‘Reduced consumption is going to have to be a part of the equation’ for climate action, J.P. Morgan executive warns

Bloomberg reports:

The world isn’t cutting carbon emissions anywhere near quickly enough, a senior executive at J.P. Morgan Asset Management told clients this week — and changing that will require far harder choices than most people realize.

In his annual “Energy Outlook” report, Michael Cembalest, chairman of market investment and strategy for the asset management group, wrote that the U.S. needs to reduce its use of carbon much faster — a view he shares with the authors of the Green New Deal, including first-term Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Yet Cembalest says the advocates of that plan have downplayed the difficulty of achieving their goals. The Green New Deal’s objective of reaching zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 2030, he writes, is “not in the realm of the possible.”

“People are not getting the full picture about what’s feasible,” Cembalest said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think more sacrifices are going to be needed than people still understand.” [Continue reading…]

As costs skyrocket, more U.S. cities stop recycling

The New York Times reports:

Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.

Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.

“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.

Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.

The turmoil in the global scrap markets began affecting American communities last year, and the problems have only deepened. [Continue reading…]

Capitalism without competition is not capitalism

Imagine an economic system in which people come first

The Verge reports:

New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes that people should welcome robots taking their jobs — but not the economic system that can make it financially devastating. During a talk at SXSW, an audience member asked Ocasio-Cortez about the threat of automated labor. “We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she said in response. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

The congresswoman referenced a proposal from Bill Gates, who has discussed a tax on robots that replace human workers. (While she stated that Gates suggested taxing robots at 90 percent, that’s not a number we’ve found in his statements.) Gates isn’t the only person who’s floated a robot tax. French politician Benoît Hamon suggested taxing automated productivity gains and using the money for a universal basic income. More generally, large parts of Silicon Valley support basic incomes as a fix for automated unemployment.

Nobody’s specifically implemented an automation tax so far, though. In 2017, the European Parliament rejected a proposal that would tax robots and use the money to re-train workers, arguing that it would slow innovation. Ocasio-Cortez argued that a “robot tax” might just be a less politically charged way to propose higher taxes on businesses. “What [Gates is] really talking about is taxing corporations,” she said. “But it’s easier to say: ‘tax a robot.’” And while Gates’s vision involves freeing up humans to take other jobs, Ocasio-Cortez downplayed paid work altogether. [Continue reading…]

Smaller countries are becoming the healthiest

Bloomberg reports:

There’s more to life than money, and economists know it. As new assessments of global living standards proliferate, attempting to gauge how healthy, happy and successful humans are depending on where they live, a pattern is slowly emerging.

While slight variations in data can throw up different winners, smaller countries are increasingly dominating the top of the lists while big countries with booming economies fall behind.

A new analysis, the Global Wellness Index published by investment firm LetterOne, ranks Canada as the best country out of the 151 nations evaluated. The U.S. trails far behind, coming in at 37. In a tighter ranking of G-20 nations combined with the 20 most populous countries on the planet, South Africa comes in dead last, below Ukraine, Egypt and Iraq.

Based on a basket of metrics ranging from government healthcare spending to rates of depression, alcohol use, smoking, happiness and exercise, the new index is the latest attempt by economists to evaluate the world beyond economic growth. Last month, Bloomberg’s own research named Spain the world’s healthiest country. [Continue reading…]

Surge in U.S. economists’ support for carbon tax to tackle climate change

The Financial Times reports:

US economists led by former US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen are uniting in record numbers to back the idea of a carbon tax as the most effective and immediate way of tackling climate change.

At a time when Democrats including New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing a sweeping “Green New Deal” programme to reduce greenhouse emissions, climate change is shaping up to be a major 2020 election issue. The US is the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China.

But Ms Yellen told the Financial Times the Green New Deal was costly, whereas the carbon tax, which would plough proceeds back to the public in dividend payments, would be the “most efficient way” to reduce emissions.

