Links for the Week Ending 6 April 2014

  • The second instalment of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), titled “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability”, was released in Tokyo on the 31st March and can be found here. The “Summary for Policymakers” can be downloaded here. On page 19 of the Summary, the IPCC states that “the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of around 2 degrees Celsius are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (± one standard deviation around the mean)” with the risk for higher rather than lower losses. The report then goes on to say “Losses accelerate with greater warming, but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3 degrees Celsius or above”. Given that it looks almost impossible that we will constrain warming to 2 degrees Celsius based on the current CO2 emission path and the installed fossil fuel energy infrastructure base, the world really is going into an unknown world of risk with climate change.
  • A key area of economic loss from climate change relates to drought. To date, most models have focussed on precipitation as the principal driver of drought. A new paper by Cook et al in the journal Climate Dynamics titled “Global Warming and Drought in the 21st Century” gives greater emphasis to the role of evaporation (more technically, potential evapotranspiration or PET) in drought. Through better modelling of PET, the paper sees 43% of the global land area experiencing significant dryness by end of 21st century, up from 23% for models that principally looked at precipitation alone. A non-technical summary of the paper can be found here.
  • Meanwhile, the general public has lapsed back into apathy around the whole climate change question, partially due to the hiatus period in temperature rise we are currently experiencing. However, evidence is slowly mounting that we could be about to pop out of the hiatus on the back of a strong El Nino event (periods of high global temperature are linked to El Ninos). Weather Underground has been doing a good job of tracking this developing story, with another guest post from Dr. Michael Ventrice (here) explaining the major changes in the Pacific Ocean that have taken place over the last two months and which are setting us up for an El Nino event later in the spring or summer.
  • Changing subject, The Economist magazine ran a special report last week on robotics titled “Immigrants from the Future“. In some ways, I came away less impressed by the capabilities of the existing generation of robots than more.
  • I often blog on happiness issues (most recently here). This may seem strange for a blog whose stated focus is on such global risks as resource depletion and climate change, but I don’t see the contradiction. For me, much of our striving to extract and burn as much fossil fuel as possible comes through the pursuit of goals that don’t necessarily make us more happy. A new book by Zachary Karabell titled “The Leading Indicators” adds a new dimension to this argument. Karabell argues that over the last century or so we have created a series of statistics that are more than pure measurements of economic success. In short, they are ideology laden more than ideology free. Political parties set out their manifestos based on a mishmash of economic achievements and goals based on GDP, unemployment, inflation, the trade balance, interest rates, the strength of their national currency and so on and so forth. But these number encapsulate only part of well-being. Yet such statistics totally dominate political discourse because that is how we have been taught to keep score in a modern capitalist economy. As we career towards extremely dangerous climate change, I think it is time that we recognise these economic indicators for what they frequently have become: false gods. Karabell has an article in The Atlantic setting out the book’s main ideas here and there is a good review in The Week here.
  • Rising inequality has been one of the major economic development over the past 40 years. I am a great fan of the Word Bank economist Branko Milanovic, who wrote a wonderful book called “The Haves and Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality“, in which he pulls together many strands of the inequality literature within a global context. I blogged on this once here. A nice complement to this book is the new web site titled Chartbook of Economic Inequality, which has been put together by two academic economists Anthony Atkinson and Salvatore Morelli. If you like infographics, you will love this site.

5 responses to “Links for the Week Ending 6 April 2014

  1. There’s an interesting report at‎ detailing trends in renewable energy investment worldwide. Renewable energy investment was $270b in 2013, mostly wind, solar, and hydro. This was about the same as fossil fuel investment, but a lot of the latter was to replace existing infrastructure. The net fossil fuel investment was $150b (just for power stations I think, the investment in all ff infrastructure must be much bigger). So, renewable energy investment has exceeded net fossil fuel investment, and has done so for 3 years running, which is an important marker post. In fact the growth of renewable energy sources is just incredible, with solar running at 38% growth and wind at 20%. World solar capacity is 136GW, wind is 318GW, out of total world electricity capacity of 5100GW. So, although they are not big enough to have a large impact overall, they should be doing so within a very few years. The industry and the governments that encouraged deserve applause. The downside is of course that new fossil fuel investment is continuing – it has to go negative before we can see any decrease in GHG emissions. The other big disappointment is investment in energy efficiency (smart grids, batteries, insulation, electric cars etc) at only $19b, and CCS at $3b is a joke.

    I can kind of understand why. Even on a domestic scale energy efficiency does not ‘pay’. I can spend $10K on a home solar PV system which will save me $1K a year – good investment (actually I haven’t gotten around to doing this yet.) But $70K on an electric car that will save me $1K a year – bad investment. Petrol would have to cost 7x as much before there would be a mad scramble to buy electric cars.

    This report quotes 3-4 degrees of likely warming, presumably by 2100, and there does seem to be a trend over the past year to start considering that possibility, as 2 degrees starts to seem out of reach. And yet the IPCC couldn’t find any reliable studies on the impact of such warming, which is a bit of a worry.

    The El Nino story, like the hiatus story, to me shows how much more comfortable people (including scientists) are with short-term pictures and forecasts. Some of those web sites are following individual pockets of hot water across the Pacific and estimating the odds of them being big enough to trigger an El Nino. But perhaps there is a positive side to this aspect of human nature – a massive El Nino, a new record hot year in 2014 or 2015, some epic heat waves and droughts will certainly focus public attention. If the general public has ‘lapsed back into apathy’ for the moment, the long-term trend for world attention on climate change is still massively on the up.

    • Robert: Over the long term, you are right that the world attention on climate change will only rise. That is why I think that any political party that attaches itself to the climate skeptic bandwagon is doomed to failure. In 10 or 20 years time, there will be few skeptics. It’s more a question of how much warning will be locked in when we reach that point.

  2. Some more figures. I read at that subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are $520b a year, and gross fossil fuel investment was $897b in 2012. So the Renewable Energy report I quoted earlier may have been putting a bit of a positive spin on things.

  3. Matthew Nayler

    Further to Robert’s “$70K on an electric car that will save me $1K a year – bad investment”. One thing I have never understood about the potential switch to electric cars is whether the big idea is that we switch from our current leviathans to something similar but electric powered, or whether oil needs to get to such a price that we first lower our sights to (petrol-powered) tiny boxes, never get above 50mph, do 300mpg, no toys, look pathetic etc etc and then make the switch to an electric buggy – at zero price premium and substantial savings in running costs. Hence whether all current electric car hype is just as much tosh as the petrol-heads chatter.

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