Stop operating artificial ice skating rinks

Last year in October it was revealed that artificial ice skating rinks in the Netherlands depend on government subsidies for their survival. Most of the sixteen ice rinks with a 400 meter track in our country would go bankrupt without subsidies. The small amount of ice rinks which do not receive subsidies do receive millions of public funding for new construction or renovations. Electricity used to create and cool the ice floor is responsible for the majority of their operating costs.

For centuries we were restricted to outdoor ice skating when a cold winter allowed it. The first artificial ice rink in the Netherlands (and the third in the world) which was longer than 400 meters was built only 54 years ago in 1961, the Jaap Edenbaan in Amsterdam. That operating these venues would consume large amounts of electricity and thus fossil fuels was second to our desire for luxury and convenience. In these times of climate change, can we still afford to use artificial ice rinks?

My girlfriend who frequents the Uithof ice rink in the Hague during the ice skating season will be cross with me for writing this, but I think they are an unnecessary luxury which we cannot afford. Especially now that our winters have become so mild due to global warming they consume far too much energy. To provide some figures, according to the municipality of Delft the indoor artificial ice rink in Delft consumes 110.000 kWh in one ice skating season. The average household in the Netherlands consumes 3.500 kWh in a year. So, the electricity used by the ice rink equals that of 31,4 households.

Interestingly, the municipality of Delft argues that the ice rink is CO2 neutral because the ice rink finances three wind turbines which generate 500 MWh a year. This argument seems compelling, but does not convince me: that green energy could have been used for more essential things like lighting in buildings. Of course, the average oil refinery in Rotterdam’s port would use more electricity than an ice rink (I couldn’t find sources for this), but that is no excuse. It is essential that we start saving energy to fight climate change, so everything which consumes large amounts of electricity should be scrutinized, especially those things which are luxuries.

At the very least local governments should stop subsidizing ice rinks. They are practically financing climate change. If the public does not want to pay for the real operating costs of ice rinks and some would go bankrupt, so be it. There are plenty of other sports which are not so energy intensive. If you still want to go ice skating in the winter, take a train to go to the Weißensee in Austria or something.

Are electric cars less polluting than cars using fossil fuels?

Since they were introduced to the mass market a few years ago, I was convinced that EVs (electric vehicles) are much more friendly for the environment than vehicles with conventional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). When I had a discussion at work last year about the merits of EVs with a colleague, I desired to show him evidence for my claim. I found this 2013 study which compared the lifecycle environmental impact of EVs with ICEVs. The summary of this study reads as follows:

We find that EVs powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10% to 24% decrease in global warming potential (GWP) relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles assuming lifetimes of 150,000 km. However, EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain. Results are sensitive to assumptions regarding electricity source, use phase energy consumption, vehicle lifetime, and battery replacement schedules. Because production impacts are more significant for EVs than conventional vehicles, assuming a vehicle lifetime of 200,000 km exaggerates the GWP benefits of EVs to 27% to 29% relative to gasoline vehicles or 17% to 20% relative to diesel. An assumption of 100,000 km decreases the benefit of EVs to 9% to 14% with respect to gasoline vehicles and results in impacts indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle. Improving the environmental profile of EVs requires engagement around reducing vehicle production supply chain impacts and promoting clean electricity sources in decision making regarding electricity infrastructure.

The following passage is more specific on the impact of the fuel sources used to generate electricity for EVs:

For all scenarios analyzed, the use phase is responsible for the majority of the GWP impact, either directly through fuel combustion or indirectly during electricity production. When powered by average European electricity, EVs are found to reduce GWP by 20% to 24% compared to gasoline ICEVs and by 10% to 14% relative to diesel ICEVs under the base case assumption of a 150,000 km vehicle lifetime. When powered by electricity from natural gas, we estimate LiNCM EVs offer a reduction in GHG emissions of 12% compared to gasoline ICEVs, and break even with diesel ICEVs. EVs powered by coal electricity are expected to cause an increase in GWP of 17% to 27% compared with diesel and gasoline ICEVs.

A conference paper from 2010 reaches a similar conclusion and supplies some illustrative graphs for those of us who are more visually inclined. The 2013 study was given a spin by some news media to write clickbait articles which portray EVs as more destructive to the environment than ICEVs. That obviously does not follow from the conclusions of the study: EVs are better for the environment if powered by the average European electricity mix, but worse if they are powered by electricity generated with coal. This is also the emphasis of Greenpeace. According to other research from the USA, EVs are better for the environment than average ICEVs, even if the dirtiest electricity mix in the USA is used.  There has been some criticism from the the pro-EV camp as well: due to flaws in the 2013 study it overstated the environmental impact of EV production.