“Global climate change is a very serious problem and it calls for immediate national action,” she said. “If you were to start around $40 a ton and then raise this over time, by more than the rate of inflation, this would be a very effective way of reducing carbon emissions and would more than meet the Paris commitment.”

The carbon tax proposal, organised by the Climate Leadership Council, is a bipartisan effort that has united senior economists from both parties, and now garnered 3,300 signatures from professional economists and academics across the US. [Continue reading…]

Can sustainable agriculture survive under capitalism?

Sophie Yeo writes:

It was one of the most beautiful—and one of the most sustainable—farms that Ryanne Pilgeram had ever seen. When she arrived, Penny, the farmer, was sorting through vegetables in the shed. Her husband Jeff, who had a full-time job as a doctor, was hauling flakes of alfalfa to feed the draft horses that they used in place of tractors.

Pilgeram, a sociologist at the University of Idaho, was touring the farm as part of her research into sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. She had grown up on a ranch in Montana and was already familiar with the world of conventional farming, although her family’s own land had been lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Perhaps for that reason, she froze when a feral dog darted out from a shed and, in front of Pilgeram and the two farmers, ran off with a live chicken, which fell limp in its jaws. This dog was no stranger to the couple. She had just given birth to a litter of puppies, and Pilgeram later learned that she’d been stealing a chicken every day for a week.

“I just remember being really anxious—like, this is not going to end well, I should probably just get my car and go home,” Pilgeram recalls. “Where I grew up, they would have just shot the dog, right?”

But instead of going for his gun, Jeff offered Pilgeram one of the new puppies. She describes the moment as one of culture shock. “They were super chill about it, like it was not a big deal,” she says. “I just kept thinking that it’s a pretty privileged position to be in, to not care if some of your livestock is taken.”

In many ways, Pilgeram found that this couple (whose names she has changed in compiling her research) epitomized the new generation of farmers moving into Western states like Idaho, Washington, and Montana. [Continue reading…]

The age of surveillance capitalism

John Naughton writes:

We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.

Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.

That’s not for want of trying, mind. Library shelves groan under the weight of books about what digital technology is doing to us and our world. Lots of scholars are thinking, researching and writing about this stuff. But they’re like the blind men trying to describe the elephant in the old fable: everyone has only a partial view, and nobody has the whole picture. So our contemporary state of awareness is – as Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace once put it – one of “informed bewilderment”.

Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, to be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School to hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations and on work. It provided the most insightful account up to that time of how digital technology was changing the work of both managers and workers. And then Zuboff appeared to go quiet, though she was clearly incubating something bigger. The first hint of what was to come was a pair of startling essays – one in an academic journal in 2015, the other in a German newspaper in 2016. What these revealed was that she had come up with a new lens through which to view what Google, Facebook et al were doing – nothing less than spawning a new variant of capitalism. Those essays promised a more comprehensive expansion of this Big Idea.

And now it has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about.

The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.” [Continue reading…]

Luxembourg makes all public transport free

CNN reports:

With a population of 602,000, Luxembourg is one of Europe’s smallest countries — yet it suffers from major traffic jams.

But that could be about to change. Last month, it announced plans to make all public transport — trains, trams and buses — free from March 2020.

The government hopes the move will alleviate heavy congestion and bring environmental benefits, according to Dany Frank, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mobility and Public Works.

Landlocked Luxembourg is one of the richest countries in Europe, with the highest per capita GDP in the European Union. [Continue reading…]

U.S. carbon emissions surged in 2018 even as coal plants closed

The New York Times reports:

America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.

Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The estimate, by the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed to a stark reversal. Fossil fuel emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 2005 and declined each of the previous three years, in part because of a boom in cheap natural gas and renewable energy, which have been rapidly displacing dirtier coal-fired power.

Yet even a steep drop in coal use last year wasn’t enough to offset rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of that increase was weather-related: A relatively cold winter led to a spike in the use of oil and gas for heating in areas like New England.

But, just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared. And there are few policies in place to clean those sectors up.

“The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group. [Continue reading…]