Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Getting the prices right

The Brookings Institute blog has an interesting piece today arguing that India doesn't have dependable access to electricity because the price has been too low for too long. No one benefits if energy suppliers are not allowed to make their costs back: you end up with people who either just don't have power or who rely on dirty diesel generators when the need it. Neither is a good solution!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The end of coal

Nice article in the Washington Post about the "death of coal." It seems like (and is!) a good thing to phase out coal, for many reasons. Coal is dirty, both locally (as mining is nasty, and as burning it emits particulate matter and damaging chemicals) and globally (as a major contributor to climate change). However, the story is not so simple, for many reasons. (I'm not following the article's numbering here, just FYI.)

1) Coal is cheap. Moving away from coal means that some people will be paying more for their energy. Some of these people are paying significantly more for power, and some of them are poor, so this is a real hardship.

2) Some communities depend on coal. Rural West Virginia is one example, but other places depend on the current system. It's expensive and painful when a community dies and people have to go elsewhere.

3) There might be better jobs for these people elsewhere, but it's not clear that's the case just yet. It's also hard sometimes to figure out where and what these new jobs can and should be.

It's not easy to change an economy over to a new power source, even though in the long run it's probably for the best. Hopefully the government can step in and ease the transition where appropriate.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Blog post about a blog post

One of my former professors has a great little post on his blog today and I want to be sure to link to it here too. It's about GMO's. (Skip the somewhat bizarre introduction!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Water & sanitation in India

Pretty different from concerns about the popularity of instant coffee, but the NYT has a really nice piece today about how sanitation problems stunt the growth of children in India. Even children who get enough to eat are exposed to pathogens regularly since sanitation is so bad: many people defecate outdoors, and the rivers where people bathe and even brush their teeth are full of contaminants.

The article links to a few peer-reviewed journal articles, including this one in PLOS One. Reviewing Indian data from 1992, 1998, and 2005, they find that undernutrition has declined (i.e. nutritional status is improving) but that social disparities persist. In particular, improvements in better-off households were faster and stronger than in poorer households.

Another article in top-ranked health journal the Lancet notes that GDP growth on its own is not sufficient to improve child nutritional status.

That's an interesting review of the data, and another piece noticed something more particular: Muslims do better than Hindus in India as far as infant survival even though they are poorer. The authors hypothesize that this might have to do with rules about sanitation: where to defecate and how to keep oneself and one's household clean.

Finally, a paper that's not yet published (as far as I know) but still available as a working paper by Dean Spears is available from the World Bank. This seems to me hugely important: sanitation explains child health even better than GDP. Wow.

Somehow, though, they missed another pretty relevant of research. Last summer two  great researchers documented that Indian children are shorter for their ages than African children, meaning that their nutritional status is worse. They don't point the finger at sanitation, though, but note that their is an extraordinarily large gradient in birth order. First born children are substantially better off than subsequent children.

I wonder if there is any overlap. Are firstborns exclusively breast-fed for a longer time, protecting them somewhat from ingesting dangerous bacteria? Do firstborns stay indoors more so they aren't outside running around and playing in unsanitary conditions?

Chicken & Coffee with sugar

Reporter Roberto Ferdman has caught my eye with sevearl interesting food-related pieces in the Washington Post this week. Yesterday was this interesting post on chicken, arguing that chicken consumption is set to rise worldwide and even take over the mantle of "most popular meat" from pork. That matters for a lot of reasons: just ask the farmers on the Eastern Shore who raise broilers! Meat consumption is pretty bad for the environment, but as meat goes, chicken is among the least offensive. Consider this graph from the article showing the carbon impact of various meats:

I wouldn't have guessed that salmon was worse than chicken, but those are the numbers (originally from the Environmental Working Group).

Ferdman's second piece is about the popularity of instant coffee. Although we in the US scorn it, popularity is huge and growing worldwide. While one commentator says that it's because our tastes are more sophisticated, a longer read makes it sound like it's a pretty arbitrary decision. I mean, we drink whatever it is comes out of those Keurig machines, and people in Europe who prefer quality coffee also drink instant occasionally. For whatever reason we just don't. Curious! (I'm certainly one of them.)

