Is Coal Really “Peaking” in China?

Better Technologies Needed for Emissions to Start Falling

“While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.” So concludes a recent blog post from the Sierra Club’s Justin Guay and Greenpeace International’s Lauri Myllyvirta, the latter of whom recently published an analysis suggesting that Chinese coal consumption dropped in the first half of 2014:

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US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas

A Response to CO2 Scorecard

Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.

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Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print

Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs

Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.

That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.

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A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

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Electrify to Adapt

Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty

Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.

The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.

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How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise

Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector

When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers. 

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Revolutionary Engines

How Cars Saved the Urban Environment

In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s first international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.

The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode of transportation: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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There’s No Way Around the Need for Innovation

How Jonathan Chait Misunderstands the “Technology-First” Approach

Usually the best response to the name-calling that so often passes for public discourse over climate policy is to ignore it, but Jonathan Chait’s June 17 piece in New York Magazine deserves discussion because it unintentionally illustrates the most underappreciated source of climate gridlock today: the partisan groupthink that often prevents liberals from engaging in any kind of conversation about creative ways to finesse the barriers to progress.

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The Need for Speed

Four Basic Instincts Have Determined Human Mobility

The following essay was first delivered as the William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization at the California Institute of Technology on April 30, 2014, and was revised on May 18, 2014.

Thanks to the Harris Family and the Cal Tech community, especially Jed Buchwald and Diana Kormos Buchwald, for the honor to speak with you about cars and civilization. The first speaker, my long-time research partner Nebojsa Nakicenovic, concluded his remarks with the transition from sail to rail about 1830. My title page shows both a horse-drawn coach, the Brewster Park Drag, custom made in 1892 for the Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune in shipping and railroads, and the 1964 Chevrolet research vehicle CERV II with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph), and the power of 500 horses. In November 2013 Sotheby’s auctioned the horse-drawn coach for $253,000 and the Chevy for $1,100,000. 

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The Cooperative Advantage

How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy

If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1

In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.

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Unleashing Africa

How the US Can Light Up the Futures of the 1.4 Billion People Living Without Electricity

What is “energy poverty”?

Energy poverty simply means a lack of affordable, reliable electricity needed to support a comfortable, prosperous standard of living. Billions of the world’s energy poor aren’t connected to any power source. And for those who are connected to the grid, the actual flow of electricity is sporadic and blackouts frequent.

Because of outdated and insufficient infrastructure, many countries do not generate enough electricity to meet growing demand, leaving actual consumption at extremely low levels. The average American uses about 13,200 kWh/year. By comparison, here are the averages for citizens in a few African countries (and Todd’s fridge):

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?

Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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The Green Urbanization Myth

Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts

Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.  

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Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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Patent-Free Innovation

Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech

Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.

Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.

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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones

The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids

“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”

This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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Jeremy Rifkin’s Techno-Nirvana Fantasy

A World of Abundance Where Humans Consume Less?

Techno-utopianism seems to be a particularly American phenomena. As I argued in The Past and Future of America’s Economy it seems like about every half century – usually as it turns out right before a big structural slowdown of technological innovation – pundits and scholars start to go overboard on how great the techno-enabled future will be. Case in point was the 1967 book Year 2000 written by Herman Kahn, noted futurist and founder of the Hudson Institute. Kahn relied on the new “science” of forecasting and ended up with a book that had the tone of “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” He wrote: 

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The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil

Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation

Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.

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Reducing Our Hoofprint

How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

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What’s the Best Way to Transport Oil for People and the Environment?

Surprising Differences Between Pipelines, Trains, Trucks, and Ships

Crude oil is moving around the world, around our country, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving, and will undoubtedly increase during our new energy boom, so what is the safest way to move it?

The short answer is: truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.

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Can Any Tech Stop Asia’s Coal Future?

Solar, CCS, Nuclear, and Natural Gas Not Scaling Fast Enough

Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.

