Farming and the environment

Farming often gets a bad press. In the developed world it is, for example, a protected sector enjoying relatively high levels of subsidy which, at least in the UK, goes disproportionately to larger landowners. More generally, farmers are often held responsible for environmental damage (for a recent example, see Scale of ‘nitrate timebomb’ revealed). This does not do justice to highly productive farmers who care deeply about the countryside.

In particular, pesticides are considered by some as a scourge to be got rid of rather than an aid to efficient, environmentally friendly food production. This is reflected in the status of organic farming in many people’s eyes and the disproportionate amount we read about it, despite it accounting for just 6.2% of farmland in Europe in 2015 (despite more than doubling since 2002, according to EU statistics).

This focus on what continues to be a niche sector adds weight to the argument that all farming should move in this direction, with continued pressure to phase out a number of useful pesticides. Already, the crop protection market is under intense pressure, with reapproval being based on theoretical hazard rather than actual risk. But there is a particular focus on two key materials at present: the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (or neonics) and the herbicide glyphosate (sold under the Roundup brand by Monsanto).

In 2013, the EU put a ban on the most widely used neonicotinoids, although the UK government at the time considered this unnecessary, based on the scientific evidence. However, this month Michael Gove, the newish Environment Secretary (and previously not an obvious friend of the ‘Green Blob’) has changed the official stance and supports a proposed ban on neonics except in greenhouses. He argues that the weight of evidence now supports such a ban (UK ‘will support’ neonicotinoid pesticide ban).

This has been generally welcomed by the organic movement and anti-pesticide campaigners, but they certainly don’t see this as anything other than another step towards their final goal. For a good summary of their arguments, read this opinion piece from Hannah Lownsbrough (director of SumOfUs, which claims to ‘stop big corporations behaving badly’): Michael Gove is backing a ban on bee-killing pesticides. But that’s only a start.

Although the British government is now likely to vote for the extended ban on neonics, the Environment Secretary continues to support reapproval of glyphosate in Europe. However, the UK vote was insufficient for a decision to be made (EU hits deadlock over license for Roundup herbicide). 14 countries voted in favour of a five year extension to the licence, as proposed by the Commission, but nine voted against and five abstained.

Last month, the Council failed to vote at all on the Commission’s original proposal of a ten year licence extension. If a second vote on the current proposal again results in a stalemate, then the Commission has the right to bring in its current proposal, but the political sensitivity of this means it would prefer the Member State governments (ie the Council) to decide. Reuters report that the French government would like to see a three year extension to the licence, and this could in practice end up as the way to break the deadlock.

Treatment of pesticides is becoming more and more like GM crops, where entrenched political positions mean that decisions cannot be made by the Council, despite favourable recommendations from independent scientists working on behalf of EFSA. The pro-organic, anti-pesticide movement has the bit between its teeth and sees continued progress being made to fulfil its agenda.

The environmentalist lobby is firmly entrenched in Brussels and in many national capitals and continually punches above its weight. In this, it is helped by the instincts of the majority of citizens, who don’t understand that tiny traces of pesticides present no danger to them or that rDNA technology is not such a major change to crop breeding as it has been painted. When asked general questions about such things, without putting them into the context of their role in delivering a healthy, affordable food supply, their gut reaction is often to be negative.

The reality, as ever, is somewhat different. No-one can properly explain the reason for the large fluctuations in the population of bees, for example, and, to my knowledge (although I stand to be corrected) there is no evidence to suggest that countries that have banned neonics have any less of a problem with colony collapse than those that continue to use them. Insecticides are by their nature, of course, harmful to insects to a greater or lesser degree, and neonicotinoids are no exception. But the real impact an only be determined by looking at the evidence in actual use.

Similarly, glyphosate is only under such pressure because of a dubious reclassification by the IARC as a probable carcinogen. This single, disputed, opinion has been enough to give the campaigners leverage to pressurise gullible politicians into voting for a ban.

In practice, these decisions are considered and voted on in isolation, often with the good intention of protecting the public and the environment, but in practical reality to assuage the green lobby. Farming, whether ‘conventional’ (ie efficient) or ‘organic’ (ie, lower yielding) has an enormous impact on the environment. Whether this is good, bad or neutral is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth is that – unless we put a higher value on other species than we do on our own – sufficient food has to be produced to feed the current and future population. If we tried to do this using an organic approach, we would need to use considerably more land, destroying existing wildlife habitats (though creating others).

