Uncharted Territory

December 12, 2008

Planely Sensible at the FT

Filed under: Aviation, Flying, Global warming, Rail, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 7:45 pm

A comment piece by Philip Stephens in the FT caught my eye today.

Some wise words, not least about the bad timing of the Stansted protest.  I noted it was a distraction from the (under-reported) Poznan talks.  It’s clear too that – as implied in Stephens’ article – the rejection of consumerism is likely to find more support in boom times than during a recession.

Stephens’ main argument, though, is that, in general: “Self-flagellation does not sell” (unless, of course, the customer is Max Mosley trying to set an example to the F1 teams by reducing his costs), and that: “The case must be framed as an opportunity rather than a burden.”  Indeed.

I do disagree on one point, though.  Stephens writes:

“The young campaigners at Stansted had a point. There is something odd about the British government’s twin commitments to lower carbon emissions and to promoting a headlong expansion of London’s several airports.” [The grammar is not mine!].

If we just stop building runways we’ll just end up with even more overcrowded airports, and all but the most affluent will be forced to fly at inconvenient times.

No, what Plane Stupid should be doing is renaming themselves to something like Train Crazy and relocating from Stansted to King’s Cross (for some reason Gerald the Gorilla comes to mind as I write this).  Perhaps they could all dress in sardine costumes, invite the TV cameras and see how many of them could cram into a carriage on the 17:15 to Cambridge on a Friday evening (returning the space to the travelling public before the train leaves, of course).  Maybe highlighting the dire state of the rail service – and showing a little consideration while about it – would garner a little more support than screwing up people’s holidays.

December 11, 2008

Shock! 2008 to be 10th Warmest Year on Record Horror

Filed under: Effects, Global warming, Media, Science and the media — Tim Joslin @ 10:56 am

I was struck a few days ago by a story reporting a preliminary calculation of the global average temperature for 2008.  It began:

2008 will be coolest year of the decade
Global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, but cooler temperature is not evidence that global warming is slowing, say climate scientists

This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.”

It continues with speculation that sceptics will seize on the data, before noting that in fact 2008 is historically warm by historical standards: ‘ “Even in the 80s [this year] would have felt like a warm year” ‘, noted Myles Allen. The article discusses some of the reasons for variation around a steadily warming trend.

Only towards the end of the article do we learn that: “Assuming the final figure is close to 14.3C then 2008 will be the tenth hottest year on record.”  This should be the headline.  Nearly every year for the last couple of decades has been significantly warmer than every year in earlier decades of the 20th century, as shown by the chart in the online version of the Guardian’s article.

This is pathetic.

It struck me that the coalition of those concerned about GW are practically in acceptance of an abusive relationship with the denialists.  They’re like a housewife terrified of what will happen if she doesn’t have dinner on the table the minute her tormentor returns home.  The Guardian article may have been spun to provoke “debate”, or the line may have been taken unconciously.  But, if editorial policy is to warn of the dangers of GW, then the paper adopts the mindset of the abusee by accepting that an unreasoning response is even on the agenda.  The article (or the press release it is based on) can practically be paraphrased as: “I’ve let you down, beat me up”.  I’ve probably taken the analogy too far already and upset someone, but at the risk of keeping digging when in a hole, maybe, in the case of the GW “debate”, the relationship can at least be redefined.

Having accepted the denialist agenda, the good guys find themselves on the defensive.  This week George Monbiot has devoted yet another column to tackling the denialists.   He notes that:

“The most popular article on the Guardian’s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy. Of the 440 responses posted by lunchtime yesterday, about 80% insisted that manmade climate change is a hoax.”

Totally predictable, since the ball was teed up for the nutters.

George uses the title: “Cyberspace has buried its head in a cesspit of climate change gibberish”.  Well cyberspace is a cesspit of porn as well, but people have long-since given up on banging on about it.

Look, don’t give the denialists the attention they want.  Let them shout themselves hoarse.  And especially don’t anticipate their “argument” and then profess surprise when it is expressed in a thousand tedious blog postings. You don’t hear Gordon Brown saying: “The PSBR is about to break all records, but…”, because no-one would be listening, as the perhaps unfairly treated Lynford Christie would have put it, after the “b” of “but”.

Make your case, not your opponents’.

