Category Archives: Resource Constraints

Charts du Jour, 16 March 2015: The Direct Impact of Natural Disasters

If you have a taste for doomer porn, then Desdemona Despair is the ‘go to’ site for you. Looking at the succession of despoiled ecosystems and ravished environments, it is hard not to get depressed. Nonetheless, while our natural assets are being fed through the meat grinder, the numbers show that our bodies are yet to meet a similar fate.

In a fascinating study led by Ilan Noy, a new index is proposed that “converts all damage indicators, including mortality, morbidity, and other impacts on human lives (e.g. displacement) – as well as damage to infrastructure and housing – into an aggregate measure of human lifeyears lost.”

In their approach, they “calculate the total years lost as the sum of years lost due to death, injury/affected, and financial damage.”

Adopting this methodology, the following chart is produced (click for larger image):

Total Life Years Lost by Regions jpeg

Critically, the impact of climate change, or environmental destruction in general, is yet to be seen.

We find no trend in the calculated index, and additionally we observe that most of disaster impacts are experienced in Asia (East and South). This dominance is likely due both to the region’s high degree of exposure to a multitude of extreme events (especially wide-scale flooding) and to the high population density in exposed areas (the coasts along the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the major river systems).

Before I am accused of sounding too much like my doppelgänger The Rational Optimist, I should emphasise that this is a human-centric metric. Species extinction doesn’t show up. Just as important, the system may tip. At present, the United States can absorb a Hurricane Katrina with ease (not withstanding the devastation such an event causes at a personal level). But what happens when you throw two or three Katrinas at the system in quick succession.

Even worse, what happens when extreme weather events graduate from being acute events to those that are chronic. An economy is composed of flows (GDP) and stocks (wealth). Some wealth destruction actually stimulates GDP. But when wealth destruction become a quotidian event, flow (GDP) won’t be able to cope. We are not at such a state of affairs as yet. I am not confident that we never will reach such a state.

 

Chart of the Day, 6 March 2015: Global Food Prices and Production

Yesterday, I highlighted the tail risk of climate change; that is, low probability but high impact outcomes that could devastate the planet.

Nonetheless, while climate change is already showing up as biodiversity stress, it is not yet appearing as an aggregated agricultural impact across the globe. True, we can produce regional examples of likely climate change-induced distress. For example, climate change probably (but not certainly) helped tip the odds toward the strong western United States drought that we have been witnessing. This, in turn, has affected certain types of crop. But climate change has yet to have a material impact on global food production in its entirety.

Below is the composite Food Price Index from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Data source here (click for larger image).

FAO Food Price Index jpeg

Real inflation-adjusted food prices are currently not far off their 1960s/70s levels. True, they are up about 40% from 20 years of so ago, but the world has got a lot richer since then. Indeed, Chinese real GDP per capita has more than doubled over the last 10 years and India’s same statistic is up about 60%. Continue reading

Chart of the Day, 3 March 2015: Summation of Secular Stagnation

For the second day, I am praising a short article by Business Insider, which in this case contains this gem of a graphic from Citi (click for larger image):

Secular Stagnation jpeg

From Citi’s commentary:

The most profound implications stem from demand-led secular stagnation. In particular, that the zero bound is a problem in delivering actual stimulus while bubbles may help deliver demand (and so may be part of the toolkit and landscape for long horizons) but their ultimate collapse further entrenches the core yield declines.

Which ties up with my chart from yesterday, highlighting the structural decline in interest rates. Business Insider describes the phenomenon this way:

In other words, secular stagnation puts forward the idea that interest rates at 0% might not be low enough to sufficiently stimulate an economy facing a demand shortage as stark as what some economists think we’ve been grappling with since the crisis.

Nonetheless, while Citi has produced a great infographic, there are a couple of glaring omissions–and both come on the supply side. First, they omit the hypothesis that technology-driven productivity growth is suffering from diminishing returns. This is the thesis of the growth economist Bob Gordon, which I have blogged about frequently, including here and here.

Second, biophysical constraints are nowhere to be seen. Biophysical constraints come in a variety of forms from the very concrete, like resource depletion, to the more complex like biodiversity loss and the spending of carbon budgets. I will put the latter to one side as it is not at all clear that they are a significant cause of the current phase of secular stagnation (although they most certainly will be causing secular stagnation, or even worse, as the century progresses).

Resource constraints do, however, provide a smoking gun for the Great Recession since all manner of energy and raw material prices were spiking before the credit crisis hit.

