Critique of Stern

A few people, most recently Jean S, have pointed out the interesting critique of the Stern Review (I should have posted up this thread earlier).

Abstract:The Stern Review: A Dual Critique

Part I: The Science

Robert M. Carter, C. R. de Freitas, Indur M. Goklany,
David Holland & Richard S. Lindzen

Part II: Economic Aspects

Ian Byatt, Ian Castles, Indur M. Goklany, David Henderson,
Nigel Lawson, Ross McKitrick, Julian Morris, Alan Peacock,
Colin Robinson & Robert Skidelsky

World Economics, Vol. 7, No. 4, October-December 2006.

Full paper here


  1. Posted Jan 15, 2007 at 5:17 PM | Permalink

    I couldn’t help wondering at the time of his report whether he was one of those 353 economists who signed the letter to the Times back in the early stages of the Blessed Margaret’s reign warning us that the country was going to the dogs just before we enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom. I tried via Google to find out but could find no trace. Anyone know?

  2. Willis Eschenbach
    Posted Jan 15, 2007 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    Dear Tamino:

    Thanks for your reply. You say:


    You have confirmed my suspicion. Honestly, no offense meant “¢’‚¬? but you’re not too savvy about the rest of the science.

    Ooooh, dueling insults … can I play?

    Tamino, you have confirmed my worst fears. Truly, no offense meant “¢’‚¬? but you have the social skills of a six year old. Adults know that “no offense meant” does nothing but cloak an insult in a veneer of responsibility.

    Whether either of us is “savvy about the rest of the science” is not determined yet, and will not be determined by insults, or by unsupported claims regarding the other’s skills and abilities. I’d much prefer to keep this civil, and I have only insulted you in this fashion to show you the effect of your words and condescending tone. Can we get back to the science?

    I had said:

    It is generally accepted that without the greenhouse effect, the world would be about 33°C cooler. It is also generally accepted that the total downwelling “greenhouse” radiation is about 325 W/m2.

    You replied:

    No, it’s generally accepted that that’s the total downwelling longwave (LW) radiation. The atmosphere, whether it has greenhouse gases (GHG) or not, is warm, and hence will emit longwave radiation.

    The question is, what’s the difference between having greenhouse gases and not having them? The difference “¢’‚¬? the part due to GHG “¢’‚¬? is around 122 W/m^2.

    OK, let me make a change to my statement so that we can agree. Let me say:

    It is also generally accepted that the total downwelling radiation is about 325 W/m2.

    Now, a question for you, so we can see where our differences are. Let’s take it one question at a time, so we can build upon agreement.

    1) If the atmosphere were composed solely of oxygen and nitrogen, and the earth received 235 W/m2 from the sun, what would be the temperature of the earth?

    I say, based on the fact that nitrogen and oxygen are very weak absorbers of longwave radiation, that it would be only slightly above blackbody temperature, at about 260°K, or about -13°C. I base this on the Modtran line-by-line calculator. Set the CO2, CH4, and ozone levels to zero to eliminate the GHGs, the water vapor scale to 0 to eliminate the water vapor, and what remains is the weak absorption by nitrogen and oxygen. Set the ground temperature offset to -28.5°C, and you will see that outgoing radiation is 235W/m2.

    Please provide a source supporting your answer.

    I appreciate this discussion, Tamino, as it allows us to investigate the science.

    My best to you,


    PS – a word to the wise. I would not debate statistics with Jean S. … those who have tried in the past have gotten burned.

  3. Willis Eschenbach
    Posted Jan 15, 2007 at 6:57 PM | Permalink

    Rats, misposted again. Tamino’s blog doesn’t have code buttons or preview, so its the only blog where I work offline. I come back, paste and post, only to realize I’ve posted in the wrong forum. Ahh, well, such is life …


  4. Greg F
    Posted Jan 15, 2007 at 8:54 PM | Permalink

    I couldn’t help wondering at the time of his report whether he was one of those 353 economists who signed the letter to the Times back in the early stages of the Blessed Margaret’s reign warning us that the country was going to the dogs just before we enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom.

    Wonder no more. Nicholas Stern was at the time “a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick”. A list of the 364 Economists who signed the letter includes one Professor N. H. Stern affiliated with Warwick University.

    The whole affair is just another example of how the ‘consensus’ can be completely wrong.

  5. Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 1:13 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, Greg, I would have put money on it but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

  6. Demesure
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 3:36 AM | Permalink

    I love the anecdote of your link: Thatcher was asked to name 2 economists who would agree with her (and disagree with the “consensus” of 364 economists who were AGAINST her pro-market reforms). She named 2. Later, an aide said to her: it was fortunate you were not asked to name 3.

