Campus Transition into Sustainability Teaching Laboratory

My May 28th blog discussed the Sierra Club’s ranking of university campuses’ sustainability conversions. I also included the organization’s methodology. Later, in my June 4th blog, I suggested that campuses could convert this transitional process into a teaching moment — perhaps even a teaching laboratory. I didn’t, however, list the Sierra Club’s scoring keys anywhere. If a campus decides to put serious efforts into climbing the ranks, it must first know the details of what is involved — including the metrics. The list of these is incredibly long, but I decided that it was essential to have the full set here for reference. Several of the blogs that follow will also depend on this list. Below, I have extracted the 10 highest-scoring activities, along with some suggestions for how campuses should proceed in order to improve their scores in these categories. I then include the full list:

Explanation:

The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard classifies a company’s GHG emissions into three ‘scopes’. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy. Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

Colleges should provide a detailed accounting of their scope 1–3 emissions (it’s not necessary to include external evaluations). This makes it easier for the Sierra Club to identify and credit any changes.

This is self-explanatory.

This can be done building by building, starting with the oldest buildings.

There was a June 13th conference on the use of solar energy on CUNY campuses. I will expand on this issue next week with some details about the conference.

An institution must initially get a detailed accounting of its waste and then identify (and follow through with) actions to reduce it.

Same process as above.

Since most projects are done by outside contractors, the contracts should include this requirement.

For educational institutions this is one of the most important topics that will define campuses as working sustainability laboratories.

This is self-explanatory but is at least relatively easy in NYC where we can contact the power company to request that they deliver at least a certain portion of our electricity from renewable sources.

This is by far the highest number of available points and it calls for major action — not just pledges or promises!!

Here’s the full set:

Scoring Key 2016

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D-Day Anniversary: 75 Years Later and What I Mean by Self-Inflicted Genocide

A photo from a meeting of WWII liberators and survivors
(I am in the middle of the back row)

The 75th anniversary of D-Day was on Thursday. The celebration was not about me. It was about the soldiers that took part, with many of them giving their lives to save the world from the Nazi horrors. However, I am part of the picture.

In the commemoration of the 75-year anniversary of this momentous event, President Trump quoted President Roosevelt’s prayer at the start of the invasion. Here is how The New York Times describes it:

Mr. Trump appeared most presidential in his appearance at Portsmouth, on the coast of southern England, one of the key embarkation points for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.

The president spoke for less than two minutes, reading an excerpt from a prayer that Roosevelt delivered in a radio address on the evening of the invasion.

“Almighty God,” he read, “our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. They will need thy blessings. For the enemy is strong.”

And: “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.”

I emphasized a few words because I represent a fraction of the group they describe.

Here’s my history, from my very first blog post (April 22, 2012):

I was born in Warsaw, Poland in May, 1939. The first three years of my life were spent in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis developed their plans for systematic Jewish genocide. Before the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943, I was hidden for a time on the Aryan side by a family friend, but a Nazi “deal” to provide foreign papers to escape Poland resulted in my mother bringing me back to the Ghetto. Then a Nazi double-cross sent the remnants of my family not to safety in Palestine, but to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as possible pawns in exchange for German prisoners of war. As the war was nearing an end, in April 1945, we were put on a train headed to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp further from the front lines. American tank commanders with the 743rd tank battalion of the American 30th Division intercepted our train near Magdeburg in Germany, liberating nearly 2500 prisoners. Within the year, my mother and I began building new lives in Palestine.

Twelve years ago, I located the units of the American army that participated in my liberation. Since then, I have tried to attend as many liberator/survivor events as I could. The press has covered many of these; you can find the stories on the internet. The opening photograph is from one of the more recent meetings. I included the relevant link below it.

It will not be a great surprise to anybody that all of us in the photograph look old. I was 6 years old when I was liberated and the soldiers were all in their twenties. We — both survivors and liberators — are the last generation alive that lived through these events. Both groups have been speaking of their experiences to schools and interested listeners, trying to do everything in our power to prevent more genocides such as the ones that took place in WWII. Genocides come in various shades and forms so it requires full awareness to forestall recurrences of what happened there.

When Frank Towers (standing third from the right), an officer during the liberation event, passed away (at age 99), a Dutch friend who used to attend some of these events suggested we build a monument to the survivors and liberators in the German town where the train was intercepted (Farsleben). I have joined forces with the people of Farsleben, along with a few second-generation survivors and liberators who now live in the US and Israel, to try to help him bring the idea to fruition.

Over the summer, my wife and I will travel to Farsleben. We will interact with students, teachers, and adults as we try to facilitate getting the monument ready for a formal dedication on April 2020: the 75th anniversary of the Liberation.

I teach students about Physics and climate change at Brooklyn College as my day-to-day job. I also do research on climate change. At every possible opportunity, I try to connect climate change to the Holocaust, describing anthropogenic climate change as a self-inflicted genocide. You can see my detailed reasoning in the first three posts on this blog, from 2012.

This summer I will also be working on a talk that I am scheduled to give in November about possible ways for the world to reach an agreement to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Many approaches in this area are mathematically based on game theory. One of the strongest groups doing work in this area is from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). The game theory approach to solve climate change can be very complex. One of the reasons for that complexity is that players need to agree to play collectively and not isolate themselves as free riders. Free riders benefit from global mitigation caused by limits on carbon emissions but also get to continue using the relatively low-cost fossil fuels that are causing those emissions. Free riding also tends to be contagious (the US is now a free rider). Humans can be difficult to predict and harder to shift. It seems to me that game theory or any other mathematical approach does not work very well in a system that involves more intricate human motivations. What we really need are political solutions that will include all of us. That means that such solutions will be compromises similar to that achieved in Paris at the end of 2015, from which United States is presently in the process of withdrawing.

Potsdam is about 90 minutes’ drive from Farsleben. D-Day reminds us that the WWII victory also needed a political solution. The aftermath of WWII almost assured that any repeat would involve nuclear weapons with the capacity for a global genocide. The Potsdam Conference between July 12 and August 2, 1945 attempted to reach a peaceful settlement.

Back to the D-Day memorial. The President of the United States received a great reception from the British Royal Family. At an official banquet at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II toasted him with the following remark:

As we face the new challenges of the 21st century, the anniversary of D-Day reminds us of all that our countries have achieved together. After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard-won peace.

Later, Prince Charles spoke at length with President Trump about climate change. Such institutional, international cooperation to prevent future global disaster caused by climate change is badly needed now. Unfortunately, the 90-minute effort on the part of the heir to the British crown to deliver this point to our president didn’t go far in influencing him to change his stance on climate change or other threats to humanity.

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Campus Sustainability – NYC and CUNY

Sustainability in NYC

In mid-April, the New York City Council passed an incredibly important piece of legislation regarding our city’s sustainability, calling for landlords to upgrade the built environment:

New York City Passes Historic Climate Legislation

The Climate Mobilization Act lays the groundwork for New York City’s own Green New Deal.

By Alexander C. Kaufman

The legislation sets emissions caps for various types of buildings over 25,000 square feet; buildings produce nearly 70% of the city’s emissions. It sets steep fines if landlords miss the targets. Starting in 2024, the bill requires landlords to retrofit buildings with new windows, heating systems and insulation that would cut emissions by 40% in 2030, and double the cuts by 2050.

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

The Climate Mobilization Act’s other components include a bill that orders the city to complete a study over the next two years on the feasibility of closing all 24 oil- and gas-burning power plants in city limits and replacing them with renewables and batteries. Another that establishes a renewable energy loan program. Two more that require certain buildings to cover roofs with plants, solar panels, small wind turbines or a mix of the three. And a final bill that tweaks the city’s building code to make it easier to build wind turbines.

The cost to landlords is high. The mayor’s office estimated to The New York Times that the total cost of upgrades needed to meet the new requirements would hit $4 billion.

