Monday, April 18, 2011

An argument for a gas tax

Last Thursday I gave a talk at the annual American Association of Geographers meeting in Seattle. The AAG attracts throngs and throngs of academic geographers from around the world. Frankly, the meeting is so big you need to be a geographer to navigate your way to a chosen talk, the subject of which may very well be a Marxist analysis of neoliberal influence on the map of the conference centre (“the orientation places the economic geography presentation rooms at the top”).

Seattle is just close enough to Vancouver that someone who is busy, or who possesses an unrealistic and slightly delusional sense of what is possible in a fixed amount of time, or, in my case, both, could convince himself to go there and back in a day. I chose to take the bus, rather than drive, because doing so is more energy efficient and would give me the chance to do some work.

The return bus fare was $48 (that’s Canadian $ for those of you scoring at home). It was, I later discovered, a bit of a deal – return fares can run up to $72 or so. That morning, the price of gas at the station near our house was $1.33 per litre (L). At that price, in order for a single-occupant vehicle trip to be cheaper than the bus fare, the car would need to average less than 7.88 L per 100 km (or 30 mpg) on the 458 km return trip from our house to the conference centre*.

You are unlikely to get that fuel efficiency with anything other than a small vehicle or hybrid car, especially given the traffic you can expect to encounter. And that’s not including the cost of parking. If you add in $20 for parking, the car would have needed to average 4.6 km/100 L, or 51 mpg, which is probably only possible, if at all, with a carefully-driven Toyota Prius, a Chevy Volt, one of the older two-door Honda Insights, or maybe Nissan Leaf if you asked the polar bear in the backseat to hold a bunch of extra batteries on his or her lap. Even at the premium, book-at-the-last-minute bus fare of $72, a car would still need to average at least 11.8 L/100 km (~20 mpg) excluding parking costs, or 8.5 L/100 km (27 mpg) including parking costs, in order to best the bus costs. In other words, at today’s price, there is a clear and immediate financial benefit to leaving the car in the driveway and taking the bus**.

At low prices, gasoline is inelastic. The price won’t significantly influence our behaviour. But as prices move well upwards of $1 per L (towards $4 per gallon), the story may change. The last time gas prices reached beyond today’s level there was an increased demand for high-efficiency vehicles and public transit.

The problem, to remove my scientist hat and channel Thomas Friedman, is that the price signal is coming from the wrong place. Right now, gas is expensive because of the price of oil. The proceeds are going to the oil industry – some of that money stays here in Canada, but much of it goes overseas – and inspiring more exploration, which could conceivably lower prices, or maybe to things like CEO bonuses. If the price of gas were high because of a tax, especially one for which the revenue was invested in things like transit, improved automotive fuel efficiency, battery technology and charging stations, wouldn’t we all be better off? I’d guess that the only thing people hate more than paying a premium at the pump is paying that premium to oil companies.

*L per 100 km? What foreign tongue is this you ask? Canada and the metric world measures fuel efficiency as the gasoline required to go a distance, whereas the US and some other nations use the distance you can cover on some fixed quantity of gas. That difference is in itself rather fascinating, and probably the subject of someone’s cultural geography thesis.

** A full accounting would include the wear and tear on your car – with that, the bus wins hands down over any car on the market. I’ve ignored that here because I’m interested in what will most likely factor into the choice of bus vs. car. My sense is that people don’t consider the daily dribbling costs of wear and tear when making decisions. We moan when the mechanic says you need a new fan belt, but don’t think about the prorated cost when going on a subsequent trip. So we’re unlikely to make a decision based on the per km wear and tear. This is just a hunch; I could be wrong.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Geopolitics at Climate Dialogue

Over at Climate Dialogue, Gerald Singh writes about the geopolitics of climate change and the strengths of weaknesses of scenario analyis:

... This raises the interesting question of what is the value of scenario studies. The future is inherently unpredictable, and there are entire books dedicated to the failures of humanity’s best and brightest when it comes to predicting the future. The problem is further compounded by the idea that our own predictions influence how we act in the future. But where would that leave us? If we rid ourselves of the tools that scenario analysis gives us (regardless of how poor they might be), what can we do?

The post goeson to talk about a climate change and Mexican immigration study that caused some debate last year. Check it out!


Monday, April 11, 2011

REDD: Seeing the forest for the trees

The newest Climate Dialogue post looks at the pros and cons of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (REDD+):

At first glance, the REDD+ framework seems to hold great promise; upon closer inspection, however, the list of barriers to REDD’s success is long. Most criticisms of REDD+ are focused on the details of the Programme’s framework and challenges for its implementation...

For more, check Climate Dialogue!


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Faster sailing across the Central Pacific: Wind speeds and El Nino

The new paper by Young et al. about increasing wind speeds and wave heights over the past twenty years created a bit of a buzz in the climate science world, not to mention the sailing world. Finally some good news, the windsurfer in me first upon seeing the paper.

The paper itself does not speculate about whether human-caused climate change is the driver of the global trend in wind speeds. That may have been a wise choise, as it would be difficult, statistically or dynamically, to attribute the rend in the reasonably short time series (~23 years) to any single forcing factor.

The spatial pattern, however, is quite striking:

If there were no labels on this figure, I'd have guessed it was the trend in sea surface temperatures over the same time period. The steepest trend is in the Central Pacific, including the waters around the Gilbert and Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.

In a map of temperature trends over the past two to three decades, the Central Pacific should jump out because of the increasing frequency of "Central Pacific" El Nino events, also known as El Nino Modoki. The more freuqent occurences of the "CP" El Nino is a subject of much research, and has been attributed by some authors to climate warming. The CP El Nino is responsible for a number of mass coral bleaching events, including 2002-3 in the Phoenix Islands, 2004-5 in the Gilbert Islands, and 2009-10 across the whole region.

It is not surprising to find a similar -- at least visually, take this with a grain of salt, I've not done the statistics -- spatial pattern in the surface wind speeds across the Pacific. More frequent Central Pacific warm events likely means larger pressure gradients, more convergence, and higher winds across the region (my paper in  the Atoll Research Bulletin describesa CP El Nino event in relatively lay terms). More analysis will need to be done, but at first glance, the wind speed trends over the Pacific appear to be driven by temperature trends and the status of climate oscillations, which themselves may be driven in part by climate change.


Monday, April 04, 2011

Let’s Get the Lipstick off the Pig (at Climate Dialogue)

"Climate change is not being effectively addressed through the UNFCCC process, which has instead evolved into a sterile talk shop, unable to overcome the resistance of those who would block meaningful action on climate change."

For more, read the latest post by the student team at Climate Dialogue!