Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Energy transitions: insights from almost 30 years ago

It could have been written today:


John D. Sterman

The economy is likely to face a prolonged period of economic

vulnerability due to the continued depletion of nonrenewable resources, slow

development of alternative sources, and lags in the adjustment of energy

consumption to higher prices. The magnitude and duration of the vulnerability

is strongly influenced, however, by the technological and institutional

charactersitics (sic) of alternative energy sources...

...Neither energy planning nor economic policy can be conducted

in isolation from the other, or without consideration of the disequilibrium

dynamics of the transition.

Click here for full PDF.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Food miles or fair miles

I wish to thank Martin for the opportunity to be guest blogger here again, following a few entries from me in the past (mostly Africa and sustainable tourism related). I wish to this time revisit the slightly related topic of food miles and share a recent report of Oxfam and IIED called "Fair miles - recharting the food miles debate" that focuses on African fruit and vegetable exports to the UK.

As the world continues to grapple with climate change, the “buying local” and “food miles” concepts are intuitively appealing, but especially in colder climates (where it is most popular) it is flawed and simplistic based on a false assumption that transport is the only or major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. This ignores the complexity of the food chain from the seed to the plate. Among the more obvious examples is the energy-intensive industrial-scale cultivation in greenhouses having far more environmental impacts than the African low carbon small-scale producer (with a lot of help from the sun).

Some interesting extracts from the report:

"A tomato grown in Essex in the UK is not necessarily more environmentally friendly... if that Essex tomato needed energy-intense greenhouse cultivation to survive. There are, too, other environmental impacts, such as fertiliser use and soil degradation" (p.9)

"Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) — a UK initiative studying greenhouse gas emissions from the food system — led a recent lifecycle analysis of these emissions in the UK. It suggests that transport accounts for about 10 percent of the food system’s emissions." (p.16)

In contrast:

"Agriculture is a top contributor... according to DEFRA, for 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption in the UK" (p.18).

Even "shopping, storage and preparation" (p.27) accounts for more than transport.

"The vast majority of UK farms derive inputs from outside the UK, and consequently are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that occur outside their locality as well as outside the UK. For many foods, this poses serious questions about their ‘local’ credibility" (p.14)

"To begin to fully understand the social and environmental effects of our food choices, we need to take a look at the entire food supply chain — from farm to manufacturer, to wholesaler or distributor, to retailer, to individual — and the energy use, emissions, and livelihood opportunities associated with each step of that convoluted journey" (p 13)

To really drive home the message that we need to be more holistic than counting the “food miles”, the livelihood dimension is added as final element in the last quote above. The report concludes:

"Kenyans contribute very little to the global emissions burden. And what is more, the entire airfreight trade in fruits and vegetables between the UK and Kenya adds a mere 0.1 per cent to the UK’s total emissions. Given the industrialised world’s historical responsibility for emissions, and its current high per capita emissions, is reducing its carbon footprint from 10.60 to 10.59 tonnes really worth imperilling 1 to 1.5 million livelihoods?" (p.33)

This trade-off is the kind of question that environmental economists need to explore further. Are we in a real inevitable trade-off situation, or is there even a way of minimizing carbon emmisions from African agriculture for export without affecting livelihoods?

Some related articles on this topic from Times online, Prospect magazine and a UK government report from DEFRA and DFID. (Guest blog contribution by Gerhard Buttner: Development and Ecotourism Consultant - South Africa, Mexico and the UK)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Three months of Tweeting

africaeconomist spent nearly three active months in the Twitterverse. This is a short account of my experiences and might be informative to those who may think whether it is really worth the effort (like myself 3 months ago).

Statistics. Send out 272 tweets, 4.6 tweets per day, most early morning before 9am.
My top 5 Twitter words are: icio (referral from delicious account), climate, copenhagen, china and oil. Africa does not follow far behind. This does not surprise me at all. The focus of my work is on Africa's development challenge, with a specific interest in the intersection of economy, development and ecology. Trends in 'oil', 'climate' and 'china' will certainly have a profound impact on Africa's development trajectory in future.

Time. It takes time, but not nearly as much as I thought. If one is used to RSS reading and blogging, to Tweet does not come at a lot of additional effort.