Since no synthetic fertilizer would be permitted, we would have to move to a vegetarian diet, since meat production would be unsustainable. Ironically, though, we would still need to maintain and graze large numbers of farm animals to provide sufficient manure as a nitrogen source to boost yields. Meanwhile, losses of crops to pests and diseases would increase considerably in the absence of modern crop protection agents, and the need to plough to control weeds would release more organic carbon from the soil.

Banning useful pesticides, whose risks are understood and can be well managed, is the thin end of a wedge that could in the longer run both reduce our food security and have a big environmental impact.

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Unstoppable momentum

It’s that time of year again. The latest climate change summit – COP23 – has opened in Bonn, this time with a surprisingly low profile. This annual event is, of course, an opportunity to highlight the key issues that activists and many mainstream scientists worry about, so there is an accompanying stream of news releases, featuring, for example, the claim that records are being surpassed: 2017 ‘very likely’ in top three warmest years on record. If this turns out not to be the case (quite possible after the end of the recent El Niño), the fact will quietly be ignored.

This hype is not new, but one innovation is the chairing of this meeting by the President of Fiji, chosen as a representative of the small island nations considered to be at high risk from sea level rise. This, of course, is not just a conference to agree policies, but a stage-managed show to reinforce the importance of climate change as an issue. For a flavour of this, it’s worth looking at the Guardian’s picture gallery (Politicians and activists gather for COP23 Bonn climate talks – in pictures).

It’s the activist events and demonstrations, with politicians and officials looking on, that provide the eye-catching images. There are demonstrations against German coal mines and coal-fired power stations and in favour of gender equality and, judging by the final picture in the gallery, this event provides an opportunity for just about any other issue to be aired at the same time; a sort of all-inclusive campaigner-fest.

Perhaps most worrying is the use of a children’s climate change march in the conference centre. Encouraging youngsters to parade with banners in support of ‘saving the world’ smacks of exploitation. Using impressionable young people to promote a cause they are too young to have developed their own views on is distasteful, whatever the cause.

Earlier events have made front-page news and prime-time television, but public (and media) interest has been on the wane since the supposedly pivotal Copenhagen conference in 2009. This seems to be becoming another issue people live with rather than worry too much about. Although the transfer of most articles on the topic to the inside pages gives a clear suggestion that this is the case, hard data is difficult to come by.

Recently however, an interesting nugget emerged recently, reported by Paul Matthews on the Climate Scepticism blog (Ipsos Mori: UK climate concern decreasing). The very name of the blog would unfortunately mean that a great many people would ignore it, but the report is a factual one: at a recent event for environmental communicators at Bristol Zoo, a speaker from the polling firm reported that the percentage of people in the UK saying they are very or fairly concerned about climate change has fallen progressively from a figure of 82% in 2005 to 60% in 2016.

For those people convinced that climate change is the issue of the day, this is a worrying trend and one indication of why campaigners (including quite a number of scientists) are so keen to keep up the pressure on policymakers. Messages are worded and spun to reinforce the case that more action is urgent. It is now generally recognised that the climate models used to make projections for the IPCC are biased upwards and that climate sensitivity is highly likely to be significantly lower than was stubbornly believed until recently. But, rather than welcoming this as good news, the message is that this simply gives us a slightly better chance of keeping the increase in average temperatures to 1.5° (a target already deemed impossible a decade earlier).

As it happens, the choice of Germany as the country to physically host the conference is likely to prove a mixed blessing for the re-elected Angela Merkel, currently in negotiations to form a new coalition government. She may be perhaps the most successful European leader of this generation, but her CDU party’s reduced majority (as well as the loss of votes for the SDP, now in opposition) shows that Germany is not immune to the current wave of popularism and disenchantment with the political establishment.

One crucial factor is the need this time to include the Green Party in the coalition. Despite Frau Merkel’s prominent role in promoting the energiewende, the Greens are demanding a more rapid withdrawal from the use of coal to generate electricity, and stronger policies to eliminate the petrol and diesel cars, replacing with electric ones.

