Gas price holiday

I’m pleased to see Thomas Friedman hit the nail on head in is op-ed “Dumb as We Wanna Be“. The idea of having a gas price holiday – rescinding the 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax for the peak driving season in the summer is ridiculous. The way forward is to increase these taxes, not decrease them. People need to start paying for the negative externalities of living hours away from work or driving across country on vacation. Dropping the per-gallon tax provides the most benefit to the drivers of the least efficient vehicles or who drive the most, which incents the opposite behavior this country needs to start tackling climate change and stop sending our money overseas.

We need leaders who will tackle issues like this head on, instead of leaders who will pander to the people. Look kids: no gas taxes, checks in your mailbox, shiny things!

If we’re going tax the oil companies, which we should, we shouldn’t waste that money on replacing the gas taxes, it should go to supporting long term incentives for alternative energies so that the private sector can invest for the long haul. It should go to expanding and electrifying a rail network to take oil guzzling trucks and cars off the road. And so on…

Olympic Torch Relay

This morning I was reading about protests during the Olympic torch relay in Paris forcing the torch’s security team to extinguish the flame.
That got me to thinking: does anything say “committed to reducing carbon emissions” like carrying a glorified burning stick 85, 000 miles around the world? That’s a lot of jet fuel, not to mention all the resources used by security teams in each site, as well as traffic jams caused by that kind of disruption. For reference, that’s more distance than the previous two torch relays, combined. In fact it’s only about 3000 miles more than the previous three torch relays combined.

Torch relay distances

(Stats from Wikipedia)

The carbon footprint of this endeavor has to be pretty large- measured against the problem its a drop in the proverbial bucket, but huge endeavors like this must signal some people that continued consumption is ok. Why trade in the SUV for a smaller car if this stuff is going on?

Astute graph readers may notice this tradition got its start in Nazi Germany in 1936.

Another fun fact is that the relay for the 1976 Olympics traveled only 775 physical kilometers, because it was transmitted by satellite from Greece to Canada by generating an electrical signal from the flame.

Here’s the torch tracker google gadget:

We’ll keep the carbon credits, thanks

I saw on the Globe’s website that the founder of ZipCar has started a new company,, which aims to promote ride sharing by splitting up the costs of a trip, handling payments to the driver, and taking a 10% cut of the proceeds. I don’t know why, but I happened to skim the terms of service which were all pretty standard stuff, until i found this:

13. Carbon Credits

You agree to assign the rights to any Carbon Credits resulting from any trips arranged using our service to GoLoco.

Pretty crafty – if they do well, and if we ever get some kind of cap and trade system for carbon (which is a lot of ifs) they could stand to make more money selling carbon credits than on their users’ tithe.

The power of green

Thomas Friedman wrote a phenomenal article on green power in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The gist of it is that America leads the world in developing technology to conserve and cleanly generate in the few markets where the US government has acted in the past to mandate strict emissions restrictions, as in the example of diesel locomotives, and creating well-paying domestic jobs to boot. He argues that the free market can’t work properly without the government creating regulations that can provide guidance on future costs of emissions and fuel. People can’t and won’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars if they can be wiped out the next time oil prices drop. It needs to cost money to burn fossil fuels or no alternatives will be developed.
I’ve heard this before at Technical Review’s emerging tech conference last fall – hopefully with Friedman articulating the case for pro enviroment so well and in a manner that should make sense for lots of society, not just the “tree-huggers” we can finally make some real progress on meaningful environmental legislation.

TRETC Panel: Innovation and The Energy Crisis

The most captivating and depressing session from TRETC was easily “Innovation and the Energy Crisis”. The panelists (well three of them: Nathan Lewis, Joseph Romm and Robert C. Armstrong) painted the most dire picture of global climate change that I have heard yet. They argued that within twenty years there will be massive redirection of capital into mitigating the effects of climate change, which will have such priority that relative luxuries like the space program will go by the wayside (clarification on this here).

The central issue is that in order to minimize climate change but still meet growing energy demands, we have to double today’s energy infrastructure but without any increase in carbon emissions. The problem with this is there are no magic bullets – society has to start using every technology at its disposal from conservation to generation, and the sooner the better so that we can figure out if some technologies (like carbon sequestration) will even work. Discussions on energy policy based on cost alone will never help to solve this problem, risk assessment must become part of energy decisions.

Some interesting tidbits from the discussion:

  • Wind power can likely never account for more than 10% of the worlds energy output.
  • Almost all the significant hydro-power resources are already tapped.
  • There is more energy worldwide in natural gas reserves than uranium. If the world’s ~11 TW energy was to be generated entirely with uranium, it would only last 10 years. This means that breeder reactors using plutonium have to be part of the arsenal, which means dealing with their proliferation issues.
  • The amount of geothermal energy available is on average just 55mW per square meter – so large scale geothermal power may never be possible (but home and business heat pumps are still an effective way to assist in cooling and heating)
  • China’s geology prevents any underground carbon sequestration except for a small portion of the north west. (They’re also apparently asking for the right to “catch up” with the developed nations in terms of cummulative CO2 emmissions before having to participate in any reduction treaties)

The short time frame to turn this around immediately made me think about patents and how they could help or hinder the process – as companies invent better energy technologies, can governments incent them to turn them over to the public domain or make them available for inexpensive licensing without taking away the financial incentive to invent in the first place?

I put the question to the panel leader Robert Armstrong after the talk. He drew a parallel to the mobilization of the US economy during world war 2, where it took just 9 months to switch from cars to bombers and any inventions were quickly disseminated among all producers. (I think another parallel is the way the US government guarantees certain sized orders of vaccines in order to foster their development today)

I wish the audio of the panel was online. [UPDATE! sometimes wishes come true quickly!. The MP3 of this talk is here.] There is this brief article. Here’s a description of some new research that appeared just before the conference and drove some of the discussion.