Thursday 24 March 2011

What should we do?

I'm on tonight for the Kim Hill moderated debate over at Lincoln University

Caroline Saunders opens for the "we have to have government reorganize our economy to deal with peak stuff" side. I'm after her. Then we move to general debate. With Caroline are Bob Frame from Landcare Research and Graeme Coles. With me are Ruth Richardson and Sharon Buckland (Chevron/Caltex).

Here's what I intend on delivering as opening for my side - I'm allowed 5-10 minutes. Comments and suggestions welcome. And even more welcome would be a few attendees at tonight's event. I'm very much expecting this to be an "away" game; it would be nice to have a few from my home team there in attendance. I expect subsequent debate to hit onto peak oil (futures prices on NYMEX show no evidence of it) and post-oil (Thorium and hydrogen, says me, but that's all a half century away). I've the Hotelling model in my back pocket as well. Here's the draft text.

Wealth, resilience and the environment
Address to the Kim Hill "Hot Energy Debate"; check against delivery.

Some days, it really looks like the world is ready to collapse. Caroline Saunders just gave a reasonable description of a lot of the problems we’re facing. Increased carbon output seems likely to increase global temperatures by a degree or two by the end of the century; sea levels may rise perhaps up to half a metre as consequence. Food price increases have hurt the world’s poorest. And oil supplies may run low sometime in the next fifty years.

And now we have to decide what to do about it all.

And there’s an awful lot we do have to do. But what we have to do depends on who the “we” is.

As individuals, “we” have all already started responding to the challenge. Oil prices have risen substantially over the last fifteen years. I remember when I was a grad student back in the Washington DC suburbs. Oil was a bit under $30 per barrel and petrol cost about $0.90 per gallon. That’s about $0.33 per litre. I drove a ’69 Buick Skylark with a V-8 and a 4-barrel carburetor that got about 12 miles to the US gallon – about eighteen litres per hundred kilometers. Since then, oil prices have risen to about a hundred dollars per barrel and petrol prices here are more than $2.00 per litre. As one of the “we”, I switched to driving a 2000 Honda Stream that uses less than half as much fuel – about 8.5 litres per hundred kilometers. And it isn’t just me – the broad trends are toward more fuel efficient vehicles and away from gas guzzlers. Nobody has had to tell us to do it – it just makes sense for our pocket books and so we have. And nobody’s had to tell Japanese car dealers to send us more of their smaller cars than of their bigger trucks – importers could tell what customers wanted and sorted things out as part of the distributed “we”.

As energy prices rise, “we” have moved to actually start insulating houses in New Zealand. It’s something Kiwis have been reluctant to do – best I can figure, you folks think there’s some kind of moral sanctity in wearing the itchiest woolen sweaters close to the skin; having a cold house gives you an excuse to do that. Well, with an insulated house, you can enjoy the itchy woolen sweaters with fewer space heaters. “We” have been switching to more energy efficient appliances. And “we”, as producers, have started building those more energy efficient appliances.

So the “we” as consumers have been responding to what prices are telling us about the world. Energy has become scarcer, as we can see by the price rises, and so “we” have responded by using less of it. And “we” as producers and entrepreneurs have responded by meeting that demand: coming up with new and better designs for vehicles. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner uses 20% less fuel than the similarly-sized Boeing 767. And recent designs of double-D framed aircraft – nowhere near production as yet, but we could be there in twenty years – suggest fuel savings of around seventy percent. “We” as entrepreneurial designers and as corporations looking to reduce costs will make these designs a reality as fuel prices rise further.

All of these are things that “we” will do entirely of our own initiative and without any need for grand “master plans”. They’re the kinds of things “we” are doing already and will continue doing, simply by watching price signals.

Let’s think of the next bigger “we” – we as communities, towns, and cities that have to make some collective decisions. Much development from the mid twentieth century onwards was predicated on the idea that people wanted big suburban sections of land with low density use. And so “we” as communities put in place land use regulations preventing densification. Because land use couldn’t become more dense, cities built out. And as city planners got upset about seeing urban sprawl, they started putting in place green belts and metropolitan urban limits.