I started wondering, what is the average European electricity mix? In the data supplied with the 2013 study the electricity mix data is referenced to be in the final tab of the spreadsheet, but that tab doesn’t exist. Even so, we can use the data from Eurostat for 2012 (figures converted from GWh to TWh):

Oil Coal and lignite Gas Nuclear Renewables Other fuels Total
72 892 615 882 798 35 3.295
2% 27% 19% 27% 24% 1% 100%

Compare this with the data on the electricity mix for the Netherlands in 2012 from Statistics Netherlands. I converted the data from MWh to TWh. Eurostat should have this data for the Netherlands in the same table they use in their data visualization I referenced in the previous paragraph. However, I can’t figure out how I can distill the same figures from that data as they give in the visualization. The data from Statistics Netherlands and Eurostat doesn’t match exactly so I had to modify the categories, that’s why the total in the Dutch data is 96%.

Oil Coal and lignite Gas Nuclear Renewables Other fuels Total
0,03 24 54 4 13 3 103
0% 24% 53% 4% 12% 3% 96%

The data shows that nuclear and renewable energy constitute a much smaller share of the energy sources used in the Netherlands. Gas is a much more important source. On the other hand coal is used slightly less. Gas is cleaner than coal, though not as clean as nuclear power (considering only emissions) or renewables. Not desiring to make further intricate calculations myself, I’d assume that the electricity mix in the Netherlands is clean enough to make use of EVs preferable over ICEVs. Of course it’s imperative that we invest much more in renewable energy, because our current percentage of 12% is an embarrassment.

Even so, producing all those EVs would demand a lot of resources. Also consider that EVs with seats for five persons, like ICEVs currently, will often be used by just a single person to commute to work. We keep the problem of traffic congestion as well. This is inefficient when compared to public transport, which should still be a preferred investment.

Comparing CO2 emissions of households and flights

I’m still catching up on blog posts which are overdue. I’m an unsatisfied customer of Eneco, a large Dutch energy company. Their customer support is incompetent and their welcome gift arrived many weeks later than promised. Their gift, a Philips vacuum cleaner, turned out to have the suction power of a chain smoker with terminal lung cancer.

So when they ran an ad last year on 29 July in the free Dutch newspaper Metro, I naturally was suspicious of them. In this advert, it was claimed that a one-way flight to Southern Europe would cause CO2 emissions equal to the CO2 emitted to produce electricity for an average household for one year.

The advert didn’t quote any figures, but according to data compiled in 2015 by he Dutch environmental organization Milieu Centraal 1,6 (metric) tonnes of CO2 was emitted to produce electricity for an average household of 2,2 persons. It should be noted the total CO2 emissions for this household, including indirect emissions, are calculated to be much higher at 23 tonnes.

Milieu Centraal also calculated CO2 emissions for several example flights, including one from Amsterdam to Malaga in southern Spain. They give a figure of 655 kilos CO2, not much more than the 500 kilos for using a car with two persons. The bus and the train have much lower emissions for this journey, respectively 100 and 200 kilos of CO2. While Milieu Centraal notes that high-altitude emissions are extra damaging, 655 kilos doesn’t approach 1.600 kilos by a long shot. A return flight is closer at 1.310 kilos.

While Eneco is wrong on the math, they have a point that aircraft are extremely polluting and that we need to avoid them as much as much as possible. More on that later in another post.

A formula instead of tax brackets for progressive tax?

Today I’ve taken a look at the blog of prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, which caught my attention since I mentioned him in my post of 5 September. I have some comments on his most recent post which discusses a proposal for a flat tax in the Netherlands. Because comments on his blog are disabled I’ll have to respond through my own weblog.

Tax brackets can discourage earning more income

One of the arguments Eijffinger gives in favor of the flat tax is that the current system of tax brackets in the Netherlands can discourage participation in the labor market. He notes that some people work part time, especially if they have a partner, to avoid higher tax brackets. If they work more they enter a higher tax bracket, which would require them to pay more taxes.

Eijffinger’s comment is rather short because it was a contribution to a discussion in the Dutch newspaper Metro, so I guess he couldn’t afford to give an example. Without an example it’s difficult to understand the problem, so let me give one. The first tax bracket in the Netherlands goes up to € 19.645 and has a tax rate of 37%. The second goes from € 19.646 to € 33.363 with a tax rate of 42%.