  7. mikep
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 3:48 AM | Permalink

    I was one of the 364, as were many good UK economists. There is still much to argue about on the Thatcher economic record. Stern is an excellent economist, highly regarded throughout the profession. But that does not mean he is always right. What it dos mean is that it is unlikely that he will commit elementary economic errors. It seems a shame that instead of dealing with substantive issues in the critique of the Stern review this discussion is led off into what Stern said a quarter of a century ago. Arguments should be considered on their own merits, not linked to irrelevant issues. It is perfectly possible to be right on some issues and wrong on others (indeed that is normal!).

    On the substantive issues it seems to me that, while the low rate of pure social time preference in the Stern review is acceptable the value for the rate at which we evaluate the worth of a unit of consumption between rich and poor is set so low as to produce the result that it is worth poor people now giving up consumption to increase the consumption of people a hundred and more years hence who will be much richer. This does not seem sensible to me.

    There is the further question of what sort of insurance premium it is sensible to pay to avoid catastrophic outcomes which have a low probability of occurring, especially if the catastrophe is far ahead and action can sensibly be taken later when some uncertainties may be resolved.

    I make no comments on the first half other than to say that the dismissal of the critique of the hockeystick by the Review seems unconvincing and adds little to the debate.

  8. Greg F
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 6:36 AM | Permalink

    It seems a shame that instead of dealing with substantive issues in the critique of the Stern review this discussion is led off into what Stern said a quarter of a century ago.

    I have no doubt that most, if not all, of the 364 were good economist. The old adage, he who is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it, seems relevant. It is not about what Stern believed 30 plus years ago, it is that he doesn’t seem to have learned much from it. In fact Stern engages in the same marketing 101 tactic. Using the testamonial , which is just a variation on the consensus theme, in an attempt to sell his ideas to the masses.

  9. Jeff Norman
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 7:37 AM | Permalink

    In reading the critique I cannot help but feel a little embarassed for Stern et al.

  10. Steve Sadlov
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 10:08 AM | Permalink

    RE: #7 – Mike P – Fascinating insider commentary. Have you been following the various articles related to Stern’s recent activities and writings in the FT? Would love to read your additional perspective.

  11. Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 3:07 PM | Permalink

    I would have to agree with Mike P., whether Nicholas Stern was right about Thatcherism (and wouldn’t you know that is still a big bone of contention amongst economists about what that period achieved) or not, there is a separate issue about the Review that he headed.

    As such, the critique cannot be ignored (unless you’re the BBC). Stern’s abnormal discount rate and dubious assumptions have been noted by economists on both sides of the debate, and I’ve yet to see a coherent response to them.

  12. mikep
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 4:15 PM | Permalink

    Haven’t followed the FT in particular but there is good discussion in a variety of places. On the particular issues relating to discounting it seems to me that Partha Dasgupta, another very distinguished economist (with particular expertise in environmental economics) is spot on. HIs original paper can be found here

    Click to access STERN.pdf

    and there is a further illuminating exchange on Brad Delong’s website at

    where Brad Delong accuses Dasgupta a making a mistake and Dasgupta replies, to my mind very convincingly.

    The exchanges are all worth reading. The basic point is that whether investments are worthwhile or not depends on the discount rate used to evaluate them. There is general agreement among economists that IF the proposed investment spending would otherwise be consumed the appropriate discount rate to use is the social rate of time preference.

    This depends on four elements. First there is the question of whether society should prefer consumption now to consumption in the future just because it comes earlier (ie ignoring all questions about uncertainty etc). Stern, Dasgupta and many others argue that this elememt should be set to zero. I agree. What this means on its own is that $100 of consumption is worth $100 whenever it occurs.

    Second we have some uncertainty about whether there will be people in the future to gain from our abstinence. So we include some elememt for catastrophe. Stern puts this element at 0.1 which is quite high.

    The final element has to parts. First there is the weight, if any, we want to attach to who gets the $100 dollars of consumption. Liberals like myself have always argued that $100 is worth more to someone who is poor rather than to someone who is rich. So we need a parameter to express this value judgement. This parameter (which need not be a constant) is then applied to the likely growth of consumption over time. Essentially we are trying to see whether an increase in consumption in the future is worth giving up consumption now for, even if those future people are richer. The discount rate will tend to be higher the faster future consumption is expected to grow and the more we wish to discriminate in favour of the poor. Applied to the global warming issue this argument suggests that if we favour redistribution we should favour polices that give to the poor now rather than to their richer descendants in 100 years time. But Dasgupta argues that the value Stern has chosen for the relevant parameter implies that we should instead redistribute from curent poor to future richer. I agree with Dasgupta.

