2017 in perspective

Another year has nearly finished. For the EU, the combined tensions of Brexit, Catalonian nationalism and a much-weakened Chancellor Merkel seem to be doing little to disrupt normal life. On the other hand, the underlying contradictions inherent in a 27-member bloc technically united by a single currency – but in practice divided by very different economies and cultures – will surely be difficult to resolve, particularly with the current unwieldy and opaque system of governance.

The fudge of contradictions is very apparent in the supposedly evidence-based systems for approval of GM crops and licensing of pesticides. Independent scientists assemble and assess data and make their recommendations. Politicians normally take the official advice – after all, that’s why scientific advisors are appointed – but only when it suits their purpose. Unfortunately, the politics is such that a number of member states routinely vote against approvals of GM crops on totally spurious grounds, simply because it plays to their core supporters and powerful lobby groups.

The crop protection sector is slightly different, if only because there is a much longer history of use of approved products and a functioning, evidence-based approvals system. But the pressure from environmentalists has continued to increase and the barriers to continued approvals have risen. Approval conditions have always been stringent, with environmental or safety problems largely down to poor practice by users. Until a few years ago, decisions were based on a risk assessment and management.

But then came a change to hazard evaluation, representing a move to an even more precautionary approach. Pesticides are assessed based on the hazard they present with no risk management in place, and new compounds are required to present a lesser hazard than anything they might replace. There is no attempt to balance this by assessing hazard (or potential risk) against benefits, merely a blanket approach to minimise hazard.

The drawbacks of this should be obvious, but are ignored by those whose aim is to favour ‘natural’ over ‘synthetic’ and thereby supposedly make life as risk-free as possible. By way of parallel, we all have in our homes compounds which could maim or kill if misused, an unfortunately topical example being household bleach. And caffeine is more toxic than pretty much any pesticide on the market today, but only those with a highly excessive coffee consumption are ever likely to suffer ill effects.

More recently, circumstantial evidence of harm has been used to obtain a temporary ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, with that ban increasingly looking like becoming permanent. And campaigners have eagerly leapt on the rather dubious classification by a single agency of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen to push for this extremely useful, low toxicity herbicide to be refused re-licensing. Despite a positive recommendation from scientists working on behalf of the EU, it was only narrowly reapproved for a limited time on a qualified majority vote shortly before the licence expired, and then only by a last-minute change of stance by Germany.

So, this year has seen a continuation of the slowly ratcheting of pressure on a range of useful chemicals and technologies. It is difficult to see the tide turning any time soon. In the meantime, there have been some interesting shifts in what has become the key issue of the early 21st Century: climate change. The annual end of year climate summits, this year in Bonn, are still news but are now largely confined to the inside pages. The international IPCC travelling circus continues to put out bullish statements, but the reality is that there is no longer concerted international political action. Instead, the mitigation programme proceeds via voluntary agreements, with many governments making big claims while doing comparatively little.

Not that this has made much difference to the emissions reduction policies of some major players. The German energiewende continues on its very expensive path with one of the major unintended consequences being the increased use of coal. While not the only reason, the differences of opinion across the political spectrum have made the forging of a new coalition government even more problematic.

The UK is also suffering from political turmoil, with a weak minority government (inevitably) focussed on the complexities and ambiguities of negotiating a Brexit deal acceptable to all 27 other EU member states and to a majority of Westminster MPs. But that hasn’t stopped continued support for emissions reduction policies nor a new focus on electric and hybrid cars.

By 2040, the government intends there to be no sales of new petrol or diesel cars. The implication is that all new vehicles will be electric, but the reality (in the absence of major technological breakthroughs) is that hybrids will dominate the market. France has the same goal and, in both cases, the ostensible rationale for the change is the drive to reduce urban air pollution. Hybrids will certainly do this, for typically short city journeys, while providing the flexibility of a conventional car for longer trips at what policymakers no doubt hope will be an acceptable price for the consumer.

