Harry Clarke On economics, politics & other things

April 19, 2014

Chinese agriculture

Filed under: environment — hc @ 9:16 pm

Nearly 1/5th of Chinese agricultural land is toxic.  Forget about measured economic growth targets – this is a madness.

February 17, 2014

Water shortages

Filed under: environment,water — hc @ 4:48 pm

I get The Guardian weekly and, over recent months, it has run an excellent serious of articles on global water (especially groundwater) shortages.   I know a bit about the situation in China and India but the problems faced by California and the Middle East are also huge. The situation is grim and could lead to military conflicts.  Food security is a major implied difficulty but simple issues of access to safe drinking water are already issues – one global citizen in 7 already has no access to safe supplies.

Generally if you are interested in environmental issues The Guardian is a good read.


October 7, 2013

Gloom on the oceans

Filed under: environment — hc @ 9:29 am

New Scientist summarizes the recent State of the Oceans Report.

“We know the oceans are warming. We know they are acidifying. And now, to cap it all, it turns out they are suffocating, too. A new health check on the state of the oceans warns that they will have lost as much as 7 per cent of their oxygen by the end of the century.

The health of the oceans is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought, exposing organisms to intolerable and unpredictable evolutionary pressure…

(There is) a “deadly trio” of linked global threats. The first is global warming: surface sea water has been warming almost as fast as the atmosphere. The second is acidification – a result of the water absorbing ever more CO2 from the atmosphere. The third is deoxygenation…..

… acidification is beginning to affect marine creatures (but) …. low oxygen has a greater effect than acidification”.

The oceans are losing oxygen partly because warmer water holds less oxygen, and partly because warming is greatest at the surface, creating a buoyant surface layer that mixes less with colder layers below. This creates oxygen-poor deep water that could suffocate life on the seabed….

The complete SOTO report is here.

July 20, 2013

Cultural vandals in Botanic Gardens

Filed under: crime,environment — hc @ 7:22 pm

What they have done to the ancient trees in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens by ring-barking them is horrible. What is says about the mentality of certain sections of the human race is much worse.  The cretins who did this were born by mistake.   The world would be a better place if they had never existed.  Moreover, these types of crimes have been repeated several times in recent months – it has become a fad to wreck devastation on these objects of beauty, environmental value and cultural significance.   Words fail.


July 19, 2013

Mortality costs of Chinese air pollution

Filed under: environment — hc @ 10:10 am

I discussed my experiences with air pollution in some southern Chinese cities.  It is far worse in the northern China which is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities.  This paper by Yuyu Chen, Avraham Ebenstein, Michael Greenstone and Li Hongbin  on China’s Huai River Policy has astounding implications.  The while paper can be access online as MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 13-15. The study draws inferences about the extremely high air pollution levels in China by exploiting a good data set that compares the dramatically different air pollution and health outcomes that occurred during 1950-1980 when a distinctive policy of providing free coal for heating was provided only to areas in northern China bounded by the Huai River and the Qinling Mountain range.  There were dramatically higher pollution levels in this area and dramatically increased mortality due exclusively to this pollution.  The study enables consideration of the health impacts of  currently high air pollution levels con China.   The air pollution levels during this period are high compared to developed countries but not atypical for many Chinese (and Indian) cities today.  Thuis the terrible health problems experienced under this policy are occurring today.

This paper’s findings suggest that an arbitrary Chinese policy that greatly increases total suspended particulates (TSP) air pollution is causing the 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy. The quasi-experimental empirical approach is based on China’s Huai River policy, which provided free winter heating via the provision of coal for boilers in cities North of the Huai River but denied heat to the South. Using a regression discontinuity design based on distance from the Huai River, we find that ambient concentrations of TSP are about 184 μg/m3 (95% CI: 61, 307) or 55% higher in the North. Further, the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) years lower in the North due to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. More generally, the analysis suggests that long-term exposure to an additional 100 μg/m3 of TSP is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 3.0 years (95% CI: 0.4, 5.6).



July 5, 2013

Some thoughts on Chinese environmental issues

Filed under: China,environment — hc @ 9:13 pm

I am back in Australia after a month in China in Changsha, Hunan Province.  It was a most enjoyable and instructive stay.   People have asked me about my visit and what I learnt and I think there are two core messages that I would like to (tentatively) convey.

Environment. The first and most obvious problems China faces are environmental.  Certainly air and water pollution issues are serious – and admittedly well-recognized – problems in most of urban China.  I was told no Chinese water utility supplies water that can be drunk from the tap and the damage to environmental water supplies from industry and agriculture is truly massive.  Air pollution issues are widely recognized in the mega-cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as well as the big industrial cities – one estimate is that it kills 1.2 million Chinese each year.  But my experience has been that it is quite bad in smaller Chinese cities as well.  Changsha where I stayed seems to face at least photochemical smog problems although government sources cite it as having the cleanest air in China.   Perhaps some of such issues have technological solutions.

