Monday, December 04, 2006

Ecobollocks

Am I the only person out here getting a little bit pissed off with the eco-warriors and doomsayers who seem finally to have won the ears of our politicians?

I read in my quality weekend newspaper, an article about the need to cut down on carbon emissions from traffic. In it, after some slightly tortuous maths that I am nevertheless quite prepared to accept, the author states that in order to stabilise the global carbon output by 2030, we in the UK would need to cut our emissions by 87%, and in Australia and the US that figure is 94%. To put that in a little perspective, the Kyoto protocol (to which the US and Australia have not signed up) commits the signatories to cutting their carbon emissions by 5.2% by 2012.

In short. We are doomed.

I've said here before (but can't find the post and so can't link - feel free to look through my entire two year archive) that I think it is madness to try and stop global warming. It's going to happen whatever we do. If the world's entire man-made carbon output stopped tomorrow, the planet's average temperature would go on rising for at least a century. We may well have already reached a tipping point which will lead to an upheaval ending in a new, higher equilibrium than the one that has lasted since the last ice age.

From listening to our politicians, who are currently slugging it out to try and see who is the greenest, you'd think that we could turn back this clock. David Cameron and his Prius-loving Tories want to tax us out of gas-guzzling 4x4s and encourage us all to have windmills on our roofs. Tony Blair Gordon Brown wants to introduce road pricing, to force people to give up their cars and take to the busses. Everyone is talking about doing their bit for the environment and people who are in any way profligate with energy risk being pilloried as the new pariahs. You think smoking's bad - just wait until the crowd finds out you flew abroad for your holidays.

Meanwhile, in China, they're opening a new coal-fired power station every week. India is industrialising at a phenomenal pace. Even AIDS-ravaged Africa is slowly gaining some measure of economic development. In South America, a universal hatred of the policies of George W has done what no other American President has ever managed and brought a measure of stability to many nations, centred around Venezuela's newly re-elected Hugo Chavez. All over the world, developing nations are clamouring for more energy, and we, the beneficiaries of over a century of oil-based growth, have the nerve to suggest they should cut back.

It's not going to happen by 2130, let alone 2030. If the combined diplomatic power of all the nations of Kyoto can only manage a pledge of 5.2%, and that unlikely to be met by many signatories, then pushing for more is pissing in the wind.

The problem is, it's taken the developed world so long to accept global warming as a concept, that now the enlightened few are coming around, they feel the need to jump blindly onto any environmental bandwagon going. The loudest voices seem to be shouting that we must go back to a pre-industrialisation existence, adopt a socialist utopian world of ultra-co-operation and generally accept that our lives will have to be less good in order to safeguard the planet for future generations.

To which I say bollocks.

If we ramp back our development, put huge tax burdens on the wealth generators, destroy our highly developed national and international transport infrastructures and promise to be nicer to Gaia in the future, it will make bugger all difference to our children and their children. Global warming will still happen; hurricanes will be stronger and more frequent; ice caps will melt and seas rise; even the Gulf Stream might stop working, causing the UK to enter a mini ice-age.* The only difference will be that whilst all this is happening, our hand-wringing enviro-apologists will have neither the technical skill nor the financial strength to do anything about these things.

Instead of trying to stop global warming, an in the process bringing about global recession, our newly greened eco-leaders should be doing everything in their power to prepare for and ameliorate what is inevitably going to happen. In the US, this might mean having a slightly better plan of action for what to do the next time a hurricane wipes out a major city. In the UK, this might mean developing better flood prevention measures and moving housing away from flood plains (instead of building four million more homes on them, as good old John Prescott wants to do in the Thames Gateway). Internationally this might mean the rich nations putting their hands in their pockets not to buy carbon trade offsets, but to set up massive emergency aid stocks and systems of delivery.

In short, stop wasting time trying to undo global warming, and put some of that massive body of technical knowledge into learning how to live with it.

