Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rosponse to a seminar: David Rayner from Göteborg on bicycles and more

This is a reaction  to a recent seminar given at the department of Earth Sciences in Göteborg (Sweden). With David's permission, I reprint his comment here:

I enjoyed your recent seminar at the University of Gothenburg - thank you again for your visit. If you recall, a question was asked about what we, as individuals, could do about global warming. You replied along this line: that if you ride your bike to work it would do nothing; if everyone in Sweden rode their bike to work it would do almost nothing, and if everyone in Europe rode their bike it would do a bit more than almost nothing. You also made the comment that what we have to do is develop "alternative energy" sources to the point that people adopt them (instead of building coal power) for economic reasons. 

It occurs to me, though, that you missed the potential of the first action to contribute to the second.

Explore the bicycle scenario a little further with me, just as an example of individual actions taken collectively: what if everyone in Europe actually did decide to commute by bicycle? The reduction of direct CO2-emissions might be small, but the socio-economic effects would be enormous. Start with the direct financial effect: cycling is cheap. If people save just $US1 per day, that might total $US60billion per year in Europe.  I would guess that the indirect effects would be even larger: you could factor in the savings in health-care (obesity-related costs are 5-6% of EU health-care budget, says Lord Google), infrastructure expenditure, pollution-related costs, traffic congestion-costs etc.

But I'm getting away from my point, which is that if people were to save money by using less energy and then invest it in developing alternative energy, then I think our individual actions could collectively make a big difference. $US60billion/year buys a lot of R&D.  For this to work, I expect we would need a government-endorsed and marketed "green bonds"-type scheme for individual investors - I do not think such investment infrastructure is currently in place. Perhaps the first thing we should do as individuals is write to our politicians and demand one?


ingno said...

A "government-endorsed" scheme, i.e. a law that forbids anything but bicykling? And then take these enforced "savings" and make politically controlled investments into new technology? Well, of course, the politicians knows best, don't they?

It must be a Swede talking!

Ingemar Nordin /Sweden

Günter Heß said...

Yes the socio-economic reaction would be enormous.
It is a common misconception that societies can strive on savings.
We strive on work that other people deem valuable, so they pay for it. This is how our economy works.
Savings buy nothing, if nobody has work.
In german we call that sort of thing a naïve fallacy or “Milchmädchenrechnung”
Best regards

itisi69 said...

In dutch we call it "dagdromen" (day dreaming)...

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with cycling to work is that it not as fast as going by car or public transport. If the ideal amount of commuter time is half an hour, you can live 10 km from work if you are a cyclist, compared to 40 km when go by car.

If two partners work, they need to be able to both find work within 10 km if they are both cyclists.

In Holland around 30% of commuting is done by bike. This works fine when you live in the same city as you are employed. But working in a different city means going by car or public transport.

crazy_wombat said...

re ingno
I did not suggest a law that forbids anything but bicycling. I'm not sure how you managed to interpret my post like that! What I wrote was: "I expect we would need a government-endorsed and marketed "green bonds"-type scheme for individual investors" What I meant was that, if we want to harness individual's willingness to invest in a green future (and I don't care how they go about making saving to invest) then I think that it will require a govt-endorsed investment scheme. This is because, even if private financial institutions offered "green investment" opportunities, I do not think that society will trust them. Maybe the rest of the world does not trust governments as much as Swedes do, but I don't get the impression that they trust financial institutions a whole lot more...

ingno said...

Sorry crazy_wombat if I misunderstood the mechanism for making people going by bike. In a voluntary system, as of today, people take the bicycle (at least I do) because they do make some personal savings in health as well as in money. But if you want to increase the number of bicyclists, then what?

As for politicians investing in the "right" technology, there is of course the epistemic problem of knowing in advance what the best technology is. I think we need the trial-and-error mechanism of the free market for making any real advancements of technology.

Rob said...

I had to reread the first part of the comment. Well, "you", that is Hans von Storch, who held a seminar in Göteborg, right?