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Reinventing Libertarianism

Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation

Recent years have seen growing recognition of the critical role the US government has played in creating world-changing technologies. In several State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama made mention of the role of government in creating the information-communications revolutions. And various scholars including Richard Nelson, Vernon Ruttan, Fred Block, Rob Atkinson, Michael Lind, William Janeway, and Mariana Mazzucato have described how the federal government financed the invention of manufacturing through interchangeable parts (for rifles), canals and railroads, dams and highways, jets and microchips, pharmaceutical drugs, and much more.

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Five Energy Challenges Confronting India

Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty

On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.

It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.

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Off on the Wrong Foot

Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

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Welcome New York Times Readers

An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute

Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute Ted Nordhaus gives the lead quote for the New York Times's analysis of President Obama's new rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels. The emissions cuts are less than some environmentalists were pushing for, but signals the administration's hope to reclaim climate leadership:

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Our High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor. 

According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.

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Energetic Africa

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

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In Defense of ‘Picking Winners’

To Reduce GHG Emissions, We Need Government-Led Innovation

Virtually all economists working on climate change agree that we should price GHG emissions. Doing so creates an incentive to reduce emissions without the government directing specific technology adoptions or activity changes, that is, without “picking winners.”

Nearly as many economists agree that we should subsidize basic R&D. Doing so accelerates the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to avoid even higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t subsidize all basic R&D regardless of how nutty the idea or indirect the connection to GHG reduction. We should subsidize the best ideas, that is, we should pick winners.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee

Why Poor Nations Deserve the Large Dams From Which the West Has Benefited

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is the access to electricity. As Todd Moss has noted, consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically-viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. President Obama’s major initiative with Africa, “Power Africa,” envisages a major role for hydropower. 

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Keeping the Poor Poor

Against Anti-Growth Environmentalism

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

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Electric Africa

7 Charts That Will Change the Way You Think About Africa

This is a joint post with Madeleine Gleave, and is part of a series of posts and publications, which can be found on the CGD’s new Energy Poverty topic page Download PDF of all 7 graphics.

1.     Energy poverty is an endemic and crippling problem; nearly 600 million people in Africa live without access to any power, which also means no access to safer and healthier electric cooking and heating, powered health centers and refrigerated medicines, light to study at night, or electricity to run a business.  Here’s the situation in the 6 countries chosen to be part of President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, home to nearly 1/3 of the continent’s population:

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The Nuclear Power Imperative

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Richard Lester on the Need for Next-Gen Nuclear

Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear? I’ll come to my own views on this question shortly. But first I want to make a few comments about other people’s views.

In recent months, some prominent and previously antinuclear environmentalists have been declaring their support for a larger nuclear role, citing the risks of climate change for their change of mind.

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Brighter Nights in Africa

$300B Required for African Nations to Achieve Universal Electricity Access by 2030

How long the night the dawn will break. Such is the saying – often quoted as an African proverb – attesting to the virtues of patience and perseverance. However, it also serves as an allusion to Africa’s gaps in infrastructure, particularly for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. As the well-known satellite photos of Africa at night show, very little of sub-Saharan Africa’s vast expanse is illuminated, so the nights are long indeed.

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Saving Lives Does Not Lead to Overpopulation

The Age of Peak Child

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. As recently as the Cold War, American foreign policy experts theorized that famine would make poor countries susceptible to Communism. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives. This was a welcome change. We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

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Byting the Hand That Feeds

Why Silicon Valley Should Improve, Not Abandon, Washington

In Silicon Valley, 2013 will be remembered as the year the idea of separating from the United States went viral. There was the Stanford lecturer and investor, Balaji Srinivasan, who called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” declaring to a large audience of elite entrepreneurs, "We need to build an opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”

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The Coal, Hard Truth

China's New Coal 6 Times Higher than Wind, 27 Times Higher than Solar in 2013

The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.

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Steeling Ourselves for More Coal

Why Explosive Steel Manufacturing in China Matters

There is no material more fundamental to industrial civilization than steel. Modern buildings, ships, cars, planes and bridges would all be unthinkable without steel, and as pointed out by Allwood and Cullen in their fine recent book on materials production we currently have no viable substitute materials that could perform steel's multiple functions. We are still very much living in the iron age.

