Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Update on lithium batteries

While yesterday brought the third in the Washington Post's series on the environmental ramifications of lithium batteries (focusing on lithium itself) today has some good news. A group of companies using lithium batteries in their products, including Apple, have created the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) with a goal of addressing social and environmental ramifications of their products. 

There's not a simple set goal yet, and that's because things are complicated. As the piece says, "Exactly what to do about the artisanal mining of cobalt is a matter of heated debate. The practice is rife with dangers. On the other hand, it also helps desperately poor people make a living, particularly in the rural areas of Congo."

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs. Welcome to the world of Economics.

(Here are links to the earlier WaPo pieces on graphite and cobalt.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pumping toxic stuff into the ground can pollute the water. Who knew?

If everything goes right during fracking, and the effluent that comes up the well is relieved of 100% of its gas and the resulting filth is injected in a carefully prepared well that goes deep, deep underground. The wells are to be lined and the material is to be shot far below any water, so it won't eventually seep into the water supply.

Well, it turns out it's not that easy, as the EPA announced today, no doubt on a sped-up timeline to avoid trying to put out a report under their new boss who surely wouldn't allow it.

It's actually pretty important to get this out there, since the EPA has said the opposite before. This is a bit of a win for environmentalists that has taken a lot longer than it should have to get out.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Government: needed to set up markets, & CH4 in the air

Great post today by a top environmental economist on how government is needed to let marketplace solutions work out. In other words, even libertarian economic theory doesn't suggest that destroying the EPA is a good idea.

In other news, environmental monitoring has revealed that although carbon dioxide emissions are declining, methane is actually up. This is really bad: methane does much more damage than CO2 once it's out there. The question now is where all that methane is coming from: some say it might be from emissions related to fracking, while others blame increased agriculture and increased livestock production. Undoubtedly both matter, and the question is how to make things better. Here in the US a good place to start would be by being a little more careful in our fracking: using natural gas is supposed to be less environmentally damaging than coal, but if we don't capture all the emissions done when we frack for gas, we could end up making things worse.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Electric cars

The need to gird ourselves for a Battle Royale on the environmental front makes me want to hide anything that might possibly be used by the other side, but that's not a useful impulse. As an academic it's my job to continue to evaluate the evidence fairly, and as the Guardian points out today, there are some flaws with the existing infrastructure behind electric cars.

First, they will only be as environmentally friendly as their fuel. If coal is burned to produce energy used to run a Tesla, it might as well be driving on gas (well, almost). Elon Musk's long-term plan for his vehicles includes solar-powered charging for the vehicles, but other electric vehicles aren't taking any such steps.

Second, making batteries can be rather nasty for the environment, imposing an additional burden.

If you start off at a deficit and don't get yourself out, you don't end up ahead. We need to take care that electric cars don't end up in that position!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


I don't have the stomach to write much about this- I am literally nauseous- but the choice to run the EPA is profoundly disturbing. With no background in science, no background in economics, Scott Pruitt has spent his career fighting medical care for the poor, undermining same-sex marriage, advocating for environmental damage, and of course most prominently declaiming against climate change, in spite of the work of thousands of scientists.

While our society needs energy, we must also take into account cleanliness and safety in thinking about how we get it. Air pollution kills. Fracking in Oklahoma has caused earthquakes, damaging homes and property, The potential damage of climate change includes droughts, heat waves, more intense hurricanes and other major storms, and rising sea levels, damaging agriculture, infrastructure, insect outbreaks, wildfires, loss of species, and human health impacts.

I'm just stunned that all of those concerns are going to be ignored. I guess the rich will be less affected by all of those things, so why worry?

Friday, November 11, 2016

and... steps backwards on climate

The next four years are going to be... something. Here's Trump's energy policy.


One faint bit of good news is that the prices of oil and coal are really low right now, limiting the attractiveness of newly opened lands to mining and drilling. Hopefully Elon Musk can keep driving down the cost of solar power and electric vehicles so there is even less interest in burning coal or drilling oil.

We are in for a bumpy ride.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Progress on Climate

You probably heard that the Paris Agreement has come into effect, and you may have heard that the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) is starting today. It seems like the world is taking steps- small steps, and much later than they should have been taken- but still, it's reason for optimism.

One particularly appealing prospect is that of saying "yes" to more forests rather than just "no" to coal, fossil-fuel powered vehicles, etc. This writer thinks that forest development should be the heart of any strategy against climate change. Obviously pro-forest policies are costly too- preventing someone from developing their land keeps them from becoming richer, and people living near restricted land might have a hard time, say, getting access to electric power. Clearly the goal is not to keep people in the dark ages!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rebound effect: death prevention version

One reason energy-saving technologies don't always make as much a difference as expected is the "rebound effect" (WikiLink)- if something becomes easier/ cheaper/ safer, people will do more/ spend more/ take more risks. If cars use less gas, people may drive farther, since it has become cheaper to travel. People don't feel bad about eating a whole pack of cookies as long as they are "low-calorie" cookies.

