Topic: Energy and Environment

Ecochondria Retards Progress in Reducing Hunger

Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin outline in Sunday’s New York Times the extent to which the world’s aid agencies starved the budgets of international agricultural research institutions that worked on increasing agricultural productivity in the developing world:

Donors increasingly directed the money toward worthwhile but ancillary projects like environmental research. Spending fell on the laborious plant-breeding programs needed to improve crop productivity…. As these trends played out, the stage was being set for a food emergency… From 1970 to 1990, the peak Green Revolution years, the food supply grew faster than the world population. But after 1990, food’s growth rate fell below population growth, according to a report by Ronald Trostle, a researcher at the Agriculture Department…

Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut … donations [to agriculture in poor countries from the governments of wealthy countries] roughly in half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion in that period… The World Bank cut its agricultural lending to $2 billion in 2004 from $7.7 billion in 1980.

John Tierney ties all this together in Greens and Hunger reminding us how environmental groups succeeded in demonizing (my word) the green revolution and prevailed upon Western “aid” agencies, multilateral agencies (such as the World Bank) and philanthropies, specifically the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, to reduce funding to improve crop productivity in Africa.

Looking at other explanations for today’s high food prices, the Washington Post’s Colum Lynch – a perfect name for a muckraking journalist – notes in a report titled, World Aid Agencies Faulted in Food Crisis: Failure to Support Agriculture Cited:

European governments, meanwhile, have clung to an import ban on high-yielding, genetically modified crops – thus dissuading African nations from using a technology that could increase production. “The two biggest follies are biofuels in America and the ban on genetically modified crops in Europe,” said Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University.

Notably, all three explanations have a common denominator, namely, “well fed Westerners,” to use Tierney’s phrase, putting the environment ahead of humans in developing countries.

Without their ecochondria, the green revolution would be seen for what it is – a major advance in human well being, the lobby for subsidizing ethanol would be much less powerful, and misanthropic bans on genetically modified crops would not be respectable in a world that claims to cherish both human lives and minimization of human suffering.

Retirement and Fuel Prices: A Match Made In Heaven?

Get ready for Washington D.C.’s Mall to be filled with seniors in the not-too-distant future.

About 25 percent of seniors depend entirely on Social Security for their consumption. And for two-thirds of them, Social Security makes up the majority of their monthly income. With soaring fuel and food prices, they are beginning to complain about being unable to make ends meet — as in, having to cut down on leisure and travel activities.

The rise in gas, food, and commodity prices is unlikely to be a bubble and won’t ”burst” anytime soon. Furthermore, the Fed’s recent interest rate–cutting binge has promoted a weaker dollar and risks higher future inflation and inflation expectations. That means our itinerant seniors will soon demand a larger inflation adjustment on their monthly checks than allowed by Social Security’s post-retirement benefit formula.

No prizes for guessing whether Congress will capitulate!

The Gas Tax Holiday Explained

The commentariat (including Cato folks and friends) have spent the past couple of weeks sounding off on John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s proposals to suspend the federal motor fuels tax this summer. The commentary has been almost uniformly critical of the idea, and some of the harshest critics have been economists.

Unfortunately, a lot of this commentary seems to be value judgments disguised as economics. Also, much of the economic analysis makes assumptions about the market that may not be correct or that may be offset by other market conditions — but the commentators do not mention (and may even forget) those problems. Put simply, though the idea of a gas tax holiday may be flawed, many of the opinion and analysis pieces on the McCain and Clinton proposals appear to be flawed as well.

Peter Van Doren and I have put together this short paper on the microeconomics of the gas tax. Don’t let the figures and the talk of “elasticities” throw you — the ideas are easy to understand.

The upshot is this: Contrary to many economists’ claims, it’s quite possible that a tax holiday could give consumers some price relief on motor fuels. (This is an economic insight.) However, it’s an open question whether that savings is worth its cost. (Answering that question requires a value judgment.)