December 10, 2008

Even More Planely Stupid

Filed under: Aviation, Global warming, Media, Science and the media — Tim Joslin @ 11:11 am

In yesterday’s post, I forgot one aspect of the idiocy of the Invasion of Stansted Airport.  The demo was timed – presumably deliberately – to coincide with the start of the climate change talks in Poznan, Poland.  Indeed, one delayed passenger interviewed on the radio had been trying to fly to the conference.  (Listening to this, I was a little bemused as I thought good form was to travel to these shindigs by train, however inconvenient, let alone admit, on national radio, to contributing to high altitude emissions).

Far from drawing attention to the underlying global warming issues, Plane Stupid have distracted us all.  They’ve put people’s backs up at a time when there was an opportunity to educate them a little on the GW disaster.  The attention of the media has drifted over the last year or so away from climate change and on to the economic crisis.  It’s as if a background theme is required for the news.  Now, every story refers to the economy, often when it is irrelevant (“especially in a recession”), whereas a couple of years ago there would have been a comment about rising temperatures or sea levels.

I admit I’ve read the reports in yesterday’s Guardian (prominent on pages 4 & 5) on the fun and games at Stansted, but not (until now) their other Poznan-synchronised articles.  A shame, because the paper included a fascinating “carbon atlas” (p.20-1 – the print version includes tabulated data, the online version is impressively interactive), showing the worldwide distribution of emissions, and growth over the period 1996-2006.  Looking at these sorts of charts, I’m always struck by how much work there is to do: stopping global warming is basically a European project at the moment and our blobs are only around a fifth of the total.  And most of the circles representing other countries are growing faster…

… a visual impression reinforced by the Guardian’s commentary on the next page (we’re at 22 now).  Focusing on “climate scientist Kevin Anderson”, the article notes that far from reducing our emissions, globally they are increasing rapidly.  But the mantra that the damage can be limited (to 650ppm and a “4C average rise” – I see we’ve dispensed with the annoying little degree symbol), “only… if rich countries [adopt] ‘draconian emission reductions within a decade’ ” no longer makes any sense.  What has to be done is persuade the rest of the world (the biggest blobs are China, US, Russia and India, and of these, only blob no.2 is “rich”) to make “draconian reductions” as well.

The idea of Kyoto was that the “rich” world led the way.  I suggest that, now, though, it’s clear that we have to decarbonise the entire global economy at the same time.  To put it another way for those who don’t think in terms of just one global economy, “we” have to persuade developing countries to do something “we” have only just started doing.  This logic happens to be true even if, as is the case, a large proportion of the emissions of some developing countries (China, in particular, of course) is attributable to the manufacture of export goods.

As usual, emotion overwhelms reason.

December 9, 2008

Plane Stupid? No, Spherically Barmy!

Filed under: Aviation, Flying, Global warming, Rail, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 10:27 pm

The title, for those who might miss the reference, is a small homage to Fritz Zwicky, a cosmologist who doubted the Big Bang theory.  I strongly suspect that his scepticism will eventually prove to have been fully justified, but his cause was not helped by his habit of referring to his colleagues as “spherical bastards”, that is, bastards whichever way you looked at them.  In return, they ridiculed his theory of “tired light“.  How to win friends and influence people, eh!  I suspect though, that Zwicky was doomed by being very much in the minority, whereas I reckon I can get away with a corny dismissal of the activities of Plane Stupid because on this one I am very much in the majority, notwithstanding Leo Hickman’s attempts to justify the group’s action.

Whichever way you look at it, the invasion of Stansted does the cause of saving the planet from global warming no good at all.  Here are a few ways in which it is daft:

1. It creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average punter, who is struggling with his conflicting desires to jet off to Dublin for a stag do and to preserve the planet.  Actions such as this latest jolly wheeze send the message that global warming is a cause for smelly privileged students, not the mainstream.  It’s not sensible to provoke this sort of reaction.  A far superior strategy is to create sufficiently widespread feelings of guilt that people put up with the necessary measures – taxes and so forth – that will encourage alternative technologies or patterns of travel and other consumption.  So in this regard, Plane Stupid’s actions are counterproductive.

2. The protest seems to have been directed at the proposal to increase Stansted’s capacity.  Hence the threat to move on to Heathrow, where a new runway is also planned.  Now, failing to expand these airports will simply focus the industry on using the space more efficiently.  What you actually want them to be doing is using fuel more efficiently. We need to change the technology, not slow the increase in flying in the UK, which is the most the protestors could achieve.

3. If Heathrow and Stansted do reach capacity, then businesses that generate a lot of air-traffic – financial services, say – will simply relocate where the protestors can’t bother them.  Dubai, say.  The global warming problem will not be solved by reducing transport capacity.

