Monday, August 30, 2010

News Flash: Climate Change a big deal after all!

Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish economist who has made a name for himself by pooh-poohing environmental concerns for the past few decades, has apparently decided that there's more money in considering how to cope with climate change than there is in calling attention to himself by scoffing at the problem. A new book coming out soon will detail how he and a team of economists suggest approaching the issue, which would all be irrelevant if his earlier claims were true.

To defend himself, he argues that he has never denied the reality of climate change; he has just always contended that the cost of trying to cope with the problem outweighs the possible benefits. As new ideas have surfaced for how to cope, he has reconsidered, and apparently some solutions now meet his cost/ benefit criteria.

For me, the frustrating thing about Lomborg has always been that he assumes that the world has some set amount of money that it will devote to solving a few large scale problems, and therefore the choice for society is which problems deserve attention. This is of course foolish: the world can choose to address all or none of these macro-problems, while spending its collective time and energy on any of a variety of other pursuits. Why is the question, "Should we help people in Africa improve their access to drinking water or fight terrorism?" rather than, "Should we do both rather than investing in pills that make our poop glitter?"

I do like the fact that his latest book seems to be focused on, "How shall we best strive to cope with a problem?" rather than how to dismiss serious issues because others are allegedly more serious. Keep on this track, Bjorn, and I won't be embarrassed to bring up your work in class!

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution for noticing the Guardian piece.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Marginal cost pricing cuts garbage

When I lived in Nagasaki, the sanitation folks wouldn't take any trash unless it was in a special individual trash bags that cost something like $2-3 per bag. This was their way of making sure that those who filled the garbage trucks were paying for those garbage trucks. Ithaca, NY has a similar policy involving tagging trash bags. One recent convert to this approach is in Sanford, Maine, where charging for trash collection by the amount collected has led to a massive drop in trash collected.

While a drop in collected trash is a good thing in an era of strapped governmental budgets, I'm wondering what has happened to the trash that was once at the curb. Sanford is a town of about 20,000 that "features many lakes in wooded areas which attract campers." That makes it sound likely that a lot of the formerly collected trash is going up in smoke, which can create a variety of toxic gases as well as contribute particulate matter to the atmosphere. I can think of other possible explanations for the decrease in collected trash, but hopefully the good people of Sanford are looking into the discrepancy and making decisions based on more evidence than we see in the short piece I cited above.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


In February we had a post on this blog about biochar, a material produced in this case by incinerating chicken manure and using the product as a super-fertilizer. Turns out there are a variety of sources for producing biochar, and others see tremendous potential in the material as well. Here's an update.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Does eating locally save energy?

Three years and two weeks after this piece of NYT op-ed took on the issue of food miles, another column appears in the same place making the same point. "Local food" is an idea that foodies get excited about, but the economic and energy consequences of it aren't nearly as clear as one might think. It's true that energy goes into moving food around, but as the more recent article points out, it's not a very large share of the energy that goes into the processes of food production, storage, preparation, and consumption. Why is it more virtuous, asks the author, for us to consume something produced in a nearby heated greenhouse than to consume something grown outside and trucked here? This argument is similar to the issues raised by the first writer, who notes that fewer resources are required to grow lamb in New Zealand and ship it to Britain than are needed to grow it for consumption in Britain itself.

Often, liberals are skeptical of the benefits of the market. "It must be cheaper because it was produced with underpaid labor!" we fear. But often the market just reflects reality, and work gets done in the cheapest way possible, which also means that the minimum amount of waste happens. Does that mean that the local food movement is totally wrong-headed? Not necessarily: some people do not care about the energy issues and think that local food just tastes better. I can't argue with that! Let me conclude the way the former article did: "While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Buying Chickens Room to Run

Interesting article in today's NYT: the animal rights activists are having some success in getting farmers to give more space to their animals. Great direct quote: producers estimate that egg prices will rise by 25% if chickens are raised outside of cages. That's probably a bit of an overstatement, since producers want everyone to fear the worst, but we'd have to expect some kind of increase.

What would be the dietary consequences of a price rise for eggs? I don't know enough about the American diet to know if a drop in egg consumption would be good or bad overall, but obviously there would be some of both. People who need inexpensive protein would lose out, but people with cholesterol problems (or potential cholesterol problems) might actually benefit. On balance I'd say the bad would probably outweigh the good from a dietary perspective. Do the benefits to society from improved animal rights balance that out? What do you think?

I myself am not very concerned with animal rights, but another impact may be environmental consequences. If "factory farms" fall out of favor, that would greatly change meat farming as well, limiting the damage caused by hog and chicken farming as well. Again, there would be a very literal price to pay, as meat prices would rise, but the environment would be less burdened by the concentrated animal waste that currently accumulates. That would be a more appealing tradeoff to me personally, though I'd like to know more about how much meat consumption would change. Lots of questions here!