And yet, despite the clear problems associated with running a stable electricity grid with the high levels of solar and wind generating capacity already put in place, no-one has a clear answer as to how to guarantee continuity of supply in a cold, dark winter (other than importing nuclear- or fossil fuel-generated electricity from neighbouring countries).

Could this turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of putting together a stable coalition? The alternatives are either for the Greens to compromise on their ambitions, or for the CDU to commit to a transition away from fossil fuels that this currently impossible to achieve.

And if a rich, environmentally-friendly country such as Germany can’t achieve the rapid decarbonisation demanded, what chance is there for the rest of the world to slash emissions as governments pay lip service to? This is highlighted by the annual summary of emissions published by the UN just prior to the Bonn conference (Emissions gap ‘alarmingly high’ says UN). The Paris agreement allows countries to make individual pledges towards the overarching emissions reduction target. To date, these cover only a third of the cuts deemed necessary by 2030.

From the point of view of campaigners, continued pressure is clearly needed to bridge that gap. But if countries are either unwilling or unable to meet the challenge, as seems to be the case, then what is to be done. Is it enough, as activists suggest, simply to build up an unstoppable momentum for change, when this is likely to run into the brick wall of lack of technical capacity to achieve the goals? Or are those of us sceptical of this course simply being unambitious and negative? Time will tell.

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What has science ever done for us?

With apologies to Monty Python, this seems like as good a title as any for what I have to say this week, prompted by an essay on the BBC website by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, current president of the Royal Society (How science transformed the world in 100 years). In a world in which science is too often feared and distrusted, it’s good to see such a prominent member of the scientific Establishment speaking out in defence of the sector.

He starts by saying “If we could miraculously transport even the smartest people from around 1900 to today’s world, they would be simply astonished at how we now understand things that had puzzled humans for centuries.” He also makes the point that scientific knowledge is itself morally neutral; it is how we apply that knowledge where problems may occur.

Towards the end of the piece, he writes “Science is the pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That pursuit of knowledge has also shaped the way we view the world, as has the application of the knowledge. It has transformed our lives, generally for the better. We live nearly twice as long today as our ancestors did in 1900 and the quality of our lives is far better than it was then. But the uses of science and technology are not shaped by science and scientists alone. They depend on an interplay of cultural, economic and political factors.”

All incontrovertible stuff, you might think, but one of the most interesting aspects of opinion pieces like this is often the comments made by readers. In this case, there is a range from a religious viewpoint that science is essentially responsible for all the bad things in our lives, to complete confidence that science is a tool for good.

One argument is that it is science that has brought misery and destruction on us, summed up by this comment: “And as a consequence of how stupid we are, we now face extinction.
Humans, the only species foolish/stupid & insane enough to Trash, Destroy, Poison, Overpopulate and Cook the very planet that endeavours to sustain them.”
This is a pretty extreme view but, in a more measured form, has actually become rather widely accepted.

It is, for example, common to hear people say that the root cause of all our problems is overpopulation, with groups such as Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) being mainstream and clearly well supported. Prominent patrons include, most famously, Sir David Attenborough, but also Jonathon Porritt, Paul Ehrlich, James Lovelock, Sir Crispin Tickell and a sprinkling of figures from the Arts.

Their website includes quotes from the great and the good, including “The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us and it is the poor people of the world who will suffer most” (Sir David Attenborough), “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet. If there were just a few of us, then the nasty things we do wouldn’t really matter and Mother Nature would take care of it — but there are so many of us” (Jane Goodall) and “Population was a big issue about 30 years ago, now it’s not, but I suspect it will come back because it has to be discussed as one of the big environmental problems of our time, it’s one animal species out of control, and the awful thing is that if we don’t control it then Mother Nature will do it for us”(Sir Crispin Tickell).

This pessimistic and negative view of our species is unfortunately very common among the broad environmentalist movement. It’s a them-and-us situation, with ‘them’ being all other species, but the difference is that we are the bad guys. Homo sapiens is a unique species in many ways. We are able to reason and invent and also be self-critical, but this aspect can quickly turn to self-loathing.

For those of this turn of mind, scientific discovery allows technological innovation, which in turn has decimated other species, polluted the air, oceans and rivers and is now leading to global warming. By this reckoning, the Deep Greens who probably represent the extreme fringes of the population control movement would prefer to see our entire species disappear from the planet. Only then will Nature be able to follow its course.

