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Can Diplomacy Help Navigate an Upcoming Worldwide ‘Valley of Disappointment’?

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The current worldwide slowdown in productivity gains may reflect a combination of decreasing energy returns on energy investments in fossil fuels, and limitations on productivity gains in the early stages of development of renewable energy replacements.

A review of the development process in terms of non equilibrium thermodynamics concepts is in order. The stresses of the upcoming major worldwide energy transitions, accompanied by climate change protections, are likely severely to test national and international coordination systems, and demand insight into the thermodynamic and economic processes involved on the part of those who participate in international diplomacy.  

1.The Current Productivity Problem

Numerous publications have been reporting that rates of productivity gain have been declining in recent decades across much of ‘developed world’, and, from higher levels, in many ‘developing’ economies. A recent publication of the highly respected Brookings Institution probes this issue

The National Conference Board in the United States also reports almost imperceptible productivity gains, and some losses, in the most developed economies in the world. The Conference Board’s summation on this is as follows:

Zero or even negative total factor productivity growth suggests that improvements in the efficiency by which labor and capital are used have stalled . . . Ultimately declining TFP prevents companies from improving their competitiveness and profitability, and threatens the ability of countries to maintain or better people’s living standards.

As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund reports low growth prospects across a broad range of economies, and some difficulty in identifying why this should be so.

2. Current Related Financial Policy Actions

Institutions charged with coordinating national and global financial activities have undertaken attempts to encourage a resumption of ‘growth’ (typically measured within States as gross domestic product or gross national product). The conceptual basis for such measures seems to assume that growth rates should be those typical of the late 19th and the 20th centuries.

National governments have considered that they had two principal levers for trying to get economic activity back up to accustomed and/or targeted levels, termed ‘monetary’ and ‘fiscal’.

As to ‘fiscal’ action, the national government is assumed to be able to authorize economic activity directly, and to issue whatever monetary instruments, or forms, will be accepted in the markets supplying goods and services. This may create a current deficit, to be financed over time.

There seems to be more attention given to ‘monetary’ policy, typically managed by central banks, and institutions to coordinate the policies of national central banks.

National central banks have tended to try to stimulate economic activity by actions which make monetary units more amply available for national and international transactions. A part of this strategy is actions to lower the interest rates which generally apply in such transactions. This is thought likely to increase the levels of activity in investing in the production of goods and services (and in consumer purchases) by reducing the levels of yield needed over time from such activities to attract the ‘capital’ which will enable such activities.

At this time, most of the institutions with central bank functions, in the ‘developed’ economies, have been targeting very low interest rates for an extended period of time.

There have been at least two other, external but parallel discussions, with implications for economic activities. This article suggests that these inquiries are particularly significant at this time.

3. Current Awareness of A Need for An Energy Source Transition

It is generally understood that the enormous gains in human populations and activities have come from exploiting the ‘energy’ in fossil fuel, or earth-stockpiled, hydrocarbons. Discussions of productivity gains over time — generally the 19th and 20th centuries — seem to have assumed that the fossil fuel flows supporting such gains will be available at the same levels and costs as have been the case in these last two centuries. But looking ahead a century or two, this cannot continue to be taken as a given.

First, the prospective climate effects of combusting these hydrocarbons, to get the energy yield, has spurred a global search to replace these energy sources.

At the same time, the net energy yields from mining these hydrocarbons have tended to decrease. And, the limits of the most energy-rich hydrocarbon deposits seem visible, given current and prospective consumption rates.

The efforts to develop ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ energy sources have led to a focus on a key measure — the energy returns on energy invested (EREOI) in such renewable technologies. Those tracking the development of renewables are keenly interested in when they will meet or exceed the EROEI of fossil fuels, and whether, and when, such energy yields will be sufficient to support a high energy industrial civilization in the future.

This author suggests that this should lead to shifting the conceptual center of discussion as to economic (and social) activity to the energy flow factors which enable such activity.

4. The Rise Of Academic Understandings of ‘Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics’

This dovetails into a stream of academic thought which has steadily expanded in recent decades, often termed ‘non equilibrium thermodynamics’.

The foundations of this thought go back at least as far as Heraclitus of Ephesus, born about 560 BC, who saw all things as process. However, in recent decades astronomers, physicists and others have expanded, elaborated, and measured these concepts in universally applicable ways.

Re-casting the productivity issues in thermodynamic terms may help answer a key question.

On the one hand, some suggest that the current slowdown in productivity growth in developed economies is just a pause in the realization of gains from innovations in process as to the economic potentials of current developed societies — e.g. ‘big data’ computations, self driving cars, the spread of ‘digitization’ of business and government operations.

An alternative suggestion might be that the combination of restrictions of fossil fuel use, the energy costs of such use, and the energy investment costs of creating and deploying   renewable energy sources now imposes or will impose constraints on the rate of productivity gains, if any, which we can project for coming decades.