It reads a lot like a NYC-specific Green New Deal (GND) (see the February 19, 2019 blog). This is appropriate, given that New York’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the congresswoman people most identify with the GND (cosponsored by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass). The legislation sounds great but we have lived through these kinds of initiatives before; some regulations are more effective than others. I used to teach a course at my school that focused on New York City’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, this is from a class file from Spring 2010:

PlaNYC Energy Initiatives

On Earth Day, 2007, Mayor Bloomberg released plaNYC, a sustainability plan for the City’s future. The plan is designed to lower our collective carbon footprint while also compensating for population growth and improving the city as a whole. Here we address its fourteen-point plan for energy and analyze its progress thus far. 

Sustainability at CUNY

I work within the City University of New York (CUNY) — the largest urban university in the US. Following Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement, CUNY formed a sustainability task force:

The CUNY Sustainability Project was given institutional clarity and impetus through the acceptance by Chancellor Goldstein on June 6, 2007 of Mayor Bloomberg’s ’30 in10′ challenge. This challenge will motivate New York City’s public and private universities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2017. CUNY is committed to investing the resources necessary to construct, retrofit and maintain more sustainable and green facilities.

You can follow the university’s progress in this area here.

While a number of UC schools feature in the Sierra Club’s list of the country’s 200 most sustainable schools (see last week’s blog), CUNY campuses are nowhere to be found. In fact, the top NYC school on the list is St. John’s University at #50, with Columbia University coming in at #90.

We (New York and CUNY) can and should do much better. To my knowledge, nobody has ever tried to use schools as laboratories where they could correlate economics with energy transition. In theory, in addition to converting the campus itself into an environmentally friendly institution, a school could train its graduates to perform such conversion jobs —thus enhancing their qualifications for satisfying employment once they leave school.

I teach physics in my school; it’s an experimental science:

experimental science

  1. Diligent inquiry or examination in seeking facts or principles; laborious or continued search after truth; as, researches of human wisdom; to research a topic in the library; medical research.
  2. Systematic observation of phenomena for the purpose of learning new facts or testing the application of theories to known facts; — also called scientific research. This is the research part of the phrase “research and development” (R&D).

    Note: The distinctive characteristic of scientific research is the maintenance of records and careful control or observation of conditions under which the phenomena are studied so that others will be able to reproduce the observations. When the person conducting the research varies the conditions beforehand in order to test directly the effects of changing conditions on the results of the observation, such investigation is called experimental research or experimentation or experimental science; it is often conducted in a laboratory. If the investigation is conducted with a view to obtaining information directly useful in producing objects with commercial or practical utility, the research is called applied research. Investigation conducted for the primary purpose of discovering new facts about natural phenomena, or to elaborate or test theories about natural phenomena, is called basic research or fundamental research. Research in fields such as astronomy, in which the phenomena to be observed cannot be controlled by the experimenter, is called observational research. Epidemiological research is a type of observational research in which the researcher applies statistical methods to analyse patterns of occurrence of disease and its association with other phenomena within a population, with a view to understanding the origins or mode of transmission of the disease.

One of the biggest disciplines of experimental science is natural science, i.e. using the scientific method (try typing that into the blog’s search box) to study nature. Examples include physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, etc. The terminology was largely introduced to distinguish them from social sciences, which use the scientific method to study human behavior. As a rule, one cannot properly teach natural sciences without laboratory components where we test almost everything that we learn.

So where do we place anthropogenic climate change in our studies? The term describes man-made changes to the physical environment and reflects on how, in turn, those changes impact humanity. Many university campuses are now affiliated with laboratory schools or demonstration schools where they train future teachers and conduct educational experimentation and research. Can we devise laboratory experiences/experiments regarding climate change on a matching scale?

Michael Bloomberg, after his three terms as mayor of NYC, started a new environmental enterprise focused on climate change. The C40 initiative currently boasts the participation of 94 cities (NYC included), which together make up 25% of the global GDP. The initiative’s latest commitment is that new buildings will conform to Net Zero Carbon by 2030 and old buildings will show net zero carbon by 2050. These are clear objectives on which one can measure progress.

The changeover to a zero-carbon environment is often expensive. Many schools, including mine, only find the necessary resources when they construct new buildings. For old buildings the conversion is even pricier (hence the delay in the target date under the C40 aspirations). Almost all the buildings in most campuses are old. Sustainable buildings and teaching laboratories each need resources for both initial costs and maintenance. We have very little experience with conversion of old buildings into more sustainable ones but we have a much richer history of working with teaching laboratories.

The initial funding for the laboratories usually comes with the original budget for the building — that is one of the main reasons that science buildings are so expensive. Once we start using it, a lab needs periodic maintenance — mainly for updating, replacing, and repairing equipment. A lot of the capital for these projects — at least at my school — comes from the students’ technology fee.

At CUNY, tuition for full-time in-state students is $3,135/semester; technology fees are $125/semester.

In 2003, the CUNY Board of Trustees adopted legislation requiring students to pay an annual technology fee. The revenues generated by the fee are to be used by the colleges to enhance opportunities for students to use current technology in their academic studies and to acquire the knowledge and skills that the modern, information-centered world requires.

Each year, a committee composed of administrators, faculty and students, chaired by the Provost, solicits suggestions from the college community and prepares a plan for the use of the technology fee funds. The plan is submitted to the Chancellor for approval. Brooklyn College’s advanced use of technology enables the committee to both pursue more advanced goals and concentrate on projects that build on mature foundations.

Approved projects are expected to further the college’s goals of: expanding student access to computing resources, improving computer-based instruction, improving support for students using college computers, improving student services, and using technology to enrich student life on campus. These goals should now [sic] only make college life more enjoyable, but also provide Brooklyn College students with an edge as they enter the job market or move on to postgraduate studies.

The committee’s plan is typically cast as a formatted spreadsheet indicating categories and examples of projects. The projects listed in the spreadsheet represent the college’s priorities, but until it is known exactly how much money will be available, the college cannot determine whether or not all of them will be funded. You can view the budget plans by clicking the links below.

My Proposal

Given NYC’s new legislation, I think it is time for CUNY to update its approach to the sustainability of its infrastructure.

CUNY, sustainable, sustainability, old, new, carbon neutral, zero carbon, renovation, conversion, building

Figure 1 – Age of CUNY buildings

Figure 1 shows the age distribution of CUNY’s buildings. According to the department of energy, the average lifetime of a building made of concrete, steel, and wood is about 70 years. So, by these data, the majority of the buildings will shortly exceed their lifetimes and need to be replaced.

I propose the addition of a sustainability fee to match the technology fee, so we can start to accumulate the resources for these replacements. Majors such as Urban Sustainability and Economic Management will identify and target facilities for replacement and will collaborate with the administration in providing the technical know-how that will be required. In addition to the new fee, these projects will be funded using a mix of private donations and state budgetary allotments.

Students will issue periodic, quantitative reports about progress made in the process of converting the old buildings to zero-carbon buildings. The 20-year target difference between conversion of new and old buildings should be more than enough time for the process to be feasible.

In the next blog I will continue to add some more details about my proposed sustainability conversion.

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Campus Sustainability – National

solar, sustainable, sustainability, university

Contractors install solar panels atop Colorado State University’s Braiden Hall.

About three weeks ago, shortly after spring began, The New York Times ran a short article about how local leaders in many communities are approaching adaptation to the major increase in flooding. Two short paragraphs capture the essence of the issue:

As Mayor Frank Klipsch of Davenport starts that conversation — a wide-ranging discussion of upstream levee heights, riverfront development and whether the city should install permanent flood protection — there is one topic he sees little benefit in raising: human-caused climate change.

“We know there’s something going on, so how do we come together and deal with that?” said Mr. Klipsch, a two-term mayor who said taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.” “Let’s not try to label it. Let’s not try to politicize it. It’s just a matter of something is changing.

Mr. Klipsch’s determination not to include human-caused climate change in addressing the need for permanent flood protection is problematic. The term is not just a matter of politics—refusing to utilize it limits people’s focus to mitigating the immediate issues and ignores the need for any attempts at long term solutions. The “finger in the dike” idiom illustrated below seems appropriate.

dike, finger, cartoon, dam, Mike LuckovichPolitics aside, my attention shifted quickly to my own professional setting: university campuses. These are places where it has not yet been deemed necessary to avoid all mention of climate change.

This week I will examine the general issue of various university campuses’ attempts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Next week I’ll shift my attention to more familiar territory of my own campus with some suggestions about how to accelerate our progress in this area.