Rethinking Ethanol: A Lesson Only Half Learnt by the NY Times

Sunday’s NY Times acknowledges that:

It is time to end an outdated tax break for corn ethanol and to call a timeout in the fivefold increase in ethanol production mandated in the 2007 energy bill.

But then it goes on to state:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an important part of the effort to reduce the country’s dependency on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for the world’s food supply and will deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gases…

Congress’s guiding principle should be to tie federal help to environmental performance. The goal is not just to stop the headlong rush to corn ethanol but to use the system to bring to commercial scale promising second-generation biofuels — cellulosic ethanol derived from crop wastes, wood wastes, perennial grasses. These could provide environmental benefits and reduce dependence on oil without displacing food production.

But as noted on this blog previously, this is wishful thinking. Tilting the field to help cellulosic ethanol, whether directly through subsidies or indirectly through mandates, will inevitably make it more attractive for farmers to divert land and water to grow fuel rather than food. As a result some portion – perhaps even a large portion – of the resources that would otherwise be used for food production would go toward fuel production.

It is, therefore, naïve to claim that fuel production will not compete with food production. But the NY Times seems naïve about mandates, apparently assuming that mandates don’t entail costs, especially if they are in pursuit of goals it deems laudable.

One can get an inkling of the potentially disastrous effects of tilting the field toward biofuels (such as ethanol) from the Burmese experience regarding jatropha, a bush that can provide feedstock for biodiesel. The Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway reported last week that:

United Nations World Food Program officials say the storm wiped out much of Myanmar’s midyear rice harvest and add that grain stockpiles are dwindling because of the military’s jatropha drive. That makes it likely Myanmar’s plans to export rice this year to other needy nations such as Bangladesh will be scrapped…

The most notorious example of errant policy making reflects the fascination of 75-year-old junta leader Senior-Gen. Than Shwe with biodiesel as a way to break the country’s dependence on expensive imported oil.

In December 2005, the battle-hardened commander kicked off a nationwide campaign to grow jatropha, a squat, hardy bush that yields golf-ball-sized fruit containing a sticky, yellow liquid that can be made into fuel. His drive was similar to initiatives in other parts of the world, including the U.S., which encouraged farmers to grow corn, palm oil or other crops for biofuel and which are now facing criticism for driving up the price of food. [Emphasis added]

India, China and other countries grow jatropha on scrubby land where food crops can’t survive. But researchers say that in Myanmar, some of the country’s most fertile land has been converted to cultivating the shrub…

It isn’t clear how much of Myanmar’s arable land has been converted to jatropha cultivation. Organizations such as the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned the government about the risks of farming jatropha on land that could be used to grow food. But Gen. Than Shwe’s goal was to set aside an area the size of Belgium to grow jatropha – a huge commitment for Myanmar, which is roughly the size of France.

In 2006, the chief research officer at state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise said Myanmar hoped to completely replace the country’s oil imports of 40,000 barrels a day with home-brewed, jatropha-derived biofuel. Other government officials declared Myanmar would soon start exporting jatropha oil.

Despite the military’s efforts, the jatropha campaign apparently has largely flopped in its goal of making Myanmar self-sufficient in fuel.

While this is an extreme example of poorly conceived policy, it should be kept in mind that the Burmese regime was pursuing what many consider to be a laudable goal – energy independence (with – who knows – possibly the hope of obtaining carbon credits). And what a totalitarian regime can effect with fiat (and sticks), other governments can accomplish with a combination of seemingly more benign policies, specifically subsidies and mandates (i.e., carrots and sticks), in pursuit of the same laudable goals.

The lesson from all this, which the NY Times doesn’t quite get (reiterating from the earlier post) isn’t that biomass – and farmers — shouldn’t play a role in helping meet our energy needs, but that “If farmers can profitably grow fuel rather than food through their own efforts, so be it. But we shouldn’t favor growing one over the other either through subsidies or indirectly through government mandates for so-called renewable fuels. And if anything should be subsidized or mandated, it shouldn’t be growing fuels. That would inevitably compete with food.”

