Calculating the cost of changing demand for emission reductions

The price of something is, in economics, established as a point where the demand curve meets the supply curve. So, too is the quantity of that thing that is traded.

Most climate policy has been, to date, about changing the shape of the supply curve for carbon dioxide emissions so that the price of carbon dioxide emissions rises and the quantity falls. Emission trading schemes, policies to tax fossil fuels, to prescribe emission limits to technologies, policies to subsidise clean technology – all are ways of making good things cheaper and bad things more expensive; that is, they try and shift the supply curve.

The demand curve reflects how much we are all prepared to pay for things. This is the aggregation of everyone’s utility function: the value to individuals of things. The demand curve changes with population size and shifts in tastes, aspirations and customs.

Policy-makers are generally uncomfortable with measures which try and change the shape of the demand curve – it is seen as an unacceptable intrusion or social engineering to try and meddle with someone’s tastes or aspirations. Of course, we do this all the time – what is advertising if not that – but still, there is political discomfort with the idea.

Notwithstanding political discomfort, it would be useful to have an idea of the cost of changing the shape of the demand curve. Perhaps the cost of moving the demand curve is actually lower than moving the supply curve. Perhaps if you move both at the same time, you get an even bigger effect?

So scientists, engineers and economists, who today are very focussed on the technology and economics of supply-curve changing policies, should also turn their attention to the technology and economics of demand-changing policies. Perhaps there are unexploited, undiscovered ways of tweaking people’s utility functions which turn out cheaper per ton of CO2 thereby reduced, than marginal improvements in renewable technology or the strugglesome attempts to constrain industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

We will have to examine distasteful things – how did bad people persuade large numbers of people to do bad things – and more positive things – how did good people persuade large numbers of people to do good things – in order to understand the technology of cultural change as well as we understand the transformation of sunlight into electricity. But academics at least should not shirk from examining the distasteful, even if politically incorrect, if the prize is an effective and painless way of preserving liveable life on the planet.

The marginal abatement cost curves which show to policymakers the costs of different ways of cutting emissions are generally flawed since they only include supply-side measures. Demand-side measures are harder, more difficult to measure and predict. But that does not mean they are more expensive. If our aim is to cut emissions cheaply, then more work is needed to understand them and calculate their costs.

This is a non-humorous revision of an earlier blog posts: and . Related posts are here:

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Everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness

The Guardian has recently reported on destruction of forest in the Ivory Coast for growing chocolate:

It is horrifying and but we should not be surprised, self-righteous or indignant: everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness.

Each time we eat a banana, an avocado, some chocolate, have a cup of tea or coffee, we are consuming something from a place which was once forest in a hot country. And every time we eat a potato, a carrot, a slice of bread, we are eating something from a place which was once forest in a less hot country. If not forest, then swamp or savannah.

Each time we eat a little bit more, we are contributing to the destruction of wilderness – since surely the responsibility must be shared on a per capita basis; blaming the marginal arrival would imply an intolerable burden of guilt for the young.

I imagined a slave who is beaten every day. His back is a map of the world. Most of it is now formed of hardened scars, and tough leathery skin. There are weals where recent punishments are starting to heal – long purple sores marking the trajectory of the whip. And then simple bleeding, raw gashes from yesterday’s beating.

Such is the surface of the world: the scars are our conventional farms, with tough, drying soil. The bleeding wounds are where we are now turning wilderness into farmland.

Through caring, wildlife- and bird-friendly farming can we give ourselves food and at the same time go some way to restoring the land. But first, we just need to eat and drink less.


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LAPWING: a small levy on middle-class coffee drinkers to finance bird-friendly farming

Stephen Moss’ book, Wild Kingdom, is about bringing back Britain’s wildlife. Industrialised farming since the Second World War has devastated Britain’s landscapes and the birds and animals that lived in it. Originally the destruction of our historical, zoologically rich farmland happened because we needed to feed ourselves during the war. Now it happens because we don’t want to spend properly on food – British people now spend 8% of their income on food compared to a third of their income a few generations ago.