A piece in the online magazine Yale Environment 360 acknowledges the gap between colleges’ ambitions and achievements in sustainability. “On College Campuses signs of Progress on Renewable Energy” opens with the following short abstract:

U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.

The article follows up with some examples, including Arizona State University and Colorado State University (the latter is featured in the opening photograph of this blog). Below are two key paragraphs about ASU’s efforts and those of a few other top campuses:

The Memorial Union’s PowerParasol is just one installation within Arizona State’s expansive network of 88 solar systems, which now produces 41,000 megawatt hours annually — enough to power nearly 4,000 average U.S. homes. Arizona State’s solar capacity stands second among American universities, behind only rival University of Arizona, and it’s about to grow further: The state’s largest electric utility is building an off-site facility that will provide the campus with another 65,000 megawatt hours per year, knocking 10 percent from its carbon footprint. That will go a long way toward helping Arizona State create a carbon-neutral campus by 2025, a target it aims to reach not only by expanding its solar capacity, but also by improving its refrigeration and waste management practices, making its buildings more efficient, and purchasing carbon offsets.

Not every campus can exploit the relentless Arizona sun, of course; nonetheless, university sustainability is moving further into the mainstream with every passing year. In 2007, the first installment of the Sierra Club’s rankings was dominated by small private colleges known for their progressive bent, like Oberlin in Ohio and Vermont’s Middlebury. Only two of the top 10 schools — the University of California system and Pennsylvania State University — were public institutions. By contrast, half of this year’s top 10 is composed of public schools, including major institutions like Arizona State and the University of Connecticut. The Climate Leadership Network, a coalition of more than 650 schools that have vowed to achieve carbon neutrality on self-determined timetables, counts institutions such as Montana State, Mississippi State, and the University of Washington among its members.

It’s great to see public schools gaining ground and making progress in carbon neutrality. The top efforts in this area are reflected in the Sierra Club’s sustainability rankings. The section below details the organization’s revised methodology:

We then processed the raw data (obtained from the schools) through a custom-built formula that scored the schools across 64 questions, with each of those questions given a specific numeric value on a 1,000-point scale. You can find our scoring key here.

This year, our scoring methodology was updated to reflect trends in campus sustainability. In past years, we awarded partial points on many questions even if schools reported no progress in that area. This was something of a hangover from the earliest iterations of our rankings systems, when we felt that it was important to reward schools simply for conducting audits and surveys of their sustainability operations. Since we launched the Cools Schools rankings 10 years ago, higher education has come a long way in terms of incorporating sustainability values. At this point, it’s no longer sufficient for schools to simply survey their operations and curricula; we, along with our 2.4 million members and supporters, are expecting measurable progress.

Our scoring key is a reflection of the broader priorities of the Sierra Club. For example, we award a significant percentage of points in the areas of campus energy use, transportation, and fossil fuel divestment because the Sierra Club believes that progress in these sectors is essential for addressing the climate crisis. While our ranking is fair, transparent, and accurate, we make no claim that it is the ultimate arbiter of campus sustainability.

Our results show that while many universities are making admirable progress, no school has yet attained complete sustainability. In 2016, the top-rated university scored 783.41 out of a possible 1,000 points, proving that, in higher education as in the rest of society, there is much room for improvement.

The United States has more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities; we acknowledge that many schools that care about the environment don’t appear on Sierra’s list.

That said, our rankings can serve as a guide for prospective students, current students, administrators, and alumni to compare colleges’ commitments to environmentalism. It also serves to spur healthy competition among schools, raise environmental standards on campus, and publicly reward the institutions that work hard to protect the planet.

Tangible items funded by the Technology Fee will be identified by special labels or plaques. The proposed expenditures are described below and the entire college community is encouraged to review the plan and provide feedback.

In other words, they’ve stopped grading on a curve and no one is getting an A (the highest score was 78% or a C+). The Sierra Club list contains more than 200 schools; my school is not among them. Next blog I will narrow my emphasis from the national picture to focus on my own campus.

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Graduation: Congrats to My Students!

Classes ended this week. By the time that I post this blog, my students’ final exams will also be history. The last four guest blogs were written by students in my Physics and Society course—a research-based course that I offer periodically to advanced undergraduate physics students. Some of those who authored these guest blogs will be graduating at the end of this month. I encouraged my students to comment on each other’s blogs; if you haven’t read these posts yet, I urge you to do so as soon as you can and add your comments to the mix.

The issues that the guest bloggers addressed are important and complex; as befitted physics students, I encouraged them to be quantitative. They presented their work in two distinct forums. On the school’s Science Day, science faculty quizzed them on everything even remotely related to their topics. Also, since the projects are society-related, and society consists of more than just science faculty—to put it mildly—the guest blogs were meant to address the same topics using more accessible language for the general public. You can be the judge of these attempts; please let us know how they fared.

Graduation is also a time to think about societal issues on every scale. My school is probably the place where I have the highest capacity to contribute to change . In 2007 Brooklyn College made a commitment, together with other schools and public institutions, to enhance our environmental stewardship in specific areas. One of these pledges was to reduce our energy use by 30% (compared to 2007) in 10 years. Many of these commitments became dormant over time as administrations on the state, city, and even campus levels changed. This year, 12 years after the initiative started, voices on campus are demanding we reprioritize these commitments.

How To Determine Where We Focus Our Actions

Two indicators that are central to these efforts, and are directly related to climate change, are energy use and carbon footprints. There are a few important questions that emerge in our attempts to resuscitate these commitments. First, of course, if we want to make progress in these areas, we have to know how to measure them. Many of the calculations are based on “emission factors,” a relatively muddled term.

Fortunately, there are helpful resources. To find out where you stand personally you can Google carbon footprint measurements. Among other entries, you will find an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) calculator. It asks you:

Home Energy:

  1. What is your zip code; how many people are in your household?
  2. What’s your household’s primary heating source?
  3. Enter your average monthly utility bill or other data for each source of energy your household uses.
    1. Natural Gas (in dollars, thousand cubic feet, or Therms)
    2. Electricity (in dollars or kWh); % of electricity that is green
    3. Fuel Oil (in dollars or gallons)
    4. Propane (in dollars or gallons)

Transportation: How many cars do you have? How many miles do you travel? What is your gas consumption?

Waste: What do you recycle (aluminum and steel cans, plastic, glass, newspaper, magazines)?

After you fill in the list, the site provides you with your carbon footprint (weight of carbon dioxide that you emit) and compares it to an average among those with the same household size in your zip code. In addition, it provides a series of suggestions for saving energy and calculates the resulting reduction in both your carbon footprint and the price that you pay for utilities.

The first questions that many ask: How does the EPA calculate your carbon footprint? What data sources does it use (census data, etc.) to establish a baseline?

You can reference the original resources on the website for the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and access a table of carbon coefficients as shown below:

We can use this data to calculate the results for Brooklyn College. The follow up question is: how does the EIA calculate its own table? For that we need some understanding of chemistry.

When I ask my general education climate change students how many of them have ever experienced any type of chemistry education, I usually get numbers lower than 50%. This is a problem because chemistry in its most basic form is a language that explains a lot of what happens in the natural world around us. If you are unfamiliar with any language you will have problems deciphering the content it conveys. Accordingly, I spend time discussing the language of physics with my class and making sure that my students can work with it.

Next week I will expand upon some of the other issues that stand in the way of our collective effort to mitigate climate change.

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Guest Blog: How Income Inequality Correlates with CO2 Emissions and What We Can Do About It

Hello readers! This week’s guest blog is from Benjamin K, Quinn Downes, and Michael Guerin. Combined, we carry degrees in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology. Through this blog post, we hope to spread information on the correlation between income inequality and carbon emissions. Although both of these factors have been extensively studied separately from one another, we utilize known information to relate the two aspects. More importantly, however, we include information on how changes in income inequality can be used to decrease carbon emissions.