The scariest version I've seen of this is right here. Since paramedics have really good medicine to help save people from overdoses, drug users may feel safer in shooting up, putting their lives at risk assuming that paramedics will reach them in time. Alternatively, drug users may mix narcotics with the life-saving substance to do "yo-yoing": shooting up to a high and bouncing back down as the other drug in the cocktail (hopefully) brings you back.

Scary stuff!

GMO's are worthless

That's what the NYT would have you believe. They compare US productivity against European productivity, noting that GMOs are rare in the EU but productivity levels are similar. (This is attributed to "European anger at the idea of fooling with nature.") They do note that no health concerns have been convincingly shown: GMOs are as healthy as any other crop variants.

Further, they contend that GMOs haven't curbed insecticide use, and they have increased herbicide use. The latter claim is almost certainly true: some GMO crops are designed to encourage use of herbicides. Why would anyone want to plant those crops? Well, every farmer has to deal with weeds, and think about how nice it would be to just spray chemicals that know to kill every plant except the good ones. That's what this GMO seed is: the plant isn't affected by the herbicide, so farmers can spray with impunity.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to "fool with nature" (for example, is a human artificially putting a seed into the ground "fooling with nature"? How about killing the bugs that eat the plants?), a few shortcomings of this analysis are apparent.

1) I think most advocates of GMOs would contend that GMOs improve "total factor productivity" whether or not they improve yields. In other words, you might not get more grain per acre of land, but you might get more grain per ton of fertilizer applied, or more grain per hour of human time invested. I don't have any numbers off the top of my head, but these are questions the article doesn't address.

2) Herbicide use is bad, but the alternative is watching your soil be carried down the river. While that sounds like a disaster for the environment, consider this: the other way that people fight weeds is by plowing the land, tearing plants up and driving parts of them underground. this has the effect of facilitating soil runoff. I'm as unhappy about chemicals being sprayed on the land as the next person, but I'm also unhappy when I see the Mississippi River Delta expanding every year because of all the soil carried down the river. Losing soil is a real problem, potentially threatening agriculture itself, and applying herbicides slows the rate of soil loss. (Also, saving soil prevents the release of carbon into the atmosphere, slowing climate change.)

3) Take a look at my former professor David Zilberman's ode to Monsanto, describing his very positive view of the company. His research has shown that skepticism of GMOs has cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars in value... as well as millions of people's eyesight lost due to short-sighted (yuk) resistance to Golden Rice, a genetically engineered product designed to get vitamin A to populations who normally don't get enough, and who often lose their eyesight because of it.

No fooling!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Air pollution kills

Quick hit: Guardian article says that in Africa, air pollution kills more than malnutrition or dirty water.

And then boom, a few days later the NYT writes about UNICEF's claim that 300 million children breathe toxic air, particularly in China and India. Particulate matter contributes to heart failure, asthma, and pneumonia, and cuts children's cognitive functioning.

Worldwide, air pollution kills seven million per year, including 600,000 children: 1 in 10 deaths of children under 5 is attributable to air pollution. Survivors go on to be damaged in ways we are only beginning to understand.

I'm going to a talk tomorrow at the World Bank on how air pollution affects families in Peru. One way they identify is that sick children keep parents home from work. I know, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure that one out, but if you were listing all the impacts of air pollution, would you have come up with that? It wouldn't have been one of the first things I came up with!

The price of water

"How can you say that water should have a price? You can't sell human rights!"

Such was the greeting that UN special rapporteur Catarine du Albuquerque met when she first tried to get civil society to think about how to provide water and sanitation to the people who don't have it. 2.4 billion people (out of 7 billion in the world today) live without a toilet. Just in Latin America, 30 million people lack access to clean water. And you know, it's not going to be free to get sewer systems to all those people! If that can be accomplished with public-private partnerships, then great.

A recent paper showed the importance of publicly provided water by looking at the issue historically: in England, when municipal governments took over water supplies, people living nearby benefited: mortality rates linked to water dropped by 20%. So, does that mean we should keep the private sector out? Not necessarily: first, not everywhere is as good at governance as England, and second, sometimes we need the private sector to come in and take the first steps. In Argentina, privatizing the water supply cut child mortality rates in poor areas by 24%.

