Monday, November 23, 2009

Where are all the big greenhouse gas emitters?

© 2009 Joshua Stark

In California, we now know. Last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published the list of the biggest GHG (greenhouse gas) emitters in the state. This article from the San Jose' Mercury News does a good job talking to its importance. Unfortunately, it ends with a not-completely-true quotation:
"The low-hanging fruit is to increase your efficiencies," he said. "Any time you can get more use out of natural gas, that will result in reduced greenhouse gas."

The "he" from that quotation is Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. Although I understand what he is trying to say, it does not capture the whole truth, and I thought it important to remind folks that more use out of natural gas will result in reduced GHG emissions only if it replaces higher-emitting fuels.

Now, if you were to ask Mr. Hull if he was suggesting cutting our use of petroleum in order to make his statement true, I suspect (though I don't know) that he'd have a difficult time agreeing, seeing as he is the spokesman for a petroleum association.

It's also important to note (as the Mercury News does) that the fifth largest GHG emitter in the state is a natural gas power plant at Monterey Bay.

Beware suggestions for increasing our consumption as a way to save the planet.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My little suggestion for next year's state-level work

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Yesterday, I was able to attend the California League of Conservation Voters' Green California Summit. It was well-organized, as usual, with relevant topics and great discussions.
Of course, the looming concern for this group of folks is next year's legislative and regulatory climates in the face of a nearly $21 billion projected budget deficit. One strategy (and one that comes up annually) is to consider alliances with other communities (labor, business, etc.) when our goals align. In this light, and considering the "Jobs!Jobs!Jobs!" mantra that EVERY interest group touts for their projects, I have proposed one idea: Be brutally, brutally honest about the jobs.

Environmental groups have wrapped the "jobs" tag around quite a few projects, and I've been guilty of this, myself, where I think it's true in places. But, now is the time to open up about how and where those jobs will hit, and what the true opportunity costs will be if we enact projects that will build "green" jobs, vs. the status quo.

First, define your terms. The community needs a good, solid definition of "green" jobs. My suggestion: Any job that produces net carbon negative without too many impacts on other ecosystem values, and provides wages above the poverty threshold (or even prevailing wages?) should be "green". Remember, we are looking to build sustainable communities that make enough money to afford to leave some land/resources aside, in addition to lessening our environmental impacts. If we don't define this term in some way, however, it will so completely lose its value as to be potentially damaging.

Along with defining "green", define the opposite (hint: Don't call them "brown" or "black", please - maybe something like "bad", or "crappy", as I'm guessing "dirty jobs" is copyrighted).

Then, do an A+B+C=D equation, where A = Green Jobs, B = Crappy Jobs, C = unemployed people, and D = total workforce in the community (I kinda "stole" this from the folks at Env-Econ). I suggest doing this by region, and starting in the Central Valley, not because it's taking water from my community, but because it's economic conditions are as bad as Appalachia.

In this comparison, be honest: More green jobs will mean fewer other jobs. But, define those other jobs, which in the context of the Central Valley, looks good for green, local communities, and labor. Yes, massive solar installations on denuded and fallowed lands will lose farm labor jobs, but they will gain full-time, year-round solar industry employment. In addition, consider how these jobs will cut into unemployment. Mendota claims to be freaked out because its official unemployment rate is over 30%, which is sad and awful, but not much worse than it was during good economic times. Mendotans should be screaming mad at their infrastructure and local government for never trying to get good, steady work developed in its region, but now, with the potential for farming solar, they should be demanding space for these full-time jobs with better wages and benefits.

So, show the math. In the best of times you may lose, say, 2000 ag. jobs to a particular project, but gain 500 green jobs. However, the 500 jobs we'd support would be at, say $15-20/hr., + benefits + full-time work, vs. the current $8-10/hr. seasonal work without benefits. In addition, your ag. jobs aren't there right now, anyway, due to drought and a bad economy, so note that turning fallowed lands benefits locals without driving away current agriculture.

If you add an honest conversation about the created jobs to the benefits of carbon-negative projects and lower impacts on ecosystems, you speak not only to the current budget crisis and economic climate, but also to future quality of life issues for local communities.