Let’s say I work part time to stay in the first tax bracket and make € 18.000. Then I get the option to work more so that I can earn € 22.000. In the first bracket I pay 18.000 * 0.37 = € 6.660. With the higher salary, I pay 19.645 * 0.37 = € 7.268,65 plus 2355 * 0.42 = € 989,10. Then the total tax I pay is € 8.257,75 over € 22.000, or 37,54%. Hardly a steep raise in the effective tax rate because I crossed the limit of the first tax bracket, right?

A solution without resorting to a flat tax

Let’s assume that my example doesn’t fit the point Eijffinger was trying to make. There is reason to believe that the effect can be stronger in other situations, the difference between the third and the fourth tax bracket for example is 10% instead of 5%. Let’s assume that mr. Eijffinger is correct.

In that case, couldn’t we simply use a formula to determine the tax rate for a progressive tax? It’s even simpler than tax brackets. For example, take the linear equation y=15+0.2*x which I’ve plotted here. In this formula “y” is the tax rate in percent and “x” is the income. This fixes the problem of suddenly having to pay much more taxes because the limit of a tax bracket is crossed.

I suggest this because I don’t believe that a flat tax can provide social justice for us. With a flat tax, a millionaire would pay the same percentage of taxes as a cleaner. Instead I think the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. Aren’t there plenty of other options to reduce inefficiency and bureaucracy in a progressive tax system?

Cuts on public servants in the Netherlands?

On Wednesday 28 August the free Dutch newspaper Metro ran an article on the austerity measures of the Dutch government. Two Dutch economists were asked to comment on the government’s policy and to give their own suggestions. One of them, prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, considers the high number of public servants in the Netherlands as a barrier to economic growth. Accordingly he suggested that we cut the number of public servants.

But are there really so much public servants in our country? During my studies for a master’s degree in Public Administration at Leiden University I attended the lectures of prof. dr. Frits van der Meer. He emphasized in his lectures that the alleged large numbers of public servants in the Netherlands are a myth. Interestingly, he and a colleague have published research to prove their claim. See this Dutch publication and take a look at the table on page 21.

The first column includes public servants in health care and education, the second column does not. This data shows that the number of public servants relative to the total population in the Netherlands is far below the average of several other developed nations. Surprising to see that Germany and the Netherlands have a smaller body of public servants than the USA, is it not? Remember this when you intend to make those jokes about public servants at parties.

Mr. Eijffinger doesn’t mention any sources, which is logical considering the short length of the newspaper article. I sent him an e-mail last week to inform him of prof. dr. Van der Meer’s research and asked him if he might have different evidence which supports his claim. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from him yet.

A dubious recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama has given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Clinton. To cite the website of the White House:

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

While Bill Clinton’s efforts for humanitarian aid and other charity work are certainly laudable, I think his actions during his presidency disqualify him for a medal. He is responsible for the Lewinsky scandal: he cheated on his wife and lied under oath. Is this the kind of person who should serve as an example to other Americans and be rewarded with such a prestigious medal?

Oprah Winfrey also received the medal for her philanthropic activities. But what kind of philanthropist wants to buy a handbag for $38.000? So much for humility. A true philanthropist would show more solidarity and make some concessions to their own welfare in order to better the lives of other people. If I would be helping destitute people on one day but reserve my money to buy such expensive luxury goods on the other day, I’d be ashamed of myself.

Public servants versus political appointees

On 1 May Coen Teulings ended his seven year term as the director of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau in Dutch, abbreviated as CPB). During his tenure he faced criticism for his affiliations with the Dutch Labor Party, which was alleged to have influenced his role as a policy adviser for the government. At his departure he was evaluated positively in the media, which noted that the Labor Party had frequently been critical of the policy advice given by the CPB.

This reminded me of a paper I had written for a course I followed during my master’s programme at Leiden University, Politics of Bureacracy. For my argument I summarily investigated political appointees in the USA. American federal executive officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Political appointees in the USA

When Leon Panetta (Democrat) was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama (Democrat), the appointment raised questions if Obama was trying to politicize the CIA; Panetta had no experience in intelligence work. Allegations of partisanship are not new, as even stronger criticism was aimed at the appointment of Porter Goss (Republican), the Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush (Republican).

Lewis (2009) argues (use this link for a PDF behind a paywall but with decent layout) that these political appointments are made for two reasons. They allow the president to control the bureaucracy, with appointees being more responsive to the wishes of the political leaders than public servants. They are also made for patronage, i.e. to reward the members of the president’s party with lucrative positions. He goes on to explain that too many appointees ultimately hurt the performance and control of federal agencies.