But doesn’t the current slump in oil, copper and iron prices remove raw materials from the secular argument? Only if the slump in prices continues and economic growth is restored. This would allow us to disentangle the supply and demand side. In short, low current prices could be a reflection of anaemic demand, which fits into the top half of the Citi chart above.

Alternatively, what we could be seeing is a ratcheting up in raw material prices over an extended period of time. Natural resource depletion leads to higher prices, which in turn leads to a spur to innovation (think fracking). However, prices do not return to their former, inflation-adjusted levels. Depletion then continues to the point that it overwhelms the current technology gains, leading to another jump in prices. This then prompts new innovation, but again only sufficient to cause a temporary retreat in prices not a permanent lowering.

So the ratchet does have short downward phases, but these are purely punctuation marks within the long-term upward trend. Is this what we are seeing? We just don’t know, but this hypothesis is consistent with the pattern of prices since the 1990s.

Going back to the central concern, secular stagnation is a wider threat to our socio-political systems, which are entirely premised on economic growth. Our democratic institutions are founded on a two hundred year phase of rising living standards based on cheap energy and  technological innovation. If living standards stop rising and innovation slows, then a lot of other things will change as well.

Chart of the Day, 28 February 2015: US Natural Gas Production for December 2014

The US government agency The Energy Information Administration reports  gas production figures with a two month lag. So yesterday we saw the natural gas production numbers for December 2014 (here). So far, the tend is still upwards–indeed, production has actually been accelerating (click for larger image).

US Dry Gas Production Dec 14 jpeg

December 2014 dry gas production was up 11.6% year on year, and the 12-month moving average was 5.6% higher year on year, the highest growth since November 2012. Any particular individual month reflects the impact of weather events, but the strength of production over recent months is still noteworthy. Of course, natural gas prices have shown far more resilience than oil prices over the last 6 months. Indeed, up until December, prices were little changed from mid-summer (click for larger image).

Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Price jpeg

However, over the last two months, we have seen a step change downward in Henry Hub prices to around US$3 per million British thermal unit (Btu), a 25% decline from the US$4 seen for much of 2013/14 (apart from a cold winter spike). Source: EIA here.

At this stage, I will restate my definition of a “shale revolution”. To me, you can attach the moniker “revolution” if we see higher production at a lower price. We now have a lower price. Will we continue to see rising production? Watch this space.

Collapse Comes of Age

Not long ago, the study of human collapse and extinction was the preserve of cranks (or Hollywood). True, a few maverick scholars have taken on the topic, Joseph Tainter and his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” springs to mind. Yet little academic infrastructure existed to give collapse studies depth. But just as with happiness studies, another topic covered by this blog, the situation has now changed.

In the UK, our two oldest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have both set up institutes that probe into the greatest risks faced by mankind. In Oxford, we have the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), and in Cambridge the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). To get a taste of the FHI and its founder Nick Bostrom I recommend you read this in-depth article by Ross Andersen of the magazine Aeon here.

Like this blog, Bostrom’s principal concern is risk; that is, the probability that an event will occur combined with the impact should that event occur.

Risk jpeg

However, Bostrom extends this concept to take in scope: whether a particular risk is limited to a locality or whether it is all encompassing. This produces a risk matrix like this (source for the following analysis his paper here; click for larger image):

Typology of Risk jpeg

The X in the grid marks what Bostrom calls “existential risks”, which he defines thus:

A risk where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-orginating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

Bostrom then goes on to subdivide such existential risk into four categories:

Bangs: Intelligent life goes extinct suddenly due to accident or deliberate destruction.

Under this category we get traditional disaster movie scenarios of asteroid impact, nuclear holocaust, runaway climate change, naturally-occuring modern plague, bioterrorism, terminator-style super-intelligence and out-of-control nanobots.

Crunches: Society resets to a lower-level of technology and societal organisation. 

This includes bang-lite scenarios that don’t quite kill off intelligent life but rather just permanently cripple it.  Crunches also cover resource depletion and ecological degradation whereby natural assets can no longer support a sophisticated society. Crunch could also come from political institutions failing to cope with the modern world–subsequent to which emergent totalitarian or authoritarian regimes take us backwards.

Shrieks: A postmodern society is obtained, but far below society’s potential or aspirations. 

This is a rather nebulous category since the measuring stick of our potential is against something that we may not be able to understand–a reflection of Bostrom’s philosophical roots, perhaps.

Whimpers: Society develops but in so doing destroys what we value. 

Under this scenario, we could pursue an evolutionary path that burns up our resources or we bump up against alien civilisations that out-compete us. Over the time scale that this blog looks at–the lifespan of our young–this existential threat can be ignored.

