Materials recycling has been practiced for thousands of years, but typically only when it has made economic sense to do so. Thomas J. Bruno mentions several cases in which recycled inputs have been heavily relied upon, not because of mandates, but because of demand for reuse or as inputs to various kinds of production. For example, the “rag trade” provided an important input to “new” clothing till about 1900, and the trade still exists today. Here’s Bruno on some other prominent examples:
“Steel is highly recycled already, with structural steel being 93% recycled. Currently, 97% of discarded automotive steel is used in new cars and other products. The market position for aluminum is also good; 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.”
Bruno’s key point is that recycling anything is a process that uses resources. It involves fixed costs of plant and variable costs for other inputs like water, energy, various chemicals, and labor. Thus, recycling makes economic sense and is efficient only when the private demand for recycled end-products justifies the costs of processing the used materials. Otherwise, on balance recycling is a waste of scarce resources.
Yet recycling enthusiasts and too many policymakers proceed under the misapprehension that recycling anything always makes sense! This is blind recycling! They approach the question with a certain religious fervor, rather than sharp pencils and the minds to wield them effectively. The resource costs are borne by local taxpayers, and they are not insignificant. These include the cost of additional facilities, running multiple trucks, and further sorting. If industrial buyers of these materials fail in their assessment of demand for goods with recycled content, then they bear the cost of any additional transport, processing, and disposal. Recycling shouldn’t salve the guilt that anyone associates with producing waste when, as is so often the case, nobody wants that shit! It ends up in the landfill and the effort to reuse ends up as waste as well. But still, the green public veneer of recycling programs remains in place.
Plastics recycling has proven to be perhaps the greatest disappointment to recycling enthusiasts. According to Bruno:
“Mechanical recycling involves grinding and remelting the plastic into a stream suitable for molding, but only a few types (out of thousands) of plastics can be so reprocessed. … Chemically recycling waste plastics has been an unmitigated disaster, resulting in product streams with far worse properties than virgin feedstocks.”
Those difficulties might be surmounted with improved technology or novel uses for plastic waste. Read this for an interesting discussion of using plastic in roads in place of bitumen for binding asphalt, or as modular panels in forming road base, but there is a long way to go before these are viable and economic alternatives.
Regulating products to require recycled content is just as harmful an intrusion as mandates on consumers and businesses to recycle used materials having little or no value. Predictably, it leads to degradations in quality and/or higher processing costs, with the ultimate burden shared by producers and users of end products. If it made economic sense, producers would already use more recycled inputs, but that is often out of the question. Mandates only bring more harm.
Despite constant handwringing in the media and among environmentalists, landfill capacity in the U.S. is adequate. Landfill space is priced based on scarcity, like any other resource. More landfill space will be brought on-line when market prices signal its profitability, despite the power of NIMBY-ism even in desolate lands. That usually can be overcome by compensatory arrangements. Landfills are far better managed and sealed today than in the past. Meanwhile, solid waste compression and techniques that speed the process of decomposition are stretching the capacity of existing landfills.
Once again, this is all a matter of economics. The value of avoiding the use of landfills via recycling is often just not there. Uneconomic recycling is simply a waste of scarce resources.
The quotation headlined above is from Duke University economist Michael Munger, and it’s essentially what I’ve contended for years (see “When Is Recycling Not Wasteful?“). Munger’s latest essay on this subject is entitled, “For Most Things, Recycling Harms the Environment“. The reasons are very basic: resource costs. As Munger says, the degree of economic and environmental justification for recycling varies, depending on the item, but few supporters of recycling ever bother to look into the details.
First, a very basic economic point: resource conservation is beneficial for the environment. Sometimes there are technological trade-offs between conservation of different resources, but costs are always a matter of resource use: less use, lower total costs. Resource conservation is synonymous with lower costs. Indeed, that is why we are told to recycle, and that is what most people think they’re doing when they recycle.
But while recycling always conserves some resource more or less directly, the mere process of recycling uses other resources. This includes the costs of rolling trucks to collect the items, including fuel, labor, machinery and labor for sorting, water, chemicals, more distant shipping, and separate processes to convert the items into usable goods. In its entirety, then, recycling often does not conserve resources.
Voluntary consumer-recyclers seldom face the marginal costs of recycling directly. This highlights the general nature of environmental problems that arise in any society: external costs are often borne by parties external to the activity in question. And here is where the story of recycling’s poor economics gets interesting. Recycling advocates would have us believe that our private use of products, for which we generally pay full cost, imposes external or social costs on others unless we recycle all recyclable components of the product and it’s packaging. In fact, the opposite is often true!
Therefore, governments, fully on-board with popular recycling myths, often mandate recycling, which is another way of saying that you are not free to make your own decision based on costs and benefits. So the costs of recycling are on you, but you are unimpacted at any margin along which you can make decisions. You are forced to internalize some part of the costs that are presumptively avoided via recycling according to the myth. You pay taxes to fund the collection of materials at the curb, but governments often require citizens to clean and sort those materials. That carries significant costs that governments prefer to remain implicit.
This is to say nothing of the actual net value of the recycled materials, which is often negative. Certain items require so much processing and produce materials of such low quality that no one wants them. Virgin materials are often cheaper than fully processed recycled material, and usually yield better quality, or both. Far better, then, to pay the cost of transporting these kinds of discards to landfills and paying for the low-cost landfill space, which is plentiful, contrary to greenist propaganda.
Munger provides examples of such wasteful-to-recycle materials. For instance, attempts to recycle glass bottles are often completely non-productive relative to landfilling. That’s due to cost factors, lousy quality after processing, and weak market prices for recycled glass. Plastics are of questionable value as recyclables as well: huge quantities had been shipped to the Far East, but the volume was too much for the Chinese (and too dirty, they claimed), so it often ended-up in landfills anyway. Last year, the Chinese banned imports of recyclable plastics from several countries, which means that our plastic materials are probably headed for our own landfills. Yet we still go to the trouble of preparing and collecting them for recycling.