Appointees lack the experience of career public servants and stay for short tenures, impeding long term planning. Lower performance in turn makes the agencies harder to control for the president, for example because they are more likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, as outsiders appointees can also give new energy to agencies. It’s a matter of balancing the ratio of appointees to public servants to get optimal agency performance. The USA evidently has far too many appointees, more than 3.500, as opposed to a number between 100 and 200 for other developed countries.

The situation in the netherlands

While I don’t have exact numbers, I assume the Netherlands is in the latter category too. Our General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst in Dutch) is led by a career public servant. The CPB would even have a serious credibility problem if it would be led by a political appointee, it is imperative that it is an apolitical organization.

I think the difference between the USA and the Netherlands might partially be explained by our different political culture. We have coalition governments instead of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Even the Balkenende-III cabinet in which the Labor Party didn’t participate had no problem with appointing a vocal economist with Labor Party sympathies like Coen Teulings as head of the CPB.

What I see as a notable exception to the non-political nature of appointments in the Netherlands is the appointment of Piet Hein Donner (Christian Democrats) as vice-president of the Council of State (Raad van State). The cabinet insisted that the procedure was open, but many opposition figures thought it was a farce and Donner’s appointment was predetermined.

The man surely is an expert in law and seems capable for the job, but the appointment had a semblance of politicization to me as well. Just like the CPB advises on economic policy, the Council of State has an important advisory role on law towards the government. All the more reason to make it just as apolitical as the CPB.

Obama and partisanship

What caught my attention regarding the politics of the USA is the appointment of the Republican Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel by Obama. This is different from this discussion of the relationship between the public service and politics because a Secretary of State is always a politician, but related to the partisanship issue. Why not reward a Democrat with position? Obama assures us he chose Hagel because all he cares about is having the right person for the job. Some journalists think it really is a clever plan to screw the Republican Party.

Make Open Access publishing mandatory

When I’m writing content for Wikipedia I often use articles from scientific journals as a source. But most of the time these journal articles are not free. For example, if you wish to download an article from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory for example, you’ll have to pay $25 to read it for one day. For academics this is not an issue because their university library has subscriptions to those journals, allowing them free access. Many ordinary people however do not.

It frustrates me that in practice they can’t check the scientific sources of statements made on Wikipedia or in other media unless they have deep pockets. Especially if you live in a third world country, scientific knowledge is only available to the rich. This is strange, because the scientists who contribute to and edit for scientific journals don’t get paid for their work by the publishers of those journals. The universities where the scientists are employed are funded by the taxpayer. We pay twice, first for scientists who produce scientific knowledge and then to the publishers to acquire that knowledge.

Why scientific journals charge (high) fees

A detailed explanation can be read here, but I’ll summarize. In the past publication of scientific journals was done by scientist-driven organizations and it was rarely a profitable activity. This changed when the Science Citation Index was started in 1960, which measured how many times journal articles were cited to determine the influence of articles and their authors. This in turn gave rise to the impact factor, the average number of citations of all articles in a journal to determine the influence of that journal. As a consequence scientists started to prefer publishing in the most prestigious journals.

At this point of the story the commercial publishers make their appearance. They saw profit, gradually acquired more and more journals and started charging disproportionate prices for the prestigious journals. The prices for subscriptions increased with 215% from 1986 to 2003, while the inflation rose with merely 68%. In the same period digital distribution became popular, which should have led to a reduction of distribution costs according to common sense. Scientists have agitated against high journal prices, especially those owned by the publisher Elsevier.

Open Access publishing as an alternative

But then the concept of Open Access arose to fight this evil, enabled by the Internet. Open Access publication of scientific articles means that they are freely available and carry no restrictions on their use. It has been estimated that 7,7% of all articles published in peer-reviewed journals were Open Access in 2009. And that rate is still growing. The best example for this is the Public Library of Science (primarily natural sciences).

Open Access has found appeal in the Netherlands too: my own university (Leiden University) and several other organizations collaborate on the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. A professor of Psychology at Leiden University also recognizes the importance of Open Access publishing. In fact, all Dutch universities committed to Open Access when they signed the Berlin Declaration.

But 7,7% still means that the vast majority of scientific knowledge is locked away behind the paywalls of the publishers. Also, the adoption of Open Access publishing in the Netherlands has been stagnating since 2007. One solution which has been proposed to elevate Open Access publishing is to make it mandatory, just like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done.

My stance in this

If research is funded by the taxpayer the taxpayer should have the right to access that research freely, anything else is an injustice. If Dutch universities don’t take action by themselves the government should. But since there is no indication that is going to happen anytime soon, the more important question is what I can do.

