Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shake-up at Exxon?

Exxon Mobil recently recorded the highest quarterly profit ever made by a US company, so you would think the shareholders would be pleased. Not the Rockefeller family apparently. Reuter’s reports that the family wants to appoint an independent chairman and is holding a press conference tomorrow. Family members have previously been critical of the company’s stance on climate change, which until relatively recently was outright denial, so it will be interesting to see what they propose tomorrow. For the Reuter's story see http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUSN2850626520080428.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Future of the suburbs.

A couple of months ago, on February 16th, I suggested moving to the city as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint and cost of living. Clearly, we cannot all do that at once, but I suggested that it might be prudent to move sooner rather than later for purely economic reasons. Now it seems it might be too late. NPR and others reported recently that house prices in the suburbs have decreased considerably more than in city centers, where prices are actually still rising in some places. (See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89803663 for this report and links to earlier related reports.)

It is interesting to me that this is all happening without any government action on climate change, just because of the price of gasoline. (Indeed, the cost of the externality of greenhouse gas emissions, and hence of any likely carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, is only a few cents per gallon, paling into insignificance compared to recent increases in gasoline prices.) With Saudi cancelling plans to expand its output, and Russia and Nigeria both announcing that their supply has peaked (at least in the short run) there seems every likelihood that the price of oil will continue to climb. Meanwhile, a recent study by Rice University indicated that gasoline prices are at a low point in comparison with crude oil prices, so I think we have seen the end of cheap gasoline until such time as we don’t need it any more.

I suspect that prices in the suburbs may never recover (in real terms) from their recent falls. An article in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/subprime/3) even suggests that today’s suburbs may become the slums of 2025, though that seems unlikely to me. If people are moving into the city because suburban life is unsustainable (read “too expensive”) it is hard to imagine that the poor will be able to afford the cost of heating/cooling large family houses or of commuting. I suppose single family houses might get divided into apartments and convenience stores, and maybe occupied by those who don’t need to commute because they don’t have jobs. I think it is more likely that they will continue to be occupied by the relatively well-off, but that the price of houses will decline further and further to compensate their occupants for the high costs of maintaining that life style. Or maybe we will all have hydrogen cars using hydrogen from clean sources, and the suburbs will come back.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Difficult Few Years Ahead for AGW?

I was not going to do much climate change science on this blog, but it has not been lost on me that my recent posting about a climate skeptic provoked more controversy than any other posting. So, I decided to delve a little more into some of the skeptics’ claims. I am not talking about the more mainstream skeptics who accept the science but believe there are better ways to spend our limited resources than on combating climate change, which is a defensible position. Rather I am talking about those who dispute that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a reality.

The typical claim here is that global warming stopped in 1998, and more recently that January 2008 was actually colder than January 2007. I decided to try to get to the truth behind the truthiness. I think the first thing to point out is that while it is accepted by almost all scientists that greenhouse gases tend to increase the mean temperature of the earth, nobody has suggested that this is the only factor affecting the earth’s temperature. One well-known additional factor is the presence of CFCs and SO2 in the atmosphere, both of which tend to reflect some of the incoming radiation and make the earth cooler, and this tended to counter the effects of greenhouse gases until regulation reduced emissions of these gases in the 1990’s. (Indeed it has been suggested that we may need to create a similar effect deliberately if we fail to act soon enough on greenhouse gases.)

Two other factors are sun spots, and the “Southern Oscillation” between El Nino and La Nina ocean currents and winds. The latter may not seem relevant to the mean temperature of the earth, but it is; as well as I can understand it, La Nina forces more of the heat into the lower depths of the ocean and thus makes the surface temperature (which is what we measure) cooler than it would otherwise be.

The effect of sun spots is also somewhat unintuitive; since they are dark, one might expect then to reduce the irradiance of the sun, but in fact they do the opposite: more sun spots means more radiation from the sun. Sun spot activity is roughly cyclic, increasing for about 4 years and then declining for about 7, though it is not entirely predictable. Since about 2001 we have been in the declining phase of “cycle 23” and we are now just about at the bottom of the cycle. There has been some concern that the start of cycle 24 might be delayed. (But see http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2007/14dec_excitement.htm for the possible first evidence of cycle 24.)

Even if cycle 24 starts on schedule, there will be a couple of years of lower temperatures (than might otherwise pertain) because the earth’s temperature lags the sunspot activity by about 2 years. In addition, we are at the beginning of a La Nina period, which also tends to cool the earth’s surface. What we have is an upward trend due to greenhouse gases superimposed on two somewhat regular cycles both of which are approaching their low points, plus of course quite a bit of noise. The net result is that we probably will not see exceptional temperatures in the next year or so; the skeptics will have a field day and the faithful will be tested. (A good summary of where we are can be found at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/2007.) We can be fairly sure however that by 2012 at the latest we will see new records broken. We must all hope that we don’t have to wait that long for more aggressive action.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earth Day Surprise from EPA.