Global Warming and the Burmese Cyclone

In his excellent blog, Roger Pielke, Jr., notes that “On NPR’s Fresh Air earlier this week, Al Gore suggests that Typhoon Nargis, which may have killed 100,000 people in Myanmar, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, or does he? He said ‘we’re seeing consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continued global warming.’”

So I checked the sea surface temperature (SST) “anomalies” (that is, differences in temperature from the long-term average) along the track of Cyclone Nargis to see if SST might have been unusually warm from April 28th to May 3rd (when it hit Burma) of this year compared to last year. Comparing the SST anomalies from NOAA for April 28, May 1, and May 5 of 2008 against April 28, May 1, May 3, and May 7 of 2007, SSTs along the track of Cyclone Nargis don’t look that much different from last year. And for April 30, May 3, and May 7 of 2005, the Bay of Bengal seems to have been noticeably warmer.

Granted, this is based on a cursory eye-ball view of the maps using a non-continuous data set. I await more detailed analysis with bated breath.

I Have a Dream …

… that one day, corporate executives will tire of being bullied by demagogic politicians. I was reminded of that dream by a press release issued yesterday by Sen. Pete Domenici, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and long-time Republican major-domo on energy policy. Sen. Domenici asked the heads of the five largest oil and gas companies in America (BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell America) to promptly send reports to his office “explaining” their individual corporate investment strategies with particular attention to their work in the “clean energy” sector.

In my dream, Senator Domenici would get a reply like this:

Dear Sen. Domenici:

We appreciate your interest in our corporate operations, but we are too busy at the moment to expedite your request as outlined in your letter dated April 30. You write in that letter that you are interested in a compilation of all previously released, publicly available data on this matter. Accordingly, we suggest that you put some staffers on the job and compile those reports for yourself. To help you on your way, you will find enclosed our 2007 Annual Report.

That having been said, Senator, we answer to our stockholders, not to you. Our investment strategy is our business, not yours. While we are happy to discuss our perspective on the energy market and the merits of existing and proposed public policy, we are not interested in encouraging the idea that our investment strategy is a legitimate matter of interest to the United States Senate.

Cordially,
Big Oil CEO

Alas, it is only a dream.

Wishful Thinking on Cellulosic Ethanol

Supporters of ethanol, stung by the backlash over its unintended but foreseeable consequences (see, e.g., here and here), namely, increasing hunger due to a run-up in global food prices and increased threats to biodiversity, now tell us that cellulosic ethanol will come to the rescue. The theory is that cellulosic ethanol, which is still in the research and development phase, would be produced from non-edible plant material, e.g., switchgrasses, crop residue and other biomass that is not currently grown or used as edible crops. Thus, it is implied, it would have no effect on food prices.

But this is wishful thinking.

If cellulosic ethanol is indeed proven to be viable (with or without subsidies), what do people think farmers will do?

Farmers will do what they’ve always done: they’ll produce the necessary biomass that would be converted to ethanol more efficiently. In fact, they’ll start cultivating the cellulose as a crop (or crops). They have had 10,000 years of practice perfecting their techniques. They’ll use their usual bag of tricks to enhance the yields of the biomass in question: they’ll divert land and water to grow these brand new crops. They’ll fertilize with nitrogen and use pesticides. The Monsantos of the world – or their competitors, the start-ups – will develop new and genetically modified but improved seeds that will increase the farmer’s productivity and profits. And if cellulosic ethanol proves to be as profitable as its backers hope, farmers will divert even more land and water to producing the cellulose instead of food. All this means we’ll be more or less back to where we were. Food will once again be competing with fuel. And land and water will be diverted from the rest of nature to meet the human demand for fuel.

Does this mean that biomass – and farmers – should play no role in helping us meet our energy needs? Not necessarily. If farmers can profitably grow fuel rather than food through their own efforts, so be it. But we shouldn’t favor growing one over the other either through subsidies or indirectly through government mandates for so-called renewable fuels. And if anything should be subsidized or mandated, it shouldn’t be growing fuels. That would inevitably compete with food.