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Solving Global Warming: Individual vs Collective Action

I think an approach that has become too popular over the last decades in approaching global warming is promoting the idea that we as consumers will save the planet by utilizing our ability to chose.

The is a fundamentally flawed assumption. While individual action matters, we do not get anywhere without collective action.

I would like to cover some different aspects of the challenge. There are three main aspects of our society we need to deal with:

  1. Transportation. The main consumption of oil today is for transportation. We cannot hope to stop emitting CO2 without addressing transportation.
  2. Power Production. How we heat our homes, power our lights and appliances. A lot of this power comes from fossil fuel plants today.
  3. Consumption. A problem related to both overpopulation and too high consumption of goods which damage the planet.

Let’s start with transportation.

Transportation

I can walk into a store and buy a bike as a consumer. However I cannot walk into a store and buy great bicycle infrastructure. This helps explain why I am not biking while living in Oslo, Norway, while I was biking for at least 1 hour every day for 3 years while I lived in the Netherlands. There is no easier access to bikes in the Netherlands than in Norway, but there is a profound difference in the quality of the biking infrastructure:

  1. There is a clearly marked bike path on every road or alternatively dual usage roads with low speed limits for cars.
  2. Bike paths along heavily trafficked roads are usually shielded by having car parking placed on the outside of bike lanes rather than on the inside.
  3. Paths are well connected so you can bike from one town to another and never leave a dedicated, clearly marked path.
  4. Commercial downtowns of cities have been preserved, making it possible to use a bike to access shopping areas. In Norway in contrast the strip malls are spreading. They cater more to cars with their big parking lots, rather than bikers.
  5. Density and zoning. Dutch cities are compact enough that you can get to important things within a sensible distance. Oslo is far more spread out. Neighborhoods have stores, restaurants, medical doctors etc. This is not too bad in Norway, but would be a frequent problem in North American cities.

The excellent Dutch bike infrastructure did not happen over night. The Netherlands was being choked by car traffic back in the 70s when a grass root movement started pushing to make cities bike friendly. Politicians eventually listened and the bike infrastructure we see today was gradually built up over many years.

There is a similar story to be told about electric car usage in Norway. Close to half of the new cars sold in Norway today (2018) are electric cars. That did not happen because Norwegian consumers are more dedicated to the environment than consumers in other countries. In other words it is not an individual consumer choice that brought about this change.

It happened by collective grass roots movements. Environmental organizations as a political stunt bought electric cars and refused to pay taxes for passing toll roads or paying our heavy car taxes. That got media attention and started a national debate about whether electric cars should have exemption for many of the heavy taxes Norwegian motorists face.

Fossil fuel cars in Norway can face up to 200–300% in taxes. The cost of driving into the downtown can be very expensive. EVs got excepted from all these taxes. In addition they were allowed to use lanes dedicated to cabs and busses. That made electric cars an extremely strong value proposition. It got the ball rolling. Many people started buying electric cars and the word spread. For many it may have started as a purely practical and economical consideration but many became dedicated environmentalists after owning and driving an electric car.

My point is technology and consumer choices alone is not enough.

Power Production

Solar power was not really going anywhere until Germany enacted their laws for feed in tariffs. It was a result of the German Green party getting into a coalition government. The guaranteed price from selling renewable energy back to the grid, created a boom in solar cell usage in Germany.

This got industry interested and investments increased, solar technology improved and prices dropped. Today we are in a situation where coal plants are being canceled in India because solar power is beating them on price even without subsidies of any kind.

The Green party started as a grass root movement. Fischer, the party leader started out as a demonstrator and street fighter. It was through collective action change was made to happen. If we should only have waited for environmentally conscious individuals to buy solar cells at a loss, we would have had to wait a long time before solar cells would have developed to the level they are today where they can compete against coal.

Still we have only tackled a small part of the problem. A huge part of our power infrastructure is still designed to favor big utilities at the expense of local environmentally friendly power production.

Take for instance solar power. It produces low voltage DC. That happens to be what most of our equipment needs: LED lights, computers, flat screen TVs, mobile phones, game consoles etc. I am also pretty sure you can run food processors and many other home appliances with low voltage DC. It is also what batteries give out. Yet everything in our house is built for the opposite. We have high voltage AC, because that is more practical for centralized power production by utilities.

The result is that a lot of power is lost in conversion from DC to AC and back to DC. Not to mention the capital cost of all the equipment to do so.

I was recently reminded of this problem when discussing Combined Heating and Power (CHP) generation units. The idea itself is pretty clever. A common attribute of almost any power generation system (except solar) is that bigger units are more efficient. A large steam turbine will achieve better efficiency than a small one. This relationship encourage the creation of centralized power generation with big utilities.

However there is a clever way out of this predicament. Local power generation may be less efficient at generating electricity, however locally there are far more opportunities to utilize “waste” heat. Typically energy not converted to electricity will get converted to heat and wasted in a big power station. However in every home there are plenty of applications for heat:

  • Heating water for showering
  • cooking
  • washing
  • space heating

I even use a steam cleaner at home, which applies steam to surfaces to clean them. My present device uses electricity to generate the steam, but it could probably have used a CHP unit instead.

The key point is that by utilizing waste heat you end up with higher efficiency than a centralized power station.