4. There is a complete lack of vision.  It may turn out that aviation can be decarbonised more easily than other modes of transport.  There’s certainly a lot of scope for short-term energy savings.  Flying is high value-add, so may attract investment in low- or zero-carbon technology more effectively than, say, legacy rail systems.  Obviously, if we don’t have enough airport capacity, we won’t be in such a good position to exploit any advances in aviation technology.

5. Back on the psychology of the issue, surely the public is more likely to support a positive vision?  Why not campaign for the full electrification of the UK rail network?  Or for new routes?  For example, Stansted is by far the most convenient airport for residents of Cambridge and the surrounding area.  But Cambridge has no good rail link to the North – you usually have to change at Ely just to get to Peterborough to pick up the East Coast main line.  Surely many, many journeys could be moved from air to rail were there a fast train route from Cambridge to Peterborough.

In general we’d be best off building plenty of transport capacity, and making sure that the price of travel reflects as closely as possible the cost of fuel and hence carbon emissions.  That way, people will reduce their emissions simply by choosing the cheapest way of getting from A to B.

Nope, whichever way I look at it I can’t avoid the conclusion that actions such as the occupation of Stansted airport are counterproductive.  Plane Stupid by name, plain stupid by nature, that’s what I say.

Hitches at Hitchin

Filed under: Rail, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 11:57 am

Amazingly, the Cambridge to London King’s Cross rail service operated by First Capital Connect (FCC) continues to deteriorate.

I’m a reasonable person and am prepared to accept that I might have to stand on a train if there really are more passengers than the network can handle.  This is a signal that more investment is needed.  Though, when trains end up running at 160% or more of capacity, as is the case for some commuter services to/from Cambridge, it is clear that the process for upgrading lines, (mentioned in FCC’s Wikipedia entry, with which their PR department must be well-satisfied) is pathetically unfit for purpose.

But it is totally unacceptable for passengers to be inconvenienced because the operator decides to save a few £s by running infrequent services or 4- rather than 8-carriage trains.  My better half reports she had to stand on the 20:15 from Cambridge to King’s Cross (KX) Sunday before last (30th November).  I suspect this was a 4-carriage service, but the problem is compounded by the fact that on Sundays fast services to KX run only hourly.  The only apparent reason for not running half-hourly services is the convenience of the rail staff.  If this hypothesis is correct, the answer is simply to find some people who are prepared to do the jobs the public actually requires.

There are other times when the half-hourly fast service is not run, such as from KX after 20:15 in the evenings on weekdays and (even worse, because there are no fast trains later on) after 19:45 on Saturdays. This makes some trips to London considerably more tedious.  Since the trains (taking 1 hour or even 80 minutes to get to Cambridge) that are run are busy, there would likely be even more demand for a decent service.  Likely the operator is leaving money on the table.

Apart from anything else it is confusing to have such an irregular timetable.  This Sunday (about which more later), myself and partner intended to meet friends for a quiet Sunday evening beer so turned up at Cambridge Station expecting a 16:45 service to KX.  No such luck.  We had to wait for the 17:15.  It clearly wasn’t just us who are often caught out by the timetabling.  There was standing room only in the waiting-room.

Recommendation 1: It should be a condition of the franchise that a regular half-hourly fast service to and from Cambridge is run throughout the operating week.

I was lucky to get the last seat on the 15:45 from KX to Cambridge last Thursday (4th December), which only had 4 carriages.  A number of people had to stand the whole way to Cambridge.

It is totally unacceptable that insufficient train capacity provided on a regular basis, totally unnecessarily. We have to take the gloves off with the train operating companies.

Recommendation 2: The franchise terms must include a levy on the operating company (exceeding the profit from running the train) for any service run more than 90% full, excluding those rush-hour services for which network capacity is insufficient.

Now I know why have not managed to blog every train journey I make, as I once intended.  There is so much wrong with the operation it takes too long, and when you get home you really just want to forget about the whole experience.

Back to this Sunday’s journey.  The train shuddered to a halt just after Hitchin.  The driver came on the tannoy reporting an incident on the line ahead.  Eventually the information was that someone was injured.  The train reversed back into Hitchin Station and a few people decided to catch trains back to Cambridge, perhaps in order to travel to London Liverpool Street, the alternative route from Cambridge – though much slower, especially on a Sunday.  Eventually we were told that buses to Welwyn Garden City (to meet another London train) had been ordered.  Most passengers disembarked, but there were no buses and two or three staff who said they’d been told 1/2 an hour earlier that the buses would arrive in 10 minutes.  A few people took taxis at £10 a head to Welwyn…

The train had been scheduled to arrive at KX at 18:03.  We found ourselves standing in the cold in Hitchin as the clock ticked towards 7pm.  It was no longer me worth going to London.