Recent developments in the world’s environmental, political, and economic atmospheres have made climate change and the global widening income gap dominant topics of discussion. More of the world’s wealth is coming into the possession of fewer people while the majority of the population possesses increasingly less wealth. It is, therefore, unsurprising that there have been numerous studies done to explore how income distribution affects carbon emissions. For example, total CO2 emissions of a nation are examined alongside lognormal income distribution statistics. In this study, we analyzed data to determine if economic inequality prevalence throughout a country leads to increased carbon dioxide release as a result of excessive transport. We focused our analysis on transportation. Examining this data along with global Gini coefficient statistics, the empirical results of analysis indicate a positive correlation between a nation’s Gini coefficient and the anthropogenic CO2 emissions from all its methods of transportation. With these results, policymakers will have more insight, enabling them to make informed decisions when approaching these matters. Particularly, these findings will guide policymakers to realize that increased income equality is a possible remedy for high CO₂ emissions.

Environmental Kuznets Curve

However, to first understand the reasons as to why this analysis was necessary, we will take a look at previous models describing how GDP per capita affected the environment. In particular, during the mid-twentieth century, Simon Kuznets proposed a hypothesis stating that as economic development occurs, there is a spike in environmental degradation. As the economy continues to develop, environmental degradation reaches a peak, after which it starts to decrease. Kuznets theorized that economic inequality of a society also follows the same relation, whereby initial economic development will cause a spike in economic inequality.

kuznets curve, graph, economy, economics, environmental kuznets curve, turning point, industrial economy, GDP, environmental degradationFigure 1 – Graphical representation of the relationship between a nation’s GDP per capita and its respective level of environmental degradation. This relationship demonstrates the Kuznets curve, commonly referred to as the environmental Kuznets curve when applied to this area of study.1

To put this in context, let’s consider a hypothetical undeveloped country. All of a sudden, this country is given the opportunity to invest in a business such as hospitality, because a lot of foreigners want to visit. As expected, only people with a large amount of capital can initially invest to create hotels and resorts, which they will eventually profit from. Because of this occurrence, economic inequality initially increases, since the rich will be getting richer. As more labor is needed, more people from rural areas will continue to flock towards urbanizing areas where these new hotels are located, thus keeping wages low and further increasing economic inequality. However, Kuznets continued to propose, as such industrialization proceeds, more workers will earn the area’s average income, thus decreasing economic inequality.

Unfortunately, even Kuznets himself realized that the data used for his correlation was very fragile and susceptible to error. For example, his analysis did not correlate with the economic development of most countries observed to this day. Additionally, the majority of his data compared differences in inequality and economic development of countries in Latin America, which have a record of high economic inequality, even when compared to countries of similar economic development.2 Ultimately, an abundance of such misrepresentations was able to undermine the validity of the Kuznets curve.

We now know that carbon dioxide is the main anthropogenic greenhouse gas and is believed to be responsible for the majority of global warming.3 When considering carbon dioxide as a “scale” for environmental degradation, it is incorrect to assume that carbon emissions will decrease as an economy succeeds. Due to aforementioned reasons, our study instead focuses on how other statistics can be used to more accurately correlate income inequality and carbon emissions.

Lorenz Curve

Lognormal distribution of income and the Lorenz Curve are two statistical forms used to quantify income inequality. This curve is a graphical representation of the distribution of income in an economy. The Gini coefficient is a ratio with a value between 0 (0%) and 1 (100%) that we can get from the Lorenz Curve. It can be used as a measurement of the equality of income within a population, with a value of zero expressing perfect income equality, and a value of one expressing maximum income inequality. In other words, in an economy in which every citizen earned exactly the same income, the Gini coefficient would have a value of 0. Alternatively, in an economy in which one citizen collected the entirety of the income, the Gini coefficient would have a value of 1.

The Gini coefficient should not be mistaken for a measurement of a nation’s income. It is not uncommon for high-income and low-income countries to have similar Gini values. For example, in 2016, Turkey and the United States had a Gini coefficient of roughly 0.40, yet Turkey’s GDP per capita was approximately half of that in the US.

income inequality, Lorenz, GDP, income, income distribution, equality, Gini coefficient

Figure 2 – Graphical representation of the relationship between a nation’s income and its GDP per capita. This relationship demonstrates a Lorenz curve and can be used to study a nation’s level of economic equality.4

This number is a representation of a ratio of the areas on the Lorenz curve, with the numerator of this ratio being the area between the actual income distribution and the perfect equality line, and the denominator being the area under the perfect equality line. The calculations for the Gini coefficient are fairly simple. If we call the region between the line of perfect equality and the Lorenz curve A, and the area below the Lorenz curve B, then the Gini coefficient can be expressed as A/(A+B). Knowing that the value of A+B is 0.5, we can express the Gini coefficient as 2A, or 1-2B. This can show us graphically that the closer the actual distribution is to perfect equality, the smaller the the inequality gap, A, and the smaller the Gini coefficient.

Data Analysis

There are many factors that affect a country’s carbon emissions. Larger countries obviously emit more carbon than smaller countries; technological advancements can lower the carbon emissions of wealthier countries while industrialization raises those of developing nations. Carbon is also emitted from many sources like cattle, electricity generation, and our focus here: transportation. This includes domestic aviation, domestic navigation, road, rail, and pipeline transport but we are not counting international aviation or international marine bunkers. To even the playing field in the data as much as possible, we plotted the percent of carbon emissions that came from the use of fuel for transportation for each country5 versus the distribution of income inequality to see if there was any significant, observable trend. This was done using the income inequality and emissions percentages per country for each year to eliminate time as a variable in consideration.

income inequality, income distribution, CO2 emissions, lognormal distribution

Figure 3 – Graph of the effect of income inequality on carbon emissions

From this graph we can see that there is a positive trend, meaning that there is an effect of income inequality on carbon emissions, globally. The R² value of 0.192 means that about one fifth of the variation in the emissions can be explained by the income distribution. This shows that income inequality has a definite effect on carbon emissions in a country.

Intra-Country Income Inequality Changes Versus Carbon Emission

income inequality, GDP per capita, carbon emissions 

Figure 4 – Graph of how GDP of a country affects the relationship between income inequality and per capita carbon emissions6

Countries with higher GDP per capita are shown to have increased carbon emissions as well. The graph on the left represents countries in the 55th percentile (top line) and 45th percentile (bottom line) of GDP per capita. The graph clearly shows that with the higher GDP per capita there are also higher CO₂ emissions. The U shape of the graph also tells us that with high inequality, carbon emissions can be reduced by making the income distribution more equal, but that after a certain point making income distribution more equal will have the opposite effect.

In the right graph above, the solid line is for the countries with the highest GDP per capita while the dashed line is for countries with the lowest GDP per capita. This graph has been normalized so that they have the same average, so as to be easier to compare. It clearly shows that for higher GDP per capita countries, the turning point of carbon emissions tends towards higher income inequality while countries with lower GDP per capita will have lower inequality turning points.

In conclusion, this information demonstrates that higher income inequality is correlated with higher carbon emissions. However, with the goal of lowering carbon emissions, we cannot assume that lowering income inequality will accomplish this task. Rather, it is more favorable for countries with high income inequality to lower that gap country-wide, in order to see the greatest decrease in carbon emissions. If a country with already low income inequality were to lower their income inequality even further, an increase in carbon emissions is likely to arise. For this reason, we suggest that policy makers should only focus on lowering income inequality in high income-unequal nations if their goal is to observe a decrease in carbon emission.