As Dr. Zilberman mentioned in his blog entry a few weeks ago (see this blog's entry on Pollan et al.), sometimes different solutions work better in different environments. We shouldn't be too quick to rule any of them out!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Climate change smells bad

However bad a week you have this week, you can at least be glad that you aren't on the North Carolina coast, where Hurricane Matthew made a big mess, including, "carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys.... and incalculable amount of animal waste.... " You see, six or seven weeks ago on September 1st, 2016, NC was home to 9 million hogs. In August, 160 million chickens were either born or slaughtered. Hogs in particular produce huge amounts of waste: in 2012, hogs from Smithfield foods (the largest producer of hogs, headquartered in North Carolina) produced 4.7 billion gallons of waste, most of which is either sprayed on fields (leading an epidemiologist at UNC Chapel Hill to say "The eastern part of North Carolina is covered with shit") or it is kept in huge pits called "lagoons," many of which were flooded by the hurricane.

It's a disgusting situation, for sure, and if climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes on the eastern coast of the US as expected, it's not getting better. At the same time, it's easy to wag a finger and call the corporations greedy for producing so many animals in such a small space. However, believe it or not, a lot of people benefit from this as well. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, which, yes, means that capitalist owners are making bank, but it also means that a lot of people all over the world are benefiting from access to cheap meat. This study in the Journal of Nutrition found that access to animal-source foods in places like Kenya and Mexico helps "growth, cognitive function, activity, pregnancy outcome and morbidity." And let me ask: do you think it's better for the kids if the animals are nearby, or if mom or dad can go pick up a pack of meat at the market? Hint: kids living and playing around lots of animal poop probably aren't as healthy as other kids....

In general I think it's a good idea to do dirty things in places with lots of regulation, so that they can be done as cleanly and as safely as possible. So, in my opinion it makes sense to raise animals in the US for export. One question to ask is whether this giant, industrial model is a good one, and there are pros (such as cheap access to meat) as well as cons of that. Medium size farms seem like a good compromise, but needing more farms means taking up even more space, hiring more people, etc.

However, that certainly doesn't mean that the industry should get a blank check. Some of the articles cited above talk about the lax regulatory environment in North Carolina, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed. People who live in these areas, who are generally poor, are not only putting up with constant disgusting smells in the air but genuine hazards to their health from the farms even when rivers are staying inside their banks. Thanks to Jenny Ifft, who point out this study which found that increasing production means that infant mortality rates in the area go up: the pollution actually kills.

The piece from NatGeo has a nice conclusion, in which a hog farmer argues for more regulation. "Regulations, he says, keep him on his toes: 'We're always busy on a farm. We always have more than we can do. And the first thing we're not going to do is waste management. But if we know that inspector's coming in six months, or unannounced, what are we going to do? We're going to do good waste management.'" That would be a great start.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Climate change

First, I'm excited about this agreement to cut use of climate-damaging chemicals such as HFC's. Sounds like it's real progress.

Second, a student pointed me to this information about a coming movie starring Leo DeCaprio on the subject of climate change.

There are so many great signs of progress in the world today... but something like the popularity of Trump makes the picture so much less clear. The world is a mysterious place.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Pollan, Schlosser, etc.

Agricultural economist David Zilberman (my professor, long ago) has a nice post responding to the series of claims made by journalists over the past 10-15 years. While many of the critiques made in those books ring true, he also has a series of facts that are overlooked in their analyses, including:

1) It's easy to take shots at the nutritional and environmental impacts of mass agriculture and fast food. At the same time, a lot of good is done by cheap grains, cheap meat, and accessible prepared or mostly-prepared meals (like what you see at a supermarket deli). Less time and money spent on food and cooking is a real blessing for the poor.

2) The trend toward organic and small scale production is great for consumers of boutique goods, i.e. those with enough disposable income to afford them. However, these approaches require heavy investments of time and energy by people, removing a burden that was a huge part of society's work output as recently as 100 years ago. Large scale, industrial approaches mean that machines do most of the work rather than people. Further, these small scale approaches require more land: they just aren't as productive. If it takes more land to produce the same amount of food, that creates pressure to devote more land to food production, and that pressure often results in wild lands being converted to agricultural fields. That's not good for the environment. Finally, there are more tradeoffs. For example, no-till cultivation requires the use of more herbicides than traditional methods, but it decreases soil erosion and thereby carbon emissions. Good ends are achieved, but at a cost, and in some cases at least that's a cost worth paying. As Dr. Zilberman says, technology is the key to a good future for rural areas, and being afraid of it or denying its benefits condemns a lot of people to more difficult lives.

3) Finally, the world is complex! What works in one place may not work in another, so there needs to be room for multiple solutions to a given problem once that variation is taken into account. Thus, industrial approaches should give way to artisanal farming in some areas, but perhaps not in others. Issuing blanket condemnations ignores the complexity of the world we live in.

Food for thought?

Some like it hot

This summer was the hottest on record. How do you think that affects demand for natural gas?

