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, 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, 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.


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.


  1. Energy intensity. (n.d.). In University of Calgary Energy Education Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  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
  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
  4. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions by State, 2005-2016. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.) Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved from
  5. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Energy Information Administration (EIA)   Retrieved from
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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.


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.


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.


  1. Council, C. (2019, January 14). “11 countries leading the charge on renewable energy – Climate Council.” Retrieved from Climate Council website:
  2. Electricity in the United States – Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy – Energy Information Administration. (2019). Retrieved from website:
  3. GDP (current US$) | Data. (2016, December 31). Retrieved from website:
  4. “How to Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.” (2019, February 13). The New York Times. Retrieved from
  5. Popovich, N. (2018, December 24). “How Does Your State Make Electricity?” The New York Times. Retrieved from
  6. State Electricity Profiles – Energy Information Administration. (2016). Retrieved April 26, 2019, from website:
  7. Table 12.6 Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Energy Consumption: Electric Power Sector (Million Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide). Retrieved from
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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.


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.



1 “Know the Legislation.” Price on Carbon. 4 Jan. 2019, 21 Apr. 2019,

2 “Paris Climate Agreement Q&A.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 7 Jan. 2019, 21 Apr. 2019,

3 “Impose a Tax on Emissions of Greenhouse Gases.” Congressional Budget Office, 8 Dec. 2016,

4 “U.S. State Clean Vehicle Policies and Incentives.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 15 Feb. 2019,

5 Specht, Steven. “Developing an International Carbon Tax Regime.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 30–31,

6 Specht, Steven. “Developing an International Carbon Tax Regime.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 29–30,

7 Porter, Eduardo. “Does a Carbon Tax Work? Ask British Columbia.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017,

8 Scharin, Henrik, and Jenny Wallström. “The Swedish Carbon Tax- An Overview.” 5 Mar. 2018, pp. 17–30,

9 “Putting a Price on Emissions: Polluters Should Pay.” 2 Apr. 2018,

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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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Global Stress: Life Expectancy, Climate Change, and the Future

A few days ago I watched “One Nation Under Stress,” an HBO documentary narrated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I had no idea what it was going to be about but previous exposure to Dr. Gupta’s TV presentations was a strong inducement to view it.

The program delved into the decline in US life expectancy over the last three years. Figure 1 shows The Economist’s data for the life expectancy in five major developed countries over the last 36 years.

economist, life, life expectancy, US, Japan, Britain, France, GermanyFigure 1 – Life expectancy in five major developed countries over the last 36 years

The figure shows that the US started this period lumped together with the three European countries (Japan started and remains at the top) and ended it well below the pack. It also illustrates that the rate of increase in life expectancy in the US is significantly slower than that in all four other countries. Apparently, this rate has changed over the last three years, dipping even lower. The latest CDC numbers that I could extract for the US were: 2014 – 78.9 years; 2015 – 78.8 years; 2016 – 78.6 years; and 2017 – 78.6.

These numbers are consistent with earlier research by the Princeton professors Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case (September 20, 2016 blog). Here is the relevant paragraph from that blog:

Recent research by two Princeton economists – Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case – reports that the mortality rate of middle aged (45 – 54) white Americans, with no more than high school education, is sharply increasing compared to every other reference group in the US; in fact, it is higher than that in any other developed country they have looked at. This high mortality rate seems to be mostly related to suicide, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Deaton just won a Nobel Prize in Economics so hopefully people will pay attention to what he writes.

Dr. Gupta included an interview with Drs. Deaton and Case in his program but he used data from the CDC, which applies to the entire USA, expanding past the select groups that Deaton and Case covered.

The Guardian, after interviewing Dr. Gupta, summarized the HBO program in a way that echoes my feelings while watching this program:

In an eye-opening new film, Dr Sanjay Gupta explores the link between stress and the continuing fall in US life expectancy. By the time you finish this article, your brain will have changed. Something you read or something that happens while you’re trying to focus on these words will go on to have an impact on your day.

If that event happens to be stressful – maybe you are interrupted by loud colleagues or a loved one calls with bad news – it can trigger a series of more stressful events such as choosing something unhealthy to eat or being unintentionally rude to a friend or co-worker.