The two rather large flies in the ointment are the continued high price of all-electric cars and the major infrastructure challenges posed if they do become a major part of the market. Not least of these is the need to generate substantially more electricity which has to be low-carbon if the whole policy is to make any sense. However, providing a workable network of charging points and recouping the foregone revenue from fuel sales in a way acceptable to motorists will also pose major headaches.

Looking further forward, (partial) electrification of transport will at some stage lead on to a push of electrification of heating, coupled surely with a massive investment in insulation to reduce heating needs in the first place. By the time such policies start to take effect, we perhaps will be much closer to an understanding of what drives climate change and so whether the policies are in fact needed.

This is the last newsletter of 2017; normal service will be resumed in January. For now, I wish all readers – whatever their views on the issues covered this year – a very happy Christmas and a safe, healthy and prosperous 2018.

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Progress and Pollution

The human capacity for self-criticism is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can recognise that we have caused harm and do something about it, but on the other hand this tendency can go so far that we think of nearly everything we do as being negative. At the extreme end of the spectrum, so-called Deep Greens consider humankind to be a blot on the planet, which would be better off without us.

Not so for most of us, of course, and at the other extreme there are those who refuse to recognise – or at least try to minimise – the negative impacts of something they have done. Overall, though, there is a clear inclination for people to think that modern life and technology causes environmental harm, and those of us in some of the cleanest environments are often most concerned about pollution.

An issue that has come right to the top of the list recently is plastic waste, particularly in the open sea. This is doubtless reinforced in the UK by the latest Blue Planet series, fronted by national treasure David Attenborough, but this is not a trivial issue. Plastic waste can be very obvious when it is in the form of bags or bottles washed up on a beach or gathered in areas such as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ (for a more objective summary of this, see How Big is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’? Science vs Myth, from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

However, much of the plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces or even micro-particles, and in this form it may be consumed by fish, other sea creatures and birds. Because of their inertness, these particles can accumulate in the digestive tracts of these creatures and lead to their undernourishment or death. It’s not surprising, then, to read that UN commits to stop ocean plastic waste.

This story is about an agreement reached at an environment summit in Kenya. This is not legally binding, but is intended as a signal of intent by setting up an international task force to deal with the problem. Environmental pressure groups, of course, think the action is too weak, and in many cases oppose the inclusion of business representatives in the discussions. For many environmentalists, business remains the enemy.

There is certainly a level of mutual distrust between these two parties. Inevitably, businesses will try to protect their interests in the face of criticism on this or other issues. Equally, campaigning groups are often selective with the truth when a topic dear to them is in question. On the other hand, better and more constructive progress can often be made by cooperation rather than confrontation. Rather than pressurise the plastics industry into submission, working with them to find effective ways to reduce waste is always likely to be a better long term option.

However, the thing that really struck me in the story about plastic waste was where it occurs. Figures are presented for the amount of waste produced in 2010 by country; the top 15 are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Algeria, Turkey and Pakistan. China dominates the list with nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic, but even Pakistan, in 15th place, produced about half a million tonnes.

There are a couple of really interesting things here. The first is that there are no rich Western countries in the list, despite the ubiquity of plastics in our economies and our concerns about waste and littering. Clearly, although we may worry about the level of waste produced it is not, by and large, finding its way into the wider environment. A significant proportion is recycled in any case.

The second point is the very wide disparity between the amount of waste produced and the population. China tops almost any list of anything because it has the world’s largest population. But India is catching up fast and yet produces less than 10% of China’s level of waste. Is this because there is less plastic in circulation, is the waste dealt with more efficiently, or is there a cultural difference in how people dispose of waste?

Of course, the total amount of plastic waste reported does not all end up in the oceans. By a recent reckoning, however, about eight million tonnes does go into the seas, where it builds up and persists (Plastic waste heading for oceans quantified). To put it into context, this is nearly twice the annual tuna catch worldwide. And it seems that most of this comes from developing countries, although the EU as a whole comes 18th out of the top 20 polluters, with the USA coming in at number 20.