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Solar Lamps Are No Substitute for Access to Modern Energy

Energy Poor Need Cheap, Reliable Electricity

I’m a pretty big fan of cash transfers. I’ve become convinced that cash is an efficient immediate way to help the poor and very often a better alternative than other standard development interventions like training or building schools. Cash transfers may even be catalytic, giving poor people a floor to invest in business, their children’s health and education, and some breathing space to pursue higher value activities. 

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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The Myth of America’s Great Stagnation

The Age of Innovation Isn’t Over

Is the great age of American economic growth over? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Despite recovering job growth—the US economy added an estimated 203,000 jobs in November—the United States is likely to experience slower GDP growth in the decades ahead. Since 1960, the rate has been 3.3 percent. But the Federal Reserve predicts a rate of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in the future, and JPMorgan even projects a rate of less than 1.75 percent. The longer trajectory is grim: US economic growth has been gradually decelerating for decades, from a 70-year average of 3.6 percent (1939-2009) to a 10-year average of just 1.9 percent (1999-2009).

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2013: The Best Year in Human History

Five Reasons to Celebrate Progress

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

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Without Government the Market Fails and Fails Badly

What the Simon-Ehrlich Debate Reveals About Technological Change

In a previous post, we discussed some of the evidence suggesting that technology is indeed endogenous and does respond to scarcities and prices.

Many economists have worked on modeling this type of endogeneity of technology and how it responds to prices. Remember the great economist John Hicks’s assertion, which we quoted in our previous post, about how higher price of a factor will tend to induce technological changes directed at economizing on that factor.

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Climate Change Is Now in the Developing World’s Hands

Can Their Economic Self-Interest Help Us All?

This past weekend, exhausted diplomats from around the world climbed into fossil fuel–powered airplanes and bade good riddance to Warsaw, Poland. They had spent two weeks holed up in the frigid capital engaging in what has become an annual Kabuki dance over what to do about climate change. Almost exactly as has happened in prior international climate change conferences—gatherings that, like the falling leaves, have become autumnal rites—intonations about a global warming threat were offered, hope for selfless environmental cooperation was expressed, and battles over who should foot the bill were fought. By the time everyone headed for the airport, little of substance had gotten done.

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Commanders in Growth?

Charting Economic Growth Under Republican vs. Democratic Presidents

The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post recently reported on a new paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson (here in PDF, hereafter BW13), which tackles what would seem to be a straightforward question: Why is it that since World War II the US economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents? This post looks at this question from the broader standpoint of policy research methods. I conclude that BW13 have asked the wrong question, one that lends itself to many answers or none at all, and perhaps it tells us more about policy research methods than anything else.

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The Explosive Rise of Subsidies to Chinese Industry

How China’s Mercantilism Hurts the Global Economy

The intellectual foundation of free trade, and the North Star guide for US international trade policy, was formulated by David Ricardo, a 19th century classical economist whose theory of comparative advantage holds that the market determines which nations are naturally good at producing and that more trade is always welfare-maximizing. What happens when a nation openly rejects Ricardo, desires absolute, not comparative, advantage, and employs massive state subsidies to attain that end, is the subject of Usha and George Haley’s comprehensive and groundbreaking book Subsidies to Chinese Industry: State Capitalism, Business Strategy, and Trade Policy. 

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It’s Not About the Money

More Money for Basic Science Is Not Resulting in Societal Benefits

Amid the mess of US politics — a pointless government shutdown, across-the-board cuts, endless partisan squabbling — now is a good moment to take stock of the fate of publicly funded science. After all, five years ago next week Barack Obama was first elected president, promising that he would “restore science to its rightful place” in US society. How has he done?

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Peak Coal in China or Long, High Plateau?

Half of Nation’s Power in 2030 Will Come From Coal

China coal power is one of the world’s largest single contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which will likely need to be reduced to near-zero levels over the next few decades to manage climate change. So when two reports came out in the last few weeks that project a peak in Chinese coal consumption within the next couple of decades, many environmental and energy commentators concluded that the problem has been tamed, and that coal will be swiftly replaced by wind, solar and gas.

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Electrifying Africa

How Much Energy Will It Take?

We’ve been surprised at all the attention Todd’s new fridge has gotten recently—including comments saying the comparison against African per capita electricity consumption isn’t fair because many of those people don’t have refrigerators. Exactly our point!