That chain reaction, if repeated, takes a toll on your overall health and wellness. Stress has been shown to be an aggravating factor in, among other conditions, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems. That might explain why US life expectancy has fallen three years in a row.

At least that’s the theory of Sanjay Gupta, one of the best-known doctors in the US, who has made stress the centerpiece of his documentary One Nation Under Stress.

Stress is an aggravating factor for nations and the world; climate change is an important accelerator to stress that has its root in other causes.

A day after seeing the HBO piece, I got an email from a dear family member in Australia:

Dear Micha, please look at this book could be of interest to you. I heard on ABC an interview with Phillip Blom. Very interesting!
The name of the book Nature’s Mutiny by Phillip Blom.

She knows my interests and she and her husband are occasional readers of the blog, so I obeyed and ordered the book.

nature's mutiny, Philipp Blom, ice ageFigure 2 – Nature’s Mutiny by Philipp Blom

A few days later, I got an email from another family member in Australia, linking to that ABC Radio story on the book:

How the Little Ice Age created capitalism – Myf Warhurst – ABC Radio

This really got me interested.

By the time that I received the second email I had already gotten the book by Philipp Blom, a historian focused on post-Middle Age European history. According to the radio show, Blom tries to examine whether our own climate change might trigger a period of creative destruction similar to the aftermath of the Little Ice Age, which peaked around the 15th – 16th centuries (he focuses on what happened in Europe). I have read the book and I will explore its ramifications in the next blog.

consequence, documentary, military, climate change Figure 3 – The Age of Consequences

Meanwhile, I happened to see another documentary, this time on the cable channel Starz. This piece, “The Age of Consequences,” examines the attitude of large factions of the US military (many of the commentators are in uniform) and other US security organizations to climate change. Namely, they portray climate change as an accelerator of instabilities that pose major security threats. In a sense, this documentary is trying to make us visualize the reports that our national security organizations publish periodically. I described the latest of these reports, “Global Trends 2035,” in my May 23, 2017 blog. The film was much more effective than the reports in highlighting the threat. I was so impressed with the documentary that I ordered the DVD and have shown it to two separate climate change classes at my school. I will describe the film and my students’ reactions in future blogs.

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Hydrogen Economy: Japan in the Lead

While exploring the global efforts to produce and use electric cars (see March 1226, 2019 blogs), I encountered a piece by CNBC about Toyota’s efforts to help Japan in transitioning to a hydrogen-fueled economy:

Earlier this month, Toyota announced a research project that could help make hydrogen an energy game changer. In partnership with the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Toyota Motor Europe is developing a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. If improved and scaled up, the solid-state photoelectrochemical cell might eventually power homes or cars.

It’s one of the many promising technologies surrounding hydrogen, an energy source proponents say could help reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. While dirty energy has been used to make hydrogen, the Toyota project, which has a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, would only use sunlight and air.

The research project reflects the Japanese conglomerate’s renewed push into hydrogen. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota and truck maker Paccar showed off a hydrogen-powered fuel cell truck, the first of a series of prototypes that could help cut pollution at container terminals. But these initiatives are part of a larger effort to realize the clean-energy dreams of Japan itself.

It’s easy to see why. Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and among the top four coal and oil importers. It used to generate about 30 percent of its power from nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster in 2011 when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns, forcing the country to temporarily put all reactors offline. That accelerated Japan’s push toward sustainable energy. Its goal: to build a hydrogen-based society and show off progress in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.

I have spent a large part of my professional career investigating what the first paragraph describes as photoelectrochemical systems. These are chemical systems that can be triggered by light and which either produce other chemicals or act as solar devices (such as solar cells). Initially, I focused on attempts to mimic plant and bacteria photosynthetic reactions in order to produce hydrogen as a fuel. Producing hydrogen using solar radiation—in a way that could compete with fossil fuels—was the Holy Grail of the mindset that I grew up with: if we could produce hydrogen by splitting water, we would have a great fuel source. The clean product of this process is more water, making a cycle where any energy used is converted into practical work. Ideally, we would emit very few toxic products into the environment. In Israel we had an additional incentive in trying to substitute fossil fuels because most of the countries with deposits didn’t like Israel very much.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (it constitutes about 75% of “regular”—or what physicists call baryonic—matter). It is also the lightest element. On a relatively small planet like ours, the gravitational force is not strong enough to keep the hydrogen here; it evaporates into outer space. If we need pure hydrogen, we make it synthetically. The most widely used process is reacting water steam with natural gas at high temperatures (700–1100oC or 1292-2012oF) in the presence of a catalyst such as nickel. The reaction’s byproduct is carbon dioxide. Similarly to the case of fueling electric cars with electricity derived from fossil fuels, this is not exactly an environmental panacea. One can still use this hydrogen, but to make it an environmentally feasible substitute for fossil fuels we have to remove (capture) the carbon dioxide that the process produces.