The alternative argument is that humans are fully part of the natural world and are only doing what they are capable of. Although as hunter/gatherers humans can only subsist in small groups ranging over significant areas of land, the development of farming has vastly increased the Earth’s carrying capacity for our species. And science, as encompassed in the development of the Haber-Bosch process, has allowed the present population of over 7 billion to exist by increasing agricultural outputs.

The point is that there has to date been no hard limit to the total human population, because we have been able to surmount those that exist. In doing so, of course, we have had a large impact on the environment and other species. There may be cause to regret some of this, which is why many countries have active conservation programmes and are taking efforts to continue improving air and water quality.

But, while other species may be driven by instinct without regard for the impact on others, we can reason and make moral judgements on the impact of our own activities and, in some cases, choose to take action to remedy them. Scientific discovery allows us to understand these impacts on natural processes, and also to develop effective ways to modify them.

At the same time, scientific knowledge and innovative skill has immeasurably improved the lives of billions of people. Things are far from perfect, and conflicts can bring misery to millions, but these are a result primarily of political and cultural differences. Scientific knowledge may have allowed the development of tremendously destructive weapons, but it has not been the cause of conflict.

Too often, we take for granted the benefits of scientific progress, while decrying the negative aspects. But identifying unforeseen problems allows us to solve them. To focus too much on these problems means we risk losing many of the benefits of progress in the name of ever greater safety, which itself may be illusory. Science underpins the modern world, and we should be grateful for it.

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Acceptable opinions

Last week, I wrote about the apparent lack of balance in the present EU review of the ubiquitous weedkiller, glyphosate (Double standards in safety assessments). On one hand, MEPs showed themselves only too willing to be swayed by what they perceive as public opinion (in reality, essentially the active anti-pesticide lobby and public inability to understand that the dose makes the poison) while simply ignoring the expert opinion of independent scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemical Agency that use of glyphosate is safe.

At the same time, the fact that the ‘evidence’ on which the campaign for a ban has been based – a single desk study for the International Agency for Research on Cancer – has been shown to be both dubious and championed by at least one scientist with a demonstrable conflict of interests, has been quietly ignored. Reuters saw successive drafts of the study from which positive statements on safety had been systematically removed in a totally untransparent way. While they reported the story fully, most mainstream news media simply ignored it.

This includes the BBC, perhaps because of an unconscious(?) bias against pesticides. But this same institution, while ignoring this blatant piece of anti-science policymaking, has chosen this week to castigate itself for not holding Lord Lawson to task for making a minor factual error when interviewed recently on the thorny topic of climate change (BBC wrong not to challenge climate sceptic Lord Lawson). The Beeb, having had complaints from listeners which it had at first rejected, now admits that it breached its ‘guidelines on accuracy and impartiality’.

The sole crime of the interviewer on the Today programme was not to immediately challenge Lord Lawson’s statement that ‘official figures showed that during this past 10 years, if anything…average world temperature has slightly declined’. Peter Stott of the Met Office was interviewed the following day to refute this, and the Global Warming Policy Foundation also confirmed that the statement was incorrect.

End of story, you might think; interviewee gets facts slightly wrong, later corrected, interviewer doesn’t pick up on it at the time, and everyone gets on with their lives. Meanwhile, Al Gore was also interviewed and made some fairly strong statements about the benefits of renewable energy and the supposed increasing incidence of extreme weather events. He claimed that, in the ten years since his first film on the topic – An Inconvenient Truth – ‘climate-related extreme weather events have grown far more numerous and far more destructive’ and that researchers were ‘virtually unanimous on this and have been for decades’.

Arguably, these statements were as inaccurate as Lord Lawson’s, but there was no hint of complaint. The old chestnut of 97% of scientists apparently agreeing that climate change is man-made was wheeled out in support of the position taken. That’s because climate change has become a moral issue – even a theological one – rather than a scientific one. For a flavour of this, we only need read the Guardian’s take on the story (BBC apologises over interviewer with climate denier Lord Lawson). The term ‘climate denier’, meaningless in itself, is an alert that the person in question is beyond the pale and should not be given airtime.

