Two picks on climate change from Environmental Science and Technology

Role of Motor Vehicle Lifetime Extension in Climate Change Policy
Shigemi Kagawa, Keisuke Nansai, Yasushi Kondo, Klaus Hubacek, Sangwon Suh, Jan Minx, Yuki Kudoh, Tomohiro Tasaki, Shinichiro NakamuraEnvironmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (4), 1184-1191

From the abstract:
Vehicle replacement schemes such as the “cash for clunkers” program in the U.S. and the “scrappage scheme” in the UK have featured prominently in the economic stimulation packages initiated by many governments to cope with the global economic crisis. While these schemes were designed as economic instruments to support the vehicle production industry, governments have also claimed that these programs have environmental benefits such as reducing CO2 emissions by bringing more fuel-efficient vehicles onto the roads. However, little evidence is available to support this claim as current energy and environmental accounting models are inadequate for comprehensively capturing the economic and environmental trade-offs associated with changes in product life and product use. We therefore developed a new dynamic model to quantify the carbon emissions due to changes in product life and consumer behavior related to product use. Based on a case study of Japanese vehicle use during the 1990−2000 period, we found that extending, not shortening, the lifetime of a vehicle helps to reduce life-cycle CO2 emissions throughout the supply chain. Empirical results also revealed that even if the fuel economy of less fuel-efficient ordinary passenger vehicles were improved to levels comparable with those of the best available technology, i.e. hybrid passenger cars currently being produced in Japan, total CO2 emissions would decrease by only 0.2%. On the other hand, we also find that extending the lifetime of a vehicle contributed to a moderate increase in emissions of health-relevant air pollutants (NOx, HC, and CO) during the use phase. From the results, this study concludes that the effects of global warming and air pollution can be somewhat moderated and that these problems can be addressed through specific policy instruments directed at increasing the market for hybrid cars as well as extending lifetime of automobiles, which is contrary to the current wisdom.

Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States Christopher L. Weber, H. Scott Matthews Environmental Science & Technology 2008 42 (10), 3508-351

Despite significant recent public concern and media attention to the environmental impacts of food, few studies in the United States have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

Bond ratings as a political hostage, with Biblical analogies people seem to like so much

If I hear one more person refer to US default as another Y2K, I am going to hit them on the earhole. Where are people getting this? FoxNews?

Defaults and downgraded bond ratings have happened before, and it costs people real money.

US bonds, right now, are in good shape and have been for a really long time. Our currency is solid, even though it does fluctuate. Those two things have economic benefits, big benefits, for the US.

No, with a debt default or bond rating downgrade, the sun will not crash into the earth, rivers will not fill up with blood, and our crops will not get devoured by locusts.

Although we do not have experience with the US missing a payment and getting a bond rating downgrade, we do have experience with it in other, arguably analogous places. Like Canada, or California, for that matter. They weren’t swallowed by whales as a result.

But I pay more points on a mortgage than I would if I lived in a state with a better bond rating than California. Why? Because part of the risk of loaning me money for an asset concerns the jurisdictions in which I live. Some of the risk is me, some of the risk is my context. So yeah, there are financial consequences–a lot of them–of letting your governments go to pot, even if you don’t get covered in boils.

With this all this posturing, the US is sending a message, and that is: we’re willing to let our bond rating be a political hostage. That means people in power here are either a) completely incapable of understanding fiscal policy and b) utterly careless about the consequences for international banking that US political instability–because that’s what this is—is having on Europe’s structural debt problems. IOW, the US is sending a loud signal to the rest of the world that our political squabbles can’t be managed well enough to provide stability even when we are perfectly capable of paying our bills, and we are willing to do that when other leading economic zones are in a real crisis.

None of this rannygazoo is good fiscal policy over the long-term. It adds more fuel to the fire for those who have argued against the US dollar meriting status as a reserve currency.

The last thing you want, if you are worried about the size of your outstanding debt, is for people to raise the interest on the debt you already have.

Not deriving a long-term plan for the deficit is bad for long-term bond ratings, too, just as missing a debt payment would be now. It’s one of the complexities of the situation. Failing to get serious about the long-term burdens of entitlement programs is a major, long-term issue–but so is failure to meet existing obligations.

If the Republicans don’t play their cards right, IOW, they could force a bunch of painful cuts, and the value of those cuts in deficit reduction could be completely offset (or eclipsed) by the higher costs of borrowing because the cost of borrowing goes up.