  13. Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 4:45 PM | Permalink

    Mikep doesn’t reckon the hockeystick arguement – extraordinary. I think Part 1 of the report is bang on the mark. My problem is with Part 2 – I find economics harder to follow than the climate science. I am struck by a comparison of climate modelling with that of economic models – which deals with the greater chaos?

  14. Follow the Money
    Posted Jan 16, 2007 at 5:19 PM | Permalink

    Energy Politics Alert

    It looks like Bush’s State of the Union address will address energy very much, under the term “Energy Security” –this is from Bush’s people’s mouths. This term has been floating around a few weeks, and it seems the carbon trading crowd is fashioning it as a dilemma “Energy Security vs. Climate Change.” Here is an example from a Washington Post blog:

    The Other Team’s Playbook — A Bush U-Turn On Climate Change?

    The key thing to watch is whether Bush talks only about energy security or whether he emphasizes climate. Energy security is mostly a dumb objective, but climate policy is crucial.

    Yeah, real dumb. Doubtful this is from the columnists’ mind only. I think it reflects a discourse amoung the carbon money/climate change crowd of PR firms and NGO-fronts trying to anticipate Bush and maintain a movement to carbon trading systems for the benefit of their paymasters. I know they read Climateaudit (it’s obvious) so let me say, that talking point is really “dumb.” If you let that float you’ll be fired faster than the pr people for Exxon who created the ‘More CO2 is good for you’ campaign and talking points!

    For non-Americans, you need to read the Washington Post and New York Times like Pravda was read in the olden days – decrypting it to establish the interplay of Democratic party poitics, policy, and their money backers. Republicans too, but they use the Wall Street Journal also.

    It’s an interesting setup. Republicans are traditionally Oil-soaked, and oil state Democrats, disinclined to working hard for energy independence and alternatives, especially for cars. Democrats in the past few decades have become finance industry factotums, explaining their dropping of energy indepedence, clear air (all emissions) and alternatives to gasoline for “carbon goals” carbon trading frauds (Goldman Sachs has bet $3billion+ on these) plus some cover payments for wind power, etc. The money behind the “carbon” movement is complex, but it’s almost wholly Democrat now. To quote the new Democrat financially-conflicted Godfather of climate change:

    Al Gore `Offsets are crucial,” former Vice President Al Gore said last week at a Sierra Club event in San Francisco. “We can’t do this without offsets.”

    It will be interesting to see if Bush articulate a pro-American agenda of getting us off oil as fast as possible without these “free market” subsidies to established energy company interests. This will take government action, I have saidput it under the Defense Department (is that what “security” is hinting at?) This means getting our vehicles on electric and hydrogen, not some crazy system created for corruption, unfair advantages, and money laundering.

    Is it any surprise that Enron supported carbon trading, and so the alumni of Drexel Burnham Lambert? Or that one of the creators of the system, Maurice Strong, is implicated in the UN Oil for Food scandal?

  15. B. Stràƒ⵨er
    Posted Jan 17, 2007 at 7:21 AM | Permalink

    On Pielke jr. Webside You can find the translation of an interesting interview of Richard Tol, in deutsch (German),tranlated by Benny Peiser : concerning the Stern-Report.

  16. Steve Sadlov
    Posted Jan 17, 2007 at 10:35 AM | Permalink

    RE: #14 – Also notice how biodiesel is getting short shrift in the US, as opposed to the totally economically irrational notion of a new age of ethanol. Ethanol bias will eventually make corn prices skyrocket. Meanwhile, as the war on transfats continues, veg oils face a general crash. Consider this as well. In North America, veg oils are grown in the marginal northern plains. Long term population trends (down) favor a gradual fallowing of all marginal farmland – that is unless there are non food uses for it (Bingo!). Seems to me, long term, bio diesel should be lower cost then ethanol. Well, I guess I answered my own question, it’s all about the greed factor, as opposed to the green factor.

  17. William L. Hyde
    Posted Jan 17, 2007 at 12:35 PM | Permalink

    “WiWo: Some experts believe that it costs less to adapt to climate change instead of stopping it. Are they right?

    Tol: We should do both. In order to prevent that rising sea levels flood coastal areas, the building of dykes is an inexpensive solution. But we should not let global warming proceed unconstrained, otherwise we risk that one day the water in the oceans evaporates.”

    Fears such as this are childish in the extreme. It makes one shake one’s head.