Given the recent ascent into widespread scholarly discussion of non equilibrium thermodynamics, I should to state at the outset what version of nonequilibrium thermodynamics frames the premises here used in approaching human productivity and ‘finance’.

Briefly stated, this essay proceeds from the premise that all ordered structures in the Universe are manifestations of ordered energy flows. All ‘tangible’ structures are composed of relational systems — systems of correlated elements. Thus, the ‘order’ In the universe arises from correlations among the elements in the structures. In some, as in ‘solids’, the correlations are so stable as to stabilize both spatial dispersion, and radial degrees of freedom, over the periods of observation — or interaction with another ordered structure, or system.

Dynamic systems at the macro scale available to humans — processing energy flows and altering its internal conformation and/or relationships with external systems over time, or process — entail both energy intake and dissipation. Ilya Prigogine condensed this seminal insight long ago. A simple and visible astronomic example is the Red Spot on Jupiter.

Thus, ‘energy’ is in a fundamental sense the sovereign coin of the realm, so to speak, in the creation and maintenance of all ordered systems.

The leading explicant of the underlying dynamic nature of the Universe is Tufts/Harvard professor Eric Chaisson. In a series of exhaustively documented, elegant books and articles, he explains the energy densities, and related complexity levels, of galaxies, suns, ants, plants, humans and human societies. See for example “Cosmic Evolution”, Harvard, 2001, and for beautiful illustrations

A critical metric in Chaisson’s extensive documentation of energy flows is ‘free energy rate density’ (the amount of energy flow through a system per unit of mass and unit of time). Life units, for example, embody higher free energy rate densities than do galaxies or suns: animals higher free energy rate densities than plants, and humans, with their artifacts, like cities and particular elements in cities (e.. Jet planes and computers) much higher free energy rate densities than animals as a whole. In the energy scales of the Universe, human civilization is an extremely rare high free energy density phenomenon.

For a somewhat broader context, though condensed, overview for the interested general public,   one can consult an article on ‘relational order theories’

As humans have organized the world around them, they have identified and constructed systems which have, to the humans, the characteristic of yielding more energy to the humans than the humans invest in them.

In agricultural societies, ‘land’ was often used as a conceptual catch-all for an energy yielding asset. (However, I understand the the word ‘capital’ was derived from the indo-european term for cattle, in an semi-nomadic phase of the indo europeans). A fishing resource, or the ocean as a whole, could also be so considered.

Let us focus on a world in which systems other than ‘land’ (or a fishery area) were made to yield energy returns on energy invested in them.

In the fossil fuel era, such a system could be a coal mine, an oil or gas well, etc. where we have accessed energy bound in hydrocarbons by previously living systems, and learned how to liberate and turn to our use that energy. In this world, more types of resource, and energy flows, are organized more flexibly, by entities including the holders of the symbols of ‘capital’.

As we seek to enter a larger scale ‘sustainable’ or ‘renewable’ energy era we consider artifactual photosynthetic systems, wind energy systems, nuclear energy systems, etc. As to all such systems specialized so as to yield to humans more energy than humans organize into them, we have come to seek to measure the ‘energy return on energy invested’.

5. Initial Application of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Concepts to Productivity and Energy Transition Issues.

Assuming that ‘productivity’, as to humans, corresponds roughly to the ‘energy’ which the human or the system in which the human functions brings to ‘goods and services’ — the fabrication, transport, communication, etc. which the human becomes involved in ‘producing’ — productivity, as measured by the output of units specified per person work unit, would be enhanced by more energy entrainment, and decreased by less.

Generalizing this, one might posit that in a world of high EROEI, per person ‘productivity’ gains can be high, and in a world of low EROEI, they will be low.

We have noted that some suggest that underlying gains in efficiency — compositional productivity, or multiple factor productivity — are in operation but not yet manifested in ways which register in the statistical identities and measures we now use.

Let us entertain an alternate hypothesis oriented to a nonequilibrium thermodynamics framework, and a simple model which might be used to attempt to test such an hypothesis, over time, with enough data accumulation and analysis.

A candidate hypothesis would be that the energy returns on energy investments in the interconnected global economic systems are now rewarding investment in energy production at lower than historic levels, and at levels which, given all the energy dissipation in cycling energy through the generation and consumption, re-generation cycles does not allow for much increase in the over all activity levels of the societies involved, over time and the continuing cycling process.

Let us consider a simple model in which the key variables are a ‘capital’ sector, the energy return on energy which is invested into the ‘capital’ apparatus, and a population. These elements are arranged in a simple linear cycle, and the result which matters most to humans is designated as per capita wealth, in energy terms, as follows.