We want cheap food and we enlist the supermarkets to put pressure on farmers. The farmers, in turn, put terrible pressure on the land and its flora and fauna.

Since food one of the most important things in our lives – as it is necessary for life – we should spend properly on it. We should be ready to pay for food which is not only wholesome for us (that is, fresh food, not processed food) but which is produced in a way which is wholesome for the land. Anything less is a false economy.

While it is not fair to put any more financial burden on people with low incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, lots of people in the UK could tolerate a higher spend on food. I expect many in the middle class don’t even know how much they are spending when they check out at Tesco or Sainsbury and certainly not those who check out at Waitrose.

The test is the espresso test. If you can afford an espresso, you can certainly afford to make a contribution to wholesome farming.

The logical conclusion, therefore, is a small levy on coffee to finance wildlife-friendly or bird-friendly farming schemes.

The levy could be called the Levy on the Affluent who Purchase fancy coffee, for Wildlife IN aGriculture or LAPWING – this being the name of a bird which has seen a dramatic decline on British farms. Or, for something shorter, LARK – Levy for Agriculture and Rewilding Know-how.

(photo from

I suggest starting with a trial levy of 30p a cup. I estimate some 10 million cups of fancy coffee are sold a day – about 20% of the 55 million which are consumed daily in the UK. This would raise £3 million each day. Over the course of a year this means around £1 billion. Invested each year into helping farmers farm more gently, this could go a long way to restore farmland habitat for larks, lapwings, corncrakes, curlews, tree sparrows, yellowhammers, turtle doves, hen harriers and so forth.

There might even be a bit left over to paying a fair price to the coffee grower so he, too, can farm in a bird-friendly way.

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Nature notes – Nature’s builders and more death gardening

Nature’s builders

Although calcium is recommended by doctors, the taste of cement and plaster, which are rich in calcium, is not pleasant. Yet, during a construction project you get a lot of calcium in your mouth. Consider, then, two creatures which are obliged, not having hands or machinery, to use their mouths for construction work.

On an early morning trip to Platform Construction Store in Budaörs to buy cement and bricks, I noticed that under the awnings of this building suppliers, house martins have built nests. The nests were placed directly above lights, and, happily, the good people of Platform had constructed wooden boarding around the light shades to collect poo from the nests. This stops the poo landing on employees, customers and goods.

It was good to see that Platform had taken care to solve a problem without simply wiping out the birds nests. This is rather rare example of courtesy to animals; perhaps a show of respect, by builders, of the skills that the house martins show in mud construction.

Martin's nest above light at Platform Construction Supplies

Let’s hope that the enormous amount of construction work around Budaörs does not remove the last sources of open water which the martins need to make their mix.

Back at the building site, I noticed a faint, repeated scratching sound coming from behind black foil taped on to a wooden ceiling beam to protect it from the plasterer. I climbed a ladder to inspect behind the foil, and saw this:

Dauber wasp cells

It is the work of the mud dauber wasp, who I had seen earlier collecting mud from wet ground around the house. In each chamber, I read, one larva is put, together with several small spiders as food – a bedroom with larder annex. The amphora-like chamber is then sealed, and the larva, in spring, by which time it has turned into a young wasp, will eat up the flies and then break out of the chamber.

Unfortunately, I disturbed the foil and stuck it back slightly differently. When the wasp appeared, it seemed not to be able to find the nest it was making.

Luckily, the next day I saw that the wasp had found its way back to the nest and continued its delicate construction work.

I am worried that if the nest stays in the house, then the larvae will not know what season it is, and mistime their growth and emerging from the nest. I am thinking it might be wise very carefully to remove the nest from the wooden beam and put it somewhere safe in the garden, where it will experience the proper temperature cycle of autumn, winter and spring. Consultation with an expert is needed.