I recollect at this point that I intended to recommend the cosy little curry house in Hitchin.  It’s on the right no more than 1/4 mile towards the town centre (just turn left out of the station), next to a boarded-up pub.  I had an excellent chicken rogon josh – I always feel the tomatoes should be in the dish, not a garnish on top, and in Hitchin they used fresh tomatoes.  The achari (? – with lime and possibly mango) was very good as well.  After a couple of popadums (good hot tomato and lime relishes) and washed down with a Cobra, the meal improved our mood somewhat.

Eventually I made it back from Hitchin to Cambridge, just in time for MoTD2.  I have to say that as we pulled in, the driver told passengers that they could claim a refund.  So a hesitant bronze star to FCC for that.  My point is that since I never completed my journey, I should logically receive a full refund + expenses (curry) + compensation for my time (5 hours!).  I bet I’ll be lucky to get the fare back.  Watch this space!

Here’s my vision.  Now that most tickets are paid for by credit card, and cards go through machines, it is becoming possible to track passengers through the system.  At least some refunds could be made automatically.  I guess there are privacy issues, so maybe people would have to register for their credit card details to be retained for the purpose of any refund, but we shouldn’t have to fill out forms to get our money back, it should just be credited to the account we paid for the ticket in the first place.  With Oyster-type smart-card arrangements this becomes even more practical.

Recommendation 3: Rail franchisees (and other transport operators such as airlines) should be required to provide a mechanism for automatically refunding fares for delays by (say) 2012.

I guess that’s enough for now.  As I said there are so many faults with the railways that you could write an essay about each journey…

December 8, 2008

Biofuel Payback Periods – Update

Filed under: Biofuels, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 5:34 pm

Even though the BBC report, “Palm oil offers no green solution”, was clearly written by a computer programmed without regard to punctuation or sentence structure, it appears that at least some researchers have started to realise that:

(1)  The critical resource when considering the wisdom – or lack of it – of promoting biofuels is the land required for growing the biofuel crop.

Land stores a lot more carbon if left uncultivated (e.g. as forest) than it does if it is cultivated (e.g. used to grow biofuel crops).  Clearing land for cultivation may therefore be said to incur a “carbon debt”.

(2)  The critical concept in evaluating the value of biofuel crops in slowing global warming (or, more likely, making the problem worse) is the payback period for the carbon debt.

The crucial question is:

“For how long would we have to grow biofuels in order to justify the decision to cultivate the land rather than allow it to revert to its natural state?”

The BBC therefore reports that:

“The lead author of the study […,] Finn Danielsen of Denmark’s Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology [said:] ‘Our analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical forestlands’…”

My money’s on us running practically everything on cheap renewable electricity long before those 75 to 93 years are up.  Otherwise we’re toast, and all bets are off.  So we never will grow biofuel crops for those “75 to 93 years” – even if we don’t degrade the soils long before then.

But “75 to 93 years” is likely an underestimate, since conceptual problems are still evident.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the BBC report, researchers still think just in terms of how long it would take to pay off the carbon debt from clearing the land.  As I argued in the Biofuel Papers – sigh! – this is only part of the story.  The Beeb notes that:

“On a positive note, the researchers found that grassed areas where forest had been destroyed in the past, the land farmed and then abandoned, did become a net absorber of carbon after 10 years of being planted with palm oil.”

But the land in question was already “a net absorber of carbon”, since it was slowly reverting to its natural state – presumably forest.  Duh!

In short, you need to take account of the opportunity cost of growing biofuels.

And not only that.  If you clear land to plant a biofuel crop such as oil palm trees, you also need to take account of the damage done (i.e. planetary heating) by the extra carbon in the atmosphere over the years during which there is more carbon in the atmosphere than there would have been if you hadn’t cleared the land.

Oh well, I guess we’re slowly getting there.  At least we’re starting to take account of the land required for biofuel crops.

December 3, 2008

“Blame China!”, Cries Wolf

Filed under: Credit crisis, Economics, Housing market, Markets, Risk — Tim Joslin @ 9:40 pm

I’ve been thinking of posting about the inevitability of the current economic crisis for a little while now. I was a little worried about the title, since I don’t want to upset 1.3 billion people. I thought of substituting Germany for China, but that’s still 90 million, and they’re not so far away. Fortunately, though, Martin Wolf has written a fairly strongly worded piece in the FT on a similar topic. I know he didn’t actually use the words “Blame China!”, but if anyone’s offended, please see Mr Wolf, he’s bigger and badder than I am!