In 1972, two Japanese chemists, Akira Fujishima and Kenichi Honda, published a paper titled, “Electrochemical Photolysis of Water at a Semiconductor Electrode.” It marked a major shift in emphasis in the best way to learn from the natural photosynthetic process how to produce hydrogen in an environmentally sustainable way. The paper triggered a change in emphasis from chemistry and electrochemistry to semiconductor physics. That was how I ended up in the physics department in spite of earning all my degrees in chemistry. I find it more than appropriate that Japan has led the move in policy toward a safe, sustainable hydrogen economy.

One of the major obstacles for the hydrogen economy has always been price competition with fossil fuels.

Monica Nagashima from Ifri (Institute Francais Relations Internationals) summarized Japan’s current efforts in her 2018 report, Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy and its Economic and Geopolitical Implications.” It includes the country’s pricing goals. The full report is 78 pages long; I am citing parts of the executive summary:

With the Basic Hydrogen Strategy (hereafter, the Strategy) released on December 26, 2017, Japan reiterated its commitment to pioneer the world’s first “Hydrogen Society”. The Strategy primarily aims to achieve the cost parity of hydrogen with competing fuels, such as gasoline in transport and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in power generation. The retail price of hydrogen is currently around 100 yen per normal cubic meter (yen/Nm)[1] (90 USD ($) cents/Nm ) and the target is to reduce it to 30 yen/Nm by 2030 and to 20 yen/Nm (17 cents/Nm ) in the long-term. Toward this end, over the past six years, the Japanese government has dedicated approximately $1.5 billion to technology Research and Development (R&D) and subsidies in support of:

  • Achieving low cost, zero-emission hydrogen production from overseas fossil fuels + Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or from renewable energy electrolysis;
  • Developing infrastructure for import and domestic distribution of hydrogen;
  • Scaling up hydrogen use across various sectors, such as mobility, residential Combined Heat and Power (CHP), and power generation.

Japan’s Strategy rests on the firm belief that hydrogen can be a decisive response to its energy and climate challenges. It could foster deep decarbonisation of the transport, power, industry and residential sectors while strengthening energy security. As such, it is a holistic, multi-sector strategy aimed to establish an integrated hydrogen economy. The Strategy encompasses the entire supply chain from production to downstream market applications. Success will primarily depend on the cost competitiveness and availability of carbon-free hydrogen fuel. Japan’s state-backed approach is ambitious, as it involves domestic and overseas industry and government stakeholders on a number of cross-sectoral pilot projects.

While public funding is steadily increasing, it remains limited and reflective of caution against any long-term commitment. Decarbonization of Japan’s energy sector still predominantly rests on nuclear, natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources (RES). The prospect of hydrogen playing an economy-wide role still meets considerable skepticism both in Japan and abroad. At present, nearly all hydrogen and fuel cell technology is still highly dependent on public financial backing.

Beyond transport, industry, and building sectors, the commercial adoption of hydrogen in power generation will be an indicator of the Strategy’s success. Given that power plants would consume a lot of hydrogen fuel, an operation of several plants would indicate that the hydrogen fuel supply network is reaching price maturity. In addition to hydrogen, ammonia and methylcyclohexane (MCH) are also being studied for direct and co-fired thermal generation.

Japan’s Strategy has global implications, including the potential to trigger a new area of international energy trade and industrial cooperation. Japan and its industry stakeholders are already engaging Australia, Brunei, Norway and Saudi Arabia on hydrogen fuel procurement. Overall, international cooperation will be crucial to scale-up industrial developments, improve technologies and reduce costs. As it forms partnerships on fossil fuel-based production of hydrogen, Japan is also heavily betting on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is key to reducing emissions but at a very early stage of deployment.