According to Munger, aluminum cans are worthwhile to recycle relative to landfilling. So are certain types of cardboard (though the Chinese don’t want some of those either). Also, scrap metals are privately recycled via active markets for the materials.
Private parties who can internalize costs in their voluntary decisions are wise to abide by the following:
“I have sometimes suggested a test for whether something is garbage or a valuable commodity. Hold it in your hand, or hold a cup of it, or tank, or however you can handle it. Consider: Will someone pay me for this? If the answer is yes, it’s a commodity, a valuable resource. If the answer is no, meaning you have to pay them to take it, then it’s garbage.”
Of course, society as a whole must internalize costs. There’s no way around it. Therefore, governments should behave as if they internalize costs as well, though they hardly ever do. They would sooner mandate recycling when they know full well that the simple economics outlined above don’t support it. That means an unnecessary consumption of resources is attributable to the recycling charade, which is environmentally unsound by the strictest of Green standards.
I am not quite so hard on government recycling mandates when there exist significant external costs associated with sending uneconomic trash to landfills, or when there are real efficiencies associated with recycling. Landfills must price their space efficiently, collecting sufficient fees from users to pay for environmental mitigation as well as the payoffs necessary to mollify those nearby who might happen to harbor NIMBY-ism. But recycling mandates offer strong evidence that the economics of recycling are not worthwhile. So please, whenever you are told that recycling is virtuous, be suspicious. As Munger says, it’s largely a fraud.
Recycling is not wasteful when it makes economic sense to recycle, without government force brought to bear in the form of mandates, taxes or subsidies. The argument that private parties undertake recycling to a less-than-optimal extent is based on the notion that there are external benefits of recycling that go unrecognized. According to this line of thinking, government must mandate recycling and must tax or impose fees to provide recycling infrastructure. It must demand that producers of goods utilize a certain percentage of recycled materials. Children must be taught the sustainability, goodness, and sanctity of recycling. These positions are ill-founded and misdirect resources toward excessive, and yes, sometimes wasteful recycling.
In 2010, The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) published an excellent paper by Daniel K. Benjamin entitled “Recycling Myths Revisited“. Benjamin begins by offering “a brief history of rubbish”, which recalls the great extent to which recycling efforts have always been made out of sheer self-interest. Scavenging is as old as civilization, and recycling efforts have generated inputs to production from the start of the industrial age. Some older recycling activities have become obsolete for various reasons; others have been spawned by new technology.
Benjamin’s history of rubbish recounts the history of landfill usage and development. He discusses one seminal event in the history of rubbish: the Mobro 4000 garbage barge from New York City. Rumors of hazardous waste aboard the Mobro led to it’s rejection at various rubbish “ports of call”. However, inaccurate reports circulated that the issue was a shortage of landfill space, a narrative that certain parties were only too happy to encourage, including the EPA and certain trade groups. The episode is a fascinating example of rumor, misinformation and manipulation.
“Although the physical availability of landfill space was not an issue, that was not how the situation played out in the press. The Mobro, said a reporter on a live TV feed from the barge itself, “really dramatizes the nationwide crisis we face with garbage disposal”. A strange cast of characters went on to turn Mobro’s miseries into a national cause. …
The result of this steady drumbeat of expressed concern was a growing fear that America was running out of places to put its garbage and that yesterday’s household trash could somehow become tomorrow’s toxic waste. By 1995, surveys revealed that Americans thought trash was the number one environmental problem, and 77 percent reported that increased recycling of household rubbish was the solution. Yet these claims and fears were based on errors and misinformation— myths of recycling.“
From there, Benjamin proceeds with an excellent discussion of eight recycling-related myths, which I attempt to summarize below:
We are running out of space for our trash: no, the capacity of landfills in the U.S. has outpaced growth in refuse for years. At 500 feet deep, a century’s worth of trash in the U.S. would fit into an area of five square miles. There is no shortage at all.
Trash threatens our health and ecosystem: actually, the EPA estimates that health dangers posed by landfills are close to zero. Older landfills sited on wetlands or containing any hazardous industrial waste are the only real threat, which has nothing to do with recycling today. Benjamin describes the superior design features of modern landfills.
Packaging is our problem: packaging “amounts to about 30 percent of what goes into landfills, down from 36 percent in 1970“. Thanks to innovations, the thickness and weight of almost every kind of packaging has declined significantly over the years. Moreover, packaging actually reduces waste in many instances by minimizing breakage and spoilage. For example, with packaging you deal with much less waste in your kitchen every time you buy chicken. The producer is able to recycle the useable waste more efficiently than you ever could.
Trade in trash is wasteful: no, trade in trash allows it to be placed where it costs the least, including dumping fees and transportation costs. Both parties to a trash transaction are likely to benefit, including those in areas that import trash by virtue of the local fees and taxes paid by landfills.
We are running out of resources: no we’re not, but it’s not that the total stock of earthbound resources is infinite (though many resources like forests are renewable). Instead, as Benjamin asserts, it’s that proven reserves of many resources keep growing, and the effective known stocks of nonrenewable resources are continually stretched by human ingenuity. Even land! Within a few decades, some resources are likely be mined on extraterrestrial bodies, but only if it makes economic sense. This is not to deny that scarcity is real, but prices in well-functioning markets always convey the degree of scarcity, the value of conservation, the cost of substitutes, the value of new exploration, and the value of new technological efficiencies. Right now, the world is awash in many commodities, and their prices reflect a relative lack of scarcity.
Recycling always protects the environment: this is nonsense. “Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has an environmental impact. … over the past 25 years, a large body of literature devoted to life-cycle analyses of products from their birth to death has repeatedly found that recycling can increase pollution as well as decrease it (EPA 2006, 2010).” Benjamin notes that curbside recycling may well have a negative environmental impact due to the resource costs of the extra trucks, fuel, and exhaust required to collect it. The point is that tradeoffs exist and should not be ignored.