This is not to say we shouldn't try to cut down our reliance on fossil fuels, ideally eliminating their need entirely. It makes sound economic sense to pursue alternative energy sources, both to hedge against a time when oil and coal run out, and to cope with their geo-political instability. Barrel oil prices might have stabilised for now, but it will only take another Anglo-US adventure in the middle east for them to leap up again, with consequent destabilising effects all over the globe.

If I could run the Batmobile on biodiesel produced from locally grown rapeseed oil, I would. Because of the insanity that is current UK energy policy, and the even greater madness that is the EU common agricultural policy, I can't. Nor is it likely I will be able to for the foreseeable future. What will happen is that the fossil-fuel diesel I buy will grow increasingly more expensive right up until the next election comes along, when for a few months at least it will miraculously drop in price.

The short term nature of our politics means that achieving an 87% reduction in our carbon output is impossible. It is also pointless and detrimental to the good of all. We should stop trying to return to the past and start planning for the future.

* my personal favourite, this one. It would mean skiing in the Cairngorms as good as in the Rockies - then I wouldn't have to fly to Canada for my holidays. Just think of the carbon savings!

10 Comments:

Blogger John R. said...

The short term nature of our politics means that achieving an 87% reduction in our carbon output is impossible. It is also pointless and detrimental to the good of all. We should stop trying to return to the past and start planning for the future.

Personally, I'd say continuing to foster an attitude of, "Fuck it, it'll happen anyway" - which has been pretty much a universal response from just about everyone since the Year Dot - is about as unhelpful as it's possible to get. I'm not saying planning for a warmer future is a bad thing - it's a necessary thing, as you say - but as things stand, if we continue with that mindset then global warming will continue to be a problem after the 50-100 years over which we no longer have any real control. In theory, proper action now and in the next few decades could stabilise the effect at its 2050-2100 levels, which it won't do if we don't take that action for another fifty years.

And the longer we spend saying, "Well, fuck it. Look at China", the longer it'll be before we do get a lid on the problem. Someone always has to blink first, and as far as sacrificing our economic prosperity goes - there's nothing to say that the one goes hand in hand with the other. Cutting emissions doesn't mean crashing to 3rd world economic levels. If handled properly, there's no reason it wouldn't do the opposite (and, conveniently, give us a head start on the rest of the world).

As you say, cutting our reliance on fossil fuels is a good thing all round, from a long term planning standpoint especially, completely divorced from global warming. But it's not enough - we also need to massively cut the amount of energy we spend.

It is possible to run a car on biodiesel - and if the Batmobile's a diesel you should be able to run it on standard vegetable oil (which even at supermarket prices is still 20p a litre cheaper than diesel) with no more than a fuel line heating kit and, at most, a secondary tank (very cheap conversions, both). But to grow the amount of crops needed to produce the volume of plant oil needed to replace all our fossil road fuels would take way more land than is available (on either a UK or a global level). And that's without trying to grow the same stuff for use in bioplastics to replace all those standard ones we use.

I'm not some Peak Oil nutjob, but the fact remains that it is going to run out and from a forward planning point of view we need viable alternatives in place at a level we can sustain well before it happens. And at present we simply use too much energy on too many of the wrong things in too many of the wrong ways for them to be sustainable without the black stuff. Cuts planned out now at relative leisure will be far smoother than cuts that are more forced on us by circumstance later on, and give us a good long time to adjust.

December 05, 2006 2:00 am  
Blogger JamesO said...

There was a story in the news not that long ago when the Asda in Llanelli (IIRC) was selling cooking oil at some ridiculously low price. They couldn't work out why it was marching off the shelves until the town's streets started to smell like a chip shop. Then the customs and excise boys stepped in and put an end to all the fun.

Perhaps I'm just too much of a cynic and old curmudgeon, John. I realise that something needs to be done, either to curb our energy use or to make that energy available in a more eco-friendly form. What bugs me, is that our so-called leaders seem determined to do the wrong thing every time. The cynic in me thinks they don't give a shit about the environment and just want to find new ways to tax us. Even this would be fine if they'd just use a tiny bit of that tax take to build for the future that I think is inevitably going to come. As it is, I can see future politicians wringing their hands as the disasters piled up, and saying 'we tried, honest!' rather than making any sensible plans to cope.