One environmental problem that seems unlikely to disappear soon is traffic congestion.  Consider some facts about car ownership in China.  In 2010 China had 58 vehicles per 1,000 residents, the US 769.  From 2000-2010 levels of car ownership in China increased 20-fold. China is now the world’s largest national car market.  By 2020 car ownership, using current growth rates, will increase by 66%.  Current severe congestion issues – even with dramatically improved public transport systems – will markedly worsen. So too will air-born vehicle-based pollution. The only offsetting impact should be a huge increase in the demand for liquid fuels driven by the explosion in Chinese and other BRIC demands.  China currently imports more oil than does the US.

Again there are technological fixes to free the direct dependence on oil such as electric cars but still almost all planned Chinese power sector expansion involves considerably increased coal usage, at least through to 2035, which is polluting both nationally and globally without increased reliance on CCS technology.  China now uses half the world’s coal and without CCS its carbon emissions will increase 35% through to 2035.  The viable option for a massive switch to electric cars does not look promising. For one thing despite much of the hype demand in China for such vehicles is low.

Housing & inequality. The second issue that concerns me is China’s housing market.  There are short-run macroeconomic concerns over a possible bubble in Chinese house prices. Currently house prices in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen  are, relative to wages,  the highest of any country.  But, without downplaying the severe implications of a bubble (the current bubble does need to be deflated), these sky-high prices partly represent investment decisions by a society accumulating wealth more massively than any other and using that wealth to invest in a particularly scarce resource given China’s huge population.  This imposes huge problems on those earning low incomes when the distribution of incomes is highly unequal (high Gini coefficients from official sources are here but unofficial estimates suggest much higher coefficients and hence higher inequality than even these).  I was interested that in talking to younger Chinese students that many focused on house prices issues and of course the underlying inequality issue.  As a resource economist I see the determinants of longer-term high house prices as a resource concern that reflects limited supplies of land being purchased by an increasingly affluent population.

For environmental externality reasons associated with escalating housing and land prices I favor policies that continue to limit China’s population.  It is certainly true that intervening in a couples fertility decisions involves huge transaction costs for their family but laissez-faire in population planning only makes sense if environmental externalities are being managed successfully and in China they are not. At least not yet.  The more successfully such environmental problems can be addressed the better the case for reforming policies that do impose big costs such as the “one child” family policy.  This policy was only ever intended to be a “one-generation” policy and clearly finding alternatives to it should be a priority.  The Chinese government claim that 300 million births have been prevented because of it – and fertility rates in China of around 1.4 do seem suggestive of this – but rising living standards have also contributed to reduced fertility.  Making citizens pay fully for the environmental costs they inflict on others would provide a just and natural way of retaining low fertility.

Final remarks. Even in the utopian situation where congestion and pollution are fully priced I do not believe that laissez faire in population makes complete sense because of the intrinsic value I attach to living in natural environments and because of the respect I attach to nonhuman life and landscapes.  We should live well in landscapes where nature has a role in our lives – it is not simply a “resource” intended to be used as a factor of production or a consumer good.  My sense is that in China this balance between humans and the non-human environment is distorted by sheer size of the human population.

While in China I visited Yueyang on Dongting Lake.  The Lake itself is China’s second largest wetland and is one of the most significant conservation zones in the country.  The lake faces a myriad of externality and encroachment problems – including pollution from paper mills, phosphate pollutions from agriculture, overfishing, illegal native animal harvesting, dredging as well as heavy large ship traffic that disturbs the ecology.  Moreover the environmental problems here are a fraction of the broader class of problems along the mighty Yangtze that flows into the lake. In a utopian world I guess many of the pollution emissions could be priced and all the destructive usage activities managed or prevented both around the lake, in the city and along the rest of the Yangtze.  But the city of Yueyang itself has a population of about 5.5 million people (not an especially large city by Chinese standards) and this city lies precisely on the boundary of this lake.  The balance between human and non-human life would seem to remain strained even with utopian efficient pricing of all resources.

Arguments for abandoning the policy because of (for example) “population aging” effects seem to me misplaced.  My sense is that China should take advantage of this once-and-for-all shift towards lower sustainable population to sustain a reduced population that makes fewer demands on the natural environment. This benefits both the human and the non-human life that we live with.

June 19, 2013

Common property issues on the Yangtze

Filed under: China,environment — hc @ 12:45 pm

I posted recently on the environmental problems at Yueyang and Dongting Lake. This is an excellent short article from The Economist that links the general environmental problems of the Yangtze with the priorities of the Chinese government in developing central and Western China.  There are a myriad of complex issues here.