Second blog of the day, but it is my car day and this is a car story. The EPA surprised everyone (well, at least me) yesterday by moving to increase fuel efficiency faster than mandated by Congress. Standards will be increased 4.5% a year for the 5 years 2011 to 2015 inclusive, compounding to a 25% increase to 31.5 mpg by 2015. In doing their cost-benefit analysis they also, for the firat time I think, put a price on carbon dioxide emissions -- $7 per ton, which translates to about 2 cents a gallon.

The current law requires an increase to 35 mpg by 2020, but my bet would be that this gets increased over the intervening period; just continuing the 4.5% per annum compound rate would get us to about 40 mpg by 2020. How exactly they will handle plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, let alone hydrogen vehicles, I do not know.

Cars and Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, I was pleased to see that Autoweek, a weekly car magazine aimed at enthusiasts, devoted most of this week’s edition to green cars. Here are a few highlights.

They point out that the 2008 Honda Fit is a lot less economical than the 1992 Civic, 31 mpg versus 43 mpg, and even the Civic Hybrid at 42 mpg doesn’t quite match the old Civic’s EPA numbers. (These are all EPA combined numbers, using the new-for-2008 test.) Part of the reason is the 17% weight gain in the new car, in turn due to safety features like air bags and improved crash standards. (The 1992 Civic had only one airbag, and prior to 1998 there was no side impact crash test.) Safety is of course a good thing, but it just shows what we are up against when 16 years of “progress” results in a 25% decrease in mpg. (The most economical car back in the nineties was the Geo Metro at 46 mpg using the new test, better than the new Prius. The magazine suggests that the nearest thing today is the Smart ForTwo, rated at only 36 mpg and as it’s name suggests only a two-seater.)

There are also articles on: the ZENN urban electric vehicle (federally mandated maximum speed 25 mph); the Mitsubishi i MiEV 470 kw car, which looks a bit like a Smart car but has four seats; the Chevy Volt; plug-in hybrids; relatively green SUVs (the Ford Escape hybrid achieved 28 mpg, while the Mercedes ML320 CDI achieved 27 mpg on diesel.); and the Audi R8 diesel supercar. Regrettably only the SUVs are available right now.

Perhaps the most interesting article was about new rules for ALMS (American Le Mans Series) sports car racing which will allow hybrids and cellulosic ethanol. They already allow diesels, which have been very successful at Le Mans itself. ALMS also plans a special Green Racing Challenge award, criteria for which are still being worked out with the EPA. Some tree-huggers may scoff at this but think of it this way: the amount of fuel used in the race is small compared to the fuel used by fans to get to the event, so in that respect it is no different from any other sport, and it just might help diesels and hybrids gain greater acceptance.

There’s more on http://www.autoweek.com.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Double Pane Windows

As I write this the builders are finishing up the installation of our new double-pane windows. After much research I went with PowerPane3 from Home Craftsman. These windows are slightly less efficient than the same company’s SuperPowerPane product at filtering radiated heat (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of .2 instead of .18) but transmit more visible light (45% compared to 28%; they are virtually indistinguishable from regular glass) and are slightly more efficient at insulation (U-value of .31 against .32). I will be monitoring the energy bills carefully and will report back.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Surely you’re joking, Mr. Bush.

George Bush presented his climate change plan in a speech yesterday, on the eve of international climate talks in Paris, and it is hard to believe they are meant seriously. He proposes to allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise until 2025, yet he vows to support an international agreement to succeed Kyoto and the administration also said that he had not ruled out endorsing a cap-and-trade scheme. I suppose we should be grateful that at least he accepts that there is a problem, though in reality it does not matter much what he believes any more. Any of the three candidates to replace him will likely take a much more robust stance, though McCain’s recent proposal to temporarily eliminate gasoline tax makes one wonder.

This on the same day that Lord Stern told the Financial Times that he believed he had underestimated climate change risks in last year’s report. (See http://us.ft.com/ftgateway/superpage.ft?news_id=fto041620081713149198 ) Some skeptics call this report alarmist, but in reality it is a rather low-key document. See http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm to download the whole Stern Review or for a choice of two levels of executive summary.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fisker Karma

Yesterday's post was unexpectedly controversial, so today being car day we get some light relief in the form of another plug-in hybrid which impinged on my consciousness yesterday.

A company called Fisker Coachbuild claims its 4-seat sports sedan, the Fisker Karma, due out in 2010, will do 50 miles on battery power, after which a “small” gasoline engine will charge the battery. They make a lot of rather doubtful claims about the car, and it is difficult to see how they would have the wherewithal to develop such a car so quickly. The powertrain is being developed by a company called Quantum Technologies, an unprofitable but growing public company (Stock symbol QTWW) with 2006 revenues of under $200 million.