References

  1. Pettinger. (2017, September 11). Economics Help. Retrieved from Economicshelp.org: www.economicshelp.org/blog/14337/environment/environmental-kuznets-curve/?fbclid=IwAR2YnKj8D_0HKSId9gSUhSe8a492NeH6dbBLIyjXf6Om5ph6jSX2StUtVmc
  2. Moffatt, M. (2019, April 10). Understanding Kuznets Curve: The Basis for Trickle-Down Theory. Retrieved from ThoughtCo: www.thoughtco.com/kuznets-curve-in-economics-1146122
  3. Ravallion, M. (2000). Carbon Emissions and Income Inequality. Oxford Economic Papers , 651-669. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/3488662
  4. Agarwal, P. (2019, April 25). Intelligent Economist. Retrieved from Intelligenteconomist.com: https://www.intelligenteconomist.com/lorenz-curve-gini-coefficient/?fbclid=IwAR2G26tpOiKJZUofy-dTPiSYdujII1rP2ExqAHwunOHZ0YN1OW16RDWkc5c
  5. The World Bank Group. (2015). CO2 emissions from transport (% of total fuel combustion). Retrieved from worldbank.org: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/en.co2.tran.zs?fbclid=IwAR3TGbo653etSMJAWl50spKfunPGom3NpwSZxbo06UzLC4yBoToT5S7sSGE
  6. Grunewald, N., Klasen, S., Martinez-Zarzoso, I., & Muris, C. (2017). The Trade-off Between Income Inequality and Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Retrieved from 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.034
  7. Bourguignon, A. (2003). The growth elasticity of poverty reduction: explaining heterogeneity across countries and time periods. Inequality and growth: Theory and policy implications , 3-26.
  8. Klasen, S. (2008). Economic growth and poverty reduction: measurement issues using income and non-income indicators. World Development , 36, 420-424.
  9. The World Bank Group. (2015). GINI index (World Bank estimate). Retrieved from worldbank.org: data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?locations=AL-AU
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Guest Blog: How is Carbon Affecting Energy Intensity in the US?

Hello to everybody, we are the guest bloggers Amged Haimed, Junfeng Lu, and Haosheng Chen. We are all undergraduate students majoring in physics. Under the guidance of Micha Tomkiewicz, PhD, we have been able to use our backgrounds and experiences to better understand the relationships between carbon, GDP, and energy intensity, along with how to use energy more efficiently to produce improved economic effects from each energy unit.

Our topic here is carbon and energy intensities in the US, so first of all, we will give you some definitions and descriptions. Energy intensity is one of the most commonly used indicators for comparing energy efficiency in different countries and regions, given that it reflects the economic benefits of energy use. The two most frequently used methods for calculating energy intensity are the energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) and the energy consumed per unit of output value. The output value used by the latter is highly unstable due to changes in market prices. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, we are using energy intensity to refer to energy consumption per unit of GDP.

Of course, since we are limiting our study to the US, we can skip the next step, which would otherwise be assessing the PPP. In international comparisons, GDP is often converted according to purchasing power parity (PPP) and the calculation results can differ from those found using the market exchange rate method. Although we are not using it now, PPP can be a very clear way to show the relationship between a country’s economy and energy.

Nowadays, there is a common refrain that in order to save our world, we need to use more renewable energy sources that either produce less carbon than traditional fossil fuels or no carbon at all. These alternatives include solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy. We already know that burning coal, gas, wood, and even natural gas will release carbon dioxide.

Carbon intensity refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP. The level of carbon intensity does not indicate the level of efficiency. In general, carbon intensity indicators decline as technology advances and the economy grows. The intensity of carbon emissions depends on the carbon emission coefficient of fossil energy, the structure of fossil energy, and the proportion of fossil energy in total energy consumption.

Data Collection

Carbon dioxide represents air pollution and the greenhouse effect; at the same time, it also reflects the energy consumption levels of a country or region. Presently, fossil fuels that produce large amounts of carbon dioxide are our main source of energy. Therefore, the more energy we use, the more carbon dioxide we produce. The energy generated is consumed and used for economic development in the states. The economic situation for each state will be presented in GDP. GDP reflects the contributions of both carbon emissions and energy consumption as they relate to the region. The greater the demand for carbon and energy in a state, the higher its GDP will be raised; the consumption of energy is proportional to the GDP.

However, this does not mean that the state that releases the most carbon in its energy production  and energy use will necessarily have the highest GDP. While the use of energy can help increase GDP, it is not the only factor. A state’s economy will be affected by many elements, such as cross-regional trade.

Energy intensity is based on energy consumption and GDP, which represents the efficiency of energy use; it is the ratio of energy consumption to GDP of each state. Energy consumption and GDP are both variables in energy intensity; any change in either one can affect the net result. In this case, however, we are focusing on energy consumption as the primary influencing factor.

US, state, emissions, energy emissions, CO2, per capita, 2016, GDP

Figure 1 – State carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption per capita in each state, 2016

From Figure 1, higher carbon emissions in states correspond to higher energy consumption.

US, state, rank, energy consumption, energy consumption, per capita, 2016, GDP

 Figure 2 – GDP and total energy consumption per capita in each state, 2016

In Figure 2, some states’ GDPs will change along with their energy consumption. Other states have stable GDPs and are not subject to such changes.

US, state, 2016, rank, estimate, energy, energy consumption, per capita, energy intensity

Figure 3 – Energy intensity and energy consumption estimates per capita in each state, 2016

Figure 3 shows the aforementioned states’ changes in energy consumption and how that has affected their energy intensity.

US, graph, state, GDP, energy intensity

Figure 4 – Energy intensity and GDP in each state, 2016

In Figure 4, fluctuations in energy intensity in most states follow changes in state GDP.

 

Texas

Texas, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 5 – Breakup of Texas’ energy consumption 

Texas consumes more than half of its energy in industrial production. Indeed, Texas produces most of the country’s technical industrial products. Most notably, the majority of students in the US use graphing calculators from the state. These products from Texas are sold around the world. The lucrative profit from this sector has become the most important component of Texas’ GDP.

California

 California, state, US, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 6 – Breakup of California’s energy consumption

Figure 6 clearly shows that transportation accounts for about 40% of California’s energy consumption. As the largest transportation hub in the western United States, a sizeable number of sea freighters and planes land in California every day. Many internationally traded goods—both incoming and outgoing—ship through the state’s transportation centers. Unlike Texas, which is a purely industrial production state, California has an immense number of commercial operations. Because its economy is primarily based on massive cargo operations, California’s carbon and energy use is proportional to its GDP.

New York

New York, US, state, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 7 – Breakup of New York’s energy consumption 

In Figure 7, New York is a high energy intensity state. It balances this usage between housing, business, and transportation, but uses relatively little in industrial production. The ubiquitous advertising screens and neon lights on Broadway consume huge amounts of energy both day and night. In addition, due to the dense population of New York, a large number of household appliances, along with air conditioning and winter heating also consume a lot of energy. The high population also drives the development of an ever-larger transportation system, whose convenience facilitates people’s lives. All of these elements work together, pushing up the state’s energy intensity because it also boosts New York’s GDP.

Conclusions

Our analysis, along with the various graphs, shows how different states’ carbon use impacts their energy intensity. When more carbon is used, the energy consumption will be higher, because the energy produced will be consumed. The consumed energy will also drive the growth of a state’s GDP, but that does not necessarily mean that high GDP is equal to high energy consumption. Energy intensity refers to the comprehensive efficient utilization of regional energy: that is, the ratio of regional energy consumption to GDP. Higher energy intensity in states represents high energy efficiency and high economic efficiency. In other words, the use of carbon will directly or indirectly affect changes in the state’s energy intensity.

References

  1. Energy intensity. (n.d.). In University of Calgary Energy Education Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Energy_intensity
  2. Deviren, Seyma Akkaya & Deviren, Bayram. (Available online 8 February 2016). The relationship between carbon dioxide emission and economic growth: Hierarchical structure methods. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, volume 451 Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378437116001497
  3. Table C13. Energy Consumption Estimates per Capita by End-Use Sector, Ranked by State, 2016. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/state/seds/data.php?incfile=/state/seds/sep_sum/html/rank_use_capita.html
  4. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions by State, 2005-2016. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.) Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/analysis
  5. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Energy Information Administration (EIA)   Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/state/
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Guest Blog: How Electricity Production In America Is Changing

This week, guest bloggers Kyle O’Carroll, Daniel Kruglyak, and Vikash Tewari are taking over the Climate Change Fork blog. We are undergraduate students at Brooklyn College, class of 2020. We are all majoring in physics with minors in biochemistry, chemistry, and chemistry respectively. The focus of our blog is to evaluate nationwide electrical efficiency and to examine how different forms of energy are used to produce electricity. We will discuss how these energy sources have changed over time.

Electricity Production

Before we get into the complexities of our discussion, it is necessary for us to present some of the definitions which we will build upon throughout this blog. The most critical aspect to understand for our discussion is the difference between electricity and energy. For our purposes, we will define energy in terms of the various sources which are used to generate electricity.

