Thursday, 19 April 2007

It's not easy being green.

WE ALL KNOW ABOUT food miles by now, don't we: a simplistic programme dreamed up by the European Union mandarins under which energy used to produce food is ignored in favour of energy used to transport food, with the result that more 'embodied energy' is present in food made 'virtuous' by being sanctified under an EU food miles programme -- and that unless a few NZers get off their arses now to refute this nonsense, New Zealand food with less embodied energy will be more difficult to sell to Europe in future.

'Food miles' is a metaphor for almost every green programme: a protectionists' wet dream; an accounting sleight of hand achieving the opposite of its intended result, and one that harms consumers and selected producers into the bargain -- and one that requires a large bureaucracy to administer. Truth is that the full context of most green schemes often shows a different picture to the snapshot offered by a feel-good environmental programme. It's not easy being green.

RECYCLING IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE of a feel-good programme with little tangible effect; another accounting sleight of hand that looks at the small picture, and ignores the larger context. Fact is that all the money, time and energy used in recycling is barely offset, if at all, by the very few savings in energy that are achieved by recycling. And further, notes Cato's Jerry Taylor, it's bad for the environment. Paper recycling for example:
"Fully 87% of our paper stock," says Jerry Taylor, comes from trees which are grown as a crop specifically for the purpose of paper production. Acting to 'conserve trees' through paper recycling is like acting to 'conserve corn' by cutting back on corn consumption." To cap this argument Taylor presents a National Wildlife Federation study shooing that recycling 100 tons of newspaper produces 40 tons of toxic sludge. "Thirteen of the 50 worst Superfund hazardous waste dumps were once recycling facilities," says Taylor.
The full context often shows a different picture to the snapshot offered by a feel-good environmental programme.

KYOTO? As Tim Blair notes this morning, "New Zealanders, Canadians, and Germans already know Kyoto is a crock. Now they’re joined by Turks." Is a projected 37 percent drop in GDP worth it, wonder intelligent Turks, for something that even if the science is correct, is supposedly for a prevention of warming by 0.0015 degrees C -- or, as Bjorn Lomborg repeatedly points out, "simply going to postpone warming for about six years in 2100?"

Shouldn't that bother people who think about these things?

HOW ABOUT CARBON EMISSIONS? Surely that's a simple thing to sort out isn't it? Simply pass laws reducing industrial carbon emissions -- stopping the production of new coal-burning power plants and the like -- and we're home and hosed, aren't we? Well, maybe not. First of all, if you ban or make more difficult the construction of new more efficient power plants, what kind of power plants do you think will be left pumping out power? It's not going to be the newer, cleaner plants, is it?

And second, do you know where the greatest growth in carbon emissions has been over the last decade? No idea? Here's the answer:
A recent study by the Global Carbon Project has shown a sharp rise in carbon emissions globally since the year 2000. The study said carbon emission was rising by less than one percent annually up to 2000, but was now rising at 2.5 percent per year, mostly as a result of rise in charcoal consumption and a lack of new energy efficiency gains.
The "lack of new energy efficiency gains" is what I talked about in that first point. But what's that about "charcoal consumption"? The burning of charcoal is a uniquely third world means of producing low-quality energy that is on the increase -- it is on the increase because other, more efficient means of energy production are being made more difficult and more expensive to produce and to construct, especially in parts of Asia and Africa where the increased charcoal burning has reportedly been happening.

What the third world needs is more power plants and more wealth, but the apostles of "low carbon emissions" make both impossible, and in doing so they actually make carbon emissions higher. As I've said before,
If decreasing or slowing down carbon emissions is really important to you, then I suggest you support the deregulation of energy production and the increased production of new energy -- especially in the third world.
What do you think the apostles think about that?

BUT WE CAN PRODUCE all the power we need from alternative means, say the apostles -- by means of sun and surf and wind. Well, maybe. One day. One day many, many years in the future.