To quote from the piece “’I really thought the climate change debate had finished and that these voices of the very rich and well connected had lost relevance in the whole argument,’ said Dr Tim Thornton, a recently retired GP from Yorkshire who made one of the complaints. ‘It’s fine that they don’t like the idea of climate change but they are on a par with flat-earthers.’”

This was also accompanied by comments from Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change: “As well as taking account of the rights of marginal voices like Lord Lawson to be heard, the BBC should also take account of the harm that its audiences can experience from the broadcast of inaccurate information. His inaccurate assertion that there has been no change in extreme weather was harmful to the programme’s listeners because they may have been misled into believing that they do not need to take precautions against the increasing risk of heatwaves and flooding from heavy rainfall in the UK.” It’s amazing what conclusions we can draw when we use our imagination.

The clear message from the Establishment is that such people are neither to be trusted nor listened to. I suspect this is at least partly because things are not nearly as black and white as we are told and that the people insulted as ‘deniers’ might be thought to be speaking a degree of common sense and, indeed, be considered as potentially helpful critics in many other areas. Climate science is continuing to evolve, with a growing acceptance that the temperature rise associated with a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide level is likely to be considerably lower than those pronounced as almost certain just a few years ago. What hasn’t changed is the rhetoric on fighting climate change and saving the planet.

Motives are doubtless pure and intentions good, but trying to blackmail Western societies into using inadequate renewable energy technologies to slash fossil fuel use is very unlikely to achieve the stated goal of reducing average temperature rises to a ‘safe’ level. But in the current climate, it is almost impossible to argue that we need to develop a better strategy and better technology to make a real difference to emissions while keeping societies functioning smoothly. This is the very antithesis of a scientific approach, but most scientists themselves seem blind to the irony.

This insistence on the importance of the motives and means of achieving the goals is a bit like the prevailing view that Communism is somehow preferable to Fascism because its intentions were good, despite the fact that Marxist governments have been responsible for many more deaths than Nazi ones.  But science is not about taking moral positions. It is about seeking the truth through gathering and weighing of evidence and so identifying the most promising course of action. Those of us who believe in this may find few people to listen at present, but we shouldn’t give up.

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Double standards in safety assessments

Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an advisory body to the World Health Agency, published an apparently damning report on glyphosate, one of the most widely-used herbicides around the world, and marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand. This was extensively reported, for example by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US (Glyphosate herbicide linked to cancer – IARC World Health Organization assessment).

The IARC put glyphosate in Group 2A of its classification, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen. This was commented on by the Scientific Alliance at the time (Pesticides and Health) and I’ll take the liberty of quoting two important expert comments from it:

Professor Alan Boobis of Imperial College said in part “The IARC process is not a risk assessment. It determines the potential for a compound to cause cancer, but not the likelihood….The UK Committee on Carcinogenicity has evaluated possible links between pesticide exposure and cancer on several occasions. It has found little evidence for such a link.”

And Dr Oliver Jones of RMIT University, Melbourne, raises some other interesting points: “People might be interested to know that there are over 70 other things IARC also classifies as ‘probably carcinogenic’, including night shifts. In the highest category of known carcinogens are ‘alcoholic beverages’ and ‘solar radiation’ (sunlight) – along with plutonium. So yes, pesticides can be dangerous, but are many other common things which are also dangerous in sufficient amounts or over long periods of time – the dose makes the poison.”

Nevertheless, this supposed condemnation of a widely-used pesticide heightened the intensity of existing campaigns, with groups such as the Pesticides Action Network probably believing that they had a good chance of removing an iconic crop protection chemical from the market, following their successful campaign against neonicotinoids.

It certainly began to be removed from certain shelves, although one particular UK retailer’s action highlighted some ostensible hypocrisy (Waitrose bans sale of weedkiller used on its own land). A spokesman had to tread a fine line in pointing out that the company used glyphosate on its own Leckford Estate for very specific purposes, but had withdrawn it from retail shelves ‘to reflect customer demand’.