Recycling saves resources: not if the recycled material is inferior to virgin material, with attendant inefficiencies and lower-valued final products; not if the process absorbs more resources than it saves. These kinds of decisions are best left to rational market participants, for whom the question of recycling is a matter of self-interest. “Commercial and industrial recycling is a vibrant, profitable market that turns discards and scraps into marketable products. But collecting from consumers is far more costly, and it results in the collection of items that are far less valuable.” When low-value recycling is mandated or subsidized, the true cost of the activity is hidden.
Without recycling mandates, there wouldn’t be recycling: “Another force behind mandatory recycling is ignorance about the extent of recycling in the private sector. Private sector recycling is as old as trash itself. For as long as humans have been discarding rubbish, other humans have sifted through it for items of value. Indeed, … scavenging may well be the oldest profession.” Recycling must make economic sense. If it doesn’t, it simply should not happen.
Benjamin’s paper is loaded with great illustrations of all these points. Here’s one of my own: Some years ago, a local municipality was revealed to be sending recyclables to a landfill due to the low market value of the material. Net of the costs of sorting, selling and transporting the materials to buyers, it was apparently better to pay the fees for normal waste disposal. Residents were justifiably furious, but the reality is that recycled materials have a value that fluctuates. That value reflects the real resources the recycled materials can save, if any. However, the value may not always cover the variable cost of collecting the recyclables, let alone the fixed costs of the process. That’s to say nothing of the costs imposed on individuals by mandates.
The eight points above demonstrate that there is little in the way of external benefits from recycling. There is nothing mystical here to justify government coercion. Recycling must make economic sense and it must be voluntary. When we allow government to force the decision, the sure result is an overallocation of resources to an endeavor presumed by its adherents to save resources. There is no paradox. It’s just more waste.
It doesn’t take much due diligence to reveal that certain green “commitments” are flimsy gestures at best. I discussed the poor economics of recycling mandates in a post a few days ago. Here I discuss two other prominent examples of fake virtue: so-called carbon offsets and green bonds. These are devices often utilized by private actors to assuage activists, gain favor with public policymakers., or simply to claim and promote themselves as “zero-footprint”. No doubt many well-intentioned people believe in the goodness of these instruments, blissfully ignorant of the underlying fakery. Of course, this is dwarfed by the broad flimsiness (and cost implications) of claims about climate catastrophe, which is what motivates carbon credits and most green bonds in the first place. The includes “commitments” made by various nations under the Paris Climate Accords, but that is a subject for another day.
I mentioned Blake Lovewall’s interesting commentary on carbon credits recently. Purchasing these credits is a way of “greenwashing” activities that emit carbon dioxide. Also known as carbon offsets, this is a $2 billion market with growth fueled by a desire by businesses to appeal to environmental activists and “green” investors, and to boost their ESG scores. I’ll quote here from my own piece, which had as it’s main thrust the waste inherent in wind and solar projects (Lovewall quotes are in blue type):
“The resulting carbon emissions are, in reality, unlikely to be offset by any quantity of carbon credits these firms might purchase, which allow them to claim a ‘zero footprint’. Blake Lovewall describes the sham in play here:
‘The biggest and most common Carbon offset schemes are simply forests. Most of the offerings in Carbon marketplaces are forests, particularly in East Asian, African and South American nations. …
The only value being packaged and sold on these marketplaces is not cutting down the trees. Therefore, by not cutting down a forest, the company is maintaining a ‘Carbon sink’ …. One is paying the landowner for doing nothing. This logic has an acronym, and it is slapped all over these heralded offset projects: REDD. That is a UN scheme called “Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”. I would re-name it to, “Sell off indigenous forests to global investors”.’
Lovewall goes on to explain that these carbon offset investments do not ensure that forests remain pristine by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, the requirements for managing these ‘preserves’ are often subject to manipulation by investors working with government; as such, the credits are often vehicles for graft. In Indonesia, for example, carbon credited forests have been converted to palm oil plantations without any loss of value to the credits! Lovewall also cites a story about carbon offset investments in Brazil, where the credits provided capital for a massive dam in the middle of the rainforest. This had severe environmental and social consequences for indigenous peoples. It’s also worth noting that planting trees, wherever that might occur under carbon credits, takes many years to become a real carbon sink.”
Lovewall makes a strong case that carbon credits are a huge fraud. This was reinforced by a recent investigation conducted by the Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, a “non-profit investigative journalism organization”, according to the Guardian. The investigation was based on independent research studies as well as interviews with various parties. They found that at least 90% of “rainforest credits” do not represent carbon reductions. Two studies found no abatement whatsoever in deforestation under the credits. Furthermore, the deforestation threats (absent credits) had been overstated by some 400%. The investigation also noted serious human rights violations associated with the offset projects. Rainforest credits are only one kind of carbon offset, but similar problems plague other types of credits as well, such as those earned by shuttering fossil fuel plants in developing countries desperately short on power generation.
That so much of the carbon credit market is fraudulent should infuriate climate change radicals. The findings also are a disgrace to participants in these markets, revealing that much of the “net zero” propaganda trumpeted by corporate PR organizations is a charade. Regrettably, it is motivated by an unnecessary panic over carbon dioxide emissions and their presumed role in global warming. Spending on environmental initiatives should be a warning flag for investors. The resources firms dedicate to those credits deserve careful scrutiny. The fascination with ESG scores is another sign that corporate managers have lost sight of their fundamental mission: to maximize shareholder value by serving their customers well.
Another suspicious form of “commitment” is embodied in the issuance of so-called “green bonds” to raise funds for environmental initiatives. This form of investing is so ostensibly “virtuous” that these bonds are demanded even with specific commitments that are quite “soft”. This just released study finds that green bonds offer little assurance of any positive environmental impact:
“… we find a concerning lack of enforceability of green promises. Moreover, these promises have been getting weaker over time. Green bonds often make vague commitments, exclude failures to live up to those commitments from default events, and disclaim an obligation to perform in other parts of the document. These shortcomings are known to market participants. Yet, demand for these instruments has been growing. We ask why green bond promises are so weak, while the same investors demand strong promises from the same issuers in other settings.”