Sparse grids and limited incomes make it hard to own or operate modern appliances, but plenty of Africans would consume a whole lot more energy if it was available. Regular rolling blackouts suggest that countries aren’t producing enough energy to meet current demand, let alone what would be necessary to achieve universal access by 2030 (possibly a post-2015 MDG).

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‘Mass Flourishing’ Falls to Myths of Economic Growth

Edmund Phelps’s Book Belies State’s Role in Innovation

Despite winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006, Edmund Phelps has endeavored to write a big and ambitious book—something like The Wealth of Nations for the 21st century. Phelps hopes to offer a bold new answer to the big question of why some nations are wealthy and others poor. While innovation is central to his latest book Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, Phelps does not understand how innovation occurs. What he intended as a learned argument for rolling back ‘big government’ ends up sounding like just another Tea Party diatribe.

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The Bottom Line on iPhones vs. Refrigerators

"The Cloud Begins with Coal" Author Responds to His Critics

It’s uncontroversial to note that the global information-communications-technology sector (ICT) uses a lot of electricity. But convert that observation into a per capita form, illustrated, for example, by how many kilowatt-hours an iPhone might use, and protests and invectives sprout up faster than windmills in Iowa.

In response to our new report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power, some in the media got the point, but others seized on the comparison between an iPhone and refrigerator’s annual energy use and made claims of cherry picking and questionable assumptions. It should be obvious -- though apparently not for some -- that we are not talking about the few kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year needed to recharge the battery inside an iPhone, iPad, or their equivalents. 

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Remembering George Mitchell

Tributes Honor Gas Innovator as Public Servant

“I don't want to take anything away from Mitchell,” wrote Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, in Foreign Policy after famed Texas gas innovator George Mitchell passed away in late July. “He was a great investor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur who doggedly pursued the idea that shale could be made to yield its vast oil and gas content. But contrary to the classic picture of the lone wolf inventor who persists alone in the face of indifference, ridicule, disappointment, and even contempt, Mitchell had a partner -- the American taxpayer and the federal government.”

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The Cloud Needs More Precise Energy Accounting

Don’t Feel Guilty About Your iPhone Use Just Yet

In the last few weeks an idea has been making the rounds that, when you count all of the required networks and cloud services, your iPhone uses more electricity than your refrigerator. This idea was first presented in a publication called The Cloud Begins with Coal by Mark Mills, and was quickly followed up with further analysis (and a different version of the calculation) by the Breakthrough Institute, “Bracing for the Cloud.” [Disclosure: I am proud to be a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.]

Since these articles make some very interesting points, I decided to dive into the data. I’ll share some observations here. At the end, I’ll take a closer look at the iPhone-fridge comparison. Teaser: I wouldn’t crank up the iPhone guilt just yet.

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Betting Against Apocalyptic Thinking

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager

$576.07. That is how much money Julian Simon won from Paul Ehrlich, John Harte and John Holdren in 1990 in a bet about commodities prices. The wager was actually a proxy for competing ideological views about the role of humans on the Earth. The story of the bet between Simon and Ehrlich is told in a wonderful new book by Yale historian Paul Sabin, titled The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future.

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No More Railing Against iPhones

ICT Ecosystem Must Be Part of Innovation Strategy

Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”

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Electricity for All

What Universal Energy Access Will Take

This article was coauthored with Morgan Bazilian, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013) under the title "Making Energy Access Meaningful."

In a somewhat inconsequential meeting at the United Nations (UN) in 2009, Kandeh Yumkella, the then Di­rector-General of the UN Industrial Development Or­ganization, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s informally assigned “energy guy”, noted something obvious and profound, namely that, “the provision of one light to poor people does nothing more than shine a light on poverty”. Yet much of an emerging discussion on the crit­ical importance of global energy access as a pathway out of poverty continues to focus on what are, in effect, “one light” solutions. In this essay, we seek to help clarify the challenge of energy access, expose assumptions that are informing pol­icy design in the development and diplomatic communities, and offer a framework for future discussions rooted in the as­pirations of people around the world to achieve energy access compatible with a decent standard of living.