Yet, despite CHP units having been available for some time, they have only had limited success. Most people are not considering installing such a unit. But I would argue the situation we are in with respect to CHP units is the same as trying to buy a bike without great bike infrastructure being present.

Sure you can buy it, but your house and everything in it was designed for utilizing power from a big utility, not from a CHP unit. That puts CHP units at an immediate disadvantage.

Take my apartment. There is not ready made place in it to place such a unit. There is tube to connect to to release exhaust fumes, if I say burn natural gas or pellets. There is no easy way to hook it up to be used to heat my boiler (for hot tap water and showers). Everything would require expensive retrofitting, essentially pricing it out of the market.

Another alternative would have been pressurized air for energy storage. Over at low-tech magazine they argue this can end up as a cheaper energy storage system then using batteries. It will also last significantly longer. It would potentially have been a great system for combination with local production of renewable energy, e.g. roof top solar.

Like a Combined Heat and Power System, making this efficient relies on being able to utilize the heat and cold produced by such a system in your home. However normal homes are not built to do that. Extra efficiency could be achieved by being able to utilize compressed air directly in equipment. You can run power tools, kitchen equipment, vacuum cleaners and even washing machines on compressed air.

However compressed air would be at a disadvantage compared to equipment running on 220/100 Volt AC, since electric sockets are already installed all over the house. One could imagine having a network of compressed air tubes and outlets around the house. Paris e.g. had such a network all over the city in the early 1900s. However retrofitting such a network in an existing house is expensive.

This problem cannot be fixed by individual choice. It would require collective action. Collectively one would have to agree to e.g. fit all new houses with compressed air or DC power lines. That would create a market for such equipment.

You see the same problem with AppleTV as a game console. It can technically do it. You can even buy a thumb stick controller. However it is not standard, so game producers are reluctant to produce games for it. They cannot rely on consumers having a thumb stick controller. It shows the importance of creating standards.

Consumption

An ever increasing problem in our society is that products are thrown away and replaced in an every increasing frequency.

Solving this through individual action is very difficult. To understand why, we need to analyze the problem in more depth. We have two main factors driving this:

  1. Durability and repairability of products is falling. Relative costs of repair is increasing.
  2. Short product development cycles combined with fashion.

Products don’t just more easily break today than they did earlier, they are also much harder to fix. Back in the 80s e.g. I remember how one could fix a lot of electronics yourself with a soldering iron. There was also the question of how easy products are to open and fix. My brother could quite easily learn how to repair his Volvo from the 80s. Today repairing a car often requires high tech equipment and understanding.

There are a combination of factors driving this. One is that products are getting far more advance. That may not be something we want to stop. But it just as much that they are not made to be easily opened and serviced. Specialized tools are often required.

In almost every area of the economy products are made obsolete by companies cranking out newer and shiner versions of their old products to entice consumers. Perhaps most noticeable to consumers is clothing fashion where trends are lasting for ever shorter periods.

Cell phones to have for many years been fashion statements. People may convince themselves that they really need the latest but they don’t. A clear example of this you can see by comparing the phone industry in the 90s-00s with today (2018). People kept switching their phones to get smaller ones, more ring tones or some new original shape. Yet today nobody seems to mind having huge phones. The bigger the better it seems? Which makes you wonder why people were willing to spend so much getting smaller phones in the 90s.

How about ring tones? Everybody who has an iPhone basically use the default ring tone. As soon as you could put any ring tone you want on your phone at no cost, nobody cared about it anymore.

It shows to what degree so much of what we buy are Veblen goods, meaning we buy these things primarily for status and vanity. Back in the 90s there was a cost to having a different and better sounding ring tone. Having one signaled to everybody else around you that you had a “better” phone. Likewise a smaller phone signaled higher status because we all knew it cost more to make a small phone.

One cannot easily solve this problem through individual action because we are caught in a catch-22 situation. Judging the durability of a product is quite hard. Hence companies have no incentive to make design choices to a product that makes it last 4x as long, if you cannot somehow see that on the outside.

Apple faced a similar problem with user friendly products. User friendly products usually look simpler. They have fewer buttons and dials. Often that is a failed strategy for marketing and selling a product. Consumers with limited knowledge about products they buy will not pick one which looks less advance at the same price.

Apple solved this problem by focusing on premium design in addition to ease of use. People will buy a product that looks like luxury even if it looks simple. The trick here is that once bought, the ease of use and good experience makes customers come back later.

The other significant problem is that a company making high quality durable goods, will not make much money for the simple reason that people don’t have to keep coming back for more if their products don’t wear out. Thus these companies will get outcompeted by companies making short lasting products.

What is the best way to solve this problem, I don’t know, but it is important to realize the problem. One can imagine many possible ways to deal with it. Each one would have to be evaluated of course.

  1. Legislate longer minimum warranty on products, to encourage companies to make products that last longer.
  2. Restrict ad business, so as to not encourage overconsumption, and manufactured desires. That could be limiting number of public areas where one may put up ads. Find alternative revenue streams for business that relies on ads today such as television, newspapers etc.
  3. Set standards for how easy a product should be to repair. Encourage usage of standard screws and fastening mechanism. Make it easier for competition to make spare parts to avoid speculation on selling cheap end user products with overpriced spare parts.

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