Finally, I just came across this note on a battle at the FDA over a label indicating whether a food item contains added sugars, and if so, how much. Fascinating stuff, Mr. Ferdman! Thanks!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Maryland Power Plants

Nice long overview today in the Baltimore Sun on the situation in Maryland regarding power generation. Turns out our state pays the 13th highest rates in the industry, and though the article dances around the topic, it sounds to me like the bottom line is that it's a monopoly, and they're doing what monopolies do: raise the prices and produce less. In Baltimore we pay a "capacity payments" since the power we import comes along what is apparently a pretty heavily trafficked pathway. PJM Interconnection is the multistate company that manages power grids here, and fewer companies are producing power to supply to their grid. Sometimes those companies-oops! -just happen to overbid on supply contracts, meaning that even fewer producers are eligible to sign up to produce our power for a given year. Financial analysts say that this process gained about $150 million more for Exelon, the owner of BGE.

Environmental regulations are tightening the noose further: as coal plants shut down due to pollution regulation and to facing the low cost of natural gas-based power production, there are even fewer actors in the market, making Exelon's job of maximizing profit even easier.

Because emissions restrictions are part of the issue, one energy producer says that the reason we pay more is because we have "chosen a better air quality" for our citizens. Yeah, right: because pollution emitted upwind doesn't affect us, I guess? The regulations do matter, but they're also a convenient scapegoat.

The good news is that entrants appear to be on the way. Hopefully they are producing in the next few years, and the market can work its magic. Until then, keep your wallets out!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

GMO Rice

According to this article, GMO's may be the only way we can continue to feed the planet. The piece begins by talking about flood resistant rice. A field in Uttar Pradesh, India, was planted with the genetically modified crop, and even though there were floods, "Instead of drowning, Mr Pal’s rice sprang back when the water receded. In a normal year he gets a tonne or so from his 1-hectare (2.5-acre) plot; in a bad year nothing. In that terrible flooded season, he harvested 4.5 tonnes—as good a yield as on any rain-fed paddy in the world." Pretty hard for me to look that guy in the eye and tell him these cultivars are somehow bad.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sustainable shrimp farming

Nice to see some good news in the paper from time to time! Today's article features a Massachusetts shrimp farmer who is growing his product inside large tanks in a warehouse, sort of like the IMET in downtown Baltimore where they raise European Sea Bass. The shrimp are still eating fish meal, though they're trying to wean them off of it, but it's so much more sustainable to be raising them in tanks than fishing them to extinction. Costs are still a little high, but they're borderline competitive now and hopefully people can keep innovating to get things cheaper and cheaper. I'm not much of an entrepreneur, but this sure looks like a market opportunity.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Land animals

Neat graphic on xkcd showing the animals of the earth by total weight.

Climate Change issues: Meat and China's Coal

In his book "Just Food," James McWilliams takes down the myth of the importance of local food for slowing carbon emissions. There is a nice long list of objections, but in the end he chooses to focus on one: the importance of limiting meat consumption. The Washington Post took up that theme, noting that the average meat eater in the US contributes about twice as much to global warming as vegetarians (or fishitarians). Vegans are the best in this regard, coming in 60% below the meat eaters.

China right now is the #1 contributor to climate change, but only just barely larger than the US. That's projected to change, as the US is taking steps to curb pollution while China, as it industrializes, is on an upward swing, though the leaders at least say they're working against that. According to the news article linked to just there, emissions can be thought of as something like this:

Number of people X average income per person X energy used per unit income X CO2 per unit energy

The first one is limited by the one-child policy. No one wants to limit the second one. The third and fourth are more less measures of technical sophistication, and this is where there is a real chance to improve things. Hopefully the US and other OECD countries will share at least some of their technology with China to keep those ratios as low as possible. It will be hard for China to wean itself off of coal, a very cheap and abundant  but highly polluting source of energy.