There is no indication where the chassis technology will come from. Fisker also claim that they will “initially” produce 15,000 a year at $80,000 a pop, which would suggest revenues of $1.2 billion. Compare Toyota at $200 billion to see how unlikely this scenario is.

But it gets worse; the reason I became aware of Fisker is because it is being sued by Tesla for stealing trade secrets. It is actually quite a good story; see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/15/technology/15tesla.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=tesla+fisker&st=nyt&oref=slogin.

By the way, Click and Clack of Car Talk fame will be driving the Tesla and other green vehicles in an upcoming Nova program, which I think will be aired next Tuesday on most public television stations.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Krysten Byrnes

I had thought that GW would be the last skeptic standing (see previous post), but they seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately. I reported yesterday about Nigel Lawson’s new book. This morning, NPR did a long piece (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89619306) about 16-year-old Kristen Byrnes taking on Climate Scientists with her web site home.earthlink.net/~ponderthemaunder. It seems in part to be a way for her to collect donations to her college fund; let’s hope that succeeds because she might learn something. Right now her scientific credentials seem minimal. For example, she said on the show that CO2 does not reflect heat back to earth, which is quite correct but irrelevant; the mechanism of global warming, known since 1850 by the way, is that CO2 absorbs certain frequencies from the earth’s radiation and then radiates energy in all directions.

White House Reversal?

Associated Press reported late yesterday that the White House has reversed its opposition to a cap-and-trade scheme for greenhouse gases, though it stopped short of support for the Lieberman-Warner bill aimed at reducing emissions by 70% by 2050. See ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5jJbf8oA_G6zwKdTKlJJNq_G_g8RQD901SPS81 for the full AP story.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Keith Hennessey, domestic policy adviser, presented the new White House view in a meeting with conservative House republicans at a meeting first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. (washingtontimes.com/article/20080414/NATION/676175489/1001)
Apparently the congressmen were not persuaded.

Whether this is a real change of heart remains to be seen. It could be just a reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases, or the pressure on the administration to declare polar bears an endangered species which would also require the government to control emissions. Or it could be another attempt by GW to find a positive legacy. Solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is after all a long shot. And since he knows something will be done under the next president why not take the credit?

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Appeal to Reason

This is the name of a new book by Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. I have yet to read it, but from the reviews suspect it contains similar material to the lecture he gave to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2006. (I suggest a free download of this lecture from http://www.cps.org.uk/cpsfile.asp?id=641 rather than spending £10 on the book.)

Billed by the Financial Times’ reviewer as “the climate heretic’s handbook,” it is (if the lecture is anything to go by) actually a lot less controversial than that. He cedes pretty much all the science, and has no exception to a reasonable carbon tax, but claims the best solution is to adapt. Adaptation is of course a major part of any strategy, since we know that there is not much we can do about climate change over the next two decades or so. Nicholas Stern’s review, which Lawson dismisses as “alarmist,” says that “adaptation policy is crucial.”

Perhaps more alarming are some of the reviews. That in the Sunday Times of London (http://www.cps.org.uk/cpsfile.asp?id=641) bemoans the fact that he concedes the science.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Al Gore launched his $300 million advertising campaign yesterday with full page ads in major newspapers. The purpose is to raise awareness of climate change and to encourage people to sign up to indicate their concern. Go to http://www.wecansolveit.org/ to sign up.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Diesel vs. Hybrid

In several posts I have advocated diesel as a better alternative to hybrid cars. At the risk of being accused of posting another BMW advertisement, here is news which tends to vindicate my position. The Sunday Times of London did a test comparing a Prius with a BMW 520d. The 520d has the regenerative braking system described last Wednesday in relation to the 118d, but is a substantially larger car.

The test comprised a 460-mile drive from London to Geneva, combined with 100 miles of city driving. The BMW won by 41.9 miles per (US) gallon, compared to the Prius at 40.1 mpg. By American standards, this test may seem biased towards long-distance freeway motoring, which would favor the diesel. (In Europe, cars are used less around town because there is good public transport but are more often used as an alternative to short-haul flights.) It should also be noted that a gallon of diesel both costs more and produces slightly more greenhouse gases per gallon burnt. Even so, this is an impressive result. The 5-series is after all the second-largest car in the BMW range, and 500 pounds heavier than the Prius. The BMW driver also reportedly used the radio and A/C while cruising at 75, whereas the Prius driver eschewed these luxuries to save energy. The 118d would surely have been quite a lot more economical.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kyoto Replacement

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and yesterday representatives of 160 countries met in Bangkok to continue discussions, started in Bali last November, about its replacement. At the Bali meeting, the US delegation found itself at odds with most other countries and ended up on the defensive. As the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, spectacularly so on a per capita basis, it is hard to see much progress being made without the US being on board, so I don't expect much to happen. More likely the can will be kicked down the road until a new president is inaugurated next January.