Different energy sources include coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric power, solar, biomass, nuclear, geothermal, and wind. These can largely be broken into two different categories: renewable and nonrenewable. We take a renewable energy source to mean any method of electricity production which uses an element of our natural environment in a way that does not decrease its supply as a result of that production. Renewable sources include hydroelectric power, solar, biomass, geothermal, and wind energy. On the other hand, nonrenewable sources consist of any electricity sources which have a finite quantity and can decrease with continued use. These nonrenewable sources include coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy. While nuclear energy can technically be classified as either renewable or nonrenewable, depending on the definition used, we will classify it here as nonrenewable. This is because the uranium used in nuclear energy plants to create electricity depletes over time.

It is important to note that renewable and nonrenewable sources have substantial differences both in their impacts on the environment and in their carbon production. All renewable sources produce negligible carbon dioxide emissions, whereas nonrenewable sources—with the exception of nuclear energy—create high levels of them. Studies suggest that these carbon emissions contribute to an increase in the global temperature, which in turn contributes to a multitude of global phenomena including droughts, typhoons, hurricanes, the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and many other natural cataclysms.

We must recognize that the electricity which we use every day is created by different sources of energy and that they each contribute different amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. Each country and, in America, each state, has different methods of producing the electricity that will be used by the general population. It is useful to identify how different places generate electricity and how that has changed over time. Something as simple as leaving your television on in your home overnight can contribute to the degradation of the environment, depending on how the electricity which powers the television was generated. Recognizing the effects we have on the environment—even when carrying out everyday processes—is a vital step in working towards creating a cleaner future. We need to be cognizant of our actions so we can do our part to help mitigate climate change.

Many countries came together under the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, promising to make a push to cut emissions by 2025. Countries such as Sweden, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Scotland, and Germany have shifted to almost 100% renewable energy to produce their electricity (Council, 2019). Shifting to non-carbon-emitting energy sources for production of electricity is one major way that a country can help halt emissions and reduce the effects of global warming. America has not made a complete shift toward renewable energy sources and it is severely hurting the attempt to reach our global emission goals. We should recognize, however, that while America as a whole is not moving towards renewable sources, there are some states which use them almost exclusively to generate their electricity.

Figures 1a and 1b show two examples of outliers in electricity production in the United States from the period of 2001 to 2017. Idaho is one state that leads in clean electricity production; it produced over 80% of its electricity from renewable sources. Hydroelectric power has decreased recently in Idaho due to droughts but the state’s use of wind has increased as a result. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, West Virginia produces 93% of its energy from coal. In 2015, lobbyists repealed its renewable energy standard which would have required 25% of its electricity to come from renewable sources.

Idaho, power production, hydroelectric, natural gas

Image via New York Times, Nadja Popovich

West Virginia, power production, coal, renewable

Image via New York Times, Nadja Popovich

Figures 1a & 1b – These charts show the change in energy production over the years (2001-2017) of Idaho (above) and West Virginia (below)

Local communities in the US need to work towards policies which shift their electricity production. As a whole, America should look to countries like Sweden for inspiration for the coming years and implement nationwide reform to our current policies.

Electrical Efficiency

In order to discuss America’s impact on the climate, we focused on evaluating our country’s efficiency in electricity use as well as the effect of this efficiency on the wellbeing of the planet. We will calculate efficiency as electricity generation versus gross domestic product (GDP). GDP as defined by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is a comprehensive measure of US economic activity. GDP is the value of the goods and services produced in the United States. The growth rate of GDP is the most popular indicator of the nation’s overall economic health. By evaluating electricity generation per GDP, we are able to discuss America’s efficiency of use of generated electricity to promote its economic products. The factor of electricity/GDP correlates to the IPAT equation, where we take:

This equation is critical in the discussion of climate change; it is the primary determining factor of worldwide CO2 production at a given time. The factor (Energy/ GDP) is used for representation of energy intensity and is where we derived our definition of electrical efficiency. To identify the change in America’s efficiency over time, we looked through multiple data sources and compiled graphs which represent the historical trends of the country’s production.

Analysis

Ratio of Electricity Generation to GDP in the US, 1998-2017, efficiency, efficient, electricity, energy, GDPFigure 2 – Ratio of Electricity Generation to GDP in the US, 1998-2017
(“State Electricity Profiles – EIA,” 2016) & (“GDP- Worldbank,” 2016)

As we can see, the chart displays a negative trend, which implies that the GDP is rising faster than electricity production. We define efficiency in terms of effective use of electricity to produce GDP. The y-axis shows the required amount of watt-hours to produce a dollar in GDP. This means we can produce the same amount of GDP with less electricity. This data shows us that in the last 20 years the efficiency of the United States has increased.

ratio CO2 to electricity generation, emissions, EIA, energyFigure 3 – Ratio of CO2 to Electricity Generation in the US, 1998-2017
(“State Electricity Profiles – EIA” 2016) & (“Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Energy Consumption – EIA” 2019)

In plotting the ratio of carbon emissions to electricity generation over time we are able to note that there has been an overall negative slope. This indicates that America is moving in the right direction. Over the last 20 years we have decreased the amount of carbon produced in generating the same amount of electricity. This is due to an increase in cleaner energy sources such as renewable energy over the past 2 decades, as shown in the next graph.

electricity generation, energy source, petroleum, renewable, nuclear, natural gas, coalFigure 4 – US electricity generation by major energy source, 1950-2018

As we see in the electricity generation by major energy sources in the US, over the last 20 years coal use has decreased and renewable energy sources have seen an increase. This explains why carbon emissions per megawatt-hour production have decreased. Despite recent false claims about wind power causing cancer, wind power is a great source of clean, renewable energy.

Conclusion

Many countries are making the effort to move towards cleaner energy and America should continue to follow suit. Throughout recent years, America has been slowly reducing carbon emissions by producing electricity using cleaner energy sources. However, these changes have been too slow and insignificant. While our data shows that America has moved towards cleaner electricity production and has become more efficient, we should not sit back and allow the government to be pleased with these minor successes. It will take a long time to completely switch to clean/renewable energy altogether so while clean electricity production is a good start, large-scale policy changes need to be made in all aspects of our society. In order to reach the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, and for the good of our planet, we need to continue to make bold strides to reduce our carbon emissions and protect our planet.

References

  1. Council, C. (2019, January 14). “11 countries leading the charge on renewable energy – Climate Council.” Retrieved from Climate Council website: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/11-countries-leading-the-charge-on-renewable-energy/
  2. Electricity in the United States – Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy – Energy Information Administration. (2019). Retrieved from EIA.gov website: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_in_the_united_states
  3. GDP (current US$) | Data. (2016, December 31). Retrieved from Worldbank.org website: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=US
  4. “How to Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.” (2019, February 13). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/02/13/climate/cut-us-emissions-with-policies-from-other-countries.html
  5. Popovich, N. (2018, December 24). “How Does Your State Make Electricity?” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/24/climate/how-electricity-generation-changed-in-your-state.html
  6. State Electricity Profiles – Energy Information Administration. (2016). Retrieved April 26, 2019, from EIA.gov website: https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/
  7. Table 12.6 Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Energy Consumption: Electric Power Sector (Million Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide). Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec12_9.pdf
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Guest Blog: Would a Carbon Tax Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Hello! Happy belated Earth Day and happy 7th birthday to the Climate Change Fork blog! We are guest bloggers Nataly Azouly and Anelisa Defoe. Respectively, our majors are Actuarial Mathematics (BS) with a minor in Physics, and Physics (BA) and Exercise Science (BS). We will graduate from Brooklyn College CUNY in May of 2019. Under the guidance of Micha Tomkiewicz, PhD, we have been able to use our backgrounds and experiences to better understand the importance of regulating carbon emissions for the benefit of our planet.

A carbon tax in the US was initially proposed in 1990 in response to the IPCC’s First Assessment Report, as a measure for reducing greenhouse gas production. It was met with bipartisan opposition repeatedly until the late 2000s, when the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment presented more aggressive evidence of global warming1. The 2016 Paris Agreement emphasized the importance of reducing the carbon footprint worldwide, mandating that signatory nations make a joint commitment to reinforce efforts to mitigate climate change2. Implementing a carbon tax in the US presented an effective means for discouraging the consumption of energy from nonrenewable sources while promoting clean energy alternatives.