Air pollution is another high-profile issue in the EU at present. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the real problems are in developing countries. While London or Paris may have their problems, the air in European capitals is already much cleaner than a few decades ago, and bears no comparison to the situation in Beijing or Delhi. These cities are experiencing the sorts of problems European cities had during their own Industrial Revolution and will make big efforts to improve air quality as they develop further.

The people who will still suffer, though, are the largely rural poor who rely on wood or dung as fuel for indoor fires. The levels of respiratory disease and mortality among the women and children most at risk are very high. In the short term, this situation can be improved a lot by using more efficient cooking stoves burning paraffin or LPG, but in the longer term a secure electricity supply would not only lead to cleaner air but bring electric light to improve lives even further.

The fact that pollution is largely a problem of emerging economies and the developing world tells us that it is prosperous and highly developed societies that manage issues of pollution most effectively. Economic development is the solution, not the problem.

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Forecasting versus reality

As they say, forecasting is very difficult, particularly about the future. Hackneyed as this may be, it nicely encapsulates the need to take what anyone – however expert – says about the future with a large pinch of salt. This is particularly important as we are bombarded with projections about the future these days, largely because today’s IT makes it easier both to do the maths and to share the results.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need forecasts, simply that we should put them in the right context and not assume they are automatically right. Those making the forecasts should be very well aware of their limitations (although human nature may sometimes get in the way of objectivity) but the rest of us usually receive the information via the filter of at least one layer of interpretation and rewording, often making them sound more certain than they really are.

Weather forecasts are a perfect example of the problems. It is quite possible to look at three different forecasts for your local area and get three different pictures of what the weather will be like. The Met Office and others make their projections for rain in terms of the percentage chance of precipitation and whether it is likely to be heavy or light. Also clouds, by their nature, are difficult to predict with certainty at times. This inherent uncertainty inevitably leads to different interpretations.

Some providers of the forecast to consumers, such as the main broadcast and internet media, put the projections in more black and white terms, based on their own interpretation. We, in turn, may then decide whether or not to take an umbrella with us. So, even if temperatures, wind speed and direction and overall amounts of sunshine may be pretty much the same in practice as predicted, if the pattern of rainfall is significantly different we regard the forecast as wrong.

Arguably of even more importance are economic forecasts, on the basis of which important policy decisions are made by central banks and governments. Weather forecasts, even with sophisticated data collection and use of supercomputers, rapidly become less accurate if made over to a horizon of just a few days. Economic forecasts are not only complex, but are based on incomplete data and cover a period of months or years. Not surprisingly, they are always subject to later review and revision. Even official historical figures are in the first instance a best estimate and are revised later, in some cases meaning that a supposed recession never happened.

We should never forget the difference between a forecast and a fact. Forecasting is a very useful tool, but only tells us one possible outcome if our assumptions are correct and our understanding of a particular system (the weather or the economy, for example) is good enough to reproduce the right trends via computer modelling. In other words, this is a ‘what if’ rather than certain view of the future.

This understanding of forecasting is well illustrated by a recent study on air pollution (Clean air target ‘could be met more quickly’). Air pollution in urban areas, and particularly the role of cars in elevating levels of nitrogen dioxide, has become a big issue for many European governments. EU rules are being regularly breached, and combinations of new engine emissions standards, encouragement of electric and hybrid vehicle purchase and restrictions on older cars entering inner city areas have been introduced to deal with this.

Setting aside for the time being the fact that even eliminating the internal combustion engine from cities would not solve the NO2 and particulates problems, it seems that the UK government has based its projections on how long it will take to reduce air pollution to below the legal limit on inaccurate data. Researchers at the Universities of York and Leicester have found that catalytic converters fitted to reduce emissions of particulates age in such a way that older cars actually produce less nitrogen dioxide than when they first roll off the production line. Government policy takes no account of this real world trend, so makes unduly pessimistic assumptions about the time taken for the policy to achieve its goal.