You might think that people would do less heating, and maybe even less cooking when it's so hot, but your home use of natural gas is a very small part of total demand for gas. Most gas is burned by electricity-producing plants, and people needed that electricity this past summer to run their AC's.

It took me a little while to get used to looking at business reports like these as interesting and important, but we can learn a lot here! You try: so who benefits from a hot summer?

Friday, October 7, 2016

Hey! Perdue Chicken did something good!

Perdue Chicken processes 13 million chickens per week, and they are announcing that they are no longer using antibiotics as part of their production process. Bravo! What's more, "By the end of September 2017, Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, aims to stop using on its chicken farms antibiotics that also are used to treat humans."

This is really, really great news. The overuse of antibiotics, particularly via using them to produce meat, has created bacteria that we can no longer fight effectively. The Pew Antibiotic Resistance Project says, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans fall sick every year with antibiotic-resistant infections—and 23,000 die."

Real progress!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


The Washington Post has started a new series that's pretty fascinating: it looks at some of the chemicals needed to make lithium batteries, and watches the chemicals' extraction and distribution. It's a pretty sad story so far: both the piece on graphite and the one on cobalt depict some pretty abject damage and victimization of the poor, not to mention the environmental damage.

**Update, December 19th: new post on lithium mining....

It's a long way from I, Pencil!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reservoirs: another source of greenhouse gases

On the one hand, this isn't news: the report of the World Commission on Dams, published in 2000, notes on page 75 that "the gross emissions from reservoirs may account for between 1% and 28% of the global warming potential of GHG emissions." On the other hand, this new study finds that emission of gases may be 25% higher than previously noted.

What goes on is that reservoirs, usually made by damming up a river, end up submerging a great deal of plant life. In China, the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, flooded 244 square miles of land, including 100,000 acres of productive farmland which used to produce 10% of China's annual grain. As I understand it, submerged plants basically rot, consumed by bacteria and turned into methane, which adds to the burden of greenhouse gases emitted every year.

A few caveats here: first, it's not all about dams. Other types of reservoir can do the same damage. Second, obviously dams do a lot of good for the climate as well: that same Three Gorges Dam produces nearly 100 TW per year, Producing that by coal plants would release at least billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, based on numbers listed here. Averting that is definitely a good thing, though it's not free!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Clean energy is getting cheaper!

I feel a little bad for posting a summary of a summary... but not that bad! Very cool chart on the falling costs of various types of clean energy at vox.com.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Industrial Agriculture- good for the environment?

An agricultural economist from Oklahoma State has written an article in the NY Times about the environmental benefits of industrial agriculture. While he uses a few cheap tricks to hide some ugly pieces of information (such as counting farms by owner rather than by acreage) it also makes some good points, including:

1) Modern technology does a much better job of conserving the soil and limiting fertilizer use. Instead of plowing up the soil, which releases carbon into the air as well as facilitating erosion, modern methods involve killing weeds with chemicals and then injecting the seeds into the ground. Yes, herbicides are bad for the environment, but so is the 6-7000 square mile dead zone created every year by fertilizer flowing down the Mississippi River.

2) They also use water much more efficiently. For generations, water was treated as limitless: after all, in a dry year, farmers could just dig a well and pump out groundwater for the cost of running a pump. Now that well is nearing depletion, causing a host of difficulties. Here's a 14 minute video produced by USA Today.

3) Most importantly, big farms mean doing more with less. According to the article, they are twice as productive as they were in 1970, meaning that they produce food using less land, less energy, smaller amounts of chemicals, and fewer workers.

More with less is a good thing. I think that's this author's bottom line- and it's hard to argue with that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Water infrastructure

This year the DC metro is paying the price for years of neglect: service is cancelled frequently throughout the system as they try to catch up to a huge backlog of unfinished repair work. The same thing is happening all over the country with respect to our water infrastructure: years of failing to adequately budget for system maintenance have led to today's system, which loses about a trillion gallons of water a year. The price of cleanup is going to be huge, but we'd better pay... and then, hopefully, start facing up to the real costs of keeping a system functional!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Climate change graphic

A bit of fun (with an edge) from xkcd via vox....


Water in Pittsburgh is suffering from incompetent supervision, and what's coming out of people's taps is pretty gross, according to the Guardian. In particular, one cancer-causing chemical is showing up where fracking's wastewater encounters the chemicals used to treat the water in preparation for distribution to the public.

This reminds me of another recent article on the value of good governance when it comes to water, a cool historical example of water systems improving when made public. It also reminds me of Argentina, where the private sector successfully stepped in when the public sector wasn't cutting it.

There so often are no simple answers!