The combination of density restrictions and urban limits worked to massively inflate land prices and really kill a lot of poorer folks’ dreams of owning their own home. But it did well for suburban middle class folks who could afford a home and who wanted to keep the poor folks out of their neighbourhoods. If petrol prices are likely to rise substantially, “we” as communities are probably going to have to rethink our zoning density regulations.

I know a lot of people are really really keen on public transport solutions ranging from buses to light rail. But while “we” as voters and pontificators seem to like those ideas, “we” as commuters don’t. Except for really high population centres like New York, Boston and Washington DC, light rail and subways are overwhelmingly money sinks – people won’t use them unless they’re heavily subsidized. Why? Because they’re really inconvenient. They’re great for the single guy commuting from his house to his office. But for families who are making multi-point commutes – dropping the kids off at school, going to work, grabbing some groceries, getting the kids then going home – they’re impossible. And so they’re underutilized.

What can “we” do then, as communities, that meshes well with what “we” as individuals want to do? Change zoning to allow greater density and more mixed use. You don’t have to force anybody to do anything. Allow the development, and as people want it as prices move, entrepreneurs will provide it. The more commercial activity is allowed near residences, the more able people are to live near work. Denser housing provides an incentive for grocery stores to come in close to where people live, making for shorter trips to the store. And, this kind of dense, mixed use environment is precisely the kind of community that Jane Jacobs lauded as the most vibrant and liveable kind of place to be. More recently, economist Ed Glaeser has written a lot about how dense urban environments are not only some of the world’s most creative and innovative places – our engines of economic growth – but are also some of our most environmentally friendly places. Residents of downtown New York use far less energy than folks in the suburbs; it costs a lot less to heat an apartment than a suburban house, and folks in dense urban environments don’t need to drive as much.

Our zoning regulations have prevented it, and “we” as activists have worked to kill it by lobbying against rezoning of land in places like the New Brighton pier where densification could have shortened commutes, built communities, and provided additional hubs outside of the CBD that would have given us greater resilience in the face of natural catastrophes like the recent earthquake. The more of these hubs we allow to emerge by easing up on zoning, the more resilient we will be to a wide variety of challenges that might come.

The next bigger “we” is New Zealand as a country. What can “we” do there? The best we can do is to avoid screwing everything up. The further decisions are away from folks on the ground, the more likely everything is to turn pear shaped.

And boy are “we” good at making those kinds of disasters when “we” start acting through national policy. Through the 1990s in the States, folks really worried about the environment, peak oil, and global warming pushed really hard for policies mandating ethanol use in blended gasolines and big subsidies to ethanol production. The result has been the big spike in food prices that Caroline just showed us. Even Al Gore, the Senator who pushed hardest for those policies, has admitted they were a colossal mistake. “We” really need to guard against the damage that “we” can do when we all act together towards something that sounds good.

Caroline put up a slide showing the big increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the last while. Imagine for a moment that a massive earthquake hit tomorrow that submerged New Zealand a mile below the sea, never to return. Now imagine the graph showing CO2 emissions for the next century. Would that graph be any different with the complete elimination of New Zealand as a country. No. The best you could hope for is that global CO2 concentrations might take a day or two longer to reach a given level a century hence. When you think about it that way, it helps to put into perspective what “we” as a country can do to slow global warming.

Now I know somebody’s going to come back at me and say we all have to do our part and that we can be a shining example unto others and the rest of the world will follow our lead. But that’s magical thinking. It’s just not going to happen. Instead, I argue that what “we” should be doing is looking at ways that we can help the rest of the world to reduce total emissions through technological change in areas where New Zealand already has a research advantage. We’re not likely to come up with the next innovative design for fuel saving aircraft. China is miles ahead of us in coming up with the next best source of power generation – Thorium fueled nuclear generators that produce next to no waste and cannot melt down because their reaction is fuelled by a photon beam that, if turned off, stops the reaction. Once China has built those, “we” might do well to allow a few reactors if they’re commercially viable and safe.

But what can “we” do that would have global benefit? Fund agricultural research into crops and livestock that produce less methane. We’ve already made a great start. The most we can hope for with our emission trading scheme is that our emissions reduce to zero – and that won’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things. But if we could take the resources that we’ve devoted to the emissions trading scheme and instead use them to fuel development of new agricultural technologies, and then give those technologies for free to anybody in the world who could use them – that could make a difference on a global scale. That’s where we should be looking if we want to make a real difference rather than just feel good about ourselves for making minor reductions in GHG emissions with a trading scheme. When a Canterbury guy tells you that the best we can do is give more money to Lincoln, you probably should listen.