  18. Follow the Money
    Posted Jan 17, 2007 at 10:53 PM | Permalink

    RE: #14

    1. I should have posted on the open thread.

    2. Remember at last year’s State of the Union Bush metioned “sedge grass” to the great excitement of the farm state politicos? What a hoot…really!

    Ethanol, over-rated, read “corn lobby.”

    I read some good things Europeans are doing with new efficient petro-diesels. Not pollution or oil free, but more efficient economies, less pollution.

    It is the greed factor. And when the greed sees something made to better our lives, they attach themselves to it like a parasite.

  19. Jaye Bass
    Posted Jan 18, 2007 at 4:56 PM | Permalink

    Car and Driver magazine has a good article on the problems with E85 and other ethanol based blends. Seems to me like the issue is about 3-6 months old.

  20. Mark H
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 12:36 AM | Permalink

    Here are some links to critics of the Stern Review:

    Nordhaus, Environmental Economist behine DICE/RICE model

    Click to access h…rnReviewD2.pdf

    House of Lords, select committe on economic affairs,
    The Economics of Climate Change

    Click to access 12i.pdf

    Robert Samuelson, Economist

    John Whitehead of the Environmental Economics blog;

    Early Criticisms of Stern

    Click to access 20061104_stern.pdf

    Comment on Stern by Tol

    Click to access fnu…ternreview.pdf

    A Comment on Cherry Picked Data of Stern…rry_picki.html

    Comparing forecast of the global impacts of climate change… te_Change.pdf

    This may be a repeat but:

    Click to access rice98%20pap%20121898.PDF

  21. Mark H
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 12:49 AM | Permalink

    Corrections to links in 21. Sorry.

    Nordhaus – An originator of DICE/RICE model

    Click to access SternReviewD2.pdf

    House of Lords – Economics of Climate Change

    Click to access 12i.pdf

    Tol Comments – Written

    Click to access sternreview.pdf

    Early Criticisms of Stern

    Click to access 20061104_stern.pdf

    Comment on Cherry Picked Data

    Comparing Forecasts of the Global Imapacts of Climate Change – Mendelsohn and Williams

    Click to access Comparing_Forecasts_of_the_Global_Impacts_of_Climate_Change.pdf

  22. mikep
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 4:23 AM | Permalink

    One of the best comments on the economics I have seen is here

    Click to access Stern%20Comments.pdf

    It deals among other things with the issues around low probability high cost events.

  23. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 12:05 PM | Permalink

    Two unrelated but interesting (I hope) comments on recent posts:

    1. On Thurs. 25th Jan at 20.00hrs GMT BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting “The Investigation – Simon Cox examines the recent Stern Review”. A trailer broadcast this morning hinted at a critical approach – “A D for diligence but an F for failure”. In view of the BBC’s unwillingness, so far, to broadcast anything sceptical of the anthropogenic CO2/global warming viewpoint, this should be interesting.

    2. A few recent posts have brought up the ethanol fuel question. I’m not committed either way at present, but I believe any debate on this question must start with a knowledge of recent breakthrough developments in bioethanol production.

    Traditional processes ferment ethanol from sugar – C6 glucose – extracted from corn starch or sugar beet, with fairly low conversion rates and high process cost.

    The latest cellulose ethanol processes use recently identified enzymes to break down the biomass to separate the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin cheaply, and new genetically modified yeasts which can ferment the C5 xylose sugar from hemicellulose as well as, and at the same time as, the normal C6 fermentation from cellulose. This results in a high conversion rate from a cheap waste biomass (stems and leaves) from a crop which has already provided a primary product – e.g., corn or soy beans. The feedstock can also be coarse grass grown on poor soil, or woodchip lumber waste, or any other biomass rich in cellulose. After the fermentation, all that remains is the lignin, which can be burned to provide power for the process plant – in fact, the power requirement is so low that surplus electricity is available for supply to the local grid. The process economics are obviously much better than corn starch/sugar beet alcohol and are, of course, close to carbon neutral.

    The resulting 85% alcohol fuel is not as cheap as 100% petroleum-based fuel from $20/barrel oil, but are we ever going to see that again? I have seen estimates that at a large enough scale it could be produced at the same cost as petroleum-based fuel from $40/barrel oil, but these were from a brochure plugging the company that developed the process! Somewhere I have the litres/hectare conversion rate, but I’ve lost it on my hard drive. Duh. If anyone really wants it let me know and I’ll do the search.

    Of course ethanol is not as energy dense as petroleum fuel. Biodiesel is still the best for energy density, can be used in gas turbines, but doesn’t burn as cleanly.