In the long-term, Japan must be mindful of the net cost-benefit and environmental footprint throughout the life-cycle of hydrogen production and use this metric for comparison with alternative energy sources. For instance, without CCS, the Australian coal gasification project is equally polluting as direct power generation using brown coal. The Japanese government remains adamant that it will pursue the hydrogen economy only if large volumes of zero-carbon hydrogen can be secured in the long-term. While CCS remains unproven and carbon pricing is hoped to emerge, countries with excess and cheap renewable electricity may soon be seen as key partners for hydrogen supply to Japan.

My last blog ended this way:

All these commitments, at any level, have to do with the future—namely, the “near future,” which ranges from six to ten years. On a political time scale, this is “long” term. The changes in government within the US alone—from the 2016 election onward—are great reminders of the fluidity of such commitments (see the US’s involvement with the Paris Agreement). Such uncertainties are poison for the business community and are unaccepted/unacceptable risks for car companies throughout. For these corporations, and for the economy at large, complete change in the energy structure is a noble aspiration with many awaiting pitfalls.

The sentiment remains, regardless of the country at issue. I will follow up on Japan’s progress as we go along.

Stay tuned.

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Electric Cars: What’s Driving the Transition?

In the last two blogs I tried to show that without a parallel effort to decarbonize the power sources of electricity generators, our efforts to promote electric car fleets mean little in the scheme of progress against climate change. So—why are most of the largest carmakers in the US, China, Germany, and Japan engaging in such an expensive race to compete in that market? Government subsidies might be one factor, but in major markets such as the US and China, these subsidies are temporary—they are about to be withdrawn in the US and China is rumored to follow suit next year. A more likely reason is that most carmakers acknowledge the dangers of anthropogenic climate change are real and can foresee a call for more sustainable transportation. If they want to be players in the global transition, they have to start now.

Meanwhile, car companies are also responding to new regulations around the world. Several countries, states (in federal systems), and cities have already announced and started to implement such transitions.

The Climate Council published this first list of 11 countries with commitments to decarbonize electricity production on January 13, 2019:

Sweden: In 2015, Sweden threw down the gauntlet with an ambitious goal: to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2040 within its borders, and has ramped up investment in solar, wind, energy storage, smart grids, and clean transport. And the best part? The Swedes are challenging everyone else to join them in a race to become the first 100% renewable country. Now that’s a competition where everyone wins!

Costa Rica: Thanks to its unique geography and commitment to the environment, small but mighty Costa Rica has produced 95% of its electricity from hydro, geothermal, solar and wind over the past four years. Next on the horizon: Costa Rica aims to be entirely carbon-neutral by 2021.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua generated all its electricity from renewables in 2017. In 2012, Nicaragua invested the fifth-highest percentage worldwide of its GDP in developing renewable energy. Next on the to-do list: The country is aiming for 90% renewables by 2020, with the majority of electricity coming from wind, solar, and geothermal sources.

Scotland: Great Scot! The answer to Scotland’s energy needs is blowing in the wind. In October, wind power generated 98% of Scotland’s electricity needs.

Germany: Germany is a world leader in renewable energy and in the first half of 2018 it produced enough electricity to power every household in the country for a year. The country has also set an ambitious target to get 65% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. For a relatively cloudy country of over 80 million people, Germany is looking forward to a seriously bright future with solar energy!

Uruguay: Uruguay is now almost 100% powered by renewables almost [sic] after less than 10 years of concerted effort. The country invested heavily in wind and solar, rising from just 40% renewables as recently as 2012. The secret? “Clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment, and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.”

Denmark: Denmark gets over half of its electricity from wind and solar power and in 2017, 43% of its electricity consumption was from wind – a new world record! That’s the highest percentage of wind power ever achieved worldwide. The country aims to be 100% fossil-fuel-free by 2050.

China: Wondering how the world’s largest carbon emitter can also be a leader in renewable energy? It may seem counter-intuitive, but in 2017 China had by far the largest amount of solar PV and wind capacity installed of any country – by a long shot. China has also committed to generating 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and cleaning up its polluted air.

Morocco: With ample sun, Morocco decided to go big. Bigger than anyone else in the world, in fact. The largest concentrated solar plant earth is nearing completion in Morocco. With its accompanying wind and hydro plants, the mega-project is expected to provide half of Morocco’s electricity by 2020.