Banks and money market funds are already sitting on cash. That means trade isn’t happening. That means this hairpulling has already cost us money and economic activity and growth.

So how about we stop using bond ratings as a political hostage? I would sleep better.

What if Biking Being a Fun Thing *is* the Important Thing?

So how dare I suggest that it might be more important to be a fun thing than an Important Thing?

Let’s look at the other example I give: Locavore food practices are entirely discredited in one regard–they do diddly to reduce transportation-related emissions. They may even add emissions during their product lifeline.

Nonetheless, locavores are still out, doing what they are doing, and with very little opposition. And that may be a good thing. Why? Because local food tastes good. There is a market for it. Having access to it is an amenity–that’s why it’s associated with well-to-do people. Well-to-do people: if we have a particular talent, it’s that we know how to get nice stuff for ourselves.

As a by-product of that, there are perhaps some subsidiary social benefits: people may eat some more veggies, and the food supply in places with few other options can get more and better food. There is a competitor to Big Food Corps. But all those social benefits come first and foremost because the thing–the center idea being sold–has inherent, lasting utility to the people practicing it–including those who aren’t sold on the Grand Social Vision.

So for bicyclists, what does that mean? It means that as soon as you start arguing we should invest in biking because of the Big, Important Social Claims–fighting obesity, battling climate change, the whole ball of wax—that means people are going to start questioning you and challenging you based on the Big Social Claims.

Then pointy-headed social sciences types like me will study it. Half the studies will say Big Important Social Claims are true, and the other half will show little effect. Or worse, like the locavore food studies, the results of the body of research will fail to provide evidence the Big Social Claims really work out.

But biking is still fun at the end of it all. It is indisputably fun. Bikers indisputably derive value from their biking. When was the last time you heard the argument go like this:

You: “Biking is great, I really enjoy my commute.”
Opponent: “No, you’re wrong, you don’t enjoy it.”

Never, that’s when. Your and others’ enjoyment is–after all of the noise–the core value that can not be discredited.

It may be the fault of the public policy field itself, this tendency to want to prove or disprove social good. Or it could be the political discourse we have that acts towards any and all public investment like a Puritan elder rebuking sin: if we want to invest in something, we have to act like Everybody Wins.

But what if it’s entirely legitimate to want your cities to have enjoyable things in them?


And if you think that Being a Fun Thing isn’t more important politically than Being an Important Thing, look at stadiums. There is nothing more settled in the policy research than stadiums. Cities always put more money in than they get out. Perhaps there are a few examples somewhere, but in general, stadiums cost taxpayers money. And yes, stadiums get built because powerful coalitions of elite actors want them. But democratic action matters; if taxpayers really hated stadiums, they’d hand those elites their fannies. There’s a reason why we’ve had decade after decade of stadiums and value pricing on freeways (despite being invented decades ago) is just peeking through the public policy clouds.

That reason: a large subset of taxpayers likes to go to football games and concerts, and large subset of taxpayers hates paying for roads.

Child abuse and neglect fatalities, Casey Anthony, and children’s crash fatalities

Out to lunch with my friend Astrid, a psychologist, the other day, and we got to wondering: why Casey Anthony? Why this case?

I get the hatred directed at her. But why the attention?

On average, three to four children die every day in the US from abuse and neglect at the hands of their caretakers. The statistics in the US are remarkably consistent: about 1,300 children die from abuse and neglect every year. That means over 10,000 every decade. For comparison, about 2,000 children under the age of 16 die in auto crashes or motor-vehicle related deaths each year.* You would think that there would be many, many more children dying in car accidents, wouldn’t you? In 2009, the latest data year, the numbers were about even: 1,343 child fatalities from abuse and neglect, and about 1,500 crash-related deaths (See NHSTA).

So while I get it: it’s important that we all get our chance to judge Casey Anthony and be outraged at the Bad Mother because there is nothing worse in the patriarchy than A Bad Mother.

Do these kinds of trials and hype blind people to the fact that these deaths aren’t really that unusual? Is it reassuring to people to believe that Casey Anthony is a monster?

Because I do have to wonder why the other 1,299 children who will die this year–and next year, and the year after that–at the hands of their parents are not front-page news or worthy of Nancy Grace’s ire. The numbers suggest that bad parents are not in any short supply.

*Many, many more are injured however.

