Thursday, September 30, 2010

Good News on Walmart

Two articles caught my eye in a 24 hour span about, of all things, Walmart taking steps to be green. Greenwashing? Maybe. Probably. Still, I have to say it looks good. Tell me what you think in the comments.

The first is an article on the NRDC's website (and in their magazine) about Walmart being part of a group trying to set up a "sustainability index" on the products they sell. A quote: "In July 2009 Walmart invited 1,000 suppliers, associates, and sustainability experts to a ‘Milestone Meeting’ at which the company introduced its vision of a sustainability index and, as a matter of course, announced plans to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the products it sells worldwide by 2015. ‘Sales used to be the metric,’ declared John Fleming, Walmart's chief merchandising officer. But going forward, the bottom line would be linked to a concept Fleming called ‘product life-cycle management’ -- which means following a food product from farm to fork, tabulating every input that went into its production and every emission generated along the way."

The second is an article noting that Walmart is installing solar panels on the roofs of up to 30 stores in California and Arizona in hopes of generating 20-30% of the power they use from the sun. No word on how cost effective the solar arrays are- probably not very! All the more reason to see this as a legitimate investment in the environment. Great to have the big players on board!

Update 10/7/10: Lest you think Walmart might actually be turning over a new leaf, here's an article in today's Sun about pressure exerted by the retail giant against living wage legislation. Life is no fun when you have to actually pay your workers a decent wage, I guess!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Good News on Crabs

Shortly before DNR's Jim Uphoff came to present to our Resources class this past spring, the results of the crab population survey came out showing a big increase in the past year. Restrictions on harvesting females and eliminating winter harvesting were successful in helping the crabs bounce back from some dangerously low levels, including a record low in 2007.

Now it turns out that the high population estimate has produced a high harvest. Hooray! An abundance of crabs. Here is a picture of my niece, who with her family visited Maryland from my hometown Reno, Nevada this past August. You can see her contribution to this year's impressive harvest.

Drying up Las Vegas

Contrary to the claims of economist and blogger Alex Tabarrok, water scarcity is more than "a local problem." Increasing population pressure and unchanged agricultural pressure have effectively tapped out the Colorado River, which serves large portions of 7 states and several major metropolitan areas including LA, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

Part of the problem is that the demand curve is really well hidden- it's hard to suss out the marginal cost of consuming a given amount of water because the water system is so full of subsidies. Water users basically don't pay for dams, reservoirs, or for upkeep of water systems- taxpayers do. Thus, people don't feel the need to restrict their usage. That's a concern not just for people maintaining yards, but even more for industries that use large amounts of water, such as agriculture and mining. Heavy subsidies make water so cheap as to not really be part of the cost equation in many parts of the country, though to their credit that's not so for farmers in much of California's central valley.

It's great to live in a country where this type of resource scarcity won't be handled by people resorting to weapons, as is feared in parts of central Asia as water supplies dwindle. I'm sure the struggle won't be easy, but the issue is at least being addressed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

China & Green Energy

One of my libertarian friends is up in arms about this morning's piece in the NYT by Thomas Friedman. Friedman is disappointed that more money in this country isn't being invested in producing electric cars. He notes that Europe has implemented much higher taxes on gasoline than we have here, and argues that higher taxes here would spur that industry as well.

My friend says that China's protectionism amounts to their "trying to predict the future," and he's right: by subsidizing one industry, they're in effect penalizing others. That strategy gets lucky from time to time, but letting the market make choices almost always works better. However, the market needs correct information to function properly, and if the US is in effect "subsidizing" gasoline by failing to charge users for the full set of costs they impose on society, then the market can't be expected to provide the right outcome.

A few weeks ago, the NYT published a sort of exposé on the Chinese green energy sector, claiming that the government is in effect subsidizing exports, a no-no under World Trade Organization rules. Although in the short term it will lead to cheap solar panels for everyone, which sounds pretty good to me, ultimately it too should lead to inefficiency, as potential competitors are driven out of the industry by the cheap prices. Driving those folks out means fewer jobs here in the US, among other places, which is why the US Steelworkers challenged China at the WTO just a couple of days after the article.

Interesting tradeoffs: cheaper green energy now, subsidized by Chinese taxpayers, at the cost of fewer jobs for us now and potentially higher costs on down the road. "Made in China" sure isn't just for cheap plastic toys anymore!

Friday, September 24, 2010

EPA Engagement with Chesapeake Finally Starting

A short piece in the Baltimore Sun talks about states' plans to reduce nutrient and sediment emissions that are a step toward protecting the Chesapeake. Not long ago the EPA became more active in its role overseeing the interstate pollution problem that manifests most strikingly here in Maryland, and all the states in the Chesapeake watershed have been called upon to "clean up their acts," if you will. Many states responded with a collective shrug, particularly Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New York, and West Virginia. Out of state, out of mind, apparently!

This time, the EPA appears to be prepared to back up its request with some force. Either states can set up plans to reduce emissions or they can have emissions forced upon them in the form of higher Federal standards for sewage treatment plants and/ or storm drains.

If states can afford to investigate the variety of options at their disposal, surely they will find cheaper means of coming into compliance. There's still time for states to update their plans, but it looks like many states might pass up the opportunity to save money. Higher costs for all through poor governance! Less overt than this recent event, but potentially much more costly....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Overfishing Heavily Subsidized

Quote of the day: "Taxpayer money is directly contributing to the decline of worldwide fish stocks." Probably not a huge surprise, particularly to the libertarians out there, but $27 billion goes every year to promote fishing, and according to research described here, 60% of that goes to fishing done with unsustainable practices.

In many developing countries, food and income associated with fishing are important to the poor. When fishing is subsidized, those people suffer the most. Who benefits? Well, of course people doing the fishing benefit, but also people who consume a lot of fish benefit in the short run from lower prices (though we pay the difference as taxes). However, those people can expect to pay higher prices later as fish become scarce more quickly.

It's cases like agricultural and fishing subsidies that put environmentalists and libertarians in the same camp, which is relatively rare. Too bad their combined energies are not enough to persuade politicians to cut back on the subsidies!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Prince goes solar

Prince Charles' application to put solar panels on Clarence House, his home in London, has been approved after it was made clear that the panels would not be visible from the ground.

While solar panels are not that efficient in terms of cost per kilowatt hour, they should pay themselves off eventually if the technology continues to operate without major repairs. I've wondered why government and other buildings in which tenants are expected to stay for many years aren't covered with them. It would be strange if the entry cost is limiting government's buying panels for its own buildings, for example, if they pay for themselves over the long haul....