Origins of death gardening

Death gardening, the style of gardening practised by town councils worldwide, the nouveau riche and other social groupings, seems to have its origins in the upper class. This is consistent with a view that the upper class start things off and then everyone copies them.

Look at the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Versailles near Paris or Frederiksborg in Copenhagen.  You see straight lines, geometrical patterns, order, monotonous green or simple primary colours and much gravel; a statement of complete control over nature. These are the gardens of kings and emperors. Their realms thrive when they are ruthlessly controlled from the centre, when power is absolute, with no exception and no complaining. Naturally, the aesthetic tastes of such a ruler will reflect his curious psychology, hence a style of gardening which prefers death to life.

Even where non-straight shapes are allowed, they are formalised and just have one species of plant in.

A few hundred years later, the common man still considers this style of gardening desirable, such is the lure and comforting effect of absolute, centralised power.

Commercialisation of death gardening

First and foremost, a death gardener sees his job as to kill. This is the instruction he receives from his boss. And, armed with strimmer and motorised sprayer, to kill as loudly as possible. At the weekend I visited a source of the killing machine: OBI in Siofok. In the gardening section the first thing I saw were diverse chemicals and equipment aimed at killing or scaring: rats, mice, moles, pigeons, slugs, snails, aphids, mosquitos, other forms of flies and insects and even helpful arachnids … and moss (!!!). Moss??? What the fuck. Beautiful, soft, gentle, comforting, dewy, emerald moss. Yes, to garden is to kill.

In a country were intolerance is encouraged politically, it is not surprising to see such dramatic intolerance of other species. But so ruthlessly, on such an industrial scale, in the back garden?

Recent death gardening highlights

Outside our building project, the grass banks of the 59 tram were, until Tuesday, awash with blues, whites, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Then came a municipal death gardener and he not only exterminated the wild flowers, but also hacked to pieces two elderberry bushes which were making great progress and had enriched the street with its flowers and fruit, both suitable for making delicious and refreshing drinks.

I came across our neighbour’s gardener out in the street in front of our house, about to attack a frond of wild clematis with its exquisite dried flower preparing to give seed. He told me he had to remove it because it will be ugly. I told him it was from my garden and he should leave it alone. I also said that you shouldn’t cut stuff back until they have finished their growing in later September or October. I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it makes sense that a plant should be able to make as much use as possible of its nutrients. So why were these death gardeners hacking back the neighbours garden in the middle of August?

Outside the office a still flowering hedge was getting the chainsaw treatment. Bright pink flowers being brutally decapitated. Why plant flowers if you destroy them before the flowering is done?

Eliminating death gardening

I am not sure how death gardening will be eliminated. It will need a huge sprawling, unkempt movement with many unruly branches and tendrils: to make champions of brilliant wildlife gardeners; to replace IT lessons with wildlife gardening in schools; night time gorilla / guerrilla campaigns to sow wild flower seeds on pristine lawns and to replace decorative evergreens with indigenous fruit trees; punitive decibel tax on strimmers and leaf blowers; an international convention, hosted in Montreal, to outlaw the manufacture and sale of gardening weapons of mass destruction (GWMDs); electro-therapy for directors of municipal works to instil species tolerance; more conversations about moss and earwigs on Game of Thrones; replace the pointless Nobel Prize for economics with a Nobel Prize for garden permaculture; compulsory fence holes for hedgehogs; free days off work for scything lessons and gathering wildflower seeds; retraining the gardeners at Versailles and Schonbrunn as IT consultants, where their deep need for order will be put to better use.

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Good government

I recently had a chat with someone and became very disappointed. This is a fellow who is exceptionally brainy and all together a nice chap with good values. However, he has let himself be seduced by the economic unorthodoxy of the Hungarian government and has become an apologist for the kleptocracy that Hungary is. He makes light of the pernicious manipulation of the people through the media, of the deliberate stoking of xenophobia, of the cynical dumbing down of the people, of the centrally planned enrichment of philistines and thugs, and the egregious corruption and state capture upon which the current regime is based.