    Peter Lloyd

  24. Steve Sadlov
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 12:25 PM | Permalink

    Stern will soon come to the US in response to an invite from Congress, and notably, sponsored by one of the two viable GOP “heirs apparent” to Bush, namely, John McCain. What little effective resistance there ever really was in the US (mind you, Euros have long exagerated supposed US “denialism” when in fact the AGW hysteria here has been nearly on par with Europe for quite some time) has collapsed. Stern speaking with a US Congressional working group … meditate on that!

  25. MarkW
    Posted Jan 23, 2007 at 1:14 PM | Permalink


    The first presidential primary votes come from Iowa.
    Any presidential candidate that disses any form of farm aid, direct cash or ethanol, won’t make
    it past the first round.

  26. Richard Tol
    Posted Jan 26, 2007 at 6:33 AM | Permalink

    Just when I thought that Greenpeace had bought a controlling stake in the BBC, see:

    and hear

  27. Steve Sadlov
    Posted Jan 26, 2007 at 3:02 PM | Permalink

    Richard – Bravo!

  28. Jaye Bass
    Posted Jan 26, 2007 at 3:32 PM | Permalink


    Besides the production efficiencies/costs associated with E85, there is the problem of distribution. I believe it is relatively easy to handle water in a gas/oil pipeline but the problem is exacerbated when one is pumping a mixture that is 85% ethanol.

  29. Posted Jan 26, 2007 at 4:33 PM | Permalink

    Re #26

    Are you the Richard Tol they’re quoting or is it someone else?

  30. Reid
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 10:55 AM | Permalink

    Excellent article in the Daily Telegraph on the Stern Report.;jsessionid=PCVZDB5RDAJV3QFIQMFCFFWAVCBQYIV0?xml=/opinion/2007/01/27/do2701.xml

  31. Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 2:07 PM | Permalink

    Dear Prof Tol, congratulations to a very civil and enlightening presence and analysis on that program, if it is you, of course. 😉

  32. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 5:48 PM | Permalink

    re 28

    Jaye –


    No, I’m not being rude!

    Sliding plugs in pipelines used both to clean them and to separate dissimilar fluids.

    Good old-fashioned engineering!


  33. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

    Re 23 and 32 Peter Lloyd:

    From today’s Wall Street Journal. Very, Very Big Corn.
    “Cellulosic ethanol–which is derived from plants like switchgrass–will require a big technological breakthrough to have any impact on the fuel supply.”
    “Ethanol also cannot be shipped using existing pipelines (being alcohol, it eats the seals), so it must be trucked or sent by barge or train to its thousand-and-one destinations, at least until separate pipelines are built.”

  34. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 7:36 PM | Permalink

    re 33

    Don’t journalists ever check their facts? You would think the WSJ would, after all, you know, a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon your talking real money.

    Well, to be fair, the bare facts are true. Present seals are probably not resistant to alcohols because they don’t have to be. But we have had elastomers for decades which are used successfully with alcohols – what did that journalist think the chemical industry and brewers use?. All he had to do was put in a call to du Pont or just check in Yellow Pages.

    Yes, it’s a drag to have to change all your pipeline and pump seals – but it’s even more of a drag spending young men’s lives and paying increasingly large slices of the GNP to unreliable (or even inimical) petroleum suppliers.

    I’m not plugging E85 – it needs a huge technical and economic investigation to figure out the real pros and cons. I only brought the issue up because so many of the ‘cons’ I read are based on what is now obsolete C6 fermentation from corn or sugar beet – which, by the way, is what I am told is used in Brasil’s large existing alcohol fuel industry.

    And the WSJ article doesn’t register the fact that cellulosic alcohol can be brewed from stalks and leaves after the corn heads have been harvested for their traditional uses. Textbook maximising of resources.

    We can obviously switch fixed electricity generation to nuclear, but what are we going to DO about the huge existing infrastructure supporting transportation? At first sight, E85/cellulosic alcohol and/or biodiesel look like very serious candidates which deserve thorough study.

  35. Jeff Weffer
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 8:55 PM | Permalink

    P. Lloyd – And the WSJ article doesn’t register the fact that cellulosic alcohol can be brewed from stalks and leaves after the corn heads have been harvested for their traditional uses. Textbook maximising of resources.

    I’ve followed the Ethanol scam for many years. There is no technology to make Ethanol out of cellulose and no technology to ship it by pipeline. Mother nature has been experimenting with billions of organisms over hundreds of millions of years trying to find an efficient way to break down cellulose and she hasn’t come up with one yet that doesn’t take years. Wood takes forever to break down.

    The industry lives on subsidies from government. That means the Ethanol industry is a subsidy-mining industry.