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Tonight was a rerun (based on Oklahoma setting a record) but this past May had a 60 minutes piece on the link between fracking and earthquakes. The connection is pretty clear!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

$5 Trillion

That's the annual loss to the global economy associated with air pollution, according to this article. Also, one in ten deaths worldwide is attributable to air pollution, according to the World Bank. 4 times as many people die from air pollution as die from HIV/ AIDS: that's six times as many as die from malaria.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Road Safety

Cars take up a week or two of my Resource Econ course, and though this isn't about fuel consumption I thought it was pretty neat. Sweden is saving lives by engineering its roads better: using speed bumps to slow down traffic near pedestrian crossings, adding more passing lanes so people aren't forced into traffic going the other way, etc. Very cool!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Changes in the Oceans

The oceans are so vast and deep that it's no wonder that we have a lot to learn about them, and it's no surprise to hear that climate change may be affecting them more intensely than previously known. "The warming is having its greatest impact upon the building blocks of life in the seas, such as phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill. Changes in abundance and reproduction are, in turn, feeding their way up the food chain, with some fish pushed out of their preferred range and others diminished by invasive arrivals....Humans are also set to suffer from the spread of disease as the ocean continues to heat up." Scary stuff!

Monday, August 29, 2016

End of Gas-Powered Cars?

Whoa! Check out this quote from the executive director of Gasoline & Automotive Services Dealers of America, Mike Fox: "If Tesla can deliver on its current promises with the Model 3, gas vehicles are history." Whoa! That would be a marvelous thing indeed, assuming that power generation comes from sustainable, clean sources like solar, which Elon Musk (the guy behind Tesla) clearly envisions. Based on his past record, I'd say that his timeline is a little ambitious (like everything about the guy) but even if it's not right on time, this would sure be great.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Colony Collapse Disorder- struggles of bees

Really nice, balanced article in today's Washington Post about Colony Collapse Disorder. The refrain coming from environmental protests is that the problem is neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide. This piece argues that the problem may be more about the way they or applied, and that the protests ignore another major problem facing bees- the varroa mite. Surprise surprise- everything's not so simple!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Money for farmers

When "demand is soft" for some agricultural commodity, the Feds step in and buy a bunch of it. That has cost taxpayers over $300 million this year, including $15 million to buy up extra cheese and give it to food pantries. While farmers are subject to the vagaries of weather in addition to the ebbs and flows of the market, do you think this is appropriate?

I'm not a farmer (and there are no farmers in my family) so it's easy for me to say that this looks like waste, but I don't know the other side. so I'm going to write to a friend of mine who knows more than I do. I'll update this post when I hear back.

Here's the comment from my friend, agricultural economist Jenny Ifft, who replied with superhuman speed:

I'd say Marin's comment is probably the right way to think about it. It is political, and also not "large" in the big picture. Farm policy in the U.S. started this way - trying to buy commodities to keep prices up -didn't work then and doesn't work now. That being said, I'm skeptical that Section 32 is large enough to have much of an impact on producer decisions or markets, although I'm sure in some cases it has. My personal opinion on farm policy broadly is that it is more of a small boondoggle than large one in the sense that producers are mostly responding to market signals; overall as economists we would do things differently, but it could be a lot worse. Sugar, cotton and rice policies are probably the most distorting, while corn would be amongst the least, but with smaller payments spread over more acres, it is larger in aggregate. Dairy is very complicated and very cyclical - but from NY I can tell you that successful dairies large and small don't have much riding on MPP or any other current programs. 

Not sure if that helps! These are interesting issues. The article you send is overselling the impact and intent of Section 32 (such is journalism...), especially in the first paragraph and I think the 3 ag economists that were quoted are spot on.
The economic argument is that if this is supposed to help recipients of the cheese, they would be better off with cash than with cheese. I've heard that food pantries in particular can get really fantastic deals on food, getting huge bang for their bucks, so just give the $$ to the food pantries and take the farmers out of the loop.

In the meantime, I'm looking at the price of Cheddar over the last few years, and I do see that prices are really low right now.

If this money keeps people in business through a short term dip in prices, that might be a good thing for the economy: it's tough to have a bunch of people go out of business. On the other hand, if the money props up a business that is fundamentally unsustainable, that would be a bad thing for the economy: resources consumed by that business would be better given to a business producing something more in demand, like say improving mass transit.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Climate Change & Water in the West

Parts of three states- California, Nevada, Arizona- and a chunk of Mexico depend on the Colorado River for water, and that supply is rapidly running out. As climate change cuts into the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and affects the timing of the snowmelt, less water is available to recharge the lakes and reservoirs along the way. Fortunately, being a country with a well-established system of laws, we have peaceful means of handling it: I have some friends who are "watermasters" in Nevada, and there are all sorts of conferences and arbitration over who gets what. It's not always an efficient system, but at least it's not like in some countries.