This kind of thing undoubtedly goes on all the time. It’s quite understandable: given the complexity of many of the studies, it’s likely that only one group of researchers will do each one, and going back to check assumptions after all the hard work is something that doesn’t often happen. Equally, it is unlikely that another group of researchers will provide an independent forecast unless they already suspect something to be awry with the initial one.

This issue is, of course, vitally important for climate change and energy policy. The weight of real world observation is gradually forcing a rethink of one critical assumption, the climate sensitivity factor. This is the increase in average temperature arising from a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The mainstream view, encapsulated in the various IPCC reports and driving international emissions policy, is that there is a positive feedback mechanism for every additional amount of CO2 injected into the air. What may be termed the lukewarmist view is that this positive feedback is either not real or very weak.

Despite this legitimate difference of opinion, we still hear talk of the number of gigatonnes of carbon dioxide it is safe to release without breaching the somewhat arbitrary target of a 2°C rise in temperature, above which warming would be considered dangerous. That forecasts (actually projections, as the modellers would call them) are treated as if they were fact is understandable as a way to pressure governments into cutting emissions, but it doesn’t make this an acceptable practice.

Governments do (or should) make policy based on scientific advice. It is incumbent upon the advisors to make clear the uncertainties and unknowns in the evidence on which their advice is based, and to properly assess new and possibly conflicting studies. Unfortunately, it is much harder to modify an existing policy position than to make the original one from scratch, so the inertia of the system tends to militate against improvement. The UK government’s response to the new evidence on air pollution could be an interesting test case.

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Are electric vehicles the future?

Electric cars are now a daily sight on our streets, what were previously token charging points in public places are often in use, and people are now beginning to think of the implications of the much-touted transition away from the internal combustion engine. The assumption by enthusiasts is that this is going to happen sooner rather than later but, as with any major technical change, its course (and even the end point) is very difficult to predict.

Most major changes such as this come about by a combination of innovation and market pull. Two hundred years ago, railways provided the first fast, affordable means of mass transport and, not surprisingly, grew rapidly. A century later, the development of the internal combustion engine made possible personal transport as well as more flexible public and goods transport than could be achieved with either railways or horsepower. Their rate of uptake was limited, partly by affordability, but mass motoring quickly became the norm from the middle of last century.

Both railways and cars became ubiquitous without any taxpayer subsidy or positive encouragement from governments; they were simply the right solution at the right time. Similarly, the IT revolution made possible by the miniaturisation of solid-state electronics was not planned, but evolved and developed. No policymakers sat down in the 1970s and decided that the economy would be dependent on the Internet by the end of the century, and yet technological and market forces brought it about.

Electric vehicles don’t represent a step change in transport as trains and cars did. There may be a major change in underlying technology, but this offers no intrinsic new benefits to the public. This is not a completely new generation of products, akin to moving from conventional mobiles to smart phones, but simply a different, clever and sophisticated means of powering vehicles.

But it is also more expensive. Although electric vehicles are mechanically simpler and the software needed to control them is by now fairly conventional, the need to provide a reasonable driving range means the use of a large number of heavy and expensive batteries, currently based on lithium ion technology. If this approach had intrinsic advantages over internal combustion engines, we could expect to see car manufacturers developing a range of battery-powered cars, and allowing the market to decide how much they displaced conventional cars. No subsidy would be needed, except perhaps in the early days.

In fact, the whole electric vehicle market is driven by climate change policy; the desire to slash carbon dioxide emissions means that the large (and growing) transport sector cannot be ignored once the (relatively) low-hanging fruit of electricity generation have been harvested. Tinkering around the edges with biofuels is little more than window-dressing. To make a real difference to the sector, something more radical was needed. In the absence of genuine progress in miniaturisation and cost reduction of fuel cells, enthusiasm for hydrogen has evaporated as quickly as the lightest element escapes from a fuel tank, leaving electric cars as the only game in town.