  36. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 27, 2007 at 10:16 PM | Permalink

    Re 33: Peter Lloyd
    From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ethanol: Frequently Asked Questions (my bolds)

    A switch to the widespread use of biofuels is not without its challenges. For example, ethanol is currently transported mainly by tanker truck or rail cars because it cannot be shipped in existing gasoline pipelines. This is because ethanol will pick up water, contaminants, and residues in the pipes, which could make the ethanol unusable. While there are ways to overcome this challenge, it will increase the need for investments above and beyond those required to build up a fuel production and pump infrastructure and overcome the technical hurdles associated with cellulosic ethanol.

    The long-term potential for ethanol production from products such as grasses, wood chips, rice straw, and the corn plant itself (called cellulosic ethanol) is significant. However, some key breakthroughs are needed for it to play a significant role. In particular, further advances are needed in order to cost-effectively liberate cellulose from the plant material and convert it into fermentable sugars. Aggressive scenarios for the deployment of cellulosic ethanol production indicate that it has the potential to replace nine billion gallons of gasoline in 2025 and upwards of 100 billion gallons in 2050. While this is a very large number, it is important to realize that our gasoline demand by 2050 could be nearly 300 billion gallons if we do not take steps to improve fuel economy and slow growth in travel demand.

    Re: Sugar Beets in Brazil. From Wikipedia:

    In Brazil, ethanol fuel is produced from sugar cane which is a more efficient source of fermentable carbohydrates than corn as well as much easier to grow and process. Brazil has the tropical climate that is required for the productive culture of sugarcane. Brazil has the largest sugarcane crop in the world, and is the largest producer of ethanol in the world. High government sales taxes on gasoline, as well as government subsidies for ethanol, have cultivated a profitable national ethanol industry.

    While another Wikipedia article states that sugar beets yield more ethanol per acre than sugar cane, the Earth Policy Institute says that “Sugar beets … produce nearly two units of energy for every unit used in production. Sugarcane, though, is by far the most efficient of the current feedstocks”¢’‚¬?yielding eight times as much energy as is needed to produce the ethanol.”
    And to throw one more interesting fact usually ignored when Brazil’s success with ethanol is trumpeted — according to the CIA World Factbook, Brazil has 96,000 kilometers of paved roads while the US is blessed with more than 4.1 million kilometers of paved roads.

  37. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 28, 2007 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    re 35

    Extraordinary. If you have been following this technology for years I cannot understand how you are not aware of, for instance, the plant now running in Canada. Pilot plants running elsewhere are reported, but I don’t know where and cannot vouch for the truth of these reports. Though I cannot vouch personally for the efficient operation of the Canadian pilot plant, I have seen a report in WSJ of heavyweight investment from Wall Street in the company that runs it, so someone besides me believes it exists!

    To say that the technology does not exist is simply not true. As I said in my original post, it is based on new genetically modified yeasts capable of converting xylose sugar to ethanol alongside the traditional glucose fermentation. I believe that they were developed at Purdue some years ago.

  38. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 28, 2007 at 7:24 PM | Permalink

    re 36

    No question there would be an enormous investment required if transportation fuel switched to biodiesel and/or ethanol, and fuel costs would be forever higher than today. But are there practical alternatives, and what are their cost structures? And what do you think gasoline is going to cost in future? I don’t think anyone knows at this stage and the trouble is that no one is carrying out the urgent, thorough, unprejudiced investigation that’s needed.

    But whether a switch is made now because industrial nations will no longer risk being held to ransom by petroleum producers, or in future because supplies run out, it is going to happen sooner or later. Personally I prefer not to bank on some dramatic new technology turning up, but to plan on adopting the most practical new technology we have available now, whichever it may be. If something better turns up in time, lucky us.

    The fourth sentence of the first para. just doesn’t make sense. How can the investments needed to upgrade the infrastructure rise above the costs of necessary infrastructure upgrades? Gobbledegook.

    As for the comments on further breakthroughs required for cellulose ethanol to be practical, I suggest those have recently been made (as reported above in 23), including the new cellulase enzymes which liberate both cellulose and hemicellulose. It is a reasonable assumption that further developments on the same lines will improve the process economics. As regards the distribution problems, the costs of upgrading infrastructure will be taken in to account in the economic analyses of the technical options. The pipeline problem is “only” an economic one, as the technical solutions require no new technology.

    I accept the comments on the Brazilean alcohol industry without reservation – I threw that reference in at the last minute without checking the feedstock. Quite right, they use sugarcane for the C6 glucose fermentation process. The sugarbeet process is used in Europe where the economics are blurred by complicated agricultural subsidies. The only thing I would add to your references is that the energy used in production of alcohol from sugar beet is very dependant on the particular process used, and that some processes are economic.