Building on many of Bostroms preoccupations, a joint report by FHI and the Global Challenges Foundation has just been published under the title “Global Challenges: 12 Risks That Threaten Human Civilisation”. The Executive Summary can be found here and the full report here.  The report is again concerned with existential risks, but approaches this idea somewhat differently than Bostrom’s earlier work.

The focus of the report is on low probability but high impact events. The logic here is that low probability events are generally ignored by policy makers, but when such events occur, they could have catastrophic consequences. Accordingly, policy makers should be duty bound to plan for them. From a probability perspective, what we are talking about here is the often-ignored right tail of the probability distribution.

Existential Probability jpeg

The 12 risks falling into the right tail of the distribution highlighted in the report are:

  1. Extreme climate change
  2. Nuclear war
  3. Global pandemic
  4. Ecological collapse
  5. Global system collapse
  6. Major asteroid impact
  7. Super volcano
  8. Synthetic biology
  9. Nanotechnology
  10. Artificial intelligence
  11. Unknown consequences (Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns)
  12. Future bad global governance

As an aside, finance is one of the few disciplines that takes these tails seriously since they are the things that will blow you up (or make you a fortune). The industry often doesn’t get the tail-risk right (incentives often exist to ignore the tail) as the financial crisis of 2008 can attest. However, the emphasis is there. A lot of science ignores outcomes that go out more than two or three standard deviations; in finance, half your life is spent trying to analyse, quantify and prepare for such outcomes.

Returning to the Global Challenges report, the emphasis of the analysis is on dissecting tail risks, with the goal of provoking policy makers to consider them seriously. One of the most interesting proposals within the report if for a kind of existential risk early warning system, which I will look at in a separate blog post.

Finally, I will finish this post with a chart dealing with severe climate change (click for larger image or go to page 64 of the report), a risk that I hope will be at the centre of the upcoming COP 21 climate talks in Paris in December. The fact that our top universities are seriously studying such risks will, I hope, prevent them being seen as the preserve of cranks and disaster movies in future.

current climate risk jpeg

 

Chart of the Day, 6 Feb 2015: Is Natural Capital a Helpful Concept?

Although David Cameron has come under criticism for his previous boast about running “the greenest government ever” in the UK, the coalition should be given credit for bringing some fresh thinking to the field of environmental economics. In particular, the concept of natural capital – the different elements of nature that provide value for people – has been lifted into the limelight (click for larger image).

Natural Capital jpeg

The idea of natural capital first popped up in E.F. Schumacher’s 1970s eco classic “Small Is Beautiful”. Only recently, however, has it migrated from academia to economic policy-making, most noticeably taking centre stage in the 2011 government white paper “The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature”.

This white paper, in turn, gave birth to the Natural Capital Committee, chaired by the Oxford economist Dieter Helm, which has produced a series of three reports under the common title “The State of Natural Capital” (here).

So is this all “green crap” (the phrase attributed to PM Cameron when talking about energy bills)? At first glance, it looks eminently sensibly from a business perspective; that is, subjecting nature’s assets to the discipline of accrual accounting. Firms are comfortable with the concept that capital depreciates and that this is a cost. For a company to remain an ongoing concern, it can’t trash its balance sheet to the benefit of the income statement–at least not for long. Similarly, if we erode our soil or pollute our air, the benefits from these resources will gradually diminish.

Yet there are many problems. While we can sometimes back out the value of complex assets like shore-line ecosystems in terms of their functioning as flood defence, extending this approach to intangibles such as a picnic in a park is problematic.

Further, if we wish to prevent natural capital eroding, then we have to assign costs. Much natural capital suffers from the tragedy of the commons (certain economic actors secure profits but dump the costs associated with these profits on society as a whole), and getting the Office of National Statistics to compile natural capital accounts will be meaningless if enforcement isn’t given teeth. The record on climate change isn’t encouraging here. The economics profession is almost unanimous in recommending a carbon tax to make CO2 polluters pay, but few governments have thad the guts to implement one in the face of vocal opposition from vested interests.

Finally, natural capital accounting will live or die by how much you discount the future compared to the present. If we assign a high discount rate, then there is a rationale for gutting our children’s future in order to consume now. A low rate implies we care about coming generations. After the May elections, the incoming government will get to show how much it cares.