Last, attack opponents by pointing out that the status quo vis a vis bad jobs and unsustainable environmental practices is what got us into our current economic crisis. For example, if first-time homebuyers in the Central Valley had full-time work with good wages, they would have been much less susceptible to predatory lending practices. They also would have been more able and willing to help with diesel truck retro-fits to improve air quality. Had they been given access to sustainable and alternative energy sources for transportation, or even mass transit, we would have been able to weather the oil market instability which helped drive down the consumer economy just before the financial crisis hit. We have been good at telling people what will happen, but maybe its time to explain what just happened in light of bad environmental and jobs practices, and then offer the alternative in the form of sustainable jobs with good wages and benefits.

It's just a couple of small suggestions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Carbon sequestration & European reforestation

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Don't let the title scare you off, I'll bring it down a notch, and talk about that issue in a bit.

Last week, I was able to attend a lecture by a researcher from Spain, Dr. Alejandro Caparrós of the Institute of Public Goods & Policies at the Spanish National Research Council. The good doctor gave a fine presentation, even while interrupted mid-lecture by rude Americans with questions. He was well-versed in the actual effects of carbon regulation, because the EU has been actually implementing them for a few years now.
So, a definition, to get everybody up to speed: Carbon sequestration is the physical act of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. Many folks are working on an engineered sequestration, but we have an elegantly designed method in plant life, esp. in trees and other slower-growing plants. Now that you know this (if you hadn't before), you can see the obvious interest in reforestation or avoided degradation of existing forest lands. You can also see the dollar signs appearing in many folks' eyeballs as they look out no longer at pristine forests, but at miles and miles of giant carbon stands and the money they might hold.

I won't go into the weeds too deep over actual reforestation vs. avoided degradation, or the comparisons between a largely free market (Spain) and a controlled market (Tunisia). I want to point out a surprising finding he mentioned as an aside, and two conclusions that I reached from this lecture.

First, the little gem that Dr. Caparrós pointed out: Paying farmers to reforest or avoid degradation is seen as a way to wean the EU off a large portion of its farm subsidies, and it looks like it may work. He said that the EU is attempting to eliminate its farm subsidies over the next 20 years, and is offering a way to pay for carbon sequestration as an alternative for farmers. For this reason, they are looking at the best way to ease farmers into agreeing to these subsidies. Surprisingly, with carbon market prices, it may be possible to reforest about 10% of Europe through pricing in the value of carbon.

As for my conclusions, they are a tad disturbing, but hopefully more enlightening in the long run.
As Dr. Caparrós talked about different ways to "internalize" the price of carbon, he narrowed the subsidy/payment down to two methods, which he named the Carbon Flow Method (CFM), and the Ton Year Allocation Method (TYAM). CFM is easiest: You get a check for the amount of carbon you sequester in a year, and you pay that amount when you lose that carbon. Ideally, this means that a farmer grows oaks for twenty years, and receives a check for his additional carbon every year. When he harvests his oaks, he pays for the carbon that leaves his property. Realistically, a certain percentage of farmers will lose their trees to catastrophic wildfire every year, but will probably be quite unwilling to pay for their carbon loss immediately after losing everything.

TYAM tries to alleviate the fire problem by allocating a smaller amount to the farmer for sequestering carbon each year, but not requiring payment if the farmer loses carbon to a fire or harvest. It seems like an insurance plan to me, but it also has the effect of incentives for farmers to keep trees longer, thus rehabilitating native Spanish cork oaks and their habitats.

These are all well and good, point to an economics concept really pushed lately, which is to try to internalize (make a price for) market externalities. So when I had a chance, I asked a question about this idea, because I saw a looming hole growing in the carbon pricing mechanism, and one that worries me as a conservationist/environmentalist.

I asked him if he anticipates any pressures to encourage reforestation in habitats which provide strong carbon sequestration, and degradation of habitats where not so much carbon is sequestered, but where we have other ecosystem values. His answer was illuminating: He said yes, he anticipates that market distortion, and that we would all love to be able to internalize every externality to alleviate that problem.

Which brings me to an "if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" conclusion. Economists, in order to prove the ultimate efficiency of market systems, are looking to internalize every externality. But, you can't do it to everything, so we are going to see some serious distortions, until economics as a study again accepts the necessity of direct public involvement to alleviate these problems.