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Don’t Blame the Robots

Technophobia Distracts Us from What Most Imperils Working Poor

Technophobia is an affliction we have yet to cure even after decades of evidence-based ameliorative efforts. We might not have expected much resistance to the disease in earlier times, before evidence accumulated that the fears it inspired were irrational. Back in 1930, a mind as brilliant as John Maynard Keynes was susceptible to the condition. Keynes sensed sickness in the air but misdiagnosed it as a feature of the capitalist economy: “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment.”

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Bracing for the Cloud

Digital Economy Requires Massive Amount of Electricity

They weigh less than five ounces, but according to recent data, when you count everything that matters, the average iPhone consumed more energy last year than a medium-sized refrigerator. By the numbers, a refrigerator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings list uses about 322 kWh per year. In contrast, the average iPhone used 361 kWh of electricity when you add up its wireless connections, data usage, and battery charging. Considering that a smart phone represents just one device in the ocean of the world’s Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) ecosystem, it seems superfluous to say that the digital economy is poised to consume massive amounts of energy. 

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The End of Economics

Part One: Dreams of Being a Science Led to Irrelevance

Forty years ago today, that any student who enrolled in an undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Economics at Sydney University in 1971 had to complete four year-long courses in economics, out of a total of ten such courses: Microeconomics and Quantitative Methods in the first year, Macroeconomics in the second, and International Economics in the third.

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The Proactionary Principle

Between No Caution and Precaution

What is the most prominent science-based principle that influences international law today? The answer is undoubtedly the precautionary principle, which aims to promote only those policies whose likelihood of harm to both target and collateral populations is relatively small.

The principle is "scientific" insofar as it invites skepticism towards ambitious claims, typically about proposed innovations, which are sufficiently uncertain that their worst outcomes would be catastrophic and possibly irreversible. Thus, applications of the precautionary principle tend to be accompanied by "risk assessment" studies that try to distinguish what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the "known unknowns" from the "unknown unknowns." This sounds very hard-headed. But is it really?

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Mega-Philanthropists Won’t End Poverty

Rapid Economic Development Will

Philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle for investment managers, corporate leaders, and nonprofits to come together and abet a curious form of ‘noble’ colonialism that accelerates inequality by reinforcing political and societal norms. The argument isn’t a new one, but that didn’t stop Warren Buffett’s son Peter from taking to the opinion pages of the New York Times with a proposal for a “new code” of philanthropy that will truly enable systematic change.

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Dark Age Politics

Energy Austerity A Return to Feudalism

Of all the fantasies that entrance neo-Malthusians, none is more dangerous than the idea that a low-energy, low-consumption, locavore world could be organized along egalitarian lines.

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Mugged By Reality

Nordhaus on the Smarter Environmental Agenda

In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.

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You Didn’t Build That

A Century of Government-Supported Technologies

On July 13, 2012, during the heat of the presidential election, President Barack Obama was making the point that entrepreneurs are always dependent on investments by the public in infrastructure, education, and science and technology. Describing a highway that enables a small business to ship its goods to market, the president memorably declared: “You didn’t build that.”

 

 

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Information Society

The Rise of Big Data

Covering everything that’s happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data’s magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. “If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick.”

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Neoclassical Mythmaking

How Not to Think About the Economy

This article was coauthored with Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC.

In the Middle Ages, people looked to the Church for certainty. In today’s complex, market-based economies, they look to the field of economics, at least for answers to questions concerning the economy. And unlike some disciplines, which acknowledge that there’s a huge gap between the scholarly knowledge and policy advice, economists have been anything but shy about asserting their authority.

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The Desecration Paradigm

Environmentalism's Antihuman Strain

Among the paradigms that structure discussion of environmental policy are what Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among others, have called the pollution, depletion, and conservation paradigms. To these, I think, another must be added: the desecration paradigm.

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How to Make Nuclear Cheap

Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency

Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.

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Can the British Decarbonize?

