Archive for the ‘Technology and Globalization’ Category

Biofuels and Mitigation/Adaptation

April 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In Europe the debate over biofuels production targets has become the most recent example of the larger debate over mitigation versus adaptation. Biofuels have been held up by some as offering a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, and thus contributing in some way to the mitigation of climate change. The European Union has gone so far as to adopt biofuel production targets.

At the same time the world has seen food prices increase dramatically in recent times with some people pointing a finger at biofuels as contributing to those price increases. The increased price of food means that those with the most tenuous access to nutrition could slip into malnutrition or worse. This is why one UN official called biofuels production policies a “crime against humanity.”

Deutsche Welle has a nice overview:

The European Union said it is sticking to its biofuel goals despite mounting criticism from top environmental agencies and poverty advocates.

“There is no question for now of suspending the target fixed for biofuels,” Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said Monday, April 14.

But her boss struck a different tone, acknowledging that the EU had underestimated problems caused by biofuels and saying that the 27-nation block planned to “move very carefully.”

Yet the EU is wary of abandoning biofuels amid worries that doing so could derail its landmark climate change and energy package. In it, Europe pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Part of the package includes setting a target for biofuels to make up 10 percent of automobile fuel.

Biofuel a culprit in food crisis

Jean ZieglerBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Ziegler called biofuel a “crime against humanity”

In recent months food prices have increased sharply. Biofuels are seen as one of several culprits. Land that used to be planted with food crops has been converted to biofuel production, which has increased prices.

UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler told German radio Monday that the production of biofuels is “a crime against humanity” because of its impact on global food prices.

The UN’s Ziegler isn’t alone in his criticism of biofuel.

The debate over biofuels illustrates that the debate over mitigation and adaptation is not just academic, but reflected in real world outcomes. It also highlights that policies can have unintended consequences. If we factor in recent research that claims that the carbon-cutting potential of biofules has been overstated, then it appears that the high hopes for biofuels as a contributor to mitigation probably need to be scaled back dramatically.

Food Price FAQs

April 14th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here are a few useful FAQs on recent increasing prices of food around the world:

International Monetary Fund (FAQ link)

UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAQ link)

World Bank (Link)

Gary Becker and Richard Posner (Link)

Please feel free to add useful resources in the comments.

Worldwatch Wants You to Think

January 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

prius v nano.png

Worldwatch asks a challenging question:

One car gets 46 miles per gallon, features fancy accessories, and sports two engines with a combined 145 horsepower. The other car reportedly gets 54 miles per gallon, runs on a diminutive 30-horsepower engine, and is positively spartan in its interior trimmings. The first is a darling of the environmentally conscious. The latter is reviled as a climate wrecker. These two vehicles are the Toyota Prius and the newly unveiled Tata Nano, dubbed “the people’s car.” Is there a double standard?

Technology ,Trade, and U.S. Pollution

January 2nd, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

At the Vox blog Georgetown’s Arik Levinson asks:

Since the 1970s, US manufacturing output has risen by 70% but air pollution has fallen by 58%. Was this due to improved abatement technology or shifting dirty production abroad?

He answers the question with some very nice empirical research. Here are his conclusions:

What is the bottom line? Increased net imports of polluting goods account for about 70 percent of the composition-related decline in US manufacturing pollution. The composition effect in turn explains about 40 percent of the overall decline in pollution from US manufacturing. Putting these two findings together, international trade can explain at most 28 percent of the clean-up of US manufacturing.


Why should we care?

If the 75% reduction in pollution from US manufacturing resulted from increased international trade, the pundits and protestors might have a case. Environmental improvements might be said to have imposed large, unmeasured environmental costs on the countries from which those goods are imported. And more importantly, the improvements in the US would not be replicable by all countries indefinitely, because the poorest countries in the world will never have even poorer countries from which to import their pollution-intensive goods. The US clean-up would simply have been the result of the US coming out ahead in an environmental zero-sum game, merely shifting pollution to different locations. However, if the US pollution reductions come from technology, nothing suggests those improvements cannot continue indefinitely and be repeated around the world. The analyses here suggest that most the pollution reductions have come from improved technology, that the environmental concerns of antiglobalization protesters have been overblown, and that the pollution reduction achieved by US manufacturing will replicable by other countries in the future.

Technology Assessment and Globalization

December 18th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

My latest column for Bridges is out, and it is titled “Technology Assessment and Globalization”. This is a subject that I’ll be devoting a lot more time to in 2008.


Here is an excerpt:

When my parents brought home our first color television in the early 1970s, they could not have envisioned that they were contributing in a small but significant way to forces of globalization that 30 years later have resulted in their grandchildren asking me for sushi as a treat from our local grocery store.

Read it here and listen to the podcast here.

Parable About the Precariousness of Monoculture

December 16th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In today’s New York Times magazine there is an interesting article by Michael Pollan on the consequences of technological innovation in pursuit of ever more efficiency in agricultural production. Here is an excerpt:

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though what form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected times and places. Two stories in the news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

The stories that he discusses are pig farming and bee pollination. The bottom line according to Pollan?

Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.