Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Less meat and more miles or More meat and less miles?

This post is because of this report. It summarizes a study on on the environmental impacts of conversion of mangroves for agricultural uses -  raising cattle and shrimp farms. It quotes ""On a personal scale, this means a typical steak and shrimp cocktail dinner produced through mangrove conversion would burden the atmosphere with 1,795 pounds of carbon dioxide," said J. Boone Kauffman, an ecologist at Oregon State University who led the study. ... This is approximately the same amount of greenhouse gases produced by driving a fuel-efficient automobile from Los Angeles to New York City." "

Let's first dispense with the obvious. Of course the answer to the question is neither as less meat and less driving is the more sustainable choice. To me sustainability is more about  like Haile Gebrselassie rather than Usain Bolt i.e.,  winning a marathon rather than a 100m dash. So let's focus on making one adjustment at a time.

There is a neat paper co-authored by the late Dr. Lee Schipper, who made great contributions to transportation sustainability. And some of the most telling number from his study is the picture below

As someone whose single biggest impact comes from air travel, I felt better that the airline industry has made great strides in reducing the GHG intensity. If you read the paper, this is attributed to fuel economy, and regulatory changes and higher occupancy per flight. Also rail travel is getting better but in terms of the passenger miles traveled in the US it's absolute impacts are likely smaller relative to road and air travel.

But let's just focus on grub and gas (I mean gasoline, not the product of the former).  So while the statement that a single meal involving steak and shrimp might have more impact than driving a car several thousand miles is striking, most people are not considering driving from LA to New York, which is about 2800 miles. So let me interpret this as equal to about a fourth of the annual miles the average american drives each year.

Now, let us crunch some numbers to compare the effectiveness of reducing meat vis a vis reducing vehicle miles traveled from a greenhouse gas perspective. I am using the assumptions below for protein, which come from this study. Emissions per mile of auto use are based on EPA reported fuel economy (harmonic mean of 50% city and 50% highway miles)

A few additional assumptions about the base line relative to which some adjustments will be compared:
Protein intake
Daily protein requirement for adult: 60 grams (gm)/day
Baseline protein mix:  45 gm of beef protein + 15 gm of chicken/milk protein + 0 gm legumes
Average annual vehicle miles (U.S.) - 12000 miles/year
Automobile for the base case - Ford F150

Below is the effectiveness of four different adjustments relative to the baseline

Reducing beef protein intake by 10% is as effective as driving 5% less miles using a F150. Switching to a Camry is four times as effective as each of the other adjustments shown. It is for oneself to decide which of these adjustments is easier. Of course bigger adjustments, combining more than one type of adjustments or different baseline assumptions will all affect the calculations.

Bottomline: There are any number of calculators to estimate your energy, water, CO2 footprint etc. But I have not come across a calculator that combines our various activities and various types of burdens and gives information about the effectiveness (say, on a % emissions basis) of adjustments along different fronts (food, travel, housing, etc.) and in terms of changing the equipment (or capital stock) vs usage and let the consumer make better informed decisions.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Comparing apples and oranges - a life cycle assessment perspective

I am excited about my large LCA class this year. I am not sure if it was the subject matter itself, my teaching or my grading last year, that lead to an almost 20% jump in the demand for my 2017 spring LCA class from around 55 last spring to 67 this time around. Assuming a few people drop out by Week 2, which again I cannot tell whether it was the subject matter, my teaching style or the painful HW1 which I handed out, I think it will settle at 60. This would still be a 17% increase from the 51 students that stuck with me for all 10 weeks last spring. I do feel bad that I could not accommodate several more students who wanted to enroll and might have stayed on.

In any case, I introduced some noise into the above calculations because, I changed my introductory lecture. Keeping with my resolve to make sustainability more fun, I started off by talking about food, movies and sports, things I love to no end. Yes, I am an academic but I am not ashamed to admit it is not math, science or reading books that really keep me up! I hope my colleagues who are going to be voting to give me a permanent job and my references who are going to be writing me letters of support read just my academic work rather than my blog! But if they do, I hope they see that my perspective on sustainability research is that it needs a new perspective, one that moves it away communicating it as being morally and ethically right to also being an exciting and enjoyable pursuit. But this blog is just for myself, my students, broader public (wishful thinking!), and some day my family. 

You are not sitting in my class and so before you click away, I really should get to the point of this post. I began the first lecture by talking about nutrition labels and what is good, bad and confusing about them. The basic point I was trying to make is that doing an LCA is like trying to come up with a nutrition label, except that it is dominated all by the bad things associated with consuming a product. I was quick to clarify that the students will not merely become good label makers at the end of the quarter but have picked up on really interesting insights when it comes to designing an LCA study and using the information derived to make important decisions. However, in between comes the really important yet painful task of accounting. (Talking of accounting, I spent my entire weekend doing my taxes. I must say it was painful but in the end I am happy I determined my effective average and marginal tax rates at the federal and state-level. If only there was Kayak like comparison one could do with your tax that compares 10 different sites. I know that might be crazy, more on it on a separate blog post perhaps!)

I keep getting distracted, back to the point about the proverbial apples vs oranges comparison that is used and abused. I say abused because, apples and oranges are  really not that different if you look at their nutrition content. Check this out. But I found this out just as I am writing this blog and I ended up abusing the comparison anyway. Next year will be different. However, the fundamental point about LCA I wanted to get across that it is really important is that before we start comparing choices from a sustainability standpoint, we really need to be sure what it is that we are comparing. And when you look closely, the problem is nightmarishly complex. There is hardly anything that we consume that is a like for like comparison. In class we discussed, how it is hard to compare a bowl of rice vs corn, a gasoline and electric car, plastic vs paper bag, nuclear vs hydro power, etc. After that I threw in a question about how does one compare golf and football (I mean the real football, but it doesn't matter). 

A fundamental technical concept of LCA is the notion of a functional unit. We really want to be comparing substitutes that are "functionally equivalent". What I mean is, that we consume goods to meet certain needs, which are the functions that the good serves. From this perspective, one might say the function of a bowl of cereal is to provide calories, for a car it is taking you places, the function of a bag is to help carry stuff, the function of an electric power plant is to supply electricity. However, it is not so simple, and thankfully so, because otherwise, my job would be so much more boring. Here's why. Cereals or any food for that matter not only provide calories but also proteins, vitamins, fats etc. as well, and no two substitutes seem to have the same proportion of each. Likewise, a gasoline and electric car differ in their driving range and so are not directly comparable, at least not today! Paper and plastic bags are not comparable unless you normalize them for their differential capacity in terms of volume or weight carrying capacity, reusability, conformability or ability to carry wet products. Finally, nuclear and hydro power plants both produce electricity but hydro power might not have the same reliability as nuclear in dry years! You get the drift. 

Now to some fun thought questions. At the risk of making my life harder by revealing important exam questions, how might one go about comparing the following if asked which is more sustainable
1. DVD vs Netflix vs Cinema
2. Home vs restaurant meal
3. Jean vs polyester trousers
4. Starbucks vs Peet's coffee stores (a comparison of the stores itself and not simply a cup of coffee)

A hint about the last comparison, which are two places I frequent. My local stores of each appear considerate of  the poor, and likely, homeless people who come hang out (indeed, some of them do buy a drink or food) and this is really heartening for me to see, but the former seems to attract and tolerate more of such people. That said, I am a patron of both places. So the coffee stores from my perspective functions as a place to eat, drink, and hang out, in some case the only nice place for the poor. If a place was less kind to the poor then perhaps I will want to take my business to a place that is more considerate!

If you think these are mere academic comparisons and the simple answer we need variety and so need a mix of products, you are absolutely right. But still there is the question, if I had to consume one more unit of each, what would that be! In the time, chew on whether apples and oranges are that different!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An unintended (positive) spillover of the US elections for my trade (LCA)

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is framework for quantifying all the various types of environmental burdens (green house gas emissions, the different criteria air pollutant regulated by the EPA (particulate matter, photochemical oxidants (including ozone), carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead)numerous other hazardous chemicals, water pollutants, water depletion, fossil fuel consumption etc.) associated with the consumption of a given good (such as electricity, gasoline, or a pair of jeans) or activity (such as driving, having a meal or shopping online). 

I am passionate about LCA because this passion is ultimately driven by a desire to have a positive impact on our environment, and of course, the lives of fellow human beings. And so while I would like to see more public and private interest in LCA, if our policy makers did their job well (sadly, the exact opposite of what happened today!) the need for LCA might actually decrease, but I will be totally fine with that. Let me explain why

Because LCA is about specific products whereas the pollution is associated with each and every product or service we consume, LCA can be a complicated and costly way to improve environmental outcomes. For instance, how is one to determine, if and at what cost are we impacting the environment simply by changing our consumption of one product using LCA. No single product might be superior when you take all the various different types of burdens mentioned above into account. On the contrary, if the whole world took global warming seriously, of course, (the US is a big culprit here) and we had a global policy for what is a global problem then we need not worry how much carbon emissions come from driving a small car vs a bigger car, a gasoline car vs EV, or driving vs public transit etc. Likewise, if we took each different type of environmental burden seriously and had the best policy in place for each then we don't have to worry about the impact of each different decision for the products in the market would reflect the true cost of each. This is of course policy utopia.On the contrary, america has voted for ushering in dystopia, at least from an environmental standpoint.

Fortunately, there is a large section of this society (in fact a majority of American voters) care about our environmental footprint. So what actions might these enlightened sections of society take that can help overcome obstacles at higher level of government? I feel that LCA has become an ever more important lens and tool to help identify what actions, individual consumers and firms of course, but more importantly city administrations and state governments could take such without federal support. So while purely from an environmental perspective things might seem gloomy, I am looking forwarding to applying my trade in the coming years!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Scientists and engineers are pulling their weight but may be the rest of us aren't?

I produced the chart below for a formal talk and I called it the green choice gap (actually, the credit for suggesting this phrase goes to Prof. Peter Kareiva, the Director of my Institute). It shows that the best EV today is about six times more efficient in converting fuel to distance travelled relative to the average car on the road today.  But in plain speak, I interpret it as may be scientists and engineers are doing their part to help make personal transportation more sustainable but it is the rest of society that is shirking. Perhaps I am letting the scientific community get off too easy for one could easily point out perhaps that the initial cost of EV's still much higher for most people to afford it. And that is an excellent come back. No refuting that. But sitting on our back expecting science and technology to deliver EV's and other cutting edge technologies for the same "artificially" low price as dirty and mature technologies is not smart either. So much of my current energy is focussed on identifying new ways to encourage the adoption of EV's (and other similar investments i.e., clean and efficient but high upfront cost) that do not involve oft-repeated recommendations by academics such as pollution tax,  clean vehicle subsidy or various types of regulations and most recently nudges. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What is the effect of google maps on our transportation footprint

I am getting ready to teach my Spring quarter Life cycle assessment class which begins in a couple of weeks time. While LCA might be an integral part of the toolkit for environmental and economic sustainability assessment, teaching LCA is challenging. It is easy to lose the attention of your class once you get into the details of the actually of carrying out an LCA. Therefore, I am hoping to get my students to think of doing an LCA on some cool topics (see here for past topics) such as what has happened to the footprint of entertainment (watching movies or sitcoms, sports etc.) or vacation. After all we work to be able to afford leisure. I hope to write a separate blog on each of these later.

For now, I am wondering about the question of how google maps affects our transportation footprint.
I can tell you that just as far back as a decade, one could even afford to forget to carry a wallet as you set out to drive some place new but not forget to pack a Rand McNally road atlas. Hardly would you have turned the corner that you would realize you cannot get to where you want to go! In fact, I became AAA member so that I go pick up unlimited free maps rather than as an insurance against unexpected car break downs or getting locked out of your car. But alas, smart phones have rendered printed maps obsolete, and perhaps even conserved a few trees along the way!

However, this post is not about smart phones per se but about maps, specifically google maps as I am android user. Until recently I was of the opinion that Google maps is a boon for non-auto modes of road travel. By integrating various modal options in one convenient place along with detailed schedules for buses/trains you can be comfortable using public transit as a visitor let alone your own city.

But now I'm not sure for google maps now also shows you how cheap (and quick as well except during rush over) Lyft and Uber are compared to public transit. It would be really great to get some insights on the effect of this information on decision to take public transit. In any case, I think it might be worthwhile to nudge people by also attaching information about pollution or some sort of social cost information. I think I have found an exciting motivating discussion to open my LCA course and hopefully convince a team to do a project along these lines this quarter. But, this comes with a cost, the more exciting the first lecture, the harder it is to sustain excitement for the rest of the quarter! I know all about that from my experience sitting on the other side of class.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Autonomous cars could be a killjoy

As a researcher, I can review academic manuscripts blindfolded (ofcourse, I haven't but if a need arose, I am confident I can do a reasonable job using a good pdf to voice software). But, reviewing popular movies, and more generally, artistic work is beyond my depth. That said, when it comes to matters related to sustainability, it is my belief that an unexpected event, a movie or just a photograph (unfortunately, these need to be about something depressing in order to bring about positive change) can have an impact that is zillion times larger than any rigorous scientific work that shows a small tax on pollution can be a game changer. So, when I got an opportunity to review a hit movie but from an environmental perspective I went o la la! Below is my light-hearted attempt at contriving an environmental perspective on a good movie (that is not about environmental sustainability). A link to the posting on the Huffingtonpost site along with reviews of other movies by my colleagues is at the bottom.

                                         Picture excerpted from Huffington post

What will a sustainable L.A. and less cars on the streets mean for Hollywood?

As someone passionate about the unintended consequences of new innovations, watching La La Land makes me fear for the future of my beloved Los Angeles. But my concern is not about adapting to the hotter and drier reality that climate change is forecast to bring. I dread a future in which L.A. has become so sustainable that it threatens our bread and butter—the film industry.

Imagine the most consequential scenes in this wonderful movie, except in a future where driving your own car, being stuck in traffic, finding parking or getting towed—life in L.A. as we know it—has been rendered obsolete because we’re being hauled around by Uber and Lyft autonomous vehicles on sparsely filled roads. People stuck in gridlocked traffic won’t have a reason to sing and dance on freeways. Forget about a chance meeting with the love of your life in a parking lot, let alone changing plans because of bad traffic and ending up in a bar only to run into your first true love who drove a red 1982 Buick Rivera convertible.

I hope a sustainable L.A. will not lose its charms and become boring. Meantime, go see La La Land while my silly concerns still make sense.

– by Deepak Rajagopal, assistant professor

For more see:

Environmental impact of shipping vs shopping

This is a classic from about a year ago. I am just kidding. My interest in blogging has just been rekindled and I am trying to beef up the number of posts overnight and so I am posting stuff that has accumulated in a list of blog topics I have maintained while in hibernation.

About a year ago, I was invited to discuss the environmental implications of shipping vs shopping on KPCC radio. In true academic style, the gist of my utterances is that it all depends, how profound! If you want to hear on what does the sustainability of online shopping depend check out

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Uber, Lyft and Urban and Environmental sustainability

It is said a picture conveys a thousand words. By this measure then a 10-minute video conveys what it require more words than might be found in Ph.D. dissertation. So to hear and see my take on why Uber, Lyft and the like might be a game change for the urban environment and the sustainability of personal transportation check out this link
This is a talk at the Luskin Conference Earth Now Earth 2050 that was held at UCLA in October 2016.

Mar 2017 Update: In light of the Uber's problems, numerous press articles on the lifestyle of Uber/Lyft drivers and my own conversations with drivers, I must say the social sustainability aspects are not to be taken lightly. In fact the reason why I did not touch on this is I was largely talking about the coming autonomous revolution. But in the interim, the concerns of drivers should not be ignored!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The wrong reasons for not purchasing an electric car

I have no personal bias in favour of electric or plug-in hybrids and no personal bias against gasoline cars or fossil fuels. On the contrary, in an earlier post, I have expressed my disappointment at not being able to convince myself to buy a hybrid car let alone an electric car. However, I feel the need to disagree with some points in an Op-Ed in the WSJ that claims to reveal a dirty little secret about electric cars and which is based on a paper in an academic, peer-reviewed journal. The peer-reviewed paper suggests that electric cars are not zero-carbon and the GHG emissions avoided over the life of the car is heavily dependent on the life of the electric car. I find nothing wrong with that. But one has to be very careful in interpreting the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA).

To me a key sentence in the Hawkins et al. paper is "Our LCA is attributional and process based." An attributional LCA is a rigorous accounting of the total material and environmental burden from all activities connected to the production, use phase and end-of-life of a product or a service. This is also referrd to as crade-to-grave or wells to wheels analysis. Researchers and practitioners of LCA generally agree that attributional LCA is not suitable for making the extrapolations the op-ed makes based on the paper. One cannot extrapolate two attributional LCAs to infer what would be the benefits or costs of replacing one product or technology or another on a large scale. There are several reasons for this. In this one technology is nascent, i.e., electric car and the other is mature, i.e., gasoline car. The nascent technology offers enormous scope for learning-by-doing. At the same time gasoline is getting dirtier because of the transition to lower-grade resources, like oil sands, heavy oils, gas/coal to liquids etc. In the high-income countries where expensive electric cars are first likely to be first adopted, the share of coal is declining in the electricity mix. The academic paper comes with a warning that it performs an attributional LCA but the Op-ed which is meant for consumption by the lay person either does not appreciate this statement or conveniently ignores it. This can lead one to draw the wrong conclusions.

The op-ed also mentions “Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven—three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car.  I am not an expert on the life of the battery system of an EV but 50000 miles seems low. I find it hard to believe an expensive investment will be go under-utilized relative to a cheaper investment. Obviously, if electric cars are to succeed their battery life has to improve (the driving range is different issue). I have seen Prius cars that have logged more than 150000 miles. So the assumption of 50000 miles as the life and that the electricity is entirely from coal is unreasonable.

Also electric cars impact society in more ways than one. GHG is one attribute. There are important other benefits and costs. Life cycle assessment gives no guidance on how one should weight these different impacts in decision making.

My final complaint is with the statement in op-ed that “The real challenge is to get green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels.” The problem is not that green energy is costly but that fossil fuels are under priced. So it is unfair and inefficient to force the price of green energy down to that of fossil fuels. Subsidies to green energy lower the cost of energy consumption and only serve to increase energy consumption in the long run. 
As an environmental economist, I believe there are cheaper ways to mitigate than switching to electric cars, which may be more essential in the longer run. So my disappointment with electric cars is based on cost-effectiveness and the opportunities for cheaper options such energy efficiency and conservation. By driving less we are causing less congestion, creating less risk of accidents, incur lower fuel and maintenance costs, etc., which are not achieved by driving a less polluting vehicle. But alas not every one is able to drive less and this is where investments in public transportation and smarter urban planning matter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Green watts before green horsepower?

When I recently logged into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) website, one thing that drew my attention in addition to the vastly improved and user friendly webpage (this is one metric on which it seemed LADWP was stone age) was a link to an option to buy green electricity.  As an environmental economist, one of many things I call myself, I believe in taking the cost-effective actions first. In other words I like to pick the low hanging cherries first (I am still reeling from the effects of having picked all the cherries I could for $6 last weekend at a farm near Bakersfield) . Moreover, I have been disappointed at not being able to convince myself to buy a hybrid car leave alone an electric car. While I believe there is still opportunity for me to improve my energy use efficiency (I still have a few incandescent bulbs that I turn on briefly) I am interested in contributing more directly towards the growth of alternative energy technologies. My complaint is only with the public policies that are being pursued to achieve this, which is a topic for another post. While I don't believe charity will save the day, I definitely support voluntary private action. I was therefore excited when LADWP said I could opt to buy green electricity at an additional cost of only 3 cents per kWhr. I naturally proceeded to do a cost-effectiveness calculation of what I am paying to abate carbon if I chose LADWP's green power option.

Ignoring for a moment the issues such as whether higher demand by LADWP customers for green power simply leads to reshuffling of green electrons from other regions and whether the green sources are really green and assuming the average carbon intensity of electricity in California is 0.5 kg CO2/kWhr, if I signed up for LADWP's green power, then for $0.03 cents I am reducing my emission by 0.5 kg CO2, which implies a cost of $60 per ton of CO2. If my electricity was the US average mix with a higher carbon intensity of 0.7kg CO2/kWhr, this reduces to $42 per ton CO2 and if I am on the margin displacing coal with a carbon intensity of 0.95 kgCO2/kWhr, I am paying only $32 per ton CO2. (If you  kept track of the number of things I said I am ignoring and number of things I  said I am assuming and you disapprove of it, I am sorry to say you should not consider economics as a profession :) ) 

This is not bad at all when compared to having to purchase a solar panel or electric car and having to wait for several years for an economic and environmental pay back. This seems to suggest there are economies of scale in grid scale solar and wind, which are likely to be the marginal sources of green electricity (I am assuming new large hydro and nuclear are either excluded or unlikely to be built. If, however, they are part of the green portfolio it needs more investigation). I am refraining from a comparison to hybrid cars for under some conditions hybrids have lower or even negative cost of carbon abatement i.e., the net present value of the investment is lower for the hybrid car compared to a gasoline car. But of course there is positive payback period and a slightly higher upfront cost compared to conventional cars compared to the green power option.

LADWP offers one to choose the fraction of monthly use that one would like to derive from green power. This of course does not affect the cost-effectiveness from an individual's standpoint. But the question of what happens when a large number of consumers demand green power, how does this affect the price of brown electricity, how does electricity consumption rebound as a result, how does it impact emissions and how do we avoid such unintended consequences - these are more complex and interesting questions. I have several hypotheses that can make for an interesting graduate thesis or dissertation.

My apologies to my fictional followers of this post for being slower than the economy in growing the number of posts. I however think a local minimum has been reached and so the next post is unlikely not take this long.