Each of those has serious problems of capacity for a start, problems made clear in that both of the first two forms of energy require taxpayer subsidies even to investigate them as serious and ongoing forms of production -- here for instance is a picture of Jeanette Fitzsimplesimons in Lyttleton yesterday as part of her fatuous Climate Defence Tour, praising an experimental wave machine as something for which taxpayers should be made to pay up.

"Jeanette," says the breathless caption, "praised the wave machine as a symbol of ‘new energy vs. old energy’." What distinguishes them it seems is that 'old energy' actually produces energy, whereas the 'new energy' which we are expected to rely on once the apostles close down the 'old energy' is still experimental, still requiring your money to prop up, and barely scratching the surface of the sort of capacity required for a modern industrial nation. Said Australian PM John Howard recently, and accurately:
Let's be realistic. You can only run power stations in a modern Western economy on fossil fuel, or, in time, nuclear power."
Warned Alan Jenkins from the Electricity Networks Association two years ago,
It's very hard to invest in coal [because of Kyoto], nuclear's a sort of four letter word... hydro is suddenly becoming too hard... what's left? ...we can't do everything on windpower.
Well, what about wind power? While it's embraced almost like Gaia's virgin birth by one bunch of apostles, another spurns it with all the sem-religious, RMA-bugging NIMBYism they can muster. This news headline yesterday for example followed hard on the heels of a similar 'victory' in Makara: Spiritual argument wins wind farm case: Opponents of a wind farm planned for a ridgeline west of Hawke's Bay are celebrating after winning an Environment Court appeal.

So what's left from all this energy posturing from the apostles? Answer: More 'old energy' coal burning. If I might paraphrase myself, by trying to decreasing or slow down carbon emissions by means of bans, restrictions and reverse subsidies, the result is even more carbon emissions than would have been the consequence otherwise.

Do you think that bothers the apostles at all?

AND HOW ABOUT CARBON NEUTRALITY? Carbon neutrality, says many people, is achieved by planting trees to offset one's own naughty carbon-producing activities. Simple ... or is it? Turns out that under examination, this is less effective than first thought. From whom are the resulting 'carbon credits' bought? (Can you buy credits from yourself, like Al Bore does?) In what latitude are the trees planted? (Plant them in mid to high latitudes and they actually help increase global warming!) And are more trees better for global temperatures, or worse? (A recent climate model suggests that chopping down the Earth's trees would help fight global warming!)
[T]he model calculated that the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide levels would roughly double by 2100. This is a much greater increase than happens in a business-as-usual simulation, but it would, paradoxically, make for a colder planet. That is because brighter high latitudes would reflect more sunlight in winter, cooling the local environment by as much as 6°C. The tropics would warm up, since they would be less cloudy, but not by enough to produce a net global heat gain. Overall, [the] model suggests that complete deforestation would cause an additional 1.3°C temperature rise compared with business as usual, because of the higher carbon-dioxide levels that would result. However, the additional reflectivity of the planet would cause 1.6°C of cooling. A treeless world would thus, as he reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, be 0.3°C cooler than otherwise.
Turns out then that trees affect the world's temperature by means more complex than just the carbon they sequester, but the facile idea of carbon neutrality ignores the larger context and simply looks at the smaller picture. It's another accounting sleight of hand that makes many people feel better about their own virtue (I'm buying carbon credits, so I'm alright, Jack), but on closer inspection turns out to be another programme that won't achieve what it says it does.

Shouldn't that bother those who say it will?