In other places, people anticipate that this century might well see wars over water, particularly in climatically stressed areas such as central Asia. Resources are stressed all over, and this "slow motion crisis" looks to get worse before it gets better. Some of the good news is that in dry countries like Kazakhstan, it's already clear that water is going to be an issue, and so they've begun to take action.

When something gets scarce, people start to see it as valuable, and they are more careful with it. Supply and demand start to matter. Economics at work!

Brazil's big score

Over the last decade, Brazil has seen a lot of growth (and yes, some big declines), they've landed both the Olympics and the World Cup, and they've (so far!) pulled off both with no headlines worse than Ryan Lochte's head-scratcher of an incident. That's pretty good. One accomplishment bigger than that is what they've done to save the rainforest, which they've managed at a very reasonable cost.

Yes, a lot is still being consumed, and more could be done, but the rate at which it was disappearing has slowed greatly. That's something to really be proud of!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Veganism & the environment

I'm not gonna lie: I got a link to this from someone on Facebook rather than from a scientific source. Still, it kind of makes sense. See what you think!

Here's a quote: "incorporating about 20 to 40% meat in your diet is actually better for the long-term course of humanity than being completely meat-free." How could this be? Meat is really resource-intensive to produce. Well, one idea is that some land is actually well suited to supporting livestock. It's easy to think of gauchos in Argentina as sort of the "way nature intended," but what about here in the US? If we put cattle or buffalo on the central plains rather than trying to grow corn there, we wouldn't be sending 10 tons of soil every second down the mighty Mississippi River (if I'm reading that right). Less soil erosion = more sustainability, and much less pressure on the Ogallala aquifer, much less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, etc. So yeah: beef for dinner? Or at least, maybe some sustainably farmed tilapia?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Climate Change

We talk about climate change in one of the Stats classes I teach. This past semester, my colleague Prof. Palmateer taught that lesson (as I was on sabbatical) and he was told by a student that it's against the Code of Ethics at Towson to talk about climate change that way, that he needs to open the floor for all dissenters if he's going to talk about it.

Well, I'm sorry, but no, he doesn't, and no, the dissenters no longer have a viable argument. Literally thousands of scientists, many of them listed here, have come to one conclusion based on years of research done by each of them. No matter what the oil industry argues, human-caused climate change is a fact- it's happening now, as in right now: for example, this in the news today. (No, that one news article isn't sufficient evidence, but it's illustrative.)

As open as I am to conversation and discussion, there are some topics that we can't talk much about. Does the sun revolve around the earth? No, it doesn't: Copernicus figured that out in the 1500's. Is the moon made of green cheese? No, it's made of rock and covered with space dust, as was hypothesized by my great-uncle Charles in 1963 and proven true a few years later when people landed on it. Climate change falls into this category: the science is settled. The question is what to do about it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Having gone to grad school in California, I often think of it wistfully- I miss the nice dry air, the amazing cornucopia of fresh produce, the amazing mountains, and of course proximity to my family in nearby Nevada. 

One thing I don't miss is the air pollution, though of course I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is much less polluted than LA. Southern California is afflicted with some of the worst pollution in the nation, and a recent study says it kills thousands of people per year. The next time someone tells you that there are things more important to spend money on, ask them how they feel about spending money to save lives. Yeah- it matters.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


This quote caught me today: "Scientists recently reported that the ice island lost 1 trillion tons of ice mass to the ocean in just four years, between 2011 and 2014." (from here) That change is affecting ocean levels and potentially, if I'm reading this right, "can result in extreme events [in Europe and North America], such as prolonged heat waves, flooding, and droughts, all of which have repeatedly reared their heads more frequently in recent years."

Doesn't it seem like a good idea to take action to address this?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Glad I was wrong

Looks like I was wrong not once, but twice! Maybe you should find someone more dependable to read.... :)

If you look back on this blog you'll find that I've been pretty anti-corn ethanol. I'm not really an expert, but the analyses I've seen have found it to be inefficient (saving little or no carbon on balance) and mostly just a sop for Big Corn. However, there is a really interesting writeup here defending the practice. Honestly, I'd be happy to be wrong: if the agricultural industry can do some good work for the environment without having to put a lot of time, energy, and money into retooling themselves, that would be a good thing. Note that there is a rebuttal posted here. (Thanks to Jane Wolfson for both!)

One point made in the first article has to do with something I do actually know a little more about. Some background: one way that people have come up with to fight climate change is by getting carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground. This is done a few ways, and one of the more common means is by agriculture. "No-till" agriculture involves preserving the integrity of the surface of the land rather than plowing it up all the time. The idea is that leaving root systems intact will leave some carbon behind when the top of the crop is harvested.

Well, an article my advisors and I published in 2005 found that this doesn't work very well. It looked to us like, "no-till cultivation may store no carbon at all if measurements are taken at sufficient depth." Fortunately for the world, it looks like we were wrong. A more recent study investigated quite thoroughly and found impacts even at depth. So hooray! Farmers' methods do seem to be getting the job done.