Content. I am very surprised in the good content people generally tweet about. Twitter offers far much than the " I feel gloomy today, and you?" kind of conversations. I still rely a lot on RSS feeds though. Most disciplinary journals have also not joined the Tweeting yet.

Twitter has without doubt changed the way information flows and does have an impact on how we learn. It can support collaboration and understanding. It does come with new responsibilities though. Deep thinking, consulting, researching and Twittering at the same time requires discipline. Technological addiction looms everywhere and Twitter addiction is no exception.

How some people can honestly keep up with thousands of tweets still remains a mystery to me. Maybe the objective is not to collaborate or to be better informed. With all those lists and rankings on performance already available online status is probably part of the answer.

The Twitter elite, however, seems to be mainly organisations and people in the business of communication - containing many news agencies and marketeers. For them, it is part of the job, and Twitter provides just another outlet. Hats of to them who have carved out a niche in an area of 75 million accounts and 15 million active Tweeters.

These numbers sound impressive, but are still much less than other social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Slack growth in Twitter do raise concern about marginalization though. I'll certainly keep an eye on that.

Image: dewaldp

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science and policy: a two-way street

An exchange of words between an imminent economist and a policy maker from an insightful article on the The Oil Drum.

The economist:
Jeffrey Sachs, economic advisor to the UN, in his recently published article, Fixing the Broken Government Policy Process , articulates four manifestations of the breakdown in Washington:
1. Inability to focus beyond the next election
2. Decisions are made through negotiations with those who will be funding the next election (i.e. industry lobbyists)
3. Technical expertise is ignored or bypassed
4. The public is largely excluded from the process

The policy maker:
From Debbie Cook former Mayor and Councilmember of Huntington Beach, CA from 2000-2008 and a US Congressional Candidate; here is my prescription for scientists, professors, and engineers:
1. Participate in the public discourse
2. Publicly challenge your peers who put forward junk science
3. Be mindful of fallacies in your own assumptions
4. Relationships are primary and every policy is derived primarily from relationships, not facts.
To each critic sitting in their ivory tower, I challenge you to create the conditions for these relationships to flourish.

An important way to bridge the science-policy gap is to build relationships and to communicate facts and alternatives in a concise way. Talking about a clash of cultures!

See also earlier blogpost: Policies for a complex and dynamic world

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mandela's persistent popularity

as measured by Internet traffic.

From Googletrends a picture on relative worldwide traffic on a few Southern African leaders:

Scale is based on the average worldwide traffic of robert mugabe in all years. Learn more

jacob zuma
robert mugabe
nelson mandela
thabo mbeki


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Quote of the day: Entropy and physical limits

In terms of entropy, the two most important physical limits are local over-heating due to limited entropy export capacity and the minimum entropy reduction requirement for concentration of very dispersed materials. The first may be a problem for the local environment around power plants and in cities. For the Earth as a whole, the limit on the rate of entropy export is inessential.


Entropy and economic processes — physics perspectives by Tomas Kåberger and Bengt Månsson, Ecological Economics Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 165-179

Isolated systems may face absolute limits and 'collapse' under the weight of increased entropy. Open systems, like the Earth, with external sunlight and dissipating heat to space, does not.

Transit delays impacts on African exports

By:Freund, Caroline
Rocha, Nadia
This paper examines the effects of transit, documentation, and ports and customs delays on Africa’s exports. The authors find that transit delays have the most economically and statically significant effect on exports. A one-day reduction in inland travel times leads to a 7 percent increase in exports. Put another way, a one-day reduction in inland travel times translates to a 1.5 percentage point decrease in all importing-country tariffs. By contrast, longer delays in the other areas have a far smaller impact on trade. The analysis controls for the possibility that greater trade leads to shorter delays in three ways. First, it examines the effect of trade times on exports of new products. Second, it evaluates the effect of delays in a transit country on the exports of landlocked countries. Third, it examines whether delays affect time-sensitive goods relatively more. The authors show that large transit delays are relat ively more harmful because of high within-country variation.

This is a key issue in the food security question (see here for earlier blogpost on the determinants of hunger in SADC).