BUT AT LEAST WHILE we're pondering all that, if we're driving a Toyota Prius we're at least doing good while feeling good, aren't we? Maybe not. As Fairfax County, Virginia, discovered with their fleet of hybrid cars and trucks, you do save on fuel bills with your hybrid, but when you look at the total energy cost of a vehicle, its whole 'life-cycle energy cost' -- the energy consumption from design, through manufacture, use and to final retirement and disposal -- then your Prius doesn't look half as good as your Corolla. Not even a quarter as good. Notes David Schare, on the back of a mammoth study done by an independent auto analysis group that looked at the full life cycle costs of your car:
[For a] full-size 28 mpg Toyota Avalon energy costs are $1.99 per mile, compared to $2.86 per mile for the Prius and $3.54 per mile for the Ford Escape. That means a County Prius causes 44 % more global warming than my big car, and the County’s Escape causes 78 % more global warming than my Avalon.

In further comparison, the County could have purchased Toyota Corollas that get nearly the same actual suburban mileage as the Prius, but at a true “green” life-cycle energy cost of $0.72 per mile. This means the Corolla causes one fourth the global warming than the Prius with about the same day-to-day gasoline costs.
Oops! Seems once again that looking only at the smaller picture produces different consequences than if you look a little more broadly.

Perhaps that's why, as Schnare notes elsewhere,
when Fairfax County wanted to head down the road toward reducing carbon emissions their Environmental Manager complained that he didn't have enough money to do the audit necessary to find out what their carbon footprint looked like and wasn't going to do anything on the issue, having other more immediate problems to solve. Thus, any state that claims it knows its carbon footprint ought to be asked for the basis of their estimate (and for fun, the cost of creating the estimate).
Maybe think about that next time you hear a politician tell you she wants to make the country "carbon neutral."

IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN, particularly if you want to ignore the real effects of your simplistic programmes, and the unintended consequences of your activities. Perhaps the real inconvenient truth here is that economics and property rights between them might have more to say than all the nonsensical feel-good programmes dreamed up in all the world's environmental think tanks, and promoted by all the world's politicians and former vice-presidents.

After all, economics has been defined as the science that studies infinite wants in a world of scarce resources. That must surely have something to say about things? And effective property rights under a system of common law is demonstrably the most effective method yet devised of 'internalising externalities' -- of reflecting back to owners the real environmental consequences of their activities. (See for example: "The Invisible Hand of the Market Doesn't Deliver a Sustainable Nation": True or False?)

Between them, strong property rights and real price signals are far more efficient at telling us all the real consequences of our own activities and of our own choices-- and they offer the added benefit that they're not just real rather than made-up; they're not just efficient; they're not just moral, but they're good for freedom as well.

That's not something one can say for all the silly schemes it takes to be 'green.' The biggest long-term cost of all of them is not just for the environment, it's in their cost to the human environment -- the cost to us all of shackling industry and productivity; of the time wasted in fruitless feel-good stupidity; of the larger state needed to administer all these programmes (with the various threats that implies) and in the loss of freedom to live our own lives in our own way.

As Fred L. Smith says, "The threat posed by humans to the natural environment is nothing compared to the threat to humans posed by global environmental policy." As I've said before, when they come for you they'll be carrying a clipboard, not a gun -- and the person carrying it will probably be called Jeremy.

UPDATE: Updated to add two more glaring anomalies, further tributes to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

[Cartoon courtesy The Free Radical]

1 comment:

  1. As I posted on my site yesterday.

    Lets assume for a second that AGM is a real, credible and serious threat, and something does need to be done (the is the assumption for this, so please ensure that replies take this assumption into account, if this assumption is incorrect then its redundant anyway).

    Food miles then is said to be a way of reducing emissions by ensuring that food isn't transported long distances with heavy carbon emissions.

    Why is it that these food miles only apply to products that europe doesnt' ahve a competative advantage in production on, and requires subsidies to keep these industries alive.

    Surely if AGM is the real enemy, then these miles should equally be applied on everything that requires large amounts of transport, including europes key export industries. Why just food? Where are the ipod miles? the renault car miles, the french wine miles etc. You just don't see them.

    Surely that in enough says that these are simply a non tariff barrier, and a form of protectionism. And have nothing to do with the environment whatsoever, in any way, shape or form.


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