Green bonds are “virtue ornaments” typically purchased by institutional investors with some sort of environmental or ESG objective. Apparently, earning returns is an afterthought. Unfortunately, these funds managers are usually investing on behalf of other people. While some of those clients might wholly support the environmental objectives, many others have no clue.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, and I’m tempted to say caveat emptor applies here. However, it really is a remarkable breach of fiduciary duty to manage funds based on objectives other than maximizing expected returns, or to in any way sacrifice returns in favor of “green” objectives. That is happening before our very eyes. Even clients who wish to invest funds for green objectives are being shaken down here. According to the research cited above, the green bond “commitments” are hardly worth the paper they’re written on.
Institutional investors go right along, scrambling to add green bonds to their portfolios. This helps drive down the effective cost of funds to the green bond issuers. Thus, highly speculative climate or environmental initiatives can be funded on the cheap. They do, however, produce lucrative opportunities for the climate crisis industry.
One More Time
People save to build wealth, typically for their retirement years. If that’s your objective, you probably shouldn’t invest in firms expending their resources on carbon credits. At best, the credits are a buy-off to activists. who are just as ignorant of the whole sham.
One might plausibly ask whether I should love carbon credits because they allow, at least, certain forms of beneficial economic activity to avoid challenge by crazies. Perhaps that’s true taking the world as it is, but my hope is that exposing various layers of climate hysteria and craziness is one way to change the world. The whole carbon credit enterprise enables extraction of still greater rents by climate change opportunists, to say nothing of human rights abuses taking place under the guise of these credits.
Like carbon offsets, green bonds promote fictitious virtue, They are another way in which green profiteers extract rents from well-meaning savers and investors, some of whom are unaware that ESG objectives are undermining their returns. Even if investors prefer to sacrifice returns in the pursuit of green goals, the initiatives thus funded often have no environmental merit, particularly when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. Despite the efforts of these bonds issuers to convince us of their green bona fides, their “commitments” to green results are usually flimsy.
Just how renewable is “renewable” energy, or more specifically solar and wind power? Intermittent though they are, the wind will always blow and the sun will shine (well, half a day with no clouds). So the possibility of harvesting energy from these sources is truly inexhaustible. Obviously, it also takes man-made hardware to extract electric power from sunshine and wind — physical capital— and it is quite costly in several respects, though taxpayer subsidies might make it appear cheaper to investors and (ultimately) users. Man-made hardware is damaged, wears out, malfunctions, or simply fails for all sorts of reasons, and it must be replaced from time to time. Furthermore, man-made hardware such as solar panels, wind turbines, and the expansions to the electric grid needed to bring the power to users requires vast resources and not a little in the way of fossil fuels. The word “renewable” is therefore something of a misnomer when it comes to solar and wind facilities.
B. F. Randall (@Mining_Atoms) has a Twitter thread on this topic, or actually several threads (see below). The first thing he notes is that solar panels require polysilicon, which not recyclable. Disposal presents severe hazards of its own, and to replace old solar panels, polysilicon must be produced. For that, Randall says you need high-purity silica from quartzite rock, high-purity coking coal, diesel fuel, and large flows of dispatchable (not intermittent) electric power. To get quartzite, you need carbide drilling tools, which are not renewable. You also need to blast rock using ammonium nitrate fuel oil derived from fossil fuels. Then the rock must be crushed and often milled into fine sand, which requires continuous power. The high temperatures required to create silicon are achieved with coking coal, which is also used in iron and steel making, but coking coal is non-renewable. The whole process requires massive amounts of electricity generated with fossil fuels. Randall calls polysilicon production “an electricity beast”.
The resulting carbon emissions are, in reality, unlikely to be offset by any quantity of carbon credits these firms might purchase, which allow them to claim a “zero footprint”. Blake Lovewall describes the sham in play here:
“The biggest and most common Carbon offset schemes are simply forests. Most of the offerings in Carbon marketplaces are forests, particularly in East Asian, African and South American nations. …
The only value being packaged and sold on these marketplaces is not cutting down the trees. Therefore, by not cutting down a forest, the company is maintaining a ‘Carbon sink’ …. One is paying the landowner for doing nothing. This logic has an acronym, and it is slapped all over these heralded offset projects: REDD. That is a UN scheme called ‘Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’. I would re-name it to, ‘Sell off indigenous forests to global investors’.”
Lovewall goes on to explain that these carbon offset investments do not ensure that forests remain pristine by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, the requirements for managing these “preserves” are often subject to manipulation by investors working with government; as such, the credits are often vehicle for graft. In Indonesia, for example, carbon credited forests have been converted to palm oil plantations without any loss of value to the credits! Lovewall also cites a story about carbon offset investments in Brazil, where the credits provided capital for a massive dam in the middle of the rainforest. This had severe environmental and social consequences for indigenous peoples. It’s also worth noting that planting trees, wherever that might occur under carbon credits, takes many years to become a real carbon sink.
While I can’t endorse all of Lovewall’s points of view, he makes a strong case that carbon credits are a huge fraud. They do little to offset carbon generated by entities that purchase them as offsets. Again, the credits are very popular with the manufacturers and miners who participate in the fabrication of physical capital for renewable energy installations who wish to “greenwash” their activities.
Randall discusses the non-renewability of wind turbines in a separate thread. Turbine blades, he writes, are made from epoxy resins, balsa wood, and thermoplastics. They wear out, along with gears and other internal parts, and must be replaced. Land disposal is safe and cheap, but recycling is costly and requires even greater energy input than the use of virgin feedstocks. Randall’s thread on turbines raised some hackles among wind energy defenders and even a few detractors, and Randall might have overstated his case in one instance, but the main thrust of his argument is irrefutable: it’s very costly to recycle these components into other usable products. Entrepreneurs are still trying to work out processes for doing so. It’s not clear that recycling the blades into other products is more efficient than sending them to landfills, as the recycling processes are resource intensive.