Per capita (energy) wealth = ((K*EROEI)-ReinvE)/P

That is, the wealth per person, calibrated in energy units (which have correspondences to ‘goods’ and ‘services’), equals the energy flow into the capital apparatus times the energy return from that apparatus per unit of energy investment, minus the energy reinvested in the capital apparatus, divided by the total population.

The physical system is a cyclical, reiterative one, as follows. The population inputs energy into the capital apparatus, the apparatus returns (and distributes) the energy back into the population, the population ‘consumes’ the energy, building some of it into population and amenities, etc, and returns energy into the capital apparatus. And keep cranking.

Using a model such as this, one can imagine differing endowments in different polities — e.g. higher or lower current capital endowments, populations, EROEI results. Some interesting possible relationships are noted in the footnote.

Malthus’s famous views come to mind. If we were to adapt a Malthusian point of view, the K, or capital, factor was largely seen as land. The yield — the EROEI — of land had not shown great increases in centuries prior to Malthus, and nothing like ‘geometric’, or exponential, or repetitive doubling, would seem plausible at his time. So if one assumed that the total population would increase faster than did energy production from land, using historic forms of agricultural technology, people would live more poorly, or some of them would, or some would have to go — to be subtracted from the equation.

Let us now put in this formula the Industrial (or fossil fuel) Revolution. Suddenly (in historical terms) EROEI skyrockets — let us say up to 50 times the energy input. The population can expand (improving food supply in various energy-fed ways), the energy using apparati generally (goods and services) can expand, and the capital factor can increase. The cycle becomes wonderfully virtuous, and humanity bestrides the Earth beyond its agricultural dreams.

But now let us suppose there are limits to the extent the capital factor can increase, or the EROEI begins to decrease, or both. Depending on how one varies the critical factors of population size, capital stock, and EROEI, many scenarios can be produced, as noted before. But with capital limited or fixed, and no appreciable gains in EROEI, we could be headed back to the Malthus type of calculation.

Let us sketch a more optimistic scenario for a few centuries ahead.

Let us continue to assume that the EROEI on fossil fuels decreases, and/or fossil fuel capacity is capped in order to avoid overheating the whole human complex, with major losses of system function and human welfare.

But our specialists advise us that life on earth taps only a very small fraction of the solar energy impinging on earth, we also tap a small fraction of the wind energy available, and if we are clever, farsighted, and disciplined enough we might replace the fossil fuels, at levels comparable to or above current civilization energy levels, at EROEI ratios sufficient to maintain our population levels and our per capita welfare, and also feed back into the capacity machinery enough energy to keep that machinery, and the whole system, stable and growing.

If humanity is not to go on a severe diet at some point, this is clearly the situation which will have to be managed. We humans have a very big and tricky energy supply transition coming up, and there are many uncertainties involved in it.

We may not know just how rapidly the energy supply transition can occur.

Vaclav Smil counsels that we think in terms of a century or so, and has historical evidence to support his view. Vaclav Smil (2011), Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations, American Scientist.

Others suggest that the coming transition could be managed more rapidly. The current Administration in the United States is pursuing an aggressive program to facilitate adaptation of the electricity system to increased proportions of wind and solar electricity generation.

As of this writing, a 2016 projection of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance group projects that by 2027 renewable electrical energy sources will cost less than operation of fossil fuel plants, and by 2040 renewable technologies will improve their cost levels 40-60% and fossil fuel production will have shrunk to less than 50% of total electrical energy production worldwide. In the advanced economies of Europe and America, the fossil fuel shares will have shrunk to a third or less of total electrical energy supplies. And, as to transportation, electric vehicles would constitute about 35% of new vehicles sold.

We also may not know exactly what system wide EROEI levels are required to maintain the high levels of free energy densities prevalent in highly industrialized civilization. A currently circulating guess is 10/1.

We do not know how well the public in the industrialized areas will understand their situation, and have the patience and foresight to soldier through the required transitions.

Given these uncertainties, we still must attempt to project a path forward.

Let us trace out a scenario reflecting the possibility that we are at or near a difficult point in our energy base transition.

This scenario might be called a ‘valley of disappointment’ scenario. (That is the pessimistic part. The optimism is reflected in the projection that only a valley, not a cliff, looms before us.)

If and as we are now entering a situation in which the fossil fuel energy recovery rates are declining, and the renewable energy yields are increasing, but are currently only a bit above the base rate needed for advanced civilization , account only a small part of energy supply at this moment and need extensive energy-consuming complements to fill out the entire range of energy uses, we might predict that our societies could encounter the following situation.

A slowdown in global, composite EROEI levels relative to historic fossil fuel boom era EROEI levels,

  • and thus widespread, aggregate slowdowns in GDP, or GDP growth
  • and related slowdowns in per person productivity gains,
  • and thus slowdowns in consequent ‘standard of living’ gains.