    I am, however, encouraged that someone sees the possibility of replacing 100 billion gallons of gasoline by 2050. A “could be” 300 billion gallon demand could fairly easily be halved by using existing European/Japanese engine and vehicle technology. (Most European cars and trucks achieve much lower consumption figures than do similar-use vehicles in the USA.) The shortfall of 50 billion gallons should be achievable by some old-fashioned innovation, elbow grease and carrot-and-stick economic policy. No Government taxation, please – only takes money out of the economy which could be better used achieving the objective.

  39. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 28, 2007 at 7:37 PM | Permalink

    Re 35 Peter Lloyd:
    The Canadian producer is Iogen. From

    The Candian company operates the only plant in North America that produces large quantities of ethanol from cellulose, and that operation still is in the demonstration phase. Iogen does not expect to complete its first commercial plant, a 50-million-gallon facility with a projected cost of $300 million, until 2008.

    Iogen has major financial backing from Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Petro-Canada, the Canadian government and Goldman Sachs & Co. It has spent tens of millions of dollars on research and development to move its project forward.
    …”Sometimes I compare the difference between ethanol from corn and ethanol from cellulose as the difference between traveling to the moon and traveling to Mars,” said Robert Rapier, a chemical engineer who works in the petroleum industry and has done research on alternative fuels. “We have traveled to the moon several times, and while not cheap, the feasibility has been demonstrated. There is no doubt that we could travel to Mars, just like we can make cellulosic ethanol, but the costs of both are prohibitive, and the barriers to commercialization are huge.”

    The December 18, 2006 BusinessWeek Online article Put a Termite in Your Tank — Bio breakthroughs are promising much better ways to make ethanol. is a pretty breathless review of a field dreams. Spend it and they will come.
    You may want to search Climate Audit for Steve M’s postings on Bre-X.

  40. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 7:19 AM | Permalink

    Re 38 Peter Lloyd: My 39 was cross posted.
    The bottom line is that cellulosic ethanol is an interesting but still unproven technology that will require years of development to scale, new production facilities and replacement of the current distribution infrastructure. And with respect to surface transportation that puts it into the same category as atomic power, hydrogen, batteries and fuel cells.

  41. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 10:00 AM | Permalink

    Peter Lloyd:

    And finally …
    Wall Street Journal (again)
    Alternative-Fuels Push May Inspire Some Better Bets

    But even as the outlook for alternative energies darkens, some analysts see a more positive outcome from the latest turbulence: a forced redirection of resources toward alternative fuels that are more efficient and sustainable than the current batch.
    … Investors are also directing more money into “cellulosic” fuels that use nonfood commodities such as switch grass or farm waste to make ethanol. A small number of companies, including Spain’s Abengoa SA, are attempting to launch projects using such biomass energy.
    … Still, the newer alternative-energy sources have their problems. It will likely be years before sources such as jatropha or biomass will be economically viable on a meaningful scale, and it’s possible much of the current wave of investment in such technologies will yield losses.

  42. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 11:16 AM | Permalink

    re 39,40,41.


    Thanks for the references.

    Can’t argue with your comments – failing a proper economic analysis, it’s a question of personal judgement at this stage. Being an old R&D man, perhaps I’m more confident that, as of today, the remaining technical problems of an alcohol economy are more obviously solvable than those of hydrogen or fuel cells.

    If the petroleum market blew up tomorrow and forced our hand, I’ld bet on biodiesel as being the quickest way out of the problem, with a lot more use of electric vehicles in cities and suburbs. Plus nuclear for elecricity generation, of course.

  43. fFreddy
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 11:31 AM | Permalink

    All these bio-fuels strike me as a hideously inefficient way of collecting and storing solar energy. Do we really have no more efficient way of doing this job ?

  44. KevinUK
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 11:36 AM | Permalink

    #35 to #39 JW and PL

    This is a very interesting debate. please continue. At the moment I’m on JW’s side but PL keep up the posts with citations.


  45. jae
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 12:30 PM | Permalink

    All these bio-fuels strike me as a hideously inefficient way of collecting and storing solar energy. Do we really have no more efficient way of doing this job ?

    ??. It seems to me that biomass is the best and most efficient way of utilizing solar energy, especially because the energy can be “stored” for later use.

  46. fFreddy
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 2:07 PM | Permalink

    jae, we agree about the using and storing part. I’m just questioning whether planting a field of sugar beet/cane/whatever is really the most efficient way of doing the job, even given the poor state of energy storage technology.