But even then, the turbines must be replaced. Recycling the old blades into crates and flooring and what have you, and producing new wind turbines, requires lots of power. And as Randall says, replacement turbines require huge ongoing quantities of zinc, copper, cement, and fossil fuel feedstocks.
The Non-Renewability of Plant
It shouldn’t be too surprising that renewable power machinery is not “renewable” in any sense, despite the best efforts of advocates to convince us of their ecological neutrality. Furthermore, the idea that the production of this machinery will be “zero carbon” any time in the foreseeable future is absurd. In that respect, this is about like the ridiculous claim that electric vehicles (EVs) are “zero emission”, or the fallacy that we can achieve a zero carbon world based on renewable power.
It’s time the public came to grips with the reality that our heavy investments in renewables are not “renewable” in the ecological sense. Those investments, and reinvestments, merely buy us what Randall calls “garbage energy”, by which he means that it cannot be relied upon. Burning garbage to create steam is actually a more reliable power source.
Highly Variable With Low Utilization
Randall links to information provided by Martian Data (@MartianManiac1) on Europe’s wind energy generation as of September 22, 2022 (see the tweet for Martian Data’s sources):
“Hourly wind generation in Europe for past 6 months: Max: 122GW Min: 10.2GW Mean: 41.0 Installed capacity: ~236GW”
That’s a whopping 17.4% utilization factor! That’s pathetic, and it means the effective cost is quintuple the value at nameplate capacity. Take a look at this chart comparing the levels and variations in European power demand, nuclear generation, and wind generation over the six months ending September 22nd (if you have trouble zooming in here, try going to the thread):
The various colors represent different countries. Here’s a larger view of the wind component:
A stable power grid cannot be built upon this kind of intermittency. Here is another comparison that includes solar power. This chart is daily covering 2021 through about May 26, 2022.
As for solar capacity utilization, it too is unimpressive. Here is Martian Data’s note on this point, followed by a chart of solar generation over the course of a few days in June:
“so ~15% solar capacity is whole year average. ~5% winter ~20% summer. And solar is brief in summer too…, it misses both both morning and evening peaks in demand.”
Like wind, the intermittency of solar power makes it an impractical substitute for traditional power sources. Check out Martian Data’s Twitter feed for updates and charts from other parts of the world.
Nuclear power generation is an excellent source of baseload power. It is dispatchable and zero carbon except at plant construction. It also has an excellent safety record, and newer, modular reactor technologies are safer yet. It is cheaper in terms of generating capacity and it is more flexible than renewables. In fact, in terms of the resource costs of nuclear power vs. renewables over plant cycles, it’s not even close. Here’s a chart recently posted by Randall showing input quantities per megawatt hour produced over the expected life of each kind of power facility (different power sources are labeled at bottom, where PV = photovoltaic (solar)):
In fairness, I’m not completely satisfied with these comparisons. They should be stated in terms of current dollar costs, which would neutralize differences in input densities and reflect relative scarcities. Nevertheless, the differences in the chart are stark. Nuclear produces cheap, reliable power.
The Real Dirt
Solar and wind power are low utilization power sources and they are intermittent. Heavy reliance on these sources creates an extremely brittle power grid. Also, we should be mindful of the vast environmental degradation caused by the mining of minerals needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines, including their inevitable replacements, not to mention the massive land use requirements of wind and solar power. Also disturbing is the hazardous dumping of old solar panelsfrom the “first world” now taking place in less developed countries. These so-called clean-energy sources are anything but clean or efficient.
The world’s gone far astray in attempts to battle climate change through forced reductions in carbon emissions. Last Wednesday, in an outrageously stupid ruling,a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. It has nothing to do with Shell’s historical record on the environment. Rather, the Court said Shell’s existing climate action plans did not meet “the company’s own responsibility for achieving a CO2 reduction.” The decision will be appealed, but it appears that “industry agreements” under the Netherlands’ Climate Act of 2019 are in dispute.
Later that same day, a shareholder dissident group supporting corporate action on climate change won at least two ExxonMobil board seats. And then we have the story of John Kerry’s effort to stop major banks from lending to the fossil fuel industry. Together with the Biden Administration’s other actions on energy policy, we are witnessing the greatest attack on conventional power sources in history, and we’ll all pay dearly for it.
The Central Planner’s Conceit
Technological advance is a great thing, and we’ve seen it in the development of safe nuclear power generation, but the environmental left has successfully placed roadblocks in the way of its deployment. Instead, they favor the mandated adoption of what amount to beta versions of technologies that might never be economic and create extreme environmental hazards of their own (see here, here, here, and here). To private adopters, green energy installations are often subsidized by the government, disguising their underlying inefficiencies. These premature beta versions are then embedded in our base of productive capital and often remain even as they are made obsolete by subsequent advances. The “putty-clay” nature of technology decisions should caution us against premature adoptions of this kind. This is just one of the many curses of central planning.
Not only have our leftist planners forced the deployment of inferior technologies: they are actively seeking to bring more viable alternatives to ruination. I mentioned nuclear power and even natural gas offer a path for reducing carbon emissions, yet climate alarmists wage war against it as much as other fossil fuels. We have Kerry’s plot to deny funding for the fossil fuel industry and even activist “woke” investors, attempting to override management expertise and divert internal resources to green energy. It’s not as if renewable energy sources are not already part of these energy firms’ development portfolios. Allocations of capital and staff to these projects are usually dependent upon a company’s professional and technical expertise, market forces, and (less propitiously) incentives decreed by the government. Yet, the activist investors are there to impose their will.