Of greater consequence are moves in the European Parliament for a complete ban on the chemical. The Parliament, despite its apparently democratic credentials, seems to have been heavily swayed by the anti-pesticide lobby and also to have ignored the advice of EU scientific advisers. EFSA disagreed with the findings of IARC and more recently the European Chemicals Agency also gave its opinion that glyphosate does not present an unacceptable risk to human health, to the huge disappointment of PAN and others. Not that this will stop MEPs doing whatever they are set on doing.

However, this week, two rather worrying pieces of news have emerged, not that you will necessarily have seen them, because they have not been widely reported. First, on October 18, the Times published an article under the headline Weedkiller scientist was paid £120,000 by cancer lawyers. While this would most likely have been front-page news if a company such as Monsanto had been seen to try to influence regulators, in this case Christopher Portier, an adviser to the IARC, had been paid $160,000 by the law firm representing cancer sufferers suing Monsanto.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t worry about conflicts of interest: everyone would behave entirely ethically and give purely objective evidence to anyone who asks. But the world is far from perfect and, as public trust in experts has fallen, so rules have been put in place to ensure transparency and at least give everyone a clear picture of the interests of the person giving an opinion. Often, any whiff of lack of impartiality is grounds for exclusion from consideration.

Dr Portier nailed his colours to the mast by writing an open letter to the Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, in November 2015 arguing that EFSA’s findings should be disregarded. Unfortunately, he failed to disclose his earnings from the law firm, Lundy and Lundy. If he had been arguing that EFSA was right and that the IARC should be ignored and had received money from Monsanto, he would doubtless have been crucified.

Even more worrying was a piece carried by Reuters on 19 October, which I haven’t yet seen in any other media: In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out ‘non-carcinogenic’ findings. To quote the opening sentence: “The World Health Organization’s cancer agency dismissed and edited findings from a draft of its review of the weedkiller glyphosate that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer”.

This behaviour is very disturbing. It is worth quoting further from the Reuters’ story: “One effect of the changes to the draft, reviewed by Reuters in a comparison with the published report, was the removal of multiple scientists’ conclusions that their studies had found no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals. In one instance, a fresh statistical analysis was inserted – effectively reversing the original finding of a study being reviewed by IARC. In another, a sentence in the draft referenced a pathology report ordered by experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It noted the report “firmly” and “unanimously” agreed that the “compound” – glyphosate – had not caused abnormal growths in the mice being studied. In the final published IARC monograph, this sentence had been deleted.”

Neither the IARC nor any of the contributing scientists approached would answer any questions from Reuters. Unlike EFSA, which shows the stages of its deliberations leading up to its final opinion, the IARC process is opaque and keeping of drafts is discouraged. This would matter less if these critical changes – for which no-one will take responsibility – had not come to light.

The IARC claims to select scientists for its working groups on the basis of “their expertise and the absence of real or apparent conflicts of interest.” Well, they may try to occupy the moral high ground, but they have singularly failed in this instance. The evidence points to a certain outcome being desirable, despite any evidence that might contradict it.

If this was the behaviour of a private sector company, there would be a scandal, but the likelihood of change in the IARC is minimal at best. In the meantime, we have the prospect of MEPs virtuously voting to deprive farmers of one of their most useful and least toxic pesticides. To put it mildly, this is depressing.

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Monochrome Vision

As most readers will already be very well aware, toxicity is a relative term. But for the general public, this simple but important concept is all too often misunderstood. For many people, if something is toxic, then it’s dangerous, end of message. To complicate this, many of us are easily capable of a rather bizarre form of Orwellian double-think: we may strive to avoid all traces of synthetic pesticides, for example, while being perfectly willing to consume a wide range of natural chemicals that are demonstrably carcinogenic. In both cases, the dose makes the poison, but one is ‘good’ and one is ‘bad’.

This black or white, good or bad view of things can lead to poor decisions and unwanted outcomes. On one hand, wanting to eliminate pesticide residues on produce has led to more efficient means of crop protection, minimising spraying or extending the interval between spraying and harvesting, for example. On the other hand, highly effective compounds which are toxic in smallish doses but can be used perfectly safely with simple precautions have been phased out because of the hazard they present if these precautions are not taken. Their (lower toxicity) replacements may be less effective, so increasing losses and food costs.

Similarly, it is a failure to take account of the evidence that low doses of radiation cause no ill-effects (and may even have a positive effect on living things, a phenomenon known as hormesis) that has inflated the costs of building new nuclear power stations considerably. Once a safety standard has been set, it’s a very brave legislator who relaxes it, whatever the evidence in favour of doing so.