Targets Require Complete Coal-to-Gas Switch in a Decade

If the United Kingdom is going to hit its short-term targets for the emissions of carbon dioxide, then it is going to have to accelerate its rates of decarbonization observed since the passage of its 2008 Climate Change Act by a factor of four. Since the passage of that Act the rate of decarbonization in the UK has slowed dramatically from the rate observed during the pervious decade. The enormous magnitude of the task called for in the Act has been overshadowed by a debate of the setting of targets for the decarbonization of energy supply, targets which are already implied by the 2008 legislation and thus unnecessary.

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Where the iPhone Came From

Every Major Technology in Smartphones Came From US Government Investment

Albert Einstein famously held the view that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” What we think we know can limit what we see as possible. The greatest thinkers challenge what everyone believes to be obvious. They allow us to see the world anew.

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Libertarianism’s Apocryphal Past

The Triumph of Hamiltonian Liberalism

My previous Salon essay, in which I asked why there are not any libertarian countries, if libertarianism is a sound political philosophy, has infuriated members of the tiny but noisy libertarian sect, as criticisms of cults by outsiders usually do. The weak logic and bad scholarship that suffuse libertarian responses to my article tend to reinforce me in my view that, if they were not paid so well to churn out anti-government propaganda by plutocrats like the Koch brothers and various self-interested corporations, libertarians would play no greater role in public debate than do the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L. Ron Hubbard.

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The Failure of Libertarianism

Why Economic Freedom Alone Cannot Deliver a Better Future

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early 21st century is organized along libertarian lines?

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Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power

Going Green

No technology is more enshrouded in myth than nuclear energy. The urgency of addressing global poverty and reducing emissions demands that we consider this technology without ideological blinders. The basic facts of the technology — both good and bad — must be confronted. This Breakthrough Institute Frequently Asked Questions is backed by primary sources and addresses the toughest questions asked of nuclear.

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Ignoring Innovation

A Review of Michael Levi’s ‘The Power Surge’

The energy and climate challenge of the 21st century is easy enough to describe. For a world of 9 or 10 billion people to live at the per capita wealth and (highly efficient) energy consumption equivalent of present-day Germany, we will need three to four times as much energy as we consume today. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are to stop increasing, then nearly all of that future energy consumption must come from technologies that produce zero emissions.

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The State and the Innovation Economy

An Interview with William Janeway

Contrary to the libertarian beliefs of many tech investors, rising living standards often depend in large part on a robust state role, explains venture capitalist and economist William Janeway. The public sector has been indispensible in advancing transformative innovations, and must remain so by making massive investments in science and technology, often sustained over decades, and using its power of procurement to create new markets for nascent products.

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It’s Not About the Climate

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part One

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

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Welcome, Robot Overlords

How Intelligent Machines Let Us Enjoy Life

A surprising number of people seem to be freaking out about an imminent takeover by robots. It’s true that only at the fringe is anyone suggesting a Matrix-style dystopia where the machines rise up and enslave us. But the commonly-expressed conviction that technological innovation will immiserate broad segments of society is only somewhat less irrational.

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The Great Stagnation Myth

How We Have Grown Richer But Feel Poorer

The last decade was a lost one for the American middle class. It came on the heels of three decades of frozen wages. We have entered the Great Stagnation.

So goes the drumbeat. But when you look around, everyone seems richer. "If our obvious material affluence seems difficult to square with various narratives of economic decline," writes Brookings economist Scott Winship in a major new essay for Breakthrough Journal, "that's because it doesn't."

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The Affluent Economy

Our Misleading Obsession with Growth Rates

Nostalgia for the boom economic growth years of the 1950s and 1960s is misplaced. Americans of all classes have grown materially richer every decade since. The lower growth rates today are a function of the slower metabolism of large economies, not a sign that American capitalism is fundamentally broken. Higher rates of economic growth might be desirable, but whether or not they materialize, the stagnation discourse misrepresents the country's economic health. We will be better at solving unemployment and poverty by starting from the recognition that rising prosperity remains the norm of American economic life.

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Not To Be Trusted

Why the People Don’t Believe the Economists

I wrote recently about the American Economics Association panel called "What do economists think about major public policy issues?" Actually, I only talked about one of the two papers presented there; the other was by Luigi Zingales, and was entitled "Comparing Beliefs of Economists and the Public."