December 05, 2006 5:34 pm  
Blogger Dr. Lisa said...

As a professor in an environmental field, I have to take issue with some of the things you lump together here, too, James. Road pricing, for one. There are complicated reasons for and against, but not all environmental organizations support it uniformly. I'm personally in favor in most, but not all, contexts.

Furthermore, there are some very good technologies being employed in China and India even as they industrialize. As much as we want to tear our hair over coal (and we should), there are some very good coal and biomass demonstration projects--these should give hope. Furthermore, Chinese and Indian scientists/engineers are developing some of the better biodiesel, biomass, and clean(er) coal technologies. These countries are not being profligate necessarily as they pursue greater levels of productivity. In some ways yes, they are, in other ways, no they are not. It's more complicated than you suggest.

I can also see your point, but I think it has to do more with the unreflective aspect of much environmental activism and activism. For example,the EU's biodiesel mandate has had severe consequences abroad (Malaysian palm forests). As an another example, environmentalism is regularly used as an exclusionary practice in the US: "well, we don't the extra traffic and air pollution" is a lot more politically correct than "we don't want any more people (especially poor people) living here." All of that said, it's probably not wise to dismiss all of it as mere "thought police": as John points out, there are big environmental health issues for everybody if we don't find ways of manking substantial improvements.

Finally, the question about energy for transport is a big one (I am the director of our Uni's alternative fuels lab), because if an oil is good for fuel, it's also usually good for human consumption, and many, many people suffer from calorie and fat deprivation (not me). You've got bad logic here; somehow just because China and India are becoming energy consumers closing in our rate, you seem to suggest that we're screwed, so screw it (as John says). It doesn't have to be that way. Why should we tolerate wasteful practices *anywhere*--whether it's on your home turf, mine, or in Asia?

December 05, 2006 7:51 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Possibly a bit foolish me wading onto your turf, Lisa, but I welcome your comments. I don't really mean to say 'we're screwed anyway, so screw it,' and my whirlwind ride around the politics of the developed and developing worlds is short on detail, I know. But my central point is that we are focussing so hard on policies to stop the juggernaut. Yes, we need to cut our energy consumption, but we also need to accept that anything we do in that direction will be too little and too late - that's cynical I know, but also I think realistic. So would not a better use of resources be to try and develop coping strategies?

It was road-pricing - currently hot in the press over here - that started my thinking on this rant, and perhaps it's a subject for another post some other time. But our beloved politicians are touting it as a solution to congestion and carbon emission, whereas in truth it can be used as one or the other at any one time - you either price people out of their cars entirely, or you make the road network so efficient it has room for even more. This sort of political doublethink is what makes me feel so hopeless about the chances of halting, let alone reversing global warming.

December 05, 2006 8:06 pm  
Blogger Dr. Lisa said...

Ok, to get the long version of this, you can download a podcast I am planning to do of one of my classes, but the politicians are not necessarily wrong on this or engaging in doublethink, unless the engineers and the economists are, too.

The goal for congestion charging (which is different from London's cordon toll in practice) is to keep traffic in free-flowing conditions.

As a result, you can in theory increase throughput on the roadway--which is why some groups disapprove: "let the driving bastards sit in their own clusterfuck," say they.

You also *might* decrease emissions with pricing, because cars idling in congestion are perhaps adding more emissions than the free-flow traffic in a tolled scenario. I'm not as convinced of this one as I might be, but it's not so far outside the models of traffic emissions that the idea is worthy of a horselaugh. I think a lot depends on vehicle mix here.

In some cities, it's estimated that 20 percent of the traffic causes about 60 percent of the smog-formers and commensurate amounts of other emissions. So another way to deal with emissions is at vehicle registration time. (Note energy consumption and emissions are related but not necessarily in a linear way.)