Placing Faith and Fate In Models
All these attempts to remake our energy complex and the economy are based on the presumed external costs associated with carbon emissions. Those costs, and the potential savings achievable through the mitigation efforts of government and private greenies around the globe, have been wildly exaggerated.
The first thing to understand about the climate “science” relied upon by the environmental left is that it is almost exclusively model-dependent. In other words, it is based on mathematical relationships specified by the researchers. Their projections depend on those specs, the selection of parameter values, and the scenarios to which they are subjected. The models are usually calibrated to be roughly consistent with outcomes over some historical time period, but as modelers in almost any field can attest, that is not hard to do. It’s still possible to produce extreme results out-of-sample. The point is that these models are generally not estimated statistically from a lengthy sample of historical data. Even when sound statistical methodologies are employed, the samples are blinkingly short on climatological timescales. That means they are highly sample-specific and likely to propagate large errors out-of-sample. But most of these are what might be called “toy models” specified by the researcher. And what are often billed as “findings” are merely projections based on scenarios that are themselves manufactured by imaginative climate “researchers” cum grant-seeking partisans. In fact, it’s much worse than that because even historical climate data is subject to manipulation, but that’s a topic for another day.
What follows are basic components of the climate apocalypse narrative as supported by “the science” of man-made or anthropomorphic global warming (AGW):
(A) The first kind of model output to consider is the increase in atmospheric carbon concentration over time, measured in parts per million (PPM). This is a function of many natural processes, including volcanism and other kinds of outgassing from oceans and decomposing biomass, as well absorption by carbon sinks like vegetation and various geological materials. But the primary focus is human carbon generating activity, which depends on the carbon-intensity of production technology. As Ross McKitrick shows (see chart below), projections from these kinds of models have demonstrated significant upside bias over the years. Whether that is because of slower than expected economic growth, unexpected technological efficiencies, an increase in the service-orientation of economic activity worldwide, or feedback from carbon-induced greening or other processes, most of the models have over-predicted atmospheric carbon PPM. Those errors tend to increase with the passage of time, of course.
(B) Most of the models promoted by climate alarmists are carbon forcing models, meaning that carbon emissions are the primary driver of global temperatures and other phenomena like storm strength and increases in sea level. With increases in carbon concentration predicted by the models in (A) above, the next stage of models predicts that temperatures must rise. But the models tend to run “hot.” This chart shows the mean of several prominent global temperature series contrasted with 1990 projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The following is even more revealing, as it shows the dispersion of various model runs relative to three different global temperature series:
And here’s another, which is a more “stylized” view, showing ranges of predictions. The gaps show errors of fairly large magnitude relative to the mean trend of actual temperatures of 0.11 degrees Celsius per decade.
(C) Climate sensitivity to “radiative forcing” is a key assumption underlying all of the forecasts of AGW. A simple explanation is that a stronger greenhouse effect, and increases in the atmosphere’s carbon concentration, cause more solar energy to be “trapped” within our “greenhouse,” and less is radiated back into space. Climate sensitivity is usually measured in degrees Celsius relative to a doubling of atmospheric carbon.
And how large is the climate’s sensitivity to a doubling of carbon PPM? The IPCC says it’s in a range of 1.5C to 4.5C. However, findings published by Nic Lewis and Judith Curry are close to the low end of that range, and are those found by the author of the paper described here.
In separate efforts, Finnish and Japanese researchers have asserted that the primary cause of recent warming is an increase in low cloud cover, which the Japanese team attributes to increases in the Earth’s bombardment by cosmic rays due to a weakening magnetic field. The Finnish authors note that most of the models used by the climate establishment ignore cloud formation, an omission they believe leads to a massive overstatement (10x) of sensitivity to carbon forcings. Furthermore, they assert that carbon forcings are mainly attributable to ocean discharge as opposed to human activity.
(D) Estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) per ton of emissions are used as a rationale for carbon abatement efforts. The SCC was pioneered by economist William Nordhaus in the 1990s, and today there are a number of prominent models that produce distributions of possible SCC values, which tend to have high dispersion and extremely long upper tails. Of course, the highest estimates are driven by the same assumptions about extreme climate sensitivities discussed above. The Biden Administration is using an SCC of $51 per ton. Some recommend the adoption of even higher values for regulatory purposes in order to achieve net-zero emissions at an early date, revealing the manipulative purposes to which the SCC concept is put. This is a raw attempt to usurp economic power, not any sort of exercise in optimization, as this admission from a “climate expert” shows. In the midst of a barrage of false climate propaganda (hurricanes! wildfires!), he tells 60 Minutes that an acceptable limit on warming of 1.5C is just a number they “chose” as a “tipping point.”
As a measurement exercise, more realistic climate sensitivities yield much lower SCCs. McKitrick presents a chart from Lewis-Curry comparing their estimates of the SCC at lower climate sensitivities to an average of earlier estimates used by IPCC:
High levels of the SCC are used as a rationale for high-cost carbon abatement efforts. If the SCC is overstated, however, then costly abatements represent waste. And there is no guarantee that spending an amount on abatements equal to the SCC will eliminate the presumed cost of a ton’s worth of anthropomorphic warming. Again, there are strong reasons to believe that the warming experienced over the past several decades has had multiple causes, and human carbon emissions might have played a relatively minor role.
Crisis Is King
Some people just aren’t happy unless they have a crisis over which to harangue the rest of us. But try as they might, the vast resources dedicated to carbon reduction are largely wasted. I hesitate to say their effort is quixotic because they want more windmills and are completely lacking in gallantry. As McKitrick notes, it takes many years for abatement to have a meaningful impact on carbon concentrations, and since emissions mix globally, unilateral efforts are practically worthless. Worse yet, the resource costs of abatement and lost economic growth are unacceptable, especially when some of the most promising alternative sources of “clean” energy are dismissed by activists. So we forego economic growth, rush to adopt immature energy alternatives, and make very little progress toward the stated goals of the climate alarmists.