Wolf’s point is that, if we’re to escape from the mess we’re in:

“… the global economy will have to rebalance.  If the surplus countries do not expand domestic demand relative to potential output, the open world economy may even break down.  As in the 1930s, this is now a real danger.”

Rather worryingly, Germany doesn’t seem too keen to do its bit for the global economy.  China seems to be flying into the tackle with both feet, trying to increase demand at home, while at the same time holding its currency back.  True to form, they’re single-mindedly concerned about… China.  Of course, there is an automatic stabiliser in the system in that oil (and other resource) producer surpluses will automatically fall as oil (and other commodity) prices go through the floor.  I guess we’ll muddle through somehow.

Wolf is primarily concerned about how the global economy recovers.  Quite right too.  He also points out that household borrowing in deficit countries will have to decline.  I agree (contrary, it seems, to the UK political mainstream) – we (UK, US etc.) have to reduce mortgage and consumer lending, and invest instead.  Brown and Merkel seem to agree on one thing: perversely, both seem to think we can put things right by doing more of what got us into this mess in the first place.  Germany expects other countries to restore demand for its products.  Could be a long wait.

You have to conclude that many do not seem to understand the nature of money.  Back in the day (or in Second Life) it might make sense to accumulate gold ad infinitum.  OK, I’ll go even further.  On an individual level, money can, I suppose, be rationally accumulated and stored.  But, as they say in China, what if everyone does it?  Huge trade surpluses, Sovereign Wealth Funds and vast savings pools are, collectively, unsustainable.  This is because money eventually loses its value.  Sterling, or any other currency, is only any use for buying sterling-denominated assets, goods or services.  If too little of the sterling used to pay for our imports is spent on our exports, then eventually too much sterling finds itself chasing too few assets, since this sterling must go somewhere.  The result is that either the value of sterling falls (against other currencies) or sterling asset prices rise (aka yields falling) – and then likely crash as everyone tries to bale out.  Recognise anything yet?  I read somewhere that China was losing 15% pa on its dollar funds because of the low yield on US Treasuries and slowly rising renminbi.  Once the total fund value exceeds 100/15x of the annual dollar increment, then, of course, 1.3 billion Chinese are running to stand still in terms of what they can buy with their dollars (all else being equal).  If they intended to blow the dosh on oil, of course, they’d have been running backwards until recently.  As they say, you can’t take it with you.  You can’t even keep writing IOUs indefinitely and expect them all to be paid back.  Especially when they’re in a currency you don’t control.

Money is there to mediate trade.  It’s not a physical thing with intrinsic value.  It can only be stored temporarily.  It’s value is contingent.

All this is a lead-in to my main point.  These surpluses and corresponding deficits are a problem for everyone.  The surplus money has to go somewhere.  And there’s been so much of it (especially dollars) sloshing about for the last few years that it’s drowned everything.  After the dotcom crash, everyone wanted safety, of course.  As alluded to already, Treasury yields hit the floor.  Private equity could only find so many safe utilities to buy out.  So Wall Street and the City tried to meet the demand.  They didn’t create all those mortgage-backed securities and so on for nothing.  No, no, no.  Low-risk paper with a respectable yield was precisely what the customer wanted.  Shame the yield was – how shall we put it? – temporary.  If attitudes to risk had been a little different, then the financial crisis would have played out differently.

So, this is my proposition: as trade surpluses built up, a disaster of some kind was inevitable.  The hot money was the critical factor – sub-prime mortgages, SIVs and the rest were just detail.  Dollar assets were of course most vulnerable – who’d want to be responsible for the world’s reserve currency, eh?  Hmm, the ECB, apparently.  Not only are reserve currency asset prices driven up by demand, the problem is compounded by the currency having a higher exchange rate (amd therefore inevitably larger trade deficit) than would otherwise be the case.

Wolf is right.  We’ve got to find ways – other than protectionism, of course – to dramatically reduce global trade imbalances, not just to escape the present imbroglio, but to avoid the next one.

A few years of decent growth, then total economic disaster out of a clear blue sky – a financial 9/11.  Something’s got to have been seriously wrong all along.  We can’t just put it all down to a few dodgy mortgage salesmen.

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