Teslas are now a common sight, as are electric models from more mainstream manufacturers, but even with the £5,000 of taxpayers’ money offered by way of subsidy in the UK (and with similar incentives elsewhere), they remain relatively expensive. First adopters are the relatively well-off and largely urban. How large a target market they represent is difficult to judge but, at some point, manufacturers and governments will face increasing difficulty in persuading consumers to buy an EV rather than a conventional car.

Both the British and French governments have announced that no new petrol- or diesel-powered cars will be sold by 2040, with the apparent assumption that by then voters will be very willing to make that choice. There would inevitably be a declining tail of conventional cars on the roads for some years after that (with some becoming the object of a romanticised affection, like steam trains and LPs, no doubt) but the transition would be inevitable.

Actually, there are a lot of problems along the way. How much space will be needed at fuel stations to cope with increasing numbers of people needing to charge their batteries rather than fill up with petrol? Given the longer time needed to recharge rather than fill a tank, long queues and ‘charge rage’ can only be avoided by installing considerably more fast chargers than existing fuel pumps. Where are they going to be put (most fuel stations don’t have lots of spare room next door) and who is going to pay for them?

The answer to the last question is that, ultimately, it will be the driver. But the driver also buys the car and votes for the government. While he or she may be coaxed and cajoled into buying a different type of car, if cost differentials remain too high, the less well-off will be disadvantaged and there is likely to be a revolt. But there is a halfway stage that gives governments a good amount of wriggle room: hybrid vehicles.

Hybrids are now definitely mainstream. They are still more expensive, still qualify for subsidy, but they are a flexible and pragmatic choice. Batteries in newer models are sufficient for modest journeys – perhaps 30 miles – which is enough for many commutes, particularly in towns. And range is never a problem, because the conventional engine takes over when necessary and also recharges the batteries. The owner has a complete replacement for a conventional car that also reduces air pollution in urban areas.

Since this is the basis of the current campaign against the diesel engine (despite the latest standard being little different from petrol engines) and no doubt against petrol engines as well before too long, governments should be pleased. But this ignores the elephant in the room, the very reason why EVs are the current focus of policy: emissions reduction targets. To meet these in the transport sector, not only must all vehicle move to battery power, but all the electricity for them must come from renewable sources.

The chances of achieving this in an affordable way while maintaining security of supply are currently rather low. If we combine this with the need to persuade people to buy expensive electric cars and for someone to provide a workable nationwide charging infrastructure, the chances become slim indeed. Thinking politicians will know this already, but continue to make the right noises to appease the green lobby. At some stage, either there will be one or more technological breakthroughs, or grim reality will force a rethink. Electric vehicles as we know them today may or may not be the future.

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The overstated dangers of nuclear radiation

The safety requirements for operating nuclear reactors are based on the principle that there is effectively no safe dose of radiation, a ludicrous proposition when we consider the lack of ill-effect from relatively high levels of ambient radiation (eg from granite in Aberdeen etc) or exposure to X-rays or gamma-rays for medical purposes. Despite this, the knee jerk reaction of the authorities in the case of concerns is to tighten standards still further ‘to reassure people’. Normally, such action has the opposite effect.

In the meantime, over 20,000 people where killed in the 2011 Japanese tsunami, with no fatalities reported related to exposure to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant (although a number of people were injured during evacuation, and some died as a consequence). Chernobyl, just about the worst civilian nuclear disaster that could be imagined, caused only 29 deaths from acute radiation poisoning, although the incidence of thyroid cancer rose and the UN has estimated that there could eventually be up to 4,000 premature deaths.

In this light, it is interesting but not surprising to read a new story in the Times: Nuclear disaster fallout ‘would be no worse than living in London’. To quote:

Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at the University of Bristol, said that in hindsight the Soviet and Japanese authorities had hugely overreacted when they forced more than 450,000 people to abandon their homes for good. “Very few people are properly aware of just how relatively small the risks of nuclear power are, even after a big nuclear accident has happened, never mind how rare that event might be,” he said.

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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.

Posted in Food and agriculture, Newsletter, Policymaking | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Climate change, Newsletter, Policymaking | 2 Comments