Posts tagged ‘carbon footprint’

The Two Reasons Why People Buy Electric Cars

1.  They want to say something about themselves.  This is the Leonardo DiCaprio buyer, using the electric car to pronounce that he cares about his carbon footprint.  And it looks great parked next to his Gulfstream V.

2.  There is no meter on the electric line you plug into the car.  When you fill your car up with gas, you get to stand there watching the spinning money dial.  There is no parallel experience for plugging in an electric car.  The costs and fossil fuel use of an electric car are not necessarily less than the same size (e.g. subcompact) gasoline-engine car, they are just better hidden.

Owners of electric cars are not smarter about managing the energy costs of their driving, they are substantially more ignorant.  I know exactly how many dollars of gas I have put in my car this month.  How many electric car owners have the first idea how many dollars of electricity they put in theirs?

Food Miles Silliness and the Virtue of Prices

I have written a number of times on the silliness of food miles and the locavore movement (here and here and here).  For some reason the energy and resource intensity of foods is being judged merely on one component - transportation of the end product - which actually is only a tiny competent of food costs (and thus their resource use).  Is it really more environmentally sensitive for us Phoenicians to grow our corn in the Arizona desert, where soils are unproductive and water must be imported from hundreds of miles away, rather than have it grown in the fertile soils of Iowa and trucked in?

Someone in the media, at least in Australia, finally notices:

TWO brands of olive oil, one from Australia, the other shipped 16,000 kilometres from Italy, sit on a supermarket shelf.

Most eco-friendly shoppers would reach for the Australian oil. But despite burning less fossil fuel to get here, it may not be better for the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, ''food miles'', or the distance food has travelled before we buy it, is a poor indicator of our food's total greenhouse gas emissions, or ''carbon footprint''.

More important is the way our food is farmed and produced, and how far we drive to buy it....

It turns out that stuff like economies of scale really matter

''Local food can often have a higher carbon footprint than food from afar,'' says principal researcher Brad Ridoutt.

He says even home-grown vegetables, with ''zero food miles'', do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket.

''With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat.

''By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,'' he says.

Of course, transporting food from producer to retailer still burns fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions, in turn accelerating global warming. But freight emissions are only a fraction of those released during production, meaning even imported food, sustainably produced, can have a smaller carbon footprint than local alternatives.

Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.  In commodity products like most foods, prices tend to be driven down to a point that they reflect resources (and their relative scarcity) that went into the product.  The cheapest foods tend to be those that use the least, and least scarce, resources in production.  So buying locally grown food, which often tends to carry a price premium, should have been a flashing red light that maybe this was not the least-resource-intensive choice.

And the World is 4000 Years Old Too

This is just staggering ignorance from a prominent US Congressman

"I think the answer is no," [MN representative Keith] Ellison said when asked if he believes regulations kill jobs. "And here is why: When we talked about increasing fuel efficiency standards, the industry responded, and they need engineers and designers and manufacturers, and they need actually more people to help respond to the new requirement."

"I believe if the government says, look, we have got to reduce our carbon footprint, you will kick into gear a whole number of people that know how to do that or have ideas about that, and that will be a job engine. I understand what you mean, because if anything adds a cost to a business, you could assume that that will diminish that business’s ability to hire. But I don’t think that’s actually right. I think what businesses want is customers and what — if they are selling product, if they have a product to sell they will do well even if they have some new regulations to meet," the Congressman said.

There is a lot about economics we still do not understand, but one thing we are pretty certain about is that shifting labor and investment from productive to unproductive activities destroys wealth and reduces economic growth.  Of course, since much of the press is at least as ignorant on economic fundamentals, they just nod sagely.

Example of Why Climate Science is Becoming a Laughingstock

From the Thin Green Line, a reliable source for any absurd science that supports environmental alarmism:

Sending and receiving email makes up a full percent of a relatively green person's annual carbon emissions, the equivalent of driving 200 miles.
Dealing with spam, however, accounts for more than a fifth of the average account holder's electricity use. Spam makes up a shocking 80 percent of all emails sent, but most people get rid of them as fast as you can say "delete."
So how does email stack up to snail mail? The per-message carbon cost of email is just 1/60th of the old-fashioned letter's. But think about it "” you probably send at least 60 times as many emails a year than you ever did letters.

One way to go greener then is to avoid sending a bunch of short emails and instead build a longer message before you send it.

This is simply hilarious, and reminds me of the things the engineers would fool the pointy-haired boss with in Dilbert.  Here was my response:

This is exactly the kind of garbage analysis that is making the environmental movement a laughing stock.

In computing the carbon footprint of email, the vast majority of the energy in the study was taking the amount of energy used by a PC during email use (ie checking, deleting, sending, organizing) and dividing it by the number of emails sent or processed. The number of emails is virtually irrelevant -- it is the time spent on the computer that matters. So futzing around trying to craft one longer email from many shorter emails does nothing, and probably consumers more energy if it takes longer to write than the five short emails.

This is exactly the kind of peril that results from a) reacting to the press release of a study without understanding its methodology (or the underlying science) and b) focusing improvement efforts on the wrong metrics.

