Misc: April 2007 Archives


April 27, 2007

The recent vogue for carbon offsets has inevitably created a backlash. The basic claim is that the offsets don't really lead to reduced emissions. Here's a prototypical such comment from Jonathan Adler at Volokh:
An investigation by the Financial Times suggests that many carbon offsets are illusory, and that there is little assurance that purchasing carbon offsets does much of anything to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Specifically, the report found:
- Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

- Industrial companies profiting from doing very little - or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.

- Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.

- A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.

- Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.


The bottom line is that if Al Gore and Leo DiCaprio truly want to be sure they are reducing their carbon footprint, they are going to have to reduce their own energy consumption, rather than paying others to do it for them.

First, let me say that I have no idea whether carbon offsets actually reflect real reductions by others or not.1 However, it seems to me the standard of "truly want[ing] to be sure" is an unreasonably high bar. An enormous number of the things that you do have carbon footprints that are hard to verify. One obvious way of reducing your carbon emissions is to buy a fuel efficient car, like a hybrid. But what's the additional energy cost of manufacturing a hybrid? I don't know and you probably don't either. Maybe it's zero and maybe it's huge (remember the Dust to Dust flap back in 2006). It seems to me that the best one can reasonably expect a consumer to do is act according to the best knowledge they currently have.

Second, any carbon reduction measure that people follow will almost inevitably involve a lot of paying others to reduce their footprint for you, unless you expect that someone is going to give you all that energy efficient tech for free. People (mostly conservatives) often bring up nuclear power as an example of a non carbon-emitting energy technology but surely everyone expects that if Gore is in favor of nuclear power he's going to lobby for his local utility to build a nuclear plant rather than setting up a pebble bed reactor in his back yard. That sure sounds like paying someone else to reduce your footprint for you.

Even if we assume that carbon offsets totally don't work, e.g., that the people selling them take your money and use it to gas up their Gulfstream Vs, that doesn't necessarily make them a bad idea. Think of them rather as a tax on carbon consumption (an idea that Adler appears to favor). Remember that the purpose of a Pigouvian tax is to align people's incentives with the externality costs of their behavior. In order to serve that purpose it doesn't much matter where the money goes as long as its collected (and in fact distributing the proceeds of a real carbon tax would turn out to be a somewhat tricky issue). From that perspective, the key point is that those who buy offsets are demonstrating that they have internalized the externality costs (or at least are trying to) and if it happens that the money actually somehow decreases emissions by others that's a nice bonus.

This of course raises the question of whether the price of the offsets actually is right to be a Pigouvian tax. The answer turns out to be sort-of. Wikipedia claims that the social cost of CO2 emissions is around $12 ton of CO2 (.3 tons of carbon). The cost of credits varies widely. Terappass's credits (which is what the Oscars used) sell for about $8/ton. Carbonfund's sell for $5.50/ton, which seems a bit low. But remember that that price is based on the externality cost alone. If you factor in that there's some probability that your money actually is going to reduce carbon emissions somewhere, than these numbers don't seem that far off.

1. I'm not unaware of the rhetorical context in which Adler and others make this argument, namely that Gore, etc. are supposed to be hypocrites for wanting others to reduce their emissions while not reducing their own. I'm simply ignoring it for the purposes of analysis.


April 19, 2007

Watching Flightplan (sort of the Jodi Foster version of Nightmare at 20000 Feet) which takes place on the "new E474", which seems to be an A380. Like all newfangled megasuperhyperjumbo aircraft it appears to be configured with a lounge complete with a wet bar. No doubt you've seen artists conceptions of the A380 configured the same way. It's of course true that the A380 has room for such amenities, but then so did the 747. In reality, of course, by the time you're actually allowed on the A380, they'll probably have removed the seats entirely so you can travel freeze dried and packed in a cardboard box.

April 16, 2007

So, California had this great idea to incentivize hybrid vehicles: they would let you drive them in the HOV lane. It was a big pain since you had to get a toll pass transponder and fill out a some forms, but eventually they gave you some stickers you could put on your car so you wouldn't get pulled over. But in January the state stopped issuing the stickers, suddenly rendering them a lot more valuable. This has had two big side effects (aside from the fact that since I never got around to getting stickers for Mrs. Guesswork's Prius so I'm stuck in the slow lane with the rest of the proles.)
  1. Cars with HOV stickers now command a significant price premium on resale. This site claims it's $4K.
  2. People are stealing the stickers off cars.



April 15, 2007

Saw 300 last night. I was just fine with magic and monsters but one thing tweaked me. In trying to convince the Spartan council to send reinforcements, the queen says that they shouldn't let "a king and his men have been wasted to the pages of history." But of course, the Greeks used scrolls, since codices weren't available yet.

April 10, 2007

I thought Open Source beer was absurd, but now someone claims to be building an Open Source car. As with the beer, the difficult part of building a car isn't that you're missing a design. It's that manufacturing it has very large economies of scale. Even something as simple and relatively forgiving as a bumper or tire requires a fairly substantial manufacturing operation. Now take a look at a carburetor:

Now, I've done a bit of metalwork and given enough time, the specs, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of machine tools I could probably actually manage to manufacture a semi-working carburetor, but it would take me weeks and here's an object that costs about $120 if you buy it retail. Now, a carb has a lot of moving parts but it doesn't take a lot of stress or have particularly fine tolerances, unlike, say, a piston or the frame. Now, of course you could say you'll buy anything really complicated as parts, but it quickly turns out that that's more or less the whole car. I guess you could still open source the pattern for those fuzzy dice...


April 1, 2007

Apparently Google Earth has replaced the area photography of post-Katrina New Orleans with pre-Katrina images.
According to the GEC and my sources at Google, the imagery for New Orleans was actually changed last September. The previous imagery was directly after the storm struck, and was of inferior quality. Although the imagery of New Orleans is from pre-Katrina now, it is of better quality. If you have the Plus or Pro version of Google Earth you have the option to load two sets of post-Katrina imagery by logging out of the primary database. I think Google should consider getting more recent high quality imagery for New Orleans so it at least represents the present condition.

Apparently, Google selected a new set of high resolution photos for New Orleans. The only problem is that the new images are pre-Hurricane Katrina. So, all the damage that was caused by Katrina has now been erased in the Google Earth/Maps imagery database. CBS News says this move has sparked outrage and conspiracy theories in New Orleans. Ironically, the people in New Orleans have been some of the biggest fans of Google Earth as it helped save lives during and after the disaster. And, up until the recent update, residents used the pictures to illustrate damage to insurance adjusters, and to plan reconstruction efforts. Some of the conspiracies are that the local government itself requested the change to try and encourage tourism to come back to New Orleans.

Obviously, until the day that real-time satellite imagery is ubiquitous (probably not as far away as you'd think!) there's going to some tension between image quality and timeliness: is a timely but fuzzy image better or worse than a crisp but out-of-date image? While the answer does seem kind of obvious in this case and in other cases where the changes are dramatic and well-known, what about when the freeway on-ramp from my house is blocked this morning but the best images are from last week? It's not entirely clear to me that the modern fuzzy imagery is the right answer.

Current mapping and nav systems deal with this by treating maps as static and then overlaying meta-information (e.g., traffic, your directions), on top of the map. But if you had accurate remote imaging it might be more appropriate to simply display that—or maybe not. I certainly find it a lot easier to read traffic by seeing car density (and speed of motion) than the green and red lines on the Yahoo map displays, but there might be a display technique that would be easier yet. After all, maps are typically easier to get directions off than aerial imagery.