Even if the renewable energy sources were eventually to produce high and reliably increasing levels of energy flows in human societies, efficiently spread throughout our societies, we could see

  • lags between investment in the renewable energy sources, and the related complexes which are required to make them broadly and efficiently usable, and their full effectiveness, and thus
  • human societies enduring some decades of transiti

All this leading to

  • A lull in standard of living gains, if not a period of decline, and
  • slow progress in improving them again. And, consequently,

as these slowdowns occur, and a resumption of something like historic welfare gains seems remote, considerable dissatisfaction arising in populations which are accustomed to rapid gains in ‘welfare’, or standard of living.

Does this picture resemble what we now may be seeing in the ‘highly developed’, extremely entitled populations of America and Europe?

Were this overview accepted, the 2016 Bloomberg new energy investment scenario seems to suggest that by 2040 renewable EROEI would have increased by 40-60% and even transportation would be moving toward energy efficiency sufficient to service high energy human civilization. Such a rate of progress could make less onerous the ‘valley of disappointment’. We could at least better see our way to a more abundant future, perhaps even more abundant than our fossil fed recent past.  

6. Implications For Financial Policy

In this sort of scenario would the roles of ‘finance’ differ from those now prescribed?

‘Policy makers’ may be unclear whether they may just assume that ‘fiscal’ stimuli will draw on an underused and available well of production and productivity-increasing opportunities on which to spend money tokens, or whether their justification rests solely on a judgment that they, better than the market, can discriminate between higher EROEI possibilities and less productive ones. However, they may be inclined to choose to funnel resources to long term thermodynamic gain as well as or better than an unguided or unassisted market. We have done well in the past by encouraging canals and railroads, for two examples.

As to monetary tools, on the face of it, a regime in which low interest rates prevailed would seem to accord with a relative scarcity of thermodynamically fruitful (in customary language highly productive) investment opportunities. That is, low interest rates would appropriately reflect generally low returns to investments.  

If one expected that ‘natural forces’ — e.g. ‘innovations’ — would soon replenish the inventory of potentially rewarding opportunities, one might just hold steady and wait — perhaps a few years.

If on the other hand the ‘valley of disappointment’ construct more accurately depicts our situation, the ‘wait’ — the period of low returns on ‘capital’ generally — might go on for some decades. A great deal of adjustments in matters such as annuities, pensions, bond integrity — indeed, public and private finance generally — would be compelled.

Thus, there would seem to be a strong case for monetary policy functionaries and advisors to focus clearly on non equilibrium thermodynamics, EROEI oriented, analyses of economic phenomena. If this work is done thoroughly and well, the ‘valley of disappointment’ hypothesis may be confirmed in whole or substantial part, or disconfirmed. We may learn enough to get a better picture of workable paths through the transition before us.

7. Diplomacy

If the more advanced economies are facing thermodynamic/economic constraints in the upcoming Great Energy Transition, whereas on the other hand less developed venues feel entitled to a great deal of economic catch-up, regardless of atmosphere heating results, we have a continuing difficulty in managing world climate protection and acceptable rates of welfare improvement in some large and ambitious countries.  

The oil-laden Persian Gulf area is a continuing management problem. The deepest and most easily accessible pools of liquid hydrocarbons are in the hands of archaic political systems, some of whom — like Iran — have felt badly treated by the industrialized ‘West’. But USA Investment in an order-maintaining military presence in the Persian Gulf area most directly benefits India and China –the US only indirectly. This has not escaped the attention of one of the presidential contenders in the United States.

Diplomacy will be involved in finding ways to reconcile nativist-nationalist impulses in several European countries, and in the United States, with the economic and social advantages of global integration. The recent ‘Brexit’ act highlights the significance of this phenomenon.

Notwithstanding all the above, the hierarchy building imperative evident the hierarchical construction of order in the Universe explains at the most basic level currently available the tendency to global human integration evident in the last few centuries. This integration dynamic is fundamental.

But the equally underlying stochastic nature of the Universe counsels that nothing is guaranteed to we weird, extreme, socialized apes who seek to live like high technology, high energy, densely clustered ants, in a dynamic, promising, but perilous journey through life’s accumulated energy bounty into a new era of energy entrapment on Earth.

Thus the civilized effort to make light out of international heat, and workable coherence out of urgent parochialisms, has fundamental tasks before it in this era of change in the energy fundamentals. An understanding of the currents moving the ships of state, as well as steady hands on the helms, are needed.

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.

Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.

The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.

Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.

Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.

Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.

The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.

How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?

Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.

First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.

Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.

Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.

Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.

Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.

None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.

Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.

I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.

First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank

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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*

Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.

While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.

Large volume but low price

The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.

Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.

Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.

For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.

Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.

For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.

Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.

The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.

The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.

As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.

In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.

Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.

So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.

(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)

(first published on China Daily via World Bank)

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