Alone in the Wilderness

I’ve been thinking a lot about risk tolerance and discount rates lately, and how they profoundly shape our perception of the economic costs associated with minimizing climate change.  Basically… if you’re willing to vary your preference for the present over the future or the level of uncertainty you’re willing to accept, then you can make mitigation cost whatever you want.  All else being equal, low discount rates and low risk tolerance make taking action cheap, while high discount rates and high risk tolerance make it expensive.

Unfortunately, we live in a society with high discount rates and high risk tolerance.  Or at least, that’s what you’d infer from our collective behavior.  It’s also what you’d gather from a lot of the rhetoric around climate action, and our obsession with trying to make it “economically efficient”, to the point of maybe not doing it at all.  Our risk tolerances and discount rates aren’t really objectively measurable.  They are fluid, and context sensitive.  The same person in different situations will not behave consistently.  Different people in the same situation may come to different conclusions.  How we deal with uncertainty and the value of the future is a personal as well as cultural decision.

For some reason, I find myself with a low pure time preference, and an aversion to many kinds of risk.  This is part of why I find our unwillingness to act on climate infuriating, and why I’m working on climate policy.  I got to wondering, how did I end up this way?  Why isn’t it more common?

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A Carbon Price for Colorado

In May of 2013 I gave a talk at Clean Energy Action’s Global Warming Solutions Speaker Series in Boulder, on how we might structure a carbon pricing scheme in Colorado.  You can also download a PDF of the slides and watch an edited version of that presentation via YouTube:

What follows is a more structured written exploration of the same ideas.

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Passive Passion

Passive Passion is a great 20 minute long documentary about the German Passive House energy efficiency standard.  It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a bunch of examples of implementations in Europe, from single family homes to row houses, apartment buildings, public housing, office buildings, etc.  Talks about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation.  Also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize these methods, and do it cost effectively.  Clearly it’s possible, we just have to decide to do it!

Empowerhouse: an affordable, net-zero Passivhaus in DC

The Empowerhouse is an affordable, net-zero Passivhaus design, that came out of the Solar Decathlon competition.  In collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, the team as built a duplex in the Washington DC area that is site net-zero, despite having the smallest solar array of any of the homes entered in the competition.  It was able to do this because it took a Passivhaus approach, aggressively minimizing all loads first, sealing the building nearly airtight, and super-insulating it.  They also integrated a rooftop garden and terrace.  By sharing the heat management equipment between the two relatively small units, they were able to reduce costs substantially.  All this means the low income residents will spend much, much less on energy over the lifetime of the building.  We need more affordable housing that looks like this.

An American Made All-in-one Thermal Appliance

Newell Instruments in Illinois has developed an all-in-one “magic box” heat management appliance, to compete with the ones currently manufactured in Europe, which are often prohibitively expensive in the US.  The Newell CERV can both add and remove heat and humidity from a building and provide fresh air supply when needed.  It can also be coupled with a heat-pump based hot water heater.  Brought together in a super-insulated, airtight building this integration simplifies and increases the efficiency of space conditioning.  Here’s hoping they can make it affordable too.

Energy Intensity and Boulder’s Climate Action Framework

With this year’s expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and our Climate Action Plan (CAP) tax, the city of Boulder is looking to the future, trying to come up with an appropriate longer term climate action framework, and the necessary funding to support it.  To this end there’s going to be a measure on the ballot this fall to extend the CAP tax.  I’m glad that we’re talking about this within the city (and county), because at the state and national level, the issue seems to have faded into the background.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.  This year’s wildfires, the continuing drought that’s decimating the corn and soybean harvests, and the phenomenal 2012 arctic melt season are just appetizers.  If the last decade’s trend holds true, we’ll have an ice-free arctic ocean some September between 2015 and 2020.

The major sources of emissions, broadly, are electricity generation, transportation, the built environment (space heating, cooling, hot water, lighting), agriculture, and industry (the embodied energy of all the stuff we buy, use, and then frequently discard).  The extent to which local government can impact these areas varies.  We interface with embodied energy most directly when it comes to disposal and at that point, the materials have already been made.  Similarly, most of our food comes from outside the region.  Our most ambitious project so far has been the exploration of creating a low-carbon municipal utility.  We’ve also potentially got significant leverage when it comes to transportation, land use, and the built environment, since cities and counties are largely responsible for regulating those domains in the US.

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