Many jobs have been lost to technology over the last few centuries, yet more people are employed today than ever before. Despite this favorable experience, politicians can’t help the temptation to cast aspersions at certain production technologies, constantly advocating intervention in markets to “save jobs”. Today, some serious anti-tech policy proposals and legislative efforts are underway: regional bans on autonomous vehicles, “robot taxes” (advocated by Bill Gates!!), and even continuing legal resistance to technology-enabled services such as ride sharing and home sharing. At the link above, James Pethokoukas expresses trepidation about one legislative proposal taking shape, sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to create a federal review board with the potential to throttle innovation and the deployment of technology, particularly artificial intelligence.
Last week I mentioned the popular anxiety regarding automation and artificial intelligence in my post on the Universal Basic Income. This anxiety is based on an incomplete accounting of the “seen” and “unseen” effects of technological advance, to borrow the words of Frederic Bastiat, and of course it is unsupported by historical precedent. Dierdre McCloskey reviews the history of technological innovations and its positive impact on dynamic labor markets:
“In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing.
Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.“
Robert Samuelson discusses a recent study that found that technological advance consistently improves opportunities for labor income. This is caused by cost reductions in the innovating industries, which are subsequently passed through to consumers, business profits, and higher pay to retained workers whose productivity is enhanced by the improved technology inputs. These gains consistently outweigh losses to those who are displaced by the new capital. Ultimately, the gains diffuse throughout society, manifesting in an improved standard of living.
In a brief, favorable review of Samuelson’s piece, Don Boudreaux adds some interesting thoughts on the dynamics of technological advance and capital-labor substitution:
“… innovations release real resources, including labor, to be used in other productive activities – activities that become profitable only because of this increased availability of resources. Entrepreneurs, ever intent on seizing profitable opportunities, hire and buy these newly available resources to expand existing businesses and to create new ones. Think of all the new industries made possible when motorized tractors, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, improved food-packaging, and other labor-saving innovations released all but a tiny fraction of the workforce from agriculture.
Labor-saving techniques promote economic growth not so much because they increase monetary profits that are then spent but, instead, because they release real resources that are then used to create and expand productive activities that would otherwise be too costly.”
Those released resources, having lower opportunity costs than in their former, now obsolete uses, can find new and profitable uses provided they are priced competitively. Some displaced resources might only justify use after undergoing dramatic transformations, such as recycling of raw components or, for workers, education in new fields or vocations. Indeed, some of those transformations are unforeeeable prior to the innovations, and might well add more value than was lost via displacement. But that is how the process of creative destruction often unfolds.
A government that seeks to intervene in this process can do only harm to the long-run interests of its citizens. “Saving a job” from technological displacement surely appeals to the mental and emotive mindset of the populist, and it has obvious value as a progressive virtue-signalling tool. These reactions, however, demonstrate a perspective limited to first-order, “seen” changes. What is less obvious to these observers is the impact of politically-induced tech inertia on consumers’ standard of living. This is accompanied by a stultifying impact on market competition, long-run penalization of the most productive workers, and a degradation of freedom from restraints on private decision-makers. As each “visible” advance is impeded, the negative impact compounds with the loss of future, unseen, but path-dependent advances that cannot ever occur.
My day-job at a financial institution has become increasingly dominated by governance and compliance issues, due largely to the Dodd-Frank Act. Much less of my time these days is dedicated to activities that are of direct value to the business or its customers. It’s not just me, but a large number of talented professionals with whom I work, many having advanced degrees. And a platoon of government regulators with advanced degrees often resides in a conference room on our floor. As I overheard one colleague say the other day, even a sneeze now requires permission from regulators. It feels very much like working for a regulated public utility, or worse yet, a government agency. This is obviously costly for shareholders, customers and taxpayers. If asked, I would be hard-pressed to explain how such massive compliance activity adds value for anyone, except perhaps the regulators themselves, or those who like the job guarantee provided by the situation. Does it offer some extra guarantee of stability for our institution, which remained stable and viable throughout the last financial crisis? Not likely, especially if actually managing the business has anything to do with it. Does it guarantee the stability of the larger financial system to impose massive compliance costs and ossify an otherwise dynamic enterprise?
The financial industry is not the only sector plagued by this phenomenon. At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer provides a great perspective based on his own experience (and he deserves the inspirational hat-tip for this post). Meyer owns and operates a company that manages public parks. Here is his summary:
“Ten years ago, most of my company’s free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations. Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.“
Meyer offers details of compliance issues that have robbed his business of productive time and energy:
Managing hours of seasonal employees to avoid Obamacare penalties;
Seeking government approval of price increases to recover minimum wage hikes;
Compliance with California regulation of chairs, hot-day practices, meal breaks, overtime assignments, employee sick days, and other processes;
He goes on to note some economy-wide implications of these entanglements:
“… for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.
By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability. You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money. What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.“
There is no doubt that heavy regulation favors large firms over small firms, and it makes competing with entrenched businesses more difficult for new entrants. Here is the first of a trio of relevant posts from the Mercatus Center, a summary of research finding that regulation reduces new business start-ups and hiring activity.
“From a regulatory agency’s perspective, recycling old rules makes sense: Old rules have withstood legal challenges and offer a relatively safe legal route. However, the rules are unlikely to optimally fit the new context for which they are employed. The use of rules that aren’t optimized for the task at hand can significantly hamper innovation and the development of technology. Even worse, due to poor design, they may not actually accomplish the new objective.“
A case in point is the recent imposition of “net neutrality” rules, which prevent ISPs and internet backbone providers from charging incremental rates to network hogs. This involves the application of regulatory rules designed for railroads 130 years ago and applied to the phone system 80 years ago. L. Gordon Crovitz writes of the early, negative impact of this regulation on investment in broadband in a piece entitled “Obamanet Is Hurting Broadband” (if the link fails, Google “wsj Crovitz Obamanet Broadband” and choose the first link returned):
“Today bureaucrats lobbied by special interests determine what is ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ on the Internet, including rates, tariffs and business arrangements. The FCC got thousands of requests for new regulations within weeks of the new rules. … Before Obamanet went into effect, economist Hal Singer of the Progressive Policy Institute predicted in The Wall Street Journal that if price and other regulations were introduced, capital investments by ISPs could quickly fall … 5% and 12% a year …. Now Mr. Singer has analyzed the latest data, and his prediction has come true.“
Crovitz correctly states that consumers want more broadband, and broadband growth requires investment. Systematically punishing those who make such investments will not bring improvements in service. And this is not an isolated result. Apart from the absorption of staff time (which is often required to manage new investment), regulation discourages productive capital investment in new facilities, equipment and technology. The potential growth of the economy suffers as a result, including the potential growth of wages.