April 1, 2013

Vehicle-driven pollution emissions & severe health damages among children

Filed under: environment — hc @ 2:41 pm

For some reason – it may be the near universal introduction of unleaded gasoline in most countries – the role of vehicular emissions on human health has been deemphasised in many environmental economics discussion.  Of course we all know about the terrible air pollution problems in the mega-cities of the developing world but these aberrant situations don’t affect us in the West, do they? (more…)

March 26, 2013

Dead ducks in Chinese river as swine flow eases

Filed under: China,environment — hc @ 10:44 pm

I wasn’t sure whether this suggested water quality was improving or not. I suppose 1,000 dead ducks are better than 14,000+ dead pigs.

After all (quoted from the last link):

“Authorities have assured the 23 million residents of the Shanghai urban area that the water supply, of which 20% comes from the Huangpu (the pig-cum-dead-duck river), is safe……

A local official was quoted by the Jiaxing Daily last week as saying the cause of the deaths was “complicated” but the number was “within the normal range” expected in such a large population”.

I am reassured.

HT to RC

March 24, 2013

Deep ecology & environmental economics

Filed under: deep ecology,ecology,environment — hc @ 8:06 pm

I have been interesting myself in the “deep ecology” movement (a good introduction is the Wikipedia link here) having recently heard the Australian, John Seed, speak on the topic*.  (more…)

January 30, 2013

Cats & the environment

Filed under: biodiversity,environment — hc @ 10:46 am

A while back I ran a post on a really silly article in The Age defending the role of feral cats in the environment arguing that negative attitudes toward them were analogous to racism towards migrants.  The facts are that cats are among the most destructive element in our local environment.

This claim is verified in a recent US study.  A peer-reviewed study published today and authored by scientists from two of the world’s leading science and wildlife organizations – the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – has found that bird and mammal mortality caused by outdoor cats is much higher than has been widely reported, with annual bird mortality now estimated to be 1.4 to 3.7 billion and mammal mortality likely 6.9 – 20.7 billion individuals. As one of the authors states:

 “The very high credibility of this study should finally put to rest the misguided notions that outdoor cats represent some harmless, new component to the natural environment. The carnage that outdoor cats inflict is staggering and can no longer be ignored or dismissed. This is a wake-up call for cat owners and communities to get serious about this problem before even more ecological damage occurs”.

The median number of birds killed by cats annually is 2.4 billion and the median number of mammals killed is 12.3 billion. About 69% of the bird mortality from cat predation and 89% of the mammal mortality was from un-owned cats. Un-owned cats are defined to include farm/barn cats, strays that are fed but not granted access to human habitations, cats in subsidized colonies, and cats that are completely feral.

 Free-ranging cats on islands have caused or contributed to 33 (14%) of the modern bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened animals and plant species.

 Native species make up the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats. On average, only 33% of bird prey items identified to species were non-native species in 10 studies. Studies of mammals in suburban and rural areas found that 75–100% of mammalian prey were native mice, shrews, voles, squirrels, and rabbits, all of which serve as food sources for birds of prey such as hawks, owls, and eagles.

 The study charges that, “Despite these harmful effects, policies for management of free-ranging cat populations and regulation of pet ownership behaviors are dictated by animal welfare issues rather than ecological impacts”. (my bold)

This is denying precisely the view of the foolish Age article.  To be clear I have no antagonism towards cats and agree that these faithless creatures give pet owners much pleasure.   But I  believe that feral and free-ranging cats should be destroyed and that cat ownership should be absolutely denied to those living within a few kilometres of parks and wildlife reserves.

January 14, 2013

Some pollution costs

Filed under: environment — hc @ 4:58 pm

While I was working in Beijing during 2010 some of the worst air pollution ever struck that city.  It seems that these pollution records have been broken over the past few days with the thickest ever blanket of  PM 2.5 particulates covering much of north east China – the video clip in this story promotes a good understanding.  This fine-grained pollution, which is linked to the choking levels of motor vehicle traffic in larger cities, is very damaging to heath.

In an unrelated story the health and crime consequences of lead pollution are being revisited.  It has long been argued that lead pollution causes brain damage and hence educational disadvantage. I remember such claims being raised in Bangkok when I lived there in the 1980s when leaded fuels were used.  Now there is evidence that, with a 20-year lag, higher than average exposure to lead increases criminality.   This explained the baby boomer crime surge and the subsequent decline in crime rates with a 20-year lag that followed use of unleaded petrol. I am always cautious about such claims – earlier statistical work by the Freakonomics phonies linked the upsurge in US crime to changes in the abortion laws that meant more unwanted children survived.  This work has now been discredited.  The connection between lead pollution and crime however does look more serious.