And yet a new fleet of fail-safe nuclear generating stations is just what is needed at present. They would provide an ideal way of slashing carbon dioxide emissions while providing a reliable, secure supply of electricity; a least-regrets option whether or not climate change turns out to be as significant as projected.

In an opinion piece this week, the inimitable Matt Ridley argued that Politics is obsessed with virtue signalling.  In essence, the means becomes much more important than the result. Adam Smith pointed out long ago that free markets and competition create wealth, despite the fact that they are driven by that most selfish of purposes, the profit motive. But the profit motive is decried despite its key role in creating wealthy societies, and socialism is regarded as ‘good’ despite the clear lessons from every country that has taken that road in all but its mildest form.

Transport has been a battleground for different interpretations of what is ‘good’. Diesel engines were favoured via the tax system when carbon dioxide emissions were the primary focus. However, the diesel engine recently became ‘bad’ because of the higher level of particulates and nitrogen oxides produced by these engines compared with their petrol equivalents.

This has been exacerbated by the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal in which VW (and others?) deliberately used software that improved the official test results for some engines, while allowing much higher levels of emissions under real use conditions. Even without this, the nature of official emissions tests means that in many cases the results are falsely reassuring when compared to the reality of everyday driving.

A combination of pollution charges for entering some urban areas and scrappage schemes offered by many manufacturers have been designed to take older diesels off the road. However, another result has been to discourage sales of new diesels, despite there being little to choose in terms of overall emissions between petrol and diesel variants under the latest Euro 6 standard.

All of this is, in the longer term, overshadowed by the intention of manufacturers to move solely to hybrid and all-electric cars, although there is little sign that all conventional vehicles are likely to disappear over the next twenty or so years without considerable public subsidy. Battery technology may continue to improve, but the increasing demand for lithium and other essential elements is also driving up prices of these commodities.

In the meantime, this demonization of diesel may turn out to be something of a blind alley. The justification at present is the need to reduce urban air pollution to meet the latest standards and reduce negative impacts on health. This would be helped enormously by using hybrid cars in electric-drive mode in built-up areas, but on the open road diesel or petrol still makes more sense overall.

Diesels are, of course, still emitting similar amounts of PM2.5 and NOx into the air wherever they are driven, but out of town these emissions are diluted in a much greater volume of air. Since it is the concentration – the dose – that is important, any health impact is minimised. It is the geography of urban streets that contains emissions and creates the problem.

Campaigners are pushing for similar reductions in emissions from shipping. Ships use very low-grade fuels, as we can readily see from what comes out the funnel. This may not be very aesthetic, but the exhaust is rapidly diluted in the open air over the sea. Since even busy sea lanes are very uncrowded places compared to cities or even rural roads, this obvious pollution causes no practical problem, while making good use of heavy oil fractions which would otherwise be effectively wasted.

This is not an argument for simply ignoring air quality. This has certainly improved enormously over the last 50 years, but could still be better. However, it would be better to look at the end result and prioritise goals rather than take a sledgehammer – banning the internal combustion engine – to crack a nut – urban air quality.

The campaign against the internal combustion engine is couched in terms of air pollution at present, but the main driver behind it is still the ambitious goal of slashing carbon dioxide emissions. Cars are a relatively soft target for politicians to focus on at present, but the real heavy lifting comes with the enormous task of developing a reliable, cost-effective, zero-carbon electricity supply capable of heating homes and offices and powering all road and rail transport as well as displacing conventional generation sources for present uses of electricity. While this is generally seen as a ‘good’ objective, opinion may change quickly if costs are high, energy security is lower and the rest of the world fails to follow suit.

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Does fracking have a future in Europe?

Last year, the UK government gave a cautious go-ahead to fracking, after years of a moratorium following concerns about minor earth tremors near the Caudrilla exploration site in Lancashire. The company has since restarted test drilling in the area, against intense opposition from activists determined to prevent the birth of a viable onshore gas and oil extraction industry in the UK.