 

Links for the Week Ending 16 July 2014

I haven’t posted for quite a while. Basically, family commitments have eaten into my blogging time, and this state of affairs will likely continue for an indefinite period longer. Nonetheless, I will try to get some posts out as we grind through the last few innings of what I would term the ‘Great Hiatus’: a hiatus period—or pause— amid the longer term trend of rising global mean temperatures, higher oil prices, increasing resource constraints and greater global economic instability.

For example, with a 70-80% chance of an El Nino by year-end, temperature records have the potential to start falling again. Further, oil has built a solid base above $100 per barrel but appears poised to go higher in the next year or so as oil companies struggle to find new fields that can be developed at the right price.

At the same time, many of the financial fragilities in the system posed by ageing demographics, declining productivity and increasing resource constraints have to date been countered by the super easy monetary policy pursued worldwide. The aggressive, unprecedented and unorthodox monetarism  led by the Federal Reserve Board has been a policy triumph over the short term. Since the credit crunch of 2008/2009, the sky has not fallen down.

Yet the jury is still out as to whether the provision of free money can be maintained long enough to see a return to sustainable economic growth, or whether it will beget a new cycle of chronic instability through having fostered the extension of credit into intrinsically poor investments and a generalized asset price inflation that benefits few but the rich.

In the meantime, here are some links which I hope will flesh out some of the themes of this blog:

  • Occasionally, my left-learning friends berate me for reading the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph. I offer two defences: first, you need to read opinion with which you may instinctively disagree, but find of some merit with a bit of reflection. Second, a good newspaper has intellectual mavericks—and The Telegraph has many (probably more than The Guardian). Here is an article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard portraying the fossil fuel industry as poor capitalists; in short, the oil majors have been investing ever more, to reap ever less; while renewables are slowing sloughing off their subsidies. Joseph Schumpeter would be proud of this epic creative destruction.
  • And despite all the new technology we are bringing to bear on oil extraction, when fields go into decline it is damn tough fighting the tide. North Sea oil was a much ignored saviour of the British economy in the 1980s, but is decline is inexorable and, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), accelerating. The Financial Times has the story here (access to FT articles after free registration), but if you want to go to the primary OBR source you can find it here.
  • We are still seeing a lot of commentary over “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. Piketty argues that the relative reduction in inequality in advanced countries over the post-war period was something of an aberration. Accordingly to his analysis, without direct political intervention (or in the most extreme case revolution), capital will gradually accrue to a relative few. In short, when the return on capital is greater than the growth rate, it is the owners of capital who prosper most, not those in capital’s employ. For a fuller treatment, I recommend Cory Doctorow’s summary here,  and an interview by Maththew Yglesias of Vox  a while back with Piketty here.
  • You can also slice growing inequality in different ways. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK has just issued a report detailing how the real incomes of young people are falling much faster than those of any other age cohort (here). Meanwhile, I have often commented on how London has detached itself form the rest of the UK. In the US, Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog charts a similar divergence between cities showing a virtuous cycle of education and growth and those showing a vicious cycle of poor education and decline (here)
  • Climate sceptics love to start any global mean temperature chart with a data point centred on 1997/98, which happens to coincide with the largest El Nino for a century. This monster El Nino ushered in the record breaking hot year of 1998 (slightly eclipsed in later years depending on which data set you look at, but still one of the hottest years on record: see NASA’s data set here). Global mean temperature is a construct of short-term weather volatility, long-term green-house gas induced temperature rise and the medium-term ENSO cycle. Eventually, CO2 will do its stuff and records will fall regardless of whether we have an El Nino. But for us to quickly retire all the talk of a hiatus in temperature rise will require a new and powerful El Nino. True, an El Nino appears on the cards by year-end, but quite how strong it will be is still clouded in uncertainty as this post at Skeptical Science explains here.
  • If you visit London, take time to visit some of the quirky, smaller museums. One of the most intriguing (and downright disturbing) is the Old Operating Theatre that used to be part of St Thomas Hospital just south of The Thames. This is no Disney Land reconstruction, but a perfectly preserved part of pre-antiseptic medical history.  Despite appearing to be a set from a particularly dark Harry Potter movie scene, the Old Operating Theatre shows how and where surgeons removed a damaged limb in around two minutes flat, with minimal anaesthetic. The museum demonstrates how far we have come health-wise in an historical blink of an eye (150 years or so). And for those who would welcome an economic collapse as a route toward a more authentic form of living, I direct you to a post at Club Orlov explaining a world of post-collapse, or village, medicine. Humanity is put right back on the St Thomas Hospital’s operating table. Pray for four strong men to hold you down—and a surgeon who has not only washed his hands, but is also quick with blade and saw.