USA: In the US, a new solar energy system was installed every two minutes and 30 seconds in 2014, earning the US fifth place on the installed solar PV capacity global rankings. America also has the second-highest installed wind energy capacity in the world after China.

Kenya: Kenya believe it? This country is looking to geothermal energy to power its future and reduce reliance on costly electricity imports. Kenya gets around half its electricity from geothermal– up from only 13% in 2010. Kenya’s also betting big on wind, with Africa’s largest wind farm (310 MW) connected to the grid in October and set to provide another 20% of the country’s installed electricity capacity.

This second list of countries’, cities’, and states’ commitments to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles comes from Quartz magazine:

commitments to ban fossil fuel-powered cars, vehicles, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Paris, India, Ireland, China, Germany, Taiwan, Belgium, Netherlands, UK, US, IsraelAll these commitments, at any level, have to do with the future—namely, the “near future,” which ranges from six to ten years. On a political time scale, this is “long” term. The changes in government within the US alone—from the 2016 election onward—are great reminders of the fluidity of such commitments (see the US’s involvement with the Paris Agreement). Such uncertainties are poison for the business community and are unaccepted/unacceptable risks for car companies throughout. For these corporations, electric vehicles are a sort of insurance policy against the upheaval that efforts to mitigate climate change can trigger.

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Electric Cars, Power Sources, and Truth in Advertising: Doing the Math

As I have often mentioned here, I teach two courses that relate to climate change at my university: the advanced Physics and Society and the general education Energy Use and Climate Change. This blog plays an important role in both classes. I try to teach advanced physics students how to relate to current events in a language that is understandable to the voting public. I also try to teach general education students how to analyze relatively complex societal issues that relate to the physical environment on a level where they can make judgements based on first principles in sufficient depth to be able to vote and participate in the political and social dialogue.

You will be the judge of the advanced physics students shortly when they submit four guest blogs on key issues that we are facing today. You have also gotten to judge the general education students on the various comments that they have posted throughout (see for example my April 7, 2015 blog).

Understanding societal issues that affect our physical environment necessarily involves numbers and data. Today’s blog on electric cars and power sources, which follows last week’s blog on the same topic, is a good example of this effort.

Last week I challenged you to address examples of two problems related to car transportation, analyzing truth in advertisement from first principles. I promised you I’d go over the solutions this week. It turns out that the solutions to these two problems open doors to much larger issues. I am repeating the figure and the table that provides the basic input to spare you the discouraging effort of flipping back and forth with the earlier blog. Here we are:

Problem 1:

In the figure below, the only parameter directly measured is fuel economy.

fuel economy, car, environment, gas, greenhouse gas

The input data include: fuel economy of 26 MPG (miles per gallon); fuel consumption of 3.8 gallons per 100 miles; $2150 annual fuel cost; savings of $1850 in fuel costs over 5 years. The environmental impact shows up on a sliding scale (1 to 10 where 10 is the best).

I asked students to quantitatively determine the assumptions needed to calculate the other numbers in the banner, using the minuscule font that reads as follows:

Actual results will vary for many reasons, including driving conditions and how you drive and maintain your vehicle. The average new vehicle gets 22 MPG and costs $12,600 to fuel over 5 years. Cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year at $3.70 per gallon. MPG is miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. Vehicle emissions are a significant cause of climate change and smog.


Fuel consumption of 26 MPG means 100/26 = 3.8 gallons per 100 miles (rounding all answers to the nearest tenths). Fuel costs of $3.70 per gallon means 3.8 x 3.7 = $14 per 100 miles of travel. With 15,000 miles/year, the annual cost for fuel will be $2100. The reference car makes 22 MPG or 100/22 = 4.5 gallons per 100 miles, so with the same 15,000 miles/year, the annual cost will be $2550. The savings will be 2550 – 2100 = $450 per year and 5 x 450 = $2250 per 5 years. This is a bit different from the $1850 in savings that the sticker advertises, albeit in a better direction. The environmental part of the sticker doesn’t provide any details and clicking on it gets us to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) site. In the almost unreadable part below the sliding scale, we learn that the environmental impact takes into account only the emissions from the exhaust, which amount to 347g CO2/mile.