So you know what? Looks like it might turn out that I was wrong. And I'm perfectly fine with that!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

No clean coal

Like many a technophile, I suppose, I was hopeful for this project that was supposed to trap the carbon emitted when a really dirty source of energy was burned. If it worked, it would bring jobs to a part of Mississippi in need of a boost, it would provide reasonably priced energy, and it would emit no (or close to no) carbon.

Alas, it hasn't panned out. This writeup blames mismanagement; I suppose that means there may be some hope left for the technology, though that's not clear. The companion article covers the broader issues, including the economics, in a really short, clean way. Take a look.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Climate change and plastic fibers

A couple of articles in the past few weeks are about addressing climate change via technology. The first is a creative approach to trapping carbon underground, while the second is a NYT article advocating for more nuclear energy, a topic that's come up here before. While no one is excited about dealing with nuclear waste, techniques have been developed for storing it safely for longer, and the fact is that removing reactors usually results in the use of more fossil fuels, doing climate damage.

A third article is about a threat to the environment I hadn't thought about: recently much has been documented about the damage done by tiny plastic beads used in facial scrubs and toothpaste, but this is the first I've heard of how synthetic fabrics, such as those produced by Patagonia, slough off tiny bits of plastic that also have a big effect on small creatures. To Patagonia's credit, it's their own research that uncovered the problem. I wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Snap-T, produced by my former employer from recycled PET bottles....

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Aquaculture FTW

I've been excited about aquaculture for a long time, but now it's no longer the Next Big Thing: it's the current big thing. I'm not saying that all aquaculture is great- look no further than the devastating "marea roja" in Chile last month, which led the loss of 100,000 tons of farmed salmon. However, if done properly, aquaculture has a better chance of being sustainable than do most capture fisheries, IMHO.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fruit in the news

Apple consumption has been stable for a long time, but for the industry there's a new hope: sliced apples. Just as baby carrots have revolutionized the carrot industry, slicing the fruit McDonalds-style is giving a big boost to apple farmers. Consumption in school lunches went up a great deal when apples were served sliced, and soon they'll be coming to supermarket shelves. Amazing how 30 seconds and a knife can do so much for consumption!

Also, have you heard that the end may be near for the banana as we know it? The most common banana is called the "Cavendish" banana and a disease threatens to wipe it out. This actually happened once before: 100 years ago the most popular banana was called the Gros Michel banana. It tasted better but didn't travel as well and proved susceptible to disease, and was eventually wiped out. Now scientists in the lab and in the field are both working to find a variety that is resistant to disease.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Good news in the Chesapeake!

I was out of town and missed this, but the dredge survey for the health of the crab population came out over a month ago and it looks good! They are even saying that they might be able to raise some of the limits that have tightly bound harvesters for many years. More crabs to eat is a very good thing!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Good news in energy!

A biofuels plant in Hawaii has been certified sustainable. That's great news! So much of biofuels' "success" has turned out to be false when examined closely, but the promise is real. I hope that more plants can think so carefully about their feedstocks and create energy with such a small footprint!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Modern Slavery in Food Processing

Workers in chicken processing plants here in the US (perhaps on the Eastern Shore, where hundreds of millions of birds are raised each year?) have to wear diapers since they aren't allowed to use the bathroom during shifts; in Thailand, workers are chained up or locked in shrimp processing plants. A few years ago an investigation found problems with the programs bringing in workers to pick crab here in Maryland as well. That program is back in the news after Senator Mikulski pushed for continued exceptions to labor laws on its behalf.

In an international food marketplace the race to offer the best products at the lowest prices inevitably puts workers at risk, making policing of labor conditions so important. Thanks to the journalists and investigators who are bringing these to light!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Putting a price tag on nature

A former student wrote today to make sure I'd seen this article about pricing nature from the Washington Post. Thanks! It's good, and an impressive feat for the economists involved. On the one hand, it may seem repugnant or silly to try to put a price tag on such resources (Ok, a river is worth $29 million? I'll take four, please.) The reality, though, is that cost-benefit analysis is happening all the time, whether it's overt or not. If a piece of land is zoned for development, the natural environment nearby is going to suffer a downgrade, and if we don't take that into account, then our analysis will be incomplete.

So how can we do a better job? Take a look at the article and find out! :)

Monday, March 7, 2016

From the ridiculous to the sublime

The TV show Portlandia had an episode in which the central characters learned all about the chicken they were served, and Wegman's and Whole Foods wanted to tell their customers almost as much about the origin of their food. So, a few technological upgrades and a few cooperating seafood distributors later, they finally can. Interesting article summing up the development in the Sun- take a look. The article includes quotes from Steve Vilnit, who used to work for the State helping chefs learn about local seafood, among other things....