Is there really a trend toward greater regulation? Yes, and it is not new. Has it accelerated? A third Mercatus Center post demonstrates that the Obama Administration, in terms of new regulatory restrictions, is on a pace to exceed all preceding presidents over the past 40 years. This is based on the Code of Federal Regulation (though Jimmy Carter edged Obama slightly over Obama’s first four years). Obama’s penchant for executive orders shows no sign of abating, and Congress is apparently incapable of over-riding any veto. Much of this can be reversed, in principle, but new regulations have a way of creating political constituencies, so reversals might be easier to say than do.
Leaders in California seem determined to deal with the state’s water shortage in the least effective and most intrusive ways possible. Governor Jerry Brown has ordered such “bold”, yet ultimately weak, actions as restricting urban water usage, fines on “water wasters”, and xeriscaping of public property. The plan includes additional state intrusions such as rebates for high-efficiency appliances, bans on certain types of faucets, toilets and residential lawn irrigation systems, and more rigorous monitoring of water use, which could ultimately include shower time. A $1 billion state investment in wastewater recycling and desalinization plants is also planned, and pundits advocate other huge projects such as new reservoirs. These efforts are costly, but they are also beguiling to politicians seeking the appearance of positive action.
Overlooked is a straightforward and relatively costless way to achieve effective conservation and relief from the shortage: use the price mechanism! This simple approach encourages conservation in many large and small ways that are beyond the discernment of government planners. Obviously, it can also address the profligacy of certain agricultural uses. A market mechanism is the one sure way to find the most rational price for water, and it is sorely needed in the face of such a significant shortage.
The misallocation of water rights in California is truly staggering, as demonstrated by the graphic at the top of this post, which is from a post at Marginal Revolution (originally from Mother Jones):
“… as farmers are watering their almonds, San Diego is investing in an energy-intensive billion-dollar desalination plant which will produce water at a much higher cost than the price the farmer are paying. That is a massive and costly misallocation of water. … In short, we are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.”
“When crops like pecans, which are native to Louisiana where it rains over fifty inches per year, are being grown in central California, we will have to ask ourselves if there is true comparative advantage at work here, or if the industry is really sitting upon a shaky foundation of government-subsidized and -allocated resources.
The rhetoric that’s coming out of the growers, of course, is that California growers are essential to the American food supply. Some will even suggest that it’s a national security issue. Without California growers, we’re told, we’ll all starve in case of foreign embargo. … But let’s not kid ourselves. North America is in approximately zero danger of having too little farmland for staple crops.” [Emphasis added.]
Last month, my post “Scarcity, Scarcity Everywhere, And Water Pricing Stinks” addressed the mispricing of water and the promise of marketable use permits for water conservation. Details may vary, but in this sort of arrangement, residential, industrial and agricultural users would receive a base assignment of water rights at a relatively low, uniform price. The base assignment can be a function of historical usage. A secondary market then allows consumers and other users to purchase additional use permits or to sell permits exceeding their own usage:
“The price of water on the secondary market will rise to the point at which users no longer perceive a benefit to marginal flows of water above cost. A higher price encourages voluntary conservation in two ways: it is a direct cash cost of use above one’s base water rights, and it is an opportunity cost of foregoing the sale of permits on water use up to the base assignment. Those best-prepared to conserve can sell excess rights to those least prepared to conserve.”
Price incentives and their power for conservation are discussed in this post at Marginal Revolution. Market pricing is the single-most effective method of fostering sustainable patterns of resource use. Increasingly scarce conditions naturally lead to higher prices, which both discourage excessive use and create incentives for investments in reuse and other efficiencies. Yet politicians are highly averse to the idea of pricing resources rationally via the market. Instead, as exemplified by Governor Brown’s restrictions, they promulgate a seemingly endless series of measures that play on “green guilt” without adequate consideration of alternatives.
A colorful example of this misguided philosophy is the low-flow toilet, as described in this post entitled “Americans Destroyed Indoor Plumbing“. Mandatory recycling presents a classic case of conflicting policy goals: another sacred cow of environmental dogma, it increases water use in California because containers must be washed before they go to the curb. And there are other conflicting environmental goals, such as an effort to protect the Delta Smelt in San Francisco Bay by diverting over 300 billion gallons of water away from the Central Valley.
Meanwhile, big government Republicans are thumping their chests over their self-described success in planning for water needs in Arizona. This consists of infrastructure projects that capture runoff and store water in underground reservoirs, which are fine as far as they go (and, if available, better than above-ground storage subject to evaporation). However, these projects involve considerable public expense, and they have not prevented the imposition of mandatory conservation requirements. It should also be mentioned that current drought conditions in Arizona are mild compared to California. The point here is that market-oriented pricing and conservation reduces the need for such costly projects and intrusions. Administered water prices are expected to rise in Arizona, and they probably should. But it’s noteworthy that the last link, a summary of what is purported to be a careful study of water pricing issues, makes no mention of trade in water use permits and market pricing. As Glenn Reynolds might say, unlike big infrastructure and intrusive regulations, market-oriented policies and efficient pricing may not entice politicians with sufficient opportunities for graft.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun