Category Archives: Risks of climate change

Even if we don’t know if the magnitude is large, can we afford to be wrong?

Make “Sustainable Food” the Economic Engine of Downtown Davis

 

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Many communities around the region, such as Sacramento and Woodland, have jumped on the “farm to fork” bandwagon to promote their relationships with agriculture. Davis can distinguish itself from the crowd by taking this a step further to promote itself as the center of “sustainable food.” In doing this, Davis can develop placemaking that is the key to economic development and vitality.

Davis is home to one of the top-rated food production research universities in the world in UC Davis. The City of Davis should leverage this position and strengthen its relationship to reinvigorate the downtown. The City has an opportunity as part of its Downtown Davis or Core Area Specific Plan to define a vision to achieve that goal.

Sustainable food minimizes damages to the planet in its cultivation, production, preparation, consumption and disposal. It is largely plant-based because this is the most direct way to deliver calories and protein to our diets. Animal production has much higher waste products, resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and tainted food per calorie or gram of protein. For example, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, beef production emits four times as much greenhouse gases (GHGs) per calorie than soybeans or wheat and twice as much GHGs per gram of protein. Given California’s goal to be a “net carbon zero” emitter by 2045, the state will need to take a wide range of steps to cut emissions across the board, including in food production and consumption. Sustainable food is also more ethically consistent and healthful than our current food production and consumption patterns.

Sustainable food has been in the press frequently of late, with numerous stories in the Bay Area media. San Francisco has become the venture capital center of the world—especially for sustainable food–but real estate is becoming too expensive there to allow an industry that focuses on physical products sufficient space. Davis is close enough to that center for easy communication, but still has comparatively inexpensive land.

Creating a sustainable food ecology in Davis would have five aspects:

  1. Supporting innovation in sustainable food production and distribution
  2. Providing sustainable infrastructure to support companies that are innovating
  3. Serving and delivering sustainable food locally
  4. Preparing food that is consumed locally in a sustainable manner
  5. Attracting sustainable food-oriented tourism

The City can focus development of a sustainable food industry hub in the “Flex District” proposed for the G Street Corridor in the Downtown Plan. This area could house a wider range of facilities, such as test labs, within easy access distance of the UCD campus and the Capitol Corridor train to the Bay Area. Larger research facilities can be housed in other parts of the City where larger, industrial facilities are more appropriate.

Part of the attraction to companies locating here could be a sustainable infrastructure configuration starting in this district, with a district energy network and electric microgrid supporting fully electrified space conditioning and water heating systems. The other sustainability attributes identified in the Downtown Davis Plan should be incorporated and highlighted.

We can also encourage existing restaurants to serve more sustainable food on their menus, and attract new restaurants to cater to the new sustainable food businesses and their employees. The investors and workers at these companies are much more likely to follow their ethical beliefs in their consumption choices. The City could provide incentives through reduced fees to existing businesses, and evaluate how to speed the start up of new businesses.

As part of establishing a sustainable environment, the City should facilitate switching restaurants to more sustainable preparation practices. This includes switching from natural gas to induction cooktops and convection ovens, district water heating and space conditioning, and better management of waste. (Yes, we may need to recruit chefs for this new challenge.)

Finally, Davis can become a sustainable food destination. Less than 20% of our downtown visitors are from out of town according to analysis by consultants to City working on the Downtown Davis Plan. Given our location on the Capitol Corridor train route and Interstate 80, the community has much room for growth in tourism to boost our economy beyond UCD students’ parents visiting in September and June.

Davis already has a core attraction in its world-famous Farmers’ Market. With the addition of plant-based oriented restaurants and closer integration with the Mondavi Center entertainment area, a visitor could easily spend a whole day in Davis with a quick trip on the train from the Bay Area. Implementing this vision just needs closer coordination with UCD to bring events to Mondavi and the new Shrem Art Museum on Saturdays and setting up an electric bus shuttle between there and downtown.

UCD’s Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences provides an example of how local development can be both sustainable and invigorating. That locale now has a microgrid that relies on renewable power. Both UCD and the City could benefit from a closer relationship centered around sustainable food in several dimensions.

Implementing all of this vision requires going beyond the form-based zoning codes that will come out of the Core Area Specific Plan. The City needs a comprehensive economic development plan, direction and resources for its economic development staff, and a willingness to focus on removing the barriers to bringing and supporting these businesses in Davis.

(with Anya McCann, COOL Cuisine)

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Helping policymakers with difficult decisions in deep uncertainty

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Severin Borenstein at UC Berkeley argues against the “try everything” approach to searching for solutions to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. But he is confusing situations with relatively small incremental consequences (even the California WaterFix is “small” compared to potential climate change impacts.)

Instead, when facing a potentially large catastrophic outcome for which the probability distribution is completely unknown, we need a different analytic approach than a simple cost-benefit analysis based on an “expected” outcome.

We need to be looking for what decision pathways lead us to the situations create the most vulnerability, not for which one has the “optimal outcome.” Policymakers and stakeholders looking desperately for any solution intuitively get the notion of robust decisionmaking, but are not receiving much guidance about how to best pursue this alternative approach.  Economists need to lead the conversation that changes the current misleading perspective.

Reaganomics for fuel economy?

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I chuckled when I saw this article extolling how CAFE fuel economy standards should be replaced with “clean tax cuts.” One proponent said, “If you want more of something, tax it less.”

But apparently, these incentives work only one direction. “It’s very common, historically, for companies to not meet the targets and just pay the fines,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute. However, the auto companies were not happy with a proposal to increase the penalty 155%.  Does that mean that the penalty got large enough to incent greater compliance?

Views on a sustainable Davis

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Two board member of the Valley Climate Action Center, Gerry Braun and Richard Bourne wrote two articles on making building energy use in Davis sustainable and resilient. VCAC board members, including myself, had input into these articles. They reflect a vision of getting to a zero-net carbon (ZNC) footprint while being economically viable. Both were published in the Davis Enterprise.

Paying off coal miners to improve the environment

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Finally, a real world example of how benefit-cost analysis should be used in practice. Alberta takes the revenues that represent a portion of the society wide benefits and distributes those to the losers from the policy change. Economists have almost always ignored the problem of how to compensate losers in changes in social policy, and of course those who keep losing increasingly oppose any more policies. Instead of dreaming up ways to invest carbon market revenues in whiz bang solutions, we first need to focus on who’s being left behind so they are not resentful, and become a key political impediment to doing the right thing.

Trivializing the risks of climate change

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The Guardian

I follow Matthew Kahn’s, USC economics chair, blog posts. He expresses a libertarian view. He also writes about climate adaptation. He makes an important point that civilization is not static and we will be able to adapt the human ecology to a range of climate change. But his latest post on how climate change might affect marathon performances raised an important issue for me.

Kahn fails to acknowledge that adaptation to small, incremental climate change is not the concern. It’s the large, catastrophic changes with unknown (and unknowable) probability–deep uncertainty–that is of concern–collapsing ice sheets or ecosystems. He is not addressing the problem of what happens if the climate passes a tipping point. These types of articles and blog posts produced by Kahn and his colleagues trivialize the real risks and consequences, as though we’re just trying to adapt to a change in the weather while ignoring the potential systemic changes.

California utilities continue to ask ratepayers to shoulder more and more risk

Wine Country wildfires may have been caused by PG&E electrical lines.

PG&E proposed to the California Public Utilities Commission in an ex parte meeting with a Commissioner that ratepayers rather than shareholders should bear the liability costs from the Wine Country fires. This is part of a larger pattern where the investor-owned utilities have pushed off procurement and management risks onto ratepayers. Yet, the IOUs continue to ask for investor returns that reflect much higher shareholder risks at 14% pre-tax.

If ratepayers are not getting the single most important benefit from investor-owned utilities–that is risk insurance–then it may be time to consider cutting our the middleman–the shareholder–and just go with public ownership. In the end, it looks like there will be no real differences in costs and risks, and we are no longer unduly enriching the wealthy who hold shares in the utilities.