democrat-controlled Congress could make sharp reductions in gas emissions a matter of national policy in the United States. And if we can avoid the problem (and its potentially manifold unexpected consequences and ramifications that could be much worse than anybody’s predicting), that’s a better solution than learning to live with it.

So that’s my answer to Lomborg’s latest ideas. If you believe that climate change is a real problem, you probably ought to have one, too.