Some features from the West Adams architecture tour

The Doheny Manshion in West Adams sits in the heart of the lovely campus of Mt. Mary College. It was the home of LA’s first (but not last) oil magnate. It has a turret! And that campus is magically pretty!

AMAT mansion, picture here, home of Roscoe Arbuckle, silent film star and after a terrible event at one of his wild parties, the first celebrity trial of the 20th century as an accused rapist and killer. Theda Bara also lived there.

The John Tracy clinic at my beloved USC, founded by actor Spencer Tracy and his wife, to help teach their son, who was deaf, to communicate. It still open today.

Voila Capture109

Obama’s new CAFE Standards as a tax break

Eagle-eyed reader Don C referred me to this nice Op-Ed from the Ready for an Obama Tax Break: TxDOT might not be by Ben Wear. The key point:

Hang on first for some math.

Let’s say a Pflugerville physics schoolteacher drives 15,000 miles a year and, by coincidence, has a car that averages right at that 28 mpg existing standard. She would need 536 gallons to do that.

She pays both a state gasoline tax of 20 cents a gallon (which hasn’t increased since 1991) and a federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon (locked in since 1993). So her annual tax hit (paid invisibly at the pump) is $107 to the state and almost $99 to the feds. So, about $206 a year.

With a 56 mpg car, her total tax would be $103. Oh, and at $3.40 a gallon (and subtracting the gas taxes), she would save another $800 by buying half as much gasoline.

But here’s the problem, from a statewide perspective. TxDOT, which gets about three-quarters of that state gas tax revenue and about the same percentage of what Texans pay in federal gas taxes (because a quarter of it, unfairly in the eyes of Texas officials, is then distributed to other states), would lose a couple of billion dollars a year. Ouch.

I had to look up Pflugerville.

Finance folks in transport have seen this train coming for some time. The GAO issued a report in 2009 discussing the issue of improved fleet fuel economy on Federal coffers. Most of us have argued we should go with a mileage fee, or usage subscriptions for autos. Both of which could be handled by leases to private companies.

An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

Dear Rupert-

You know that “personal responsibility” thing all your columnists are always blithering on about? How about you try it?

If you scrape in the billions and turn a blind eye as to how those billions are made, you are still responsible.

Oh, and I hate you for what you did to the Wall Street Journal. There used to be real stories about real infrastructure and real global economic issues. Now it features celebrities writing about bike rides.

Dr. Lisa

Some weblinks on Australia’s carbon tax move

While the US is busy dealing with its self-made debt hairpulling crisis and Carmageddon, Australia actually decided do something useful with its time: pass a carbon tax.

Now, forgive me, Australians, because even though I think of myself as an intelligent person, I can’t get myself to remember that Australia has one “i” in it. I’m an American, and so I consider myself well-educated and cosmopolitan because I a) know you exist at all and b) can find you on a map and c) know who your federal leaders are. I know the metric system too! Praise me.

Anyhoodily, here is a collection of things I’ve been reading about the carbon tax.

Jennifer Bennet in the Los Angeles Times


Peter Smith in the Financial Times


Richard Flanagan from the Gaurdian


Timothy Hurst for Reuters a pro op-ed


The Independent’s Op-Ed (con)

Remember when biking used to be a fun thing rather than An Important Thing?

I think one of the reasons why there is a resistance to otherwise nice things like local foods and bicycling concerns the often terminally joyless way their advocates present the Great Social Good that The Better People Who Do These Things create, unlike you, you indolent, planet-killing dolt.

Before it became about Changing the World and Proper Urbanism and Saving the Planet and Fighting Obesity and Duking it Out With Those Planet-Killing Killers in Cars, Yelling at Everybody to Make Bike Lanes and Treating Bicyclists With the Respect They Deserve, riding a bike outside was…fun.

There’s part of me that thinks the fun part of it is a lot more worthy of public investment than many of the Important Social Claims.

Here are some kids messing around on bikes, no bike lanes, no Proper Urbanism, no multi-million-dollar bike parking facilities with lockers. Just bikes, a makeshift ramp, and some kids with free time (on a low-volume suburban street, for you sensitive viewers who will be scarred at the sight of the hopeless desperation in which these children of the Provo suburbs live, in single-family houses, rather than on the lively, sun-loving, Proper Mixed Use Streets of Much Righteousness). They don’t appear to have sidewalks.

The song is one of my favorites about bicycling, from a band called All The Apparatus.

I like how the kid with glasses mans up at the end. Well done, kid.

Wish they were wearing helmets though.