The way to save power is to use your computer less, and to shut it down when not in use rather than leaving it on standby.

If one wants to argue that the energy is from actually firing the bits over the web, this is absurd. Even if this had a measurable energy impact, given the very few bytes in an email, reducing your web surfing by one page a day would keep more bytes from moving than completely giving up email.

By the way, the suggestion for an email charge in the linked article is one I have made for years, though the amount is too high. A charge of even 1/100 cent per email would cost each of us about a penny per day but would cost a 10 million mail spammer $1000, probably higher than his or her expected yield from the spam.

If Causality is Complicated Enough, You Can Take Credit For Anything

Apparently California has passed a new law that requires land use planning to be tied to the CARB CO2 emissions limits.  Well, all of us who make our money in neighboring states will certainly be happy to have yet more Californians driven into our arms.

This effort is based in part on the claim, which I see all the time, from here, based on a Brookings Report here:

Residents of Portland emit 35 percent less carbon per capita than those of other US cities

Portland is the #1 poster child for "smart growth" style urban planning,  and so smart growth advocates have decided that Portland's low carbon footprint is due to smart growth.

Interestingly, though Brookings certainly supports smart planning, their study has moments of honesty that everyone tries to ignore.  For example, it makes points I have made over and over about the cities at the top of the electrical efficiency and low emissions lists:

The fuel mix used to generate electricity matters in residential footprints. A high-carbon fuels mix significantly penalizes the Ohio Valley and Appalachian regions, which rely heavily on coal power. Alternatively, hydro-reliant metro areas such as Seattle have substantially smaller residential footprints.

Pricing influences the electricity component of the residential footprints. Each of the 10 metro areas with the lowest per capita electricity footprints in 2005 hailed from states with higher-than-average electricity prices, including California, New York, and Hawaii. Many Southeastern metro areas, on the other hand, with high electricity consumption per capita have had historically low electricity rates.

Weather unmistakably plays a role in residential footprints. High-emitting metro areas often concentrate in climates that demand both significant cooling and heating, such as in the eastern mid-latitude states. In contrast, the 10 metro areas with the smallest per capita residential footprints are all located along the West Coast, with its milder climate.

So, let's take Portland.  It has a mild climate, it has higher than average utility prices, and its electricity is supplied in large part by zero-emission hydro plants.  Small wonder it does well on the footprint analysis.  But given all these advantages, supp0rters want to claim Portland is near the top not due to any of this stuff but due to land planning and mass transit?  In fact, transit's share of commutes in Portland has been steadily falling for years, despite the urban legends to the contrary.

But here is another reality check on the list -- Portland is #3.  #1 on the list is Honolulu, a very mild climate and certainly no poster child for anti-sprawl.  Even more telling is #2 - Los Angeles.  LA has an even lower carbon footprint than Portland.  So much for smart growth and transit ridership as the main explanation!   Even Phoenix, the most spread out non-transit-using city in the country is above average at #21 out of 100, despite having what is most certainly NOT a mild climate.   My guess is that it has something to do with that clean, carbon friendly nuclear power plant just outside of town, the largest in the US.

Postscript: This report claims that smart planning is better than a carbon tax because people don't respond to changes in gas and electricity prices.  But the fact that the lowest carbon footprints and lowest per capita electrical use areas correspond with those with the highest prices gives the lie to that proposition.

Solar Has A Ways to Go

I have not ever been able to make solar installation on my house get a reasonable payback, even with rising electricity rates, the best location in the country for solar, and huge government subsidies.  Large solar installations remain a publicity stunt, a sort of really expensive indulgence bought to garner the "green" title:

Scott Gustafson runs the numbers on the solar installation at the revamped Phoenix convention center:

capital cost:  $850,000
operating costs:  not provided
annual electricity savings:  $15,000
return on investment (ignoring operating costs and interest):  1.7%

Solar is still a fine toy for the rich and public figures like Al Gore looking to disguise their true carbon footprint.  But the economics aren't there yet for big boy investors -- its still off by an order of magnitude, at least.

Hopefully, this will change as high energy prices encourage innovation.

Food-Miles: Most Moronic Metric Ever?

For some reason, a group of people on this earth have convinced themselves that food-miles, or the distance food had to travel from the farm to the table, is somehow relevant to the environment.   Food-miles is one of the best examples of the very common environmental practice of looking at a single factor out of context of the entire system. I have written about the food-miles stupidity before.

We actually have a name for the system in which food-miles are reduced to their theoretical minimum:  Subsistence farming.  It used to be that most food was grown just a few feet from the table where it was eventually eaten because nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer (or hunter or gatherer).  We abandoned this system, and thereby increased food miles, for a number of reasons:

  • It is very inefficient, not just from labor inputs but from a land use standpoint as well.  Some places are well suited to potato or rice production and others are less so.  It makes a ton of sense to grow things on soils and in climates where they are well-suited rather than locally everywhere. 
  • It doesn't work very well in a lot of areas.  Subsistence farming here in Arizona is not very practical, and would use a ton of water
  • It leads to starvation.  Even rich countries like France were experiencing periodic famines just 150 years ago or so.