November 23, 2012

Some environmental ethics

Filed under: environment,ethics — hc @ 9:57 am

I have been engaged in trying to understand some environmental ethical issues.  Comments very welcome. (more…)

November 20, 2012

John Stuart Mill on nature, population size & the value of solitude

Filed under: environment,population — hc @ 6:09 pm

I’ve used it before but, who cares, its my favourite Mill quote.  Its about the most sensible general statement on “optimal population” and the need to co-exist with nature that I have come across. (more…)

October 18, 2012

The Whipstick

Filed under: economics,environment — hc @ 7:10 pm

I gave an economics class today at La Trobe University, Bendigo – to a highly motivated group of students – on carbon pricing. I felt a reasonable compensation for this assignment was the opportunity to head out into the Whipstick Forest around Bendigo.  They were in great condition given the recent rains – wildflowers everywhere and plenty of dry-country birds.  These mallee-like forests are a quiet resource.  Their beauty is unobtrusive but nonetheless very real.  There are stands of box and ironbark as good as anywhere in Victoria and low scrubby “whipstock” size eucalypts that are distinctive.   The wildflowers were remarkable and I optimistically restocked supplies of various plants for my Melbourne home from a local nursery. The birdlife was fantastic and just so different from coastal Victoria – on arrival a Sacred kingfisher perched in a tree and, while having a farewell lunch a Bendigo suburb, I saw Blue-faced honeyeaters. A great environment.

On a sour note I noticed the nibbling at edges of this remarkable forest resource by commercial land development interests.   This is inexcusable – 98 per cent of the Box-Ironbark forests of Victoria have been destroyed by development.  Leave the few remnant areas alone.

October 5, 2012

Robert Gordon’s technological pessimism (revised)

Filed under: energy issues,environment,macroeconomics — hc @ 11:58 am

It is mainly during the last 300 years that sustained economic gains to certain people have occurred.  For the most part these people were living in industrializing Western-style, market-based economies.  From the longer-term historical perspective of human existence over 50,000 years this sustained, broad-based economic progress has been a relatively short-lived aberration. (more…)

September 28, 2012

What will kill our kids

Filed under: environment,smoking,tobacco — hc @ 1:34 pm

I have acquired something of a reputation as the economist who is obsessed with the harm of tobacco products. “There he goes again….”  There might be an element of truth to this but maybe, because it reflects a reality, it is a relatively healthy obsession.  I’ve been reading a report by the OECD (2012) on forecast environmental problems to 2050.  It’s a good read – all the well-recognized villains are here – climate change problems, water supply and water quality issues, marine and terrestrial biodiversity destruction.  

One of the (to me) surprising entries into this select club is good old-fashioned “air pollution” (particulates, ozone etc).  Indeed, air pollution turns out to be one of the worst villains of all. (more…)

September 12, 2011

Old growth forest in Victoria nearly gone

Filed under: environment,forestry — hc @ 5:09 am

About 99% of Victoria’s wet eucalytus old growth forest has been destroyed by logging and forest fire in what amounts to an ecological catastrophe. By-in-large the 450 year old forests have been irreversibly replaced by scrubby wattles.

It is not green fanaticism to suggest that harvesting of such forests should now cease entirely with an appropriate fire management regime put in place to manage the remnant remaining in the Healesville area. From an ecological viewpoint and from the perspective of conserving biodiversity a reasonable endowment of old growth forest should be conserved. It is pure nonsense to say – as official goveenment sources do – that forestry in Victoria is being managed ‘sustainably’.

August 3, 2011

Population-size & the environment

Filed under: environment,population — hc @ 2:16 pm

These are the comments I made at a Productivity Commission Roundtable on a paper by Don Henry that was concerned with environmental population interactions.  More generally I was concerned with synthesising a variety of approaches to this issue – from extreme libertarian ‘gains-from-trade’ arguments favouring a large population to extreme Malthusian arguments that supporters of the Green movement might endorse.  The synthesis depends on the assumption one makes about how environmental assets are owned.

July 19, 2011

Costs of vehicle-induced air pollution

Filed under: environment,transport,Uncategorized — hc @ 11:35 am

When I worked on transport sector externality issues recently  I became aware of the issue of the impact of air pollution from vehicles on human health.  Concern with this issue has subsided a lot over recent years because of improved emissions performance by vehicles.  Most attention gets focused on traffic congestion issues and road accident costs. In fact the health concerns from vehicle remain severe particularly for children as this study by Christopher R. Knittel, Douglas Miller, and Nicholas J. Sanders shows.  Its worth reading in full but I extract a crucial segment:

“In our preferred specification, a one-unit decrease in PM10 (around 13% of a standard deviation) saves roughly 18 lives per 100,000 births. This represents a decrease in the mortality rate of around 6%. This is consistent with the findings of prior research on ambient particulate matter, and suggests that even at todays lower levels are substantial health gains to be made by reducing both ambient pollution and traffic congestion”.

Update: There is an extended discussion of this argument at Larvatus Prodeo.

Hat Tip DP


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