This vehicle emits 347 grams of CO2 per mile. The best emits 0 grams per mile (tailpipe only). Producing and distributing fuel also creates emissions; learn more at

“Simple” calculation (the principle of which I show in Box 1) indicates that burning 1 gallon of gasoline liberates 8.3kg of carbon dioxide, which translates to 316g of carbon dioxide per mile traveled, which is closer to the number quoted in the sticker than 2250 is to 1850.

Problem 2:

The table below shows fuel costs for 100 miles of travel and carbon emissions of conventional and electric Nissan vehicles (data from The New York Times, May 29, 2011). Calculate the data in Table 2b from the data in Table 2a and pay attention to how you get there.


I will leave aside the conventional Altima, which is basically the same as the previous calculation, and concentrate on the electric car. Just comparing the numbers for the two cars in 2b,  (without getting too into the math) we arrive at a fascinating conclusion – if the energy mix for the Leaf were different, it could conceivably have a higher carbon footprint than the Altima. As it stands, three fuels that power the electricity production for the Leaf, shown in the table, emit carbon dioxide: coal, gas, and oil. I will ignore the oil here because it’s only 1% of the mix. To power 100 miles of the Leaf, I need 7.27 x 3.3 = 24 kWh (kilowatt-hours is a unit of energy). 47% of this energy comes from coal and 20% comes from natural gas. Here we need some basic background information to calculate the resulting carbon footprint. I am including Box 1 from a chapter in my book that focused on calculating energy audits and carbon footprints.

Box 1 – Calculation of carbon footprints of electricity generation

Appendix 1 tells me that 1 kWh = 3414 Btu. This appendix also tells me that 1 Btu = 0.25 Cal.

Following our previous discussion, 1kwh* (3414Btu/1kwh)*(0.25Cal/1Btu) = 3414 × 0.25 Cal = 853Cal. So my average daily electric consumption is 7.9 × 853 = 6739 Cal/day. The typical conversion efficiency of an electric generator is 30%. So the actual energy needed to supply my 6739 Cal/day of electricity usage is actually 6739/0.3 = 22,463 Cal/day. As was discussed in Chapter 11, my utility company can use many primary fuels to produce this energy. I will use natural gas as an example, so our previous calculations for natural gas become relevant. The number of moles my utility company will need to produce my daily electric energy is 22,463/210 = 107 moles/day of methane. This corresponds to 107 × 16 = 1712 g (1.7 kg) of natural gas, the burning of which will produce 107 × 44 = 4708 g (4.7 kg) CO2. The calculations will change slightly (creating more CO2) if my utility company is using coal to produce the steam and change in a major way (creating no CO2) if my utility is using nuclear energy to boil the water or hydropower to run the turbines.

(You can Google any unfamiliar terms such as mole. If that doesn’t help, let me know so I can explain them more in depth.)

My calculations show that for the given power mix we emit 35.3lbs of carbon dioxide (not 63.6lbs as marked in the table). I will also neglect the fuel production cost of the power source. If, on the other hand, we say that the only power source is coal, we will get emissions of 63lbs—almost double.

Table 2 below shows that use of 70% of world coal is concentrated in China, the US, and India. As last week’s blog showed, China and the US are two of the largest producers of electric vehicles. France gets more than 90% of its electricity from carbon-free fuels—72% from nuclear energy and 17.8% from renewables—meaning that it only gets about 8.6% from fossil fuels. In other words, it’s an ideal place to run electric cars.

Table 2 – Percentage of coal and natural gas that 7 high-power-consuming countries use
(source: BP). The world data are given in Terawatt-hours (trillion watt-hours) the rest of the data are given as percentages of those totals.

coal, natural gas, China, US, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, energy

My next blog will list the countries and cities that have announced commitments to block the sale of cars that emit carbon dioxide: no more fossil fuel-based cars. Unfortunately, the announcements have yet to include parallel commitments about changing the power sources for these cars.