But the main reason food miles and local subsistance farming is stupid is that it has nothing to do with environmental health.  Everyone looks at the energy to transport food, but no one looks at the extra energy cost (not to mention the land use cost) of growing food locally in climates and soils to which the food is not well-suited.  To this point:

European consumers shunning imported food supposedly to limit climate
change should not make African farmers a scapegoat, a Brussels
conference has been told.

In Britain, several supermarkets have
begun labelling products flown into the country with stickers marked
"air-freighted," to reflect concern about the contribution of aviation
to global warming.

But Benito Müller, a director at the Oxford
Institute for Energy Studies, dismissed the concept of food miles as
"an extremely oversimplified indicator" of ecological impact.

Saying
he was "really angry" with the implicit message that agricultural
produce from Africa should be avoided, Müller claimed that less
greenhouse gas emissions are often emitted from the cultivation and
transport of such goods than they would be if grown in Europe.

Strawberries
imported from Kenya during the winter, he maintained, have a lower
"carbon footprint," a measure to ascertain the effect of a method of
production on the environment "” than those grown in a heated British
greenhouse, even when their transport by air from Africa is taken into
account.

Food Miles Stupidity

Via the New York Times:

THE term "food miles" "” how far food has traveled before you buy it "” has entered the enlightened lexicon.

Which should tell you all you need to know about the "enlightened."

There are many good reasons for eating local "” freshness, purity,
taste, community cohesion and preserving open space "” but none of these
benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces
fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling,
biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

Actually, most recycling, with the exception of aluminum which takes tons of electricity to manufacture in the first place, does nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.  And I must say that I often enjoy buying from farmers markets and such.  But does "food miles" mean anything?  And should we really care?  Well, here is an early hint:  The ultimate reduction in food miles, the big winner on this enlightened metric, is subsistence farming.  Anyone ready to go there yet?  These are the economics Ghandi promoted in India, and it set that country back generations.

Well, lets go back to economics 101.  The reason we do not all grow our own food, make our own clothes, etc. is because the global division of labor allows food and clothing and everything else to be produced more efficiently by people who specialize and invest in those activities than by all of us alone in our homes.  So instead of each of us growing our own corn, in whatever quality soil we happen to have around our house, some guy in Iowa grows it for thousands of us, and because he specialized and grows a lot, he invests in equipment and knowledge to do it better every year.  The cost of fuel to move the corn or corn products to Phoenix from Iowa are trivial compared to the difference in efficiency that guy in Iowa has over me trying to grow corn in my back yard.  Back to the New York Times:

On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

Sure, if you look at complex systems as single-variable linear equations.  Those of us who don't immediately treated the food mile concept as suspect.  It turns out, for good reason:

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of
measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the
Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other
energy-consuming aspects of production "” what economists call "factor
inputs and externalities" "” like water use, harvesting techniques,
fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of
transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon
dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage
procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating
these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on
New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat
to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton
while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in
part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In
other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to
buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from
a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy
products and fruit.

All I can say is just how frightening it is that the paper of record could find this result "surprising."  The price mechanism does a pretty good job of sorting this stuff out.  If fuel prices rise a lot, then agriculture might move more local, but probably not by much.  The economies to scale and location just dwarf the price of fuel. 

By the way, one reason this food-mile thing is not going away, no matter how stupid it is, has to do with the history of the global warming movement.  Remember all those anti-globalization folks who rampaged in Seattle?  Where did they all go?  Well, they did not get sensible all of a sudden.  They joined the environmental movement.  One reason a core group of folks in the catastrophic man-made global warming camp react so poorly to any criticism of the science is that they need and want it to be true that man is causing catastrophic warming -- anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists jumped into the global warming environmental movement, seeing in it a vehicle to achieve their aims of rolling back economic growth, global trade, and capitalism in general.  Food miles appeals to their disdain for world trade, and global warming and carbon footprints are just a convenient excuse for trying to sell the concept to other people.

A little while back, I posted a similar finding in regards to packaging, that is worth repeating here for comparison.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish
produced. The average household in the United States generates one
third
less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico,
partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a
live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are
processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products
(such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing
of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also
recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

More victories for the worldwide division of labor.  So has the NY Times seen the light and accepted the benefits of capitalism?  Of course not.  With the New Zealand example in hand, the writer ... suggests we need more state action to compel similar situations.

Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing
over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical
advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation
services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn't we create
development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can
provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the
nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to
conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and
distribution, with the hubs in a food system's naturally fertile hot
spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting
them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Does anyone even know what this crap means?  You gotta love technocratic statists -- they just never give up.  Every one of them thinks they are smarter than the the sum of billions of individual minds working together of their own free will to create our current world production patterns.

Postscript: There is one thing the government could do tomorrow to promote even more worldwide agricultural efficiency:  Drop subsidies and protections on agriculture.   You would immediately get more of this kind of activity, for example with Latin America and the Caribbean supplying more/all of the US's sugar and other parts of Asia providing more/all of Japan's rice.