You should feel free to wander all over the turf, JamesO. Because I work in this field, I care about it, and I want other people to care, too. Smart people disagree about all of these things because they are complicated.

December 06, 2006 2:50 am  
Blogger Vincent said...

I get the Integrity Research Institute's 'Future Energy eNews' newsletter (see http://users.erols.com/iri/) and it includes articles drawn from journals, newspapers and websites about progress in the energy field, everything from off-shore wind farms to cold fusion to how studying sea sponges can suggest 'new ways to build complex semiconductor devices for cheaper, more efficient solar cells'. If nothing else, it's evidence that a huge amount of work is being done across the world to try and address these issues.

December 06, 2006 10:16 am  
Blogger JamesO said...

The podcast sounds very interesting, Lisa. I look forward to hearing it. I take your point about road-pricing, too. I just feel our beloved government is using it as an excuse to raise more taxes, and use whichever excuse suits their particular audience to justify it.

Thanks for the link, Vincent - looks fascinating. What I'd like to see is some of these ideas being adopted more widely - a little bit of carrot to go with the green stick.

December 06, 2006 4:43 pm  
Blogger Vincent said...

Unfortunately, the big hurdle for most of these energy technologies has traditionally been the cheap price of gas and oil. When solar cells produce the same amount of energy but at, for example, five times the cost, it requires something other than free market drivers to push forward the technology to get that down to a competitive rate. That's where government incentives come in, but should they back wind power, solar, hydrogen cell technology or something else? There's a danger that subsidising an industry will result in an industry that will never be able to compete in the market without that subsidy. Fortunately, this is becoming an increasingly moot point. The overall trend for oil and gas prices from now on will be upwards due to diminishing reserves and supplies that are increasingly at risk. Solar isn't five times as expensive as oil and gas any more. It's still not as cheap, but it's getting close. As soon as gas and oil lose their price advantage, free market economics will kick in and everything else becomes fair game (which also illustrates why it's pointless to rely on the market to change things, while it has a speculative element, it's essentially reactive rather than proactive).

And of course someone, somewhere might come up with a way to harness zero-point energy. If it's possible and it happens, everything changes anyway. Imagine if you could buy a ZPE generator that would thereafter supply your non-polluting energy needs for free. You don't pay for heating or lighting or for the electricity that boils your kettle. You car runs on batteries charged overnight for free. The price of every good you buy no longer includes the energy costs required to produce it, save for the capital cost of the generators. Global warming could be countered by everyone leaving their air conditioning units on all the time. Possibly.

Of course, it may never happen. But then there are some scientists that think if a project on the scale of the Manhattan Project was mounted (which was, admittedly, very, very expensive and, admittedly, won't actually happen) it could be a reality in a matter of years.

December 06, 2006 5:46 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

I can't remember where the quote came from about nuclear fusion, but it was something along the lines that in the nineteen fifties, they said fusion generation would be an economic reality in fifty years time; today they say it will be an economic reality in fifty years time; in fifty years time it will be 'just fifty years away'.

My original point was never that we should give up trying to develop as many different and novel energy generating schemes as possible, nor that we should stop trying to reverse global warming as much as possible (though I argue as to just how much that is), more that we seem to be overlooking the fact that shit is going to happen and we really need to start planning for that shit now rather than pretending we can stop if from happening at all.

Isn't zero point energy what they use to power the Stargate?

December 06, 2006 6:45 pm  
Blogger Vincent said...

I did see a partisan documentary that argued spending money on averting climate change was actually wasteful - billions and billions of dollars would be spent on initiatives like the Kyoto protocol that would have a negligible impact on the problem. The presenter argued that spending that money instead on alleviating the problem of global poverty was more effective, more socially responsible and, by bringing the third world on a par with the first, allow everyone to have the money and the technology to tackle the problem of global warming and pollution. He made some good points. Whether he was right, I don't know, but it does show there are different ways to skin a hamster.

Yes, I believe ZPE could be used to power the Stargate. See! The US military have the technology already, they just won't let the rest of us have it!

December 07, 2006 8:17 am  

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