Friday, February 26, 2016

Some thoughts from Bill Gates

Bill Gates answers a bunch of questions about how to avoid climate change and improve the lives of the poor, addressing the importance of energy, diet, etc. While reading, ask yourself: how many of the questions (and answers) boil down to economics?

A Modern Hero

Next time I teach Resource Econ I'm going to make all of my students read this short obituary of Norman Borlaug. Too many people are unaware of the massive life-saving implications of what he did. Yes, we are starting to see some negative implications too on the environmental side, and we need to address them, but the underlying accomplishment earned him a justly deserved Nobel Peace Prize. Take a few minutes!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Emissions trading more damaging than previously thought

A team of researchers has looked at the sulfur dioxide trading program in the US and Canada, and finds two big results: first, the cost savings are not as large as was previously thought. Simple emissions standards can be met in a few different ways, so plant operators can actually make things cheaper without being able to trade emissions. When those extra cost savings are factored in, the program doesn't get as much credit for saving money.

Second, and more importantly: as we learned in class, costs include not only money paid by plant operators, but also damages to the environment and people in the area. Power plants that are trading emissions still don't take those extra costs into consideration. That's a problem, because some of the plants buying pollution permits turned out to be upwind of big population centers, so their pollution did more health damage than would pollution from the other plants.

Emissions trading schemes still have the chance to reduce the cost of meeting a pollution standard, but as always, we must consider ALL costs when trying to find the right amount of a good to be produced, and also when we think about where that right amount should be produced.

Complicated problems!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Power is too cheap

Well, at least it is in Puerto Rico. While it sounds great to have an organization producing power and providing it free to the people, the problem is that someone is going to have to pay for that power. To make power, it takes capital (i.e. machines) and, in most cases, fuel. In addition, the machines and the power infrastructure has to be maintained. All of that costs money! If no one is paying, it's not sustainable, and at some point it's going to end. Hopefully PR can ease it out gently rather than bringing it crashing down!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Gas is too cheap

Great blog entry by energy economist Max Auffhammer. He notes that if we include all of the external costs, the amount we pay today for gasoline is less than half the true costs imposed on society of producing that gas. He points out that a certain government has set a minimum price for gas, to be sure that enough money is collected to pay for infrastructure (and maybe pollution remediation?). Guess where, and then go read his short piece!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Energy: changes in the sun and oil markets

Last night the pundits I saw were declaiming about the role of dropping oil prices in the stock market decline. Matt Yglesias (on Twitter) says this "makes zero sense." I've been complaining about this awhile to colleagues and such, but the bottom line is that, apparently, more companies produce and sell oil than use oil as a big part of their production process. I like this little summary on Vox of why oil prices are where they are.

Another piece on Vox caught my eye partly since it starts off discussing my home state of Nevada. As you might guess, a state that's largely desert gets a lot of sun, and a lot of sun means a lot of opportunity for solar power. Recently, regulations have cut into the profitability of solar panels, and hence curtailed industry investment in the state. Yes, that's right: I'm complaining about regulations being too burdensome on business. Clearly I'm a right wing convert!

I hope that we all recognize the need to balance regulations with respect for the important role business plays in our economy- it's very easy for supporters of government action to overlook it!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Two things that surprised me: poop and phones

TIL, res-econ style....

Grand Junction, Colorado, is getting its power by processing waste, including food waste and manure as well as human waste. Wow! Apparently you just stir in some bacteria, catch the resulting methane, and burn it like the natural gas it is. There are a number of reasons this won't be feasible everywhere, with the chief one being that the fuel source is expensive to transport, but it's exciting to think about. If we can build more such plants near sewage treatment plants, maybe we can get more use from this already greenhouse-damaging emissions source.

Did you know that it's not a good idea to charge your phone in the car? If every car in the US was charging a single phone all the time, the emitted CO2 is equivalent to having over 185,000 extra cars on the road! Wow. Although the amount of energy used is relatively small, it cuts your miles per gallon by about 0.03. Apparently it's much more efficient to charge it at home.

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Long time, no write! Sorry about that: my research has really gone in another direction lately, so I'm spending less time on environmental issues other than climate. This one caught my eye, though: a friend shared this article about Monsanto going to court. Although some of the claims are overstated, they also make some good points. In particular, Monsanto defending their intellectual property to an extreme extent at the expense of small farmers is pretty egregious. Also, to the extent that Monsanto enables the current system of industrial agriculture, it contributes to climate change.

At the same time, it overlooks a lot of benefits that people have seen because of GMOs, such as cheaper food. Yes, cheaper food is bad for farmers, but it's good for consumers, and particularly the poor. This article is a pretty good response to the first one.

Have a great 2016!