Zingales either performed a survey or reviewed a survey (I can't remember which) that compared economists' and non-economists' positions on policy issues. The paper found quite a bit of disagreement, but here's the really interesting part: When normal people were told the position of the economists, they changed their positions in the opposite direction.

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China’s National Innovation System

Learning from a Holistic, National Approach

Conversations about innovation in the United States are rife with the adversarial language of exceptionalism. Take, for example, a recent article by Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, in Forbes. In his eyes, America’s success as an innovation powerhouse can be traced to a “can-do attitude” that “treats failure as a learning experience,” a free and democratic society that “rewards savvy risk takers,” and an educational system that pushes students to question, not memorize. In a move that would make Steve Jobs proud, never once is any involvement in innovation by the federal government mentioned – American successes come from these exceptional Americans. By contrast, “the Chinese have a long tradition of copying others, not… having a culture that even recognizes [intellectual property], and a bias towards conformism.”

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Why Economists Don’t Get Technology

Beyond Behavior Change

The gap between the cultures of technology and academic economics was on display at the 2013 meeting of the American Economic Association in San Diego last Friday and Saturday. On Saturday, January 5, Rice University’s Kenneth Barry Medlock moderated a panel entitled “The Future of Energy: Markets, Technology and Policy” that featured Jim Sweeney of Stanford, Dale Jorgenson of Harvard, and Adam Sieminski of the US Energy Information Administration.

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Are Toll Lanes Unequal?

A Response to the Rawlsian Critics

What’s the latest threat to opportunity in America? Toll lanes. Or so Dan Sarewitz argues in a recent piece at The Breakthrough about new high occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes on the Washington DC Beltway. He claims, “market rationality imposed on roadways that all people depend on for their livelihoods and social lives means that poor people will be increasingly required to travel more slowly than those with more money.”

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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It’s Not About the Machines

How Leading Economists Misunderstand Productivity and Jobs

Writing in the New York Times last week, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that “a wonderful ride” began to unravel in the late 1990s when employment growth became “decoupled” from productivity growth.

Their contention is that something fundamental has changed in the economy over the past decade, illustrated in the following graph by the increasing gap between gains in productivity and employment, described ominously as the “jaws of the snake.”

A closer look at the data shows, however, that the “jaws of the snake” have been open for more than 30 years. More fundamentally, rather than a “great decoupling” between trends in employment and productivity, it is clear that productivity and employment have been diverging for a very long time as the composition of the economy has changed.

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Let Them Eat Solar Panels

The Hypocrisy of Western Greens on Energy Poverty

Imagine the United States sending low-calorie food aid to Ethiopia in response to the global obesity epidemic. Absurd, right? Even if global waistline trends are worrisome, Ethiopians didn't create the problem. Such a policy would be futile since it would have no noticeable impact on the global aggregate.

Worse, while obesity may be a very real concern, Ethiopians are understandably more focused on undernourishment. The United States should aim instead to increase caloric intake in that part of the world. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even tackle the obesity problem at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.

Sadly, that is pretty much what the United States does on energy. In response to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. government put restrictions on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that is a principal tool for promoting investment in poor countries. A recent rule, added in response to a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, imposes blind caps on the total CO2 emissions in OPIC's portfolio, which ends up barring the agency from nearly all non-renewable electricity projects.

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Unequal at Any Speed

How the Beltway's New 'Hot Lanes' Divide Us into Speed-Rich and Speed-Poor

Advances in real-time data acquisition, processing, and display technologies means that it is possible to design a toll-road that can continually change prices to control how many cars are on the road and how fast they are going.  These “hot lanes” have just been opened along a part of the Washington, DC Beltway, the 10-lane, traffic-infested artery that to normal humans is a metaphorical boundary between the real, outside-the-Beltway world and the weird, political one on the inside.  (For those of us who live around Washington and must drive on it, however, the Beltway is a very concrete indeed, a daily flirtation with delay and frustration, homicidal instincts, and death itself.)