Finally, “we” as a country can work hard to pursue policies that allow us to become wealthy. Global warming and “peak” whatever are not the only problems that can emerge. We’ve figured that out pretty well in the last six months or so. Whatever challenges emerge, the richer we are and the stronger economic base we have, the better placed we are to deal with whatever might come. If sea levels rise by more than we expect, we can build seawalls and move people to higher ground if we’re richer; we can’t if we decide that growth is a bad thing. We don’t know what challenges might come. But we’ll do better facing them if “we” don’t decide to hobble economic growth.


  1. Is this going to be on National Radio?

  2. Don't think so. Lincoln's recording it, but I don't think it'll be on air.

  3. Hope the opposition is traveling by public transport?

  4. Wish I had known about your speak earlier dude, I would have gone, especially for the frightening Kim Hill, and you of course, I would have left on Tuesday ,
    to get there in time,
    passing tolls, restrictions and civil fucking defence, and been in Lincoln to catch your address and then straight back to Christchurch home by Friday, only half a tank of petrol,

  5. You were going really well until the giving more money to Lincoln part ;-)

  6. So how did it go? Was there a definitive outcome, or did the two sides agree to disagree?

  7. Went fine. Panel was mostly sensible. Mixed audience. Will hold off on blogging it to see whether the video gets posted in the next few days.

  8. Don't you think there may be a few attendees visiting after the debate? They may be looking for some more info on the sticky topics. Some suggestions from the peanut gallery:
    Thorium intro I came across in the mag a while ago:

    Most likely out of date, seeing as the Chinese and Indians are both pursuing the tech now. (BTW India has massive Thorium reserves)

    There were a lot of Malthusian grumbles in the audience, maybe you know of a concise summary of the correlation between rising income and falling birth rates? My understanding is that female education rates are just about the most effective form of contraception about. Am I wrong on this?

    A little on the climategate issue that people were tiptoeing around:

    But far closer to the topic you were trying drive home, not only is this not solvable by NZ alone, it may not even be up to the developed world:

    I think the burden of proof lies with the coppicing trees man to explain himself elsewhere. I was immediately wondering how on earth we are going to plant, fertilize, irrigate, harvest and transport these to the deep ocean (and make sure they don't float off) whilst still achieving net carbon sequestration is a mystery to me.

    As for the Lincoln economist I am not sure what her major idea was? Industrial policy? Mandated monopolies to mimic the success of Fonterra?

    Anyway, I thought you and Ruth stood up well given the audience. Thanks again for an interesting debate.

  9. You write of the thorium reactor that it "cannot melt down because their reaction is fuelled by a photon beam that, if turned off, stops the reaction." I think this is in error.

    The technical problem underlying "meltdown" failure modes in conventional reactors melting down isn't that we can't stop the fission reaction. (Fundamentally we can indeed stop it. You need to try fairly hard to arrange a chain reaction, and to stop it you only need a modest amount of messing around with the geometry of fuel, moderator, and dampers like Cd rods. Of course in practice some screwup like a fire in the control room can impair control, but such a screwup can impair the control of any industrial process, including a thorium reactor driven by a proton beam.) The problem is that we can't control spontaneous radioactive decay, and that a nontrivial fraction of the energy output caused by fission doesn't appear immediately when fission happens, but some time later, as unstable fission products decay spontaneously with a halflife of days or more.

    As best I can tell from, using thorium as fuel doesn't avoid this problem of delayed energy output in any fundamental way. Instead, the no-meltdowns idea seems to be that the chemistry of thorium makes it relatively practical to operate with thorium fuel in liquid form, and then the liquid form of the fuel makes it more practical to implement an option of venting the fuel from the ordinary compact containment system (which has various advantages for ordinary operation) into a specialized dispersed containment system (which has the advantage of enough surface area that passive cooling is practical).

  10. @William: Either way, far far lower risk of "meltdown" outcomes.

  11. Brisbane has a really good electric train service, city has roughly same size and sprawl as Auckland.