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Electric Cars, Power Sources, and Truth in Advertising

diesel, electric, electric car, dirty, clean, comic, energy

Artist: Marian Kamensky

Close to three weeks ago (February 24th), I watched a 60 Minutes segment on electric car production in China. I was impressed with the Chinese efforts to promote the transition, including waiving the high tax on license plates in Shanghai (see my August 18, 2015 blog). 60 Minutes explained that this was an attempt to reduce the horrendous air pollution in the country’s large cities. The opening picture, which I found on the blog EV World, summarizes the issue (although in that blog’s context, it is used ironically, to demonstrate what the authors view as a mischaracterization). Electric cars obviously run on electricity, and as long the power sources for that electricity are not clean, the environmental arguments for electric cars don’t hold. My next few blogs will focus on this issue.

Figure 1 and Table 1, taken from the Wikipedia entry on electric cars, summarize the extent to which electric cars have penetrated the market.

electric car, cars, Canada, Japan, US, China, Europe, plug in, passengerFigure 1 – Global annual sales of electric passenger cars

Table 1 – Global sales of the top electric car producers and their countries of origin

electric car, cars, Canada, Japan, US, China, Europe, plug in, passenger, France, Germany

The Wikipedia entry has a section on the environmental aspects of these cars:

Environmental aspects [edit]

Electric cars have several benefits over conventional internal combustion engine automobiles, including a significant reduction of local air pollution, as they do not directly emit pollutants such as particulates (soot), volatile organic compoundshydrocarbonscarbon monoxideozonelead, and various oxides of nitrogen.[61][62][63]

Depending on the production process and the source of the electricity to charge the vehicle, emissions may be partly shifted from cities to the material transportation, production plants and generation plants.[1] The amount of carbon dioxide emitted depends on the emissions of the electricity source, and the efficiency of the vehicle. For electricity from the grid, the emissions vary significantly depending on your region, the availability of renewable sources and the efficiency of the fossil fuel-based generation used.[64][65][66]

The same is true of ICE vehicles. The sourcing of fossil fuels (oil well to tank) causes further damage and use of resources during the extraction and refinement processes, including high amounts of electricity.

In December 2014, Nissan announced that Leaf owners have accumulated together 1 billion kilometers (620 million miles) driven. This translates into saving 180 million kilograms of CO2 emissions by driving an electric car in comparison to travelling with a gasoline-powered car.[67] In December 2016, Nissan reported that Leaf owners worldwide achieved the milestone of 3 billion kilometers (1.9 billion miles) driven collectively through November 2016.[68]

Part of my objective in teaching classes on climate change to a student population that does not necessarily have a background in the sciences (many of them have never taken any chemistry or physics) is to enable them to judge environmental claims from first principles. Below, I am giving two examples from this effort that are relevant to the environmental claims of electric cars.

Example 1

In Figure 2 below, the only parameter directly measured is fuel economy. I ask students to quantitatively determine the assumptions needed to calculate the other numbers in the banner.

 fuel economy, car, environment, gas, greenhouse gasFigure 2 – A new sticker on fuel economy and the environmental impact of cars was introduced in May 2011

Try to do it and you will quickly find that the task is impossible—not because you lack the background or haven’t taken my course but because of the size of the small print at the bottom of the sticker.

Here is what you are missing:

Actual results will vary for many reasons, including driving conditions and how you drive and maintain your vehicle. The average new vehicle gets 22 MPG and costs $12,600 to fuel over 5 years. Cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year at $3.70 per gallon. MPG is miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. Vehicle emissions are a significant cause of climate change and smog.

With this information, the exercise should be easier. Let me know in the comment section how you are doing with it.

Example 2 – Comparison of energy use and cost of an electric vehicle vs. a conventional vehicle

Table 2 – Fuel costs for 100 miles of travel and carbon emission of conventional and electric Nissan vehicles (data from The New York Times, May 29, 2011).

Calculate the data in Table 2b from the data in Table 2a and pay attention to how you get there. Let me know in the comment section what you find. Tune in next week for my take.

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Expanding Environmental Impact Statements


cartoon, mom, kid, entropy, EIS, environmental impact statement, epa, thermodynamics

Cartoon by Hugh Brown

I use the cartoon above to teach my students one of the most fundamental tenets of physics, unimaginatively called the “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” A quick Google search will tell you that thermodynamics is, “the branch of physics that has to do with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work” (Wikipedia). The law states that, “left on their own, systems tend to maximize their disorder.” Disorder in physics is measured with a function called entropy (you can Google that as well). We don’t need the exact definition of entropy here; we can all grasp the concept of disorder. One of the better-known examples is the room of a small child, when left on its own. The room, obviously can be cleaned by adults—or if the child is a bit older, by incentivizing the child to do it himself. But this kind of “fixing” doesn’t defy the law because it means the room is not being “left on its own.” The point of an Environmental Impact Statement (usually employed when a structure is scheduled to be built or a massive project is underway) is to predict how a project will impact (create “disorder” in) the rest of the system or surrounding area and what kind of intervention will be needed to mitigate those detrimental effects.