At a cost of two billion dollars, a private sector partnership (which gets to keep the tolls) has built a 14-mile-long, 4-laned section of highway, parallel to the main lanes of the toll-free Beltway, and has guaranteed to the state of Virginia that it will always keep traffic moving at no less that 45 mph along its length.  They do this by continuously monitoring the number of cars (which must be equipped with EZ-Pass transponders) and their speed, and by raising toll prices as necessary to keep the number of cars on the road at a level that will allow the speed to stay at or above the guaranteed minimum.  The dynamic toll prices are displayed on huge signs near the entrances to the smart-highway lanes, so drivers get to decide at the last minute whether they want to spend the money to go faster or not.  As the traffic on the toll-free Beltway lanes gets worse, some drivers will be willing to spend more to go faster.  The worse the traffic is, the more they’ll have to spend.  (In the early days of this new technology, numerous accidents were caused by drivers trying to decide how much they were willing to pay, but no doubt this initial problem will sort itself out as people get used to driving-while-economically-rational.)

Of course economic rationality benefits some more than others.  As long ago as 1973, the philosopher Ivan Illich recognized that speed was an issue at the intersection of technology and justice. In his extended essay “Energy and Equity,” Illich observed presciently, if somewhat obscurely, that the quest for speed in transportation was an unrecognized domain in which technological advance itself led to increasing inequity of distribution of social and economic opportunity:

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Robot Cars Not an Automatic

Why the future of self driving cars will be societally driven

The self-driving car has been invented, but is it likely to be widely adopted by as a mode of transport? Will we really buy self-driving cars? Or will we hire them like taxis, or even hop on and off them (or in and out of them) like buses? What would have to change in the way we live our everyday lives in order for us to adopt this strange interloper? And what sort of other things and services might we need to support travelling around in driverless cars?

Some of these questions go so far into the future that we can't possibly know the answers. So let's start with what we do know, and that is, perhaps surprisingly, the technology behind a self-driving car.

The concept of the self-driving (or, more alarmingly put, the driverless car) relies on the clever assembly of many existing technologies. There are several versions of the driverless car in existence, so let's focus on one of them. Google's car is perhaps the most widely covered. Developed through their long collaboration with Stanford University, it cleverly combines a raft of technologies that most of us, in one way and another, are fairly familiar with.

The car uses data gathered from Google Street View with artificial intelligence software, inputs from video cameras installed inside the car, a light detecting and ranging sensor (LIDAR) on the roof, a radar sensor on the front and positioning sensors on the rear wheels. Interestingly, the self-driving car looks suspiciously similar to any other car (only with a few extra gadgets). This is likely to change as the physical constraints presented by these technologies are overcome by the skills of designers that reconfigure interior car spaces as meeting rooms, cafes or perhaps even playrooms.

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The Garage Innovation Myth

Complicating Silicon Valley's Creation Story

In a musty garage at 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto, Calif., in 1938, two chaps — William Hewlett and David Packard — built an audio oscillator, the HP200A.  Later, they sold eight of them to Walt Disney Studios to certify the sound systems in theaters that would feature the first major film released in stereophonic sound, “Fantasia.”  The results: The birth of Silicon Valley and the creation of an enduring myth about innovation.

Soon, others piled on.  Apple.  Cisco.  Intel.  Bill Gates.  Steve Jobs.  They “represent” millionaire inventors and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes not by getting their hands dirty with government assistance, but by rolling up their sleeves, sequestering themselves in their mythic garages, and spinning brilliant products that would change the modern world.

But here’s the problem:  none of it is really true.

As Argonne National Laboratory director Eric Isaacs remarked in Slate.com in May, “As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream…our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude.”

The reality, of course, is that even Messrs. Hewlett and Packard benefited from critical assistance via the federal science enterprise in garnering their vast technological fortune.  “It’s certainly true that Hewlett and Packard began building their first commercial audio oscillators inside that historic garage. But the prototype of those oscillators was built in the laboratory of Stanford University electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman,” Isaacs wrote. “And Packard later wrote that many of those early devices were built using technical equipment at an engineering lab owned by a friend, an engineer and entrepreneur named Charles Litton. So while that Palo Alto garage may be a legendary landmark for the IT industry, Hewlett-Packard would not have been possible without its founders’ access to state-of-the-art engineering labs.”

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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