Right now I’m at the verge of pursuing a scientific career. I’m soliciting for a PhD position at Leiden University and job as a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, both in the field of public administration. It seems like I’m already getting off on the wrong foot, because I submitted an article for review to the aforementioned Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory just a week ago! This is my master thesis, which I’ve rewritten in the form of a shorter, publishable article.

I keep telling myself this is justified because I’m at the beginning of my career and can afford to be picky in where I’ll publish, but I feel like a hypocrite. I don’t really have an excuse, because there are Open Access journals in the field of public administration. They’re not prestigious and I’m not sure what to do with my article – let’s see if it’s accepted for publication first – but if I do land at a job at either university Open Access publishing will be my first priority.

What is a sustainable level of meat consumption?

I already wrote about this topic more than two years ago to state my concerns over the level of meat consumption in the (Western) world. Back then I already explained why it’s detrimental to our environment so I won’t go into detail here. The Wikipedia articles on the environmental impact of meat production and environmental vegetarianism explain it nicely, so read those.

Since then I’ve lowered my consumption of meat, but it was not an issue for my family. They think they don’t eat it much, while I do. Because I wasn’t motivated to make my own vegetarian food when my mother prepared non-vegetarian food for the whole family, I used to eat along.

Recently I changed my behaviour because I thought I was lazy. Being served non-vegetarian food by others was no reason to stray from the virtuous path of sustainable living. This led to some discussion at the dinner table, giving rise to the question: at which quantity is meat consumption sustainable?

Statistics and some assumptions

The Economist has statistics on meat consumption per capita for 2007. In the complete data they also provide the world average, which is 38,7 kilo or 106 gram a day.

I make two premises. The first is that everyone should not consume (much) more than this average. If you look at the statistics you see the developed world consumes a disproportionately high amount of meat while most of the developing world consumes very little. This means the developed world puts the greatest strain on our environment. I don’t think we have more right to burden the environment than the developing world, so what we are doing now is unethical.

The second premise is that no further environmental degradation should occur. If that is what we want, we should not increase our total meat consumption above the 2007 average. However, I’d say that even in 2007 the global environmental damage caused by meat production was already too much, and it needs to be even lower. I’d say an arbitrary number such as 30 kilo a year seems acceptable.

Solutions

Ultimately, reducing meat consumption is not going to happen with a growing world population. At a certain moment meat prices will increase because of supply and demand, but when that happens the environment has probably gone to hell already. I’m sure many people are not as concerned over this issue as I am, so they’re not going to change their behaviour out of their own motivation.

This means government has to intervene. The best solutions would probably be taxing meat (just like we levy an excise tax on petrol in the Netherlands because of its environmental impact) and drastically reducing the world’s population. But if you want to change the world you should take responsibility and start with yourself.

How much do i and my family consume?

According to the statistics the average Dutch person consumed 71,3 kilo meat in 2007. I think my family is probably below this average, so in that regard they are probably right when they say they don’t consume much.But I suspect my family may consume more than the global average of 38,7 kilo.

But this is something which needs to be measured. I will do so by calculating the total weight of all meat products appearing on our supermarket receipts for one month and then extrapolate that to a year. I estimate my own consumption is probably no more than 21 kilo a year (based on 400 gram a week), but this is also something I will measure.

Update 14 February

After measuring the meat consumption of my family for 19 days and extrapolating that to a year, it turns out we consume far less than I expected. I consume 19 kilo a year, the rest of my family 22, 29, 31 and 34 kilo. All far below the average for the Netherlands and below the world average.

Obama’s re-election, Nobel Prize for the EU

I’m glad Obama won the elections instead of Romney, but I see him as merely the lesser of two evils:

  • His administration cracked down on Wikileaks. That was understandable and reasonable to some extent, but pressurizing the financial industry to institute a blockade against them without any legal prosecution went too far.
  • He left/leaves Bradley Manning to rot in jail. While I think some of the information Manning leaked should have remained classified, it was a good thing the video of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike was leaked. While I assume the shooting of the reporters in the first part is a sad mistake, the attack on the building was in blatant disregard of civilian casualties. That’s why I believe Manning is a whistle blower and should receive a presidential pardon and a medal instead of a prison sentence.
  • Most important of all, he allows drone strikes to kill in Pakistan without regard for civilian collateral casualties.
  • And the Guantanomo Bay detention camp, anyone? That still isn’t closed, even though he promised it when he started his first term.

In other news, the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m critical of this because I think that if the EU had not existed, it would not have made much of a difference for the advancement of peace. I have more trust in the democratic peace theory. For example, since democracy has taken a foothold in South America, we haven’t seen any wars there either.