  47. KevinUK
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 2:23 PM | Permalink

    #45 and #46 jae, fFreddy

    I think you both need to read some more of ‘Follow the Money’s posts (which I greatly enjoy).

    The fact is that the whole energy supply industry (oil, gas, nuclear, renewable etc) is about control of supply and vested interest. There are many people who make a great deal of money out of the status quo and have begun to see that they can make even more money by jumping on the AGW bandwagon and so have our taxes diverted into subsidising renewables and funding R&D which they should be paying for themselves out of the massive profits that they are already making.


  48. jae
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 2:59 PM | Permalink

    35, Jeff

    I’ve followed the Ethanol scam for many years. There is no technology to make Ethanol out of cellulose and no technology to ship it by pipeline. Mother nature has been experimenting with billions of organisms over hundreds of millions of years trying to find an efficient way to break down cellulose and she hasn’t come up with one yet that doesn’t take years. Wood takes forever to break down.

    What? You would be standing on billions of feet of biomass, if your statement were true. For one of the best organisms, think about those in a termite’s gut. BTW, termites are a HUGE source of methane.

  49. KevinUK
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 4:05 PM | Permalink


    Ahh! But couldn’t we burn the methane (our now new natural gas) produced by the termites and use it for space heating (heating our homes and offices). We could have combined heat and power (CHP) termite farms and of course these would be closed loop CHPs of course to maximise energy efficiency.


  50. Jeff Weffer
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 4:16 PM | Permalink

    Iogen’s plant and process are uneconomic which is why they have been running around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across North America for about 15 years trying to get governments to pony up the money for a full-scale production plant. Like the rest of the industry, it is a scam.

    Now if we could only get those pesky little bugs in termites to make ethanol instead of termite food, we’d have a winner. Well not quite, they are still too slow to turn celluose into energy at an economically efficient rate in terms of human production requirements. I’m sure they will keep trying and keep hyping their stocks and new processes and some people will lose the money they invested.

  51. Jaye
    Posted Jan 29, 2007 at 10:30 PM | Permalink

    Decent summary on ethanol based fuel economy. Ethanol Review: Car and Driver Magazine

  52. Chris H
    Posted Jan 30, 2007 at 2:02 AM | Permalink

    Does anyone know if there any recent research into using solid bio-fuels directly? Air dried wood has about half the energy density of petrol. I guess this would mean a return to steam engines or using a steam or gas turbine.

  53. James Erlandson
    Posted Jan 30, 2007 at 5:58 AM | Permalink

    Re 52 Chris:
    The Prize by Daniel Yergin has accounts of charcoal powered cars and trucks used by Germany and Japan during WWII. The most interesting vehicles heated the charcoal (or in some cases wood), captured the volatile gases and used them to power an internal combustion engine. GE built a coal powered gas turbine locomotive which never worked very well because of the impurities in the coal (among other things) so you can imagine the problems wood power would bring with it.

    Steam is impractical for cars/trucks/busses because of the huge volume of water required.

  54. Peter Lloyd
    Posted Feb 1, 2007 at 11:38 AM | Permalink

    re 23-51:

    By coincidence, an excellent article on ethanol fuel status in the Jan 2007 Scientific American. Very fair, covers all the bases. In short, says conventional corn ethanol not economic, cellulose ethanol has promise if current generation of enzymes and yeasts can be shown to be controllable in industrial-scale reactors. Also points out the positive energy balance of the new process due to production of excess electricity. Interestingly, doesn’t make a big deal out of the carbon-neutral aspect.

    I still feel that if Iogen’s pilot plant runs successfully, even some of the time, then it is very likely it can be optimized to run all the time at commercial scale – but that’s just my prejudice as an old R&D guy who was lucky enough not to be involved in any dud scale-ups.

    I wish someone would write as perceptive a review on biodiesel, so that the economics could be compared. Anyone have any references?

  55. James Erlandson
    Posted Feb 1, 2007 at 12:14 PM | Permalink

    Peter Lloyd:
    Archer Daniels Midland Co., the world’s biggest corn and oilseed processor, said second-quarter profit rose 20 percent, more than analysts’ estimates, on higher prices for ethanol, corn sweeteners and livestock feed.

    Chicago Tribune:
    A surge in international corn prices, spurred partly by the growing ethanol industry, has caused huge spikes in the price of corn tortillas, a core ingredient in Mexico’s diet and, some would say, the nation’s very soul.

    Of course if and when celulosic ethanol comes on line in quantity is should help with the corn prices. A little.

  56. Daniel Bagshaw
    Posted Apr 26, 2007 at 11:19 AM | Permalink

    Very informative debate, guys. As a current student of environmental economics, I have found this very helpful.


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