In his view all this is justified.  The government is building a new Hungary, with a unique economy, free from foreign influence and failed neo-liberal dogma, liberated from the ravages of foreign investors, recovering that which was stolen by cosmopolitan financiers after the fall of the Berlin wall. All the ills of the past shall be put right by establishing a nomenklatura of thirty or so favoured, loyal dynasties, and the means by which wealth is transferred from public coffers or international companies to those families do not matter. What matters is that by pursuing these policies in five to ten years the Hungarian economy will flourish.

Here is someone so enchanted by radical economic thought that he has completely lost touch of normal moral or social considerations, like an adolescent besotted with a beautiful girl and completely blind to the fact that she is a selfish bitch. (There is some interesting psychology here – some form of extreme compartmentalisation, perhaps, but that would be subject of a separate investigation.)

For a moment I thought I might be wrong. Perhaps, after all, it is justifiable to steal and subjugate, bully and menace in order to build a greater nation. Hmmm. Then I regained my confidence. No, it is not.

All this caused me to list the things which I think are important in the matter of government and ruling a country. It probably sounds awfully naïve and terribly old-fashioned but here is the list:

  1. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Much of what we think of as moral codes is based on this simple principle. It seems to be fairly universal. It is in contrast to the principle known in Hungarian as: a nagyobb kutya baszik (the bigger dog gets the fuck).
  2. The elite should behave well. This is not least because the people always copy the behaviour of the elite.
  3. Ignorance is a bad thing and exploiting ignorance should be avoided. By the same token investing in high quality education for all, appropriate for their cognitive powers, interests and abilities is supremely important. To choose good politicians people need to be discerning and therefore educated.
  4. The primacy of economic growth is rubbish. Politicians need to read books such as The Spirit Level, Prosperity without Growth and The Joyless Economy before dabbling in economics.
  5. Mild pride for your country is wholesome, although there are several other levels of social organisation for which positive thoughts are at least as important. Zealous nationalism is bad. Nationalism turns ignorant and intolerant people nasty and tends to be exploited by bad leaders. Failing to love your neighbour is to ignore the first item in this list..
  6. Care, compassion and acts of kindness are very important for a flourishing society. A wise leader has the courage to distinguish between compassion and indulgence. Leaders who reject compassion are bad.
  7. In a wholesome society, politics is holistic, in that it considers the social, spiritual and intellectual realms as well as just economics.
  8. Someone else’s bad behaviour – now or in the past – does not justify your own bad behaviour. We should have got beyond an-eye-for-an-eye.
  9. Ends very rarely justify the means except in the case of avoiding environmental catastrophe.
  10. Cynicism must be excised from society and expunged. A wholesome and just society cannot abide cynicism. If people are cynical they should not hold positions of power.
  11. Hypocrisy should be avoided wherever possible. However, people should be understanding if a leader tries, but fails, to aspire to high ideals which might not be immediately achievable.
  12. Learn from history and don’t behave like bad people from history. In any case, they often ended up with short lives.
  13. Integrity is important: try and apply principles and embrace values consistently in all matters. Without integrity a leader is seen as capricious and unsuitable for guiding a large population.
  14. The most important things for making a society wholesome are the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of justice and compassion (including compassion to other living species – both animal and plant – and to-be-living things not yet born), learning the skills of justice and compassion, nurturing of beauty and love, achieving physical and mental health and passing all the skills for these things on to our children. Political leaders should bear all this in mind.
  15. Since power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, create organisational structures which weaken the power of any individual.
  16. Tolerance of differences is important but tolerance of evil, avarice, cruelty and so forth is bad.
  17. People thrive by having, in balance, autonomy, belonging, mastery and purpose. These are functions of our alternating needs for freedom and bondage, and our respective dealings with the physical and mental worlds. Political leaders should bear this in mind.

Now you can test whether you have a good government by seeing to what extent they adhere to these principles.

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