Friday, August 1, 2008

CFL - Inferior version of US Football, or "Bright" Idea?

I wish understanding the environment were easier. Apparently, so does Stephen Colbert, who interviewed one of Slate's the "Green Lantern" writers, Brendan Koerner, and discussed Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFL).

Anyway, the main issue with CFLs is alleged to be mercury. It's true that CFLs use less energy, and compensate for their higher cost over their lifetime in savings on energy bills. The question was whether this cost was worth it given concerns over the fact that the bulb itself contains a small amount of mercury (less than 1/100 of the mercury in a mercury thermometer).

This report, outlines some of the mercury issues. Basically, on average much more mercury is emitted as vapor from the coal-burning electrical plants that supply extra energy needed for incandescent bulbs than the combined mercury in a CFL plus their emissions. The report, however reveals a small concern: some of the mercury from a CFL is sent to the place it goes after it is burnt out. If you have access to a place that can recycle the bulb, do that. If you don't, I worry about the nature of liquid mercury piling up in landfills if everyone switches over to CFBs. Vapor emissions are less of a big deal because they become a bit more diffuse in the atmosphere, although they eventually find their way into water sources. Liquid mercury doesn't become diffuse: That's why Bush's bright idea to auction mercury pollutants like we had begun to do with SO2 and other atmosphereic pollutions was quickly shot down.

I'm trying not to advocate a position on this. However, I would like a bit more careful thought and study to be done, preferably by someone who is not me.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Big Bang in the Small Town News

Several of my own comments were published this week in the Lexington News-Gazette. While the New York Times makes its online content available mostly for free, the Lexington paper requires online readers to pay for access. Some of my dear friends would probably think this is wholly appropriate based on their own perceptions of quality (see my post from earlier today on media bias). Here is a link to my full thoughts that I sent the author via email.

I have to say he did a great job of pulling together my thoughts and the thoughts of a colleague at W&L and (surprise!) two independently-interviewed economists mostly agreed on the basic issues. When I spoke to the journalist over the phone, I got tricked into saying something about the Bush Tax Cuts, which I commented on in the context of the need to more budgetary discipline - if you want to spend money to fight wars you've got to ask the public to make a sacrifice to pay for it.

Liberal Media Bias

Apparently it's true, according to Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo (2005, Quarterly Journal of Economics). I just came across the article on a random troll of the internet. Here's a quotation:
Our results show a strong liberal bias: all of the news outlets we examine, except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times, received scores to the left of the average member of Congress. Consistent with claims made by conservative critics, CBS Evening News and the New York Times received scores far to the left of center. The most centrist media outlets were PBS NewsHour, CNN’s Newsnight, and ABC’s Good Morning America; among print outlets, USA Today was closest to the center.
One thing I found puzzling about the study is that it ranked the WSJ almost as far to the LEFT as Ted Kennedy and farther to the left than the NY times (by a significant margin), based on the groups and studies they cite. I'm not sure I buy that part of it, but interesting read nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What about Paper?

Recycling paper uses less energy, in principle, but what about the net environmental impact? Tough call, says Slate. I've also heard some mumbo-jumbo about paper and how most paper comes from tree farms. Thus, even though a "farmed" tree does not live very long, the carbon-absorption that it contributes kind of tips the scale, although it does not mean we should just zip through paper with reckless abandon.

Does it pay to recycle? Reconsidered

Recent figures for New York peg the cost of Recycling a ton (US) of waste at $284, compared with $267 for dumping it. This may not completely account for the costs households incur due to mandated recycling, but let's suppose that if you count all the happy vibes people get from doing "good" against the time they spend rinsing cans, bottles, and glass, it's a wash.

A reader points out that glass recycling saves 315 kg per ton (US) of glass recycled compared with making the same ton of glass from scratch. The UN suggests a carbon tax of about $30 per tonne (metric), so the conversion is simple: The added environmental cost of the new glass is about $9.50 per tonne (metric). A metric tonne is about 1.10231 US tons, so divide $9.50 by that equals about an $8.60 per US ton tax on virgin glass. That means the margin for comparison for dumping vs. recycling is about $7.40. In other words, if it were $7.40 per ton cheaper to recycle or $7.40 more costly to dump, recyclying would not only be the warm fuzzy thing to do, it would be the profitable thing to do.

Interval estimates of the harm done by 1 tonne of CO2 is about $20-$50, so if we take the high end of the interval, we get an environmental cost of $15.75 per tonne, divided by 1.10231 is about $14.30 per US ton, and that makes the margin about $2.70 per ton of glass before unsubsidized recycling would be economically profitable (with a high-end carbon tax).

One problem of course is that households aren't benefitting for the effort they put in. You cannot force people to want to recycle. If they could benefit, say be receiving a rebate on their trash removal for the amounts they recycle that might incentivize the whole thing a little better. What irks me most though is the mandating the effort without more careful consideration of other costs. I bike to work, I take short showers, I try to conserve energy used to heat and cool my home, so I'm not trying to advocate for the senseless raping and pillaging of the earth. But, when people say stuff like "we could recycle almost everything we throw out" my first instinct is to think, "sure we could, but at what cost?"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Environmental Dogmatists

This is silly. You don't win the environmental crisis by saying "we gotta recycle everything" or making it a war of convictions. Those of us who don't share Andy Posner's convictions are left to deal with the tradeoffs of the real world and really do live the environmental crisis on the margin.

Oh, and by the way, things like recycling and environmental regulations aren't free lunches. Recycling glass for example, uses more energy than just manufacturing it, and is therefore less of an impact on the atmosphere and resource use. [CORRECTION: RECYCLING GLASS DOES USE MUCH LESS ENERGY AND IS A HELP TO THE ATMOSPHERE. THE TOTAL ECONOMIC COST (INCLUDING LABOR COSTS) IS STILL GREATER THAN PITCHING THE GLASS. I ALSO APOLOGIZE FOR NOT DOING BETTER CHECKING.] And environmental regulations and trying to impose sanctions on poor countries who don't yet see the environment as much of an immediate concern as, say, eating today is paternalistic and unethical. Maybe instead of preaching "the margin" I should make my point in more drastic and judgemental terms (like the lunatic fringe does):


Less (and less) bad is good because it is progress, and before long the inverted environmental "U-curve" will eventually begin to let environmental damage wane.

Can they Crap Petrol, Too?

Environmentalists want to ban plastic bags. Maybe there's a smarter way to solve the problem than a knee jerk response that inconveniences the entire population.

Flutter Power

On July 21, Depken was worried that wind won't work because of the size of turbines and the fact that they are sensitive to the direction of wind flow. Of course, it is well known how efficiently turbines can convert wind into usable energy, and we've nearly hit that known peak. How about this:

Flutter Power