Presently, there are no active carbon tax policies enforced at either state or federal levels in the US. A 2016 publication by the Congressional Budget Office proposed a plan for an annual increase of revenue through carbon taxation3. This initial, forceful approach to carbon taxation planned to generate $32.9 billion between 2017 and 2018. A trend of 2% annual increase in the tax would be implemented and result in a net federal revenue increase of $977.2 billion between 2017 and 2026. Consequently, businesses’ costs would increase while income and payroll taxes decreased. If approved, CO2 emissions would be taxed $25 per metric ton based on CO2e (equivalents) necessary to cause warming. Carbon emissions would be predicted to decline by 9% within the 1st decade of enforcing carbon taxes. The proposal offers a model for state governments to adopt and modify the measure for an optimal increase in revenue. However, the plan has not been passed into law anywhere.

Oppositional arguments against a carbon tax assert that reducing US carbon emissions would destabilize the economy by increasing cost production of emission-intensive goods and services. Indeed, without empirical data to reference, the socioeconomic risk-benefit ratio for residents is uncertain. Therefore, it is plausible that a reduction in climate change might more immediately benefit other countries, particularly developing ones, as opposed to the US. Another argument suggests that industries with high emission rates might simply relocate to other countries that have minimal restrictions on the use of nonrenewable resources. Consequently, the carbon tax would prove ineffective overall in reducing the global carbon footprint.

A January 2019 publication by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) reports state efforts to target the transportation sector4. The sector’s increase in carbon emissions nationwide between 1990 and 2016 attests to the need for regulation. At present, 14 states have proposed legislation to encourage a transition to zero emission vehicles (ZEV). ZEVs include both plug-in and fuel cell electric vehicles, thereby deviating from the use of traditional gas for motor vehicles. Under section 209 of the Clean Air Act, California has the ability to spearhead operations that place greater restrictions than the federal government on carbon emissions. Similarly, under section 177 of the Clean Air Act, states such as New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and others may enforce comparable policies reflective of California’s precedent.

At the congressional level, the cap and trade model serves as the primary mode for reducing carbon emissions5. Instead of taxing emissions, the government limits how much carbon various factions may produce. These limitations are measured in metric tons that companies and other groups may not exceed. This model serves the interests of the private sector more effectively than it reduces net carbon emissions. As observed in other countries, a carbon tax would yield greater results for reducing emissions.

On a global scale, economists endorse the carbon tax as being the most effective tool for both reducing the carbon imprint6 and encouraging the advent and refinery of prospective technologies. Its implementation in an array of countries demonstrates that its success rate is dependent on the dynamic systems that constitute a particular society.

A March 2016 New York Times publication confirmed the difficulty of British Columbia’s (BC) task to institute a carbon tax7. Between 2008 and 2012, carbon emissions there fell 10%. With a tax of about $22.20 US per ton of CO2 emissions, revenues stimulated the economy and gradually gained voter acceptance. However, in response to stagnation in the tax’s growth, carbon emissions began to increase. To continue reducing the carbon imprint via taxes, BC must increase the tax at a rate of $7.46 US per ton annually. This task has been met with the above-mentioned challenge of preventing businesses from relocating to other countries with fewer restrictions on carbon emissions.

Anthesis Enveco’s March 2018 overview of Swedish carbon tax details a successful 26% decrease in carbon emissions between 1991 and 20168. It is noteworthy however, that Sweden has a historical affinity for renewable energy resources to substitute fossil fuel consumption; in juxtaposition, BC has a far greater dependence on companies that are incentivized by cheaper nonrenewable energy. Sweden has access to biomass and hydropower to generate energy. Furthermore, the country’s carbon tax is complemented by legislation that predates it—including a cap and trade model—as well as a transition to ZEVs (like the US), and a combination of prolific resources and government initiatives.

Similarly, Norway implemented a carbon tax in 1991. The target goal is to have a 40% reduction of carbon emissions, relative to the 1990s, by 20309. Mirroring Sweden’s approach, a carbon tax in conjunction with incentives to transition to battery electric vehicles would further mitigate the carbon footprint. It is also essential to note that—as with Sweden—Norwegian energy systems are already 98% renewable. Therefore giving up reliance on coal-based energy sources does not present the same adversity as it does in British Columbia.

Our Analysis

A carbon tax is designed to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Placing a carbon tax on fossil fuels would essentially raise the prices for consumers and force households and corporations to make decisions regarding their consumption of said fuels accordingly. Instead of allowing the market to naturally adjust its price based on supply and demand, issuing a carbon tax would therefore give the government a greater amount of market power, leaving room for alternative energy sources to become competitive.

According to the law of demand (Mankiw), all other things equal, when the price of a good rises, the demand for the good falls. Essentially, an individual or group would be incentivized to consume fewer fossil fuels solely based on an increase in price.

In order to create a demand curve, data was collected comparing the price of crude oil (USD) to the CO2 emissions (kilotons) in the US during the corresponding year. Since 82% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US are a result of the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas, the price of crude oil will be used as a proxy to represent the price of fossil fuels in the United States. In addition, CO2 emissions will be used as a proxy to represent fossil fuel consumption.

The data we are using was collected from the years 1997 to 2014 by the World Bank and Macrotrends. Our hypothesis states that, based on the nature of the law of demand in macroeconomics, a carbon tax is an effective tool to mitigate CO2 emissions.

First, to evaluate the significance of the price of crude oil in the United States in determining carbon emissions, a regression has been run yielding the following equation:

CO2 = -3000 x Price + 5.7×106

A regression is a measured relationship between the average value of the dependent variable and the input value of the independent variable. In this case, the independent variable is “Price,” the price of crude oil in USD, and the dependent variable is CO2, the carbon emissions in kilotons. Due to the negative coefficient of the price of crude oil in the US, this implies that when the price of oil is increased by $1, the predicted average CO2 emissions decreases by 2999.6 kilotons. Therefore, there is an inverse relationship between CO2 emissions and the price of oil as predicted by the law of demand. This equation can also be used to predict the shape of the demand curve of oil in the United States.

carbon tax, carbon, price, oil, emissions, statistics, proportion, inverse relationship, variable, graph

This distribution has an R2 value of 0.18. R2 is statistical measure that explains the proportional effect a variable has on the variation of another variable. In this case, it means that the price of crude oil explains an 18% variation in carbon emissions—a large value for cross-sectional data. This makes it a significant variable in predicting carbon emissions in a given year.

To determine the statistical significance of the variable Price, we will be conducting a one-tailed hypothesis test (t-test). A t-test is used to determine the significance of the hypothesized coefficient produced by the regression. To test H0: A=0 (The hypothesized value) versus H1: A<0 (The alternate hypothesis) at the α level of significance, reject H0 if t is either

(t) ≤ -tα,n1

Where A is the coefficient of the variable Price.

In this case, t = −1.854 and −tα/2,n−1 = -1.7396. Since −1.854 < -1.7396, we reject the null hypothesis in favor of the alternative hypothesis that the coefficient of the Price is less than 0.

Lastly, looking at the correlation of the variables, Corr(CO2 emissions, price of oil), we find that:

Corr(CO2 emissions, price of oil) = -0.42052344

A negative correlation is a relationship between two variables such that as the value of one variable increases, the other decreases. Therefore, as the price of crude oil increases, CO2 emissions decrease. This can imply that there is an inverse relationship between the price of carbon and its consumption. According to these results, a carbon tax would effectively mitigate the use of fossil fuels in the United States.

Conclusion

Approximately 82% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US are a result of our burning oil, coal, and natural gas. The objective of this research was to determine the effectiveness of a carbon tax to mitigate the use of fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. Through observation of countries with successful carbon tax policies, current legislation concerning fossil fuel production and consumption, and statistical analysis, we determined that implementing a carbon tax is an effective tool in mitigating carbon emissions by demonstrating that there exists an inverse relationship between the price of fossil fuels and their consumption.