I'd refer to a recent thread, also focusing on bicycling:

Some quotes that fit here, too:
I use the reference to biking sometimes, as I have the impression that many believe that biking would indeed represent an active measure against global warming. If any, it may be an indirect measure, which I would consider entirely ineffective. For many other reasons biking is a very positive choice: health, air quality are two major issues, personal good feeling, space utility in cities - but inefficient climate "protection". (Hans von Storch)

With a problem like greenhouse gas emission reduction, you should do what you can. Not because it makes a difference, but because it is the right thing to do. The climate problem will not be solved unless everyone does the right thing. If you do not do the right thing, you can be sure that not everyone does. (Richard Tol)

I'd port Richard's statements to a global scale: US and China are by far the biggest GHG emittents. Is this a reason for Europe to not stay active because it is negligible? Richard's statement fully applies.

As a side entry, I permit myself to put a link to interesting thoughts by Ivan Illich:
Although while partially outdated (197x): when his principles would be applied, this would also have a big impact on GHG emissions.

eduardo said...

I think savings of this sort will not be very useful to curtail emissions. The money that each of us would save by riding a bike instead of driving a car will be either spent on other things or the savings on the bank account will be lent to for someone else to spend or to invest in the construction of a new factory. This will offset the initial reduction of emissions.
To curtail emissions something additional has to occur, namely that the consumption shifts towards other, less energy intensive, services or goods. If nothing else changes, savings alone do not make the trick.

Also, as Hans Werner Sinn explained, the forgone consumption of fuel by riding the bike lowers its global price, stimulating its consumption somewhere else.

But may be Richard Tol can correct me here

@ReinerGrundmann said...

I totally agree with the argument about investment and economic growth, and we had this debate before here on the blog.
However, how can the shift to less energy intensive services or goods escape this logic? It would only work if these were more profitable, or if people kept their savings made in this way under their mattress--but this would stall economic growth.

A way out if this dilemma is to provide cheap low carbon energy.

Marco said...

Eduardo, I think it is also part of a mindset: people who choose to ride a bike, even when they have other options (financially speaking) are IMHO more likely to have a less 'wasteful' life. That is, they may more consciously choose behavior that reduces their environmental impact. It is true that their money on the bank may then be used for investments that completely offset this environmental gain. This, however, may also be prevented, e.g. by putting your money on banks like Triodos.

Werner Krauss said...

In case of bicycles, maybe counting numbers is the wrong approach. Instead, for many riding a bicycle is indeed an attitude or a mindset. Many people do things which make statistically no sense; they do it anyway. Students explained to me that they try to connect to the sky and the earth, those dubious objects of doubt and fear. They try to share the energy that flows through everything. They try to be positive and to mentally survive in a world of apocalyptic fears. You cannot count or measure these exercises, and there is no reason to be cynical. Interpreting statistics or riding a bicycle are two different ways with a similar goal: to cope with the strange phenomenon of climate change.

eduardo said...

@ 9

quite probably I am talking nonsense now. My view was that if those savings were spend more in services than in manufactured goods, maybe emissions would be less. Probably a wrong idea.

In principle I agree with you - the Hartwell strategy sounds reasonable and perhaps nowadays the only one feasible. Nevertheless, investment in new technology does not guarantee that those new technologies will be found in the end.
Maybe I am expecting too much and we should just be happy with slow incremental gains.

eduardo said...

@ 10

to be honest, I dont believe very strongly in large-scale selfless behaviour. I think here Lomborg is right: if true, we should already have solved most problems in the developing world, hunger, diseases, etc. A change should be beneficial or profitable for the individual at the short term.

Marco said...

People give millions every year to charitable foundations. I know it is not entirely selfless, that it is more buying off of 'guilt'. However, many people don't even think about how something benefits or may be profitable to themselves. Cycling, apart from reducing pollution, also increases a person's health and wealth in other ways: cheaper transport, for example, or no need to spend 100 euro a month on your aerobics classes (or whatever you do). Etc. Etc. Again: it is a mindset of thinking things through a lot more. If anything, giving to charity is much less beneficial or profitable for the individual on the short term on many accounts, and yet most people do...

eduardo said...

I am not criticizing that type of behavior and the world would perhaps be better if we had more of that. I recall when I was a child that one of the major world problems was hunger in Africa, and unfortunately this has not changed much because of charity - although again, I am not criticizing them. World hunger has been reduced lately basically because of economic progress in Asia.

This relates to the reduction of emissions. So laudable your way of behavior may be, you cannot count on that to solve the 'climate question'. In the end we will need something that s accepted unnoticeably by almost everyone, like cell phones for instance.