These activists may not have managed to sway the government in Westminster, but they have the Scottish government on their side (Scottish government backs ban on fracking). Although the intention to continue the existing moratorium indefinitely needs to be endorsed by the Holyrood parliament, only Conservative MSPs will oppose it, so it is a done deal, to all intents and purposes.

The SNP appear to see no downside to their decision. After all, they follow France, Germany and Ireland – and even Bulgaria – in imposing a de facto ban. England seems to be out of step with the rest of the EU and campaigners are determined to prevent a potentially successful shale gas industry develop to tempt other countries to change their position.

The Westminster government has often been in the minority on environmental issues across the EU, mainly because ministers tend to follow the advice of scientific advisers rather than the demands of campaigners. On GM crops and the ban on use of neonicotinoid insecticides, for example, the UK has been in the minority in listening to and following the advice of its scientists.

When the SNP government originally introduced a temporary embargo in 2015, it did the right thing in commissioning a series of expert studies to inform its later position. These covered economic impacts, decommissioning and aftercare, climate change impacts, seismic activity, health impacts and community impacts. These studies were completed last year and were broadly positive about the well-regulated use of fracking (What do the Scottish government’s six fracking reports say?).

The only exception was regarding health, where Health Protection Scotland concluded from a literature review that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, they recommended that, if fracking went ahead, “a precautionary approach could be adopted which involves operational best practice, regulatory frameworks and community engagement.”

The Scottish government also carried out a public consultation, and it was this that took precedence. The Energy Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said “the consultation came back with ‘overwhelming’ opposition to fracking, with 99% of the 60,000 respondents supporting a ban. He said this showed that ‘there is no social licence for unconventional oil and gas to be taken forward at this time’”.

However, this consultation gives a falsely democratic justification for the ban. First, the response rate was very low: about 1.5% of the number of registered voters in Scotland and, since the consultation was open to anyone, an even lower percentage of the potential turnout. Second, the consultation website (Talking “fracking” – a consultation on unconventional oil and gas) was not one to be dipped into lightly by the average citizen, instead offering considerable background information and requiring a degree of interest found amongst campaigners rather than the man or woman in the street.

Which is why it is not entirely surprising that the response was as overwhelmingly in one direction as the results of elections for Soviet officials. Campaigners are good at organising their supporters to respond to things such as this. Companies involved in the industry also respond, but members of the public ambivalent to the whole issue or frankly not interested would not offer any balance.

This is a pity, because a domestic supply of gas to replace the fast-declining North Sea fields would be beneficial both to the economy and to the millions of people in fuel poverty. The elephant in the room, however, is climate change policy. The strategy of most campaigners is to discourage any development of fossil fuels, even as a reliable stop-gap while reliable sources of renewable energy are developed. This trumps all other considerations.

In this vein, the Holyrood parliament has also effectively banned underground coal gasification, which could potentially use the country’s large remaining coal reserves to generate methane. This would avoid the dangers of mining while providing a fuel which is both cleaner and lower in carbon than coal itself.

In practice, these potential new domestic sources of energy are replaced by imported gas, together with the remaining supply from the North Sea. There would be no impact on global carbon dioxide emissions, as the Committee on Climate Change itself acknowledged in the study it submitted to the Scottish government.

South of the border, meanwhile, Ineos (operator of Scotland’s Grangemouth refinery, significant local employer and importer of US shale gas) has exploration rights across large areas of northern England, and Cuadrilla continues to do exploratory drilling. This, though, continues to meet strong opposition from a hard core of activists (Tensions rise at fracking site in UK after police and activists clash).

There is inevitably local opposition from people concerned about potential noise or health effects, following the negative messages from campaigners. But it seems that the main campaigners are not local and use highly disruptive tactics to block legitimate and legal exploration. The chief executive of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan is quoted as saying the “charade of a so-called peaceful protest should be condemned and halted. I strongly condemn the increased illegal and aggressive behaviour of activists which has put all road users near our Preston New Road site at serious risk. The majority of these irresponsible individuals are from outside the local area and seem determined to use regular disruption to local road users, and abuse and violence towards police and security staff, as so called direct action tactics.”

It is still uncertain whether shale gas can be profitably extracted in the UK, but properly regulated exploration should be allowed to go ahead without being blocked by a highly vocal minority. Only if shale gas production is properly evaluated in one country will we see if it has a future across the rest of Europe.

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