Our analysis shows that a carbon tax is an effective method to mitigate the use of fossil fuels. The creation of a carbon tax raises the issue of what to do with the tax revenue raised by this new policy. Proposals have included issuing a rebate, investing in clean energy technology, and using these funds to decrease the US government’s deficit. We determined that the best uses for the revenue generated from a carbon tax would be to offer a rebate to lower and middle class individuals while also investing in research for new technologies in clean and renewable energy in order to decrease the costs of renewable energy sources and methods.

 

References:

1 “Know the Legislation.” Price on Carbon. 4 Jan. 2019, 21 Apr. 2019, https://priceoncarbon.org/business-society/history-of-federal-legislation-2/.

2 “Paris Climate Agreement Q&A.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 7 Jan. 2019, 21 Apr. 2019, https://www.c2es.org/content/paris-climate-agreement-qa/.

3 “Impose a Tax on Emissions of Greenhouse Gases.” Congressional Budget Office, 8 Dec. 2016, www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2016/52288.

4 “U.S. State Clean Vehicle Policies and Incentives.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 15 Feb. 2019, www.c2es.org/document/us-state-clean-vehicle-policies-and-incentives/.

5 Specht, Steven. “Developing an International Carbon Tax Regime.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 30–31, https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/sdlp/vol16/iss2/5/.

6 Specht, Steven. “Developing an International Carbon Tax Regime.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 29–30, https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/sdlp/vol16/iss2/5/.

7 Porter, Eduardo. “Does a Carbon Tax Work? Ask British Columbia.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/business/does-a-carbon-tax-work-ask-british-columbia.html.

8 Scharin, Henrik, and Jenny Wallström. “The Swedish Carbon Tax- An Overview.” 5 Mar. 2018, pp. 17–30, www.enveco.se/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Anthesis-Enveco-rapport-2018-3.-The-Swedish-CO2-tax-an-overview.pdf.

9 “Putting a Price on Emissions: Polluters Should Pay.” 2 Apr. 2018, www.unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/119_TalanoaSubmissionNorway1apr2018END_rev.pdf.

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The Little Ice Age

Last week, I talked about Philipp Blom’s book, “Nature’s Mutiny.” It illustrates some of the historical impacts of global climate change, especially with regards to the stress that it has inflicted on society. The book also looks into some of the consequences that have carried over into present day. Blom is a historian and confines his scope to the Little Ice Age’s effects on European societies in the 16–17th centuries.

Ironically, the best summary of the book’s connection between historical social developments and climate change is all the way in the Epilogue. For those of you who aren’t so patient as to read that far, here is a key paragraph from this section:

At the beginning of this book, I asked a straightforward question: What changes in a society when the climate changes: For the early modern period, it appears that the crisis of agriculture following environmental cooling accelerated a social and economic dynamism carried by a rising middle class, by stronger trade, empirical knowledge, expanding literacy, growing markets, and intellectual renewal. The result was a move from feudal to capitalist societies, from the fortress to the market.

There is a strong suggestion here that the change in climate gave rise to what we refer to today as “creative destruction.” In this blog, I will look at some of the physical indicators of this period and be specific about what we mean by “destructive.”

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the first accurate thermometers and standardized their measurements at the peak of the Little Ice Age (using alcohol in 1709 and mercury in 1714). Yet we can now measure temperatures even further back by using proxies (paleothermometry in professional jargon).

Figure 1 shows temperature measurements for the past two thousand years, as reconstructed by different scientists using proxies such as ice corestree ringssub-fossil pollenboreholescoralslake and ocean sediments, etc. We can see that the results roughly agree with the variabilities in each proxy. The solid black line on the right shows direct measurements. The most recent value (2016) is also shown. The figure as a whole demonstrates the so-called hockey stick shape – approximately flat (average) variability throughout history, with a sharp rise in the 20th century when the anthropogenic contributions started to increase exponentially. We can also see the temperature profile of the Little Ice Age and the medieval warm period that preceded it.

temperature, little ice age, medieval, warm, cold, temperature, reconstruction, proxy, ice cores, tree rings, pollen, borehole, coral, sediments

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Robert A. Rohde

Figure 1 – Reconstructed global temperatures through various proxies relative to the 1860-1900 period

The way that the Little Ice Age follows the medieval warm period so quickly leaves me to think that another effect, not mentioned in Blom’s book, played an important role in the socioeconomic response from the European population at the time. This missing factor is called the “shifting baseline syndrome,” which I addressed in my April 18, 2017 blog. Most of the agricultural practices during the Little Ice Age were set earlier, in warmer times. The general impact of a baseline on many of our practices (see fishing in Figure 2) must always be considered. Namely, what worked for previous generations will not always work for newer ones, once the definition of what is “normal” changes along with the physical environment.

shifting baseline, fishing, past, future, watershed, generation, degradation, little ice age

Figure 2 – For background see the April 18, 2017 blog

I would like to address the “destruction” part of the phrase, “creative destruction.” Here is a list taken from a site that analyzes some of the consequences of the Little Ice Age:

Great Famine
Beginning in the spring of 1315, cold weather and torrential rains decimated crops and livestock across Europe. Class warfare and political strife destabilized formerly prosperous countries as millions of people starved, setting the stage for the crises of the Late Middle Ages. According to reports, some desperate Europeans resorted to cannibalism during the so-called Great Famine, which persisted until the early 1320s.

Black Death
Typically considered an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which is transmitted by rats and fleas, the Black Death wreaked havoc on Europe, North Africa and Central Asia in the mid-14th century. It killed an estimated 75 million people, including 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. Some experts have tied the outbreak to the food shortages of the Little Ice Age, which purportedly weakened human immune systems while allowing rats to flourish.

Manchu Conquest of China
In the first half of the 17th century, famines and floods caused by unusually cold, dry weather enfeebled China’s ruling Ming Dynasty. Unable to pay their taxes, peasants rose up in revolt and by 1644 had overthrown the imperial authorities. Manchurian invaders from the north capitalized on the power vacuum by crossing the Great Wall, allying with the rebels and establishing the Qing Dynasty.

Witch Hunts
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII recognized the existence of witches and echoed popular sentiment by blaming them for the cold temperatures and resulting misfortunes plaguing Europe. His declaration ushered in an era of hysteria, accusations and executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Historians have shown that surges in European witch trials coincided with some of the Little Ice Age’s most bitter phases during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Thirty Years’ War
Among other military conflicts, the brutal Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics across central Europe has been linked to the Little Ice Age. Chilly conditions curbed agricultural production and inflated grain prices, fueling civil discontent and weakening the economies of European powers. These factors indirectly plunged much of the continent into war from 1618 to 1648, according to this model.

Rise of the Potato
When Spanish conquistadors first introduced the potato in the late 16th century, Europeans scoffed at the unfamiliar starch. In the mid-1700s, however, some countries began promoting the hardy tuber as an alternative to crops indigenous to the region, which often failed to withstand the Little Ice Age’s colder seasons. It soon caught on with farmers throughout Europe, particularly in Ireland.

French Revolution
As the 18th century drew to a close, two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor in France. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking. Tensions erupted into the French Revolution of 1789, which some historians have connected to the Little Ice Age.

Writing of “Frankenstein”
In 1816, dust from volcanic eruptions and the general chill of the Little Ice Age resulted in the famously frosty “year without a summer” across the Northern Hemisphere. Like many Europeans, teenage runaway Mary Shelley kept warm by huddling around a fire with her friends. One of them, the poet Lord Byron, encouraged his companions to write and share their own supernatural tales; Mary’s was published two years later as “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”

Invention of the Bicycle
Also in 1816, a meager oat harvest forced many German farmers to shoot their starving horses. The subsequent need for transportation that didn’t require food is thought to have inspired the aristocrat Karl Drais von Sauerbronn to invent his “laufmaschine,” a pedal-free precursor to the modern bicycle.

Midwestern Population Explosion
On the other side of the Atlantic, the year without a summer convinced many New England residents to relocate. Horrified by escalating grain prices and June snowfalls, they settled in the Midwestern United States, providing a boost to the expansion movement that had begun two decades earlier.

In the next few weeks we will have a few guest blogs written by my students. Following those, I will return to the issue of how climate change is inducing global stress.

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