Policymaking on all levels is now (very slowly) starting to factor in the impacts climate change has (or will have) on almost every global economic activity. I have described some examples in earlier blogs (just type economic impact into the search box above). The current political climate in many countries is not exactly encouraging for productive consideration. Nonetheless, these discussions are still taking place, with the hope that global environmental considerations will play increasing roles.

In the US, federal laws and regulations require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of certain actions on the environment and to consider alternative courses of action. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) specifies when an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared. NEPA regulations require, among other things, for federal agencies to include discussion of a proposed action and the range of reasonable alternatives in an EIS. Sufficient information must be included in the EIS for reviewers to evaluate the relative merits of each alternative. The Council for Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) regulations provide the recommended format and content.

In the European Union permits are required for activities such as:

  • the mineral industry (including the production of cement and asbestos and manufacturing glass);
  • production of organic and inorganic chemicals;
  • waste management (ie, the disposal and recovery of waste); and
  • other activities, including the production of pulp, paper and cardboard, pre-treatment and dyeing of textiles, tanning of hides and skins, disposal or recycling of animal carcasses, and intensive rearing of poultry or pigs.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg terminals now include ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) information (“Integrating Sustainability into capital markets”) that can be incorporated into many economic decisions.

Perhaps the most climate change-relevant information that can be incorporated in any of these search tools is the social cost of CO2 (SC-CO2). The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently initiated discussions about possible related regulations and published a paper about it “Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide.

A recent court case examines incorporation of climate change in the EIS and is worth examining at some length. Below are selected paragraphs from the article, “Including Climate Change in Environmental Impact Analyses”:

D.C. Circuit holds federal energy regulators must consider pipeline project’s impact on climate change.

Is climate change a “reasonably foreseeable” consequence from a government agency’s approval of a natural gas pipeline? What if an entirely separate agency regulates the facilities that will actually burn the transported gas? And what if the construction of the new pipeline would enable the retirement of older coal-powered plants and thus lessen overall climate impacts?

A three-judge panel of a federal court of appeals recently grappled with these questions and determined that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—in considering and approving the construction of a natural gas pipeline project—should have considered the eventual burning of natural gas when weighing environmental concerns.

In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires that federal agencies produce an “environmental impact statement” (EIS) for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The EIS must address potential “adverse” consequences of the action and possible alternatives to it.

Shortly after FERC completed its EIS for the natural gas pipeline at issue in Sierra Club v. FERC, the agency issued a certificate authorizing construction of the project.

The environmental groups challenging FERC’s approval of the project argued that the agency failed to perform a proper EIS. The groups expressed concern that the burning of the natural gas being transported by the pipelines could “hasten climate change and its potentially catastrophic consequences,” and that FERC had failed to take those effects into account when developing its EIS. After FERC denied the groups’ request to halt construction of the project, the groups sought review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—the federal court expressly granted authority by the Natural Gas Act to hear challenges to FERC’s orders.

The question for the court was whether FERC was required—in completing its EIS—to consider the fact that the natural gas carried by the pipelines would ultimately be used in Florida power plants, which would generate electricity and emit greenhouse gas.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is an investment theory that I have discussed here before (February 21, 2017 and November 21, 2017). It states that in free markets, prices reflect all available information.

It’s high time that we make it mandatory to factor in the impact of climate change on every economic decision that we make.

Technically, this is feasible by using the dominant future scenario—currently based on the business as usual scenario (RCP8.5 in the IPCC lingo – see October 28, 2014 blog). The EIS can be examined periodically to reflect changes in the prevailing scenario. The scope of such a policy change will be narrower than that of the “Green New Deal” and it has a higher probability of attracting Republican votes and being effective in its contributions to mitigation and adaptation of climate change.

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