Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Are Biofuels a Crime against Humanity?

I had just returned from holiday, when the BBC World Service rang up, asking me if I'd defend biofuels against charges that they constitute a Crime Against Humanity. According to the BBC's own website1:
A United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for petrol as a crime against humanity.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger. The growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels.

Mr Ziegler's remarks, made at the UN headquarters in New York, are clearly designed to grab attention. He complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel, which created a recipe for disaster.

Now I'm not the right person to defend biofuels, as I have serious doubts myself about the effects on global food production and prices - witness the "tortilla riots" in Mexico, or rising beer prices worldwide - but as with the previous two blogs about risks, it is all relative. At current levels, even I doubt that many (if any) people are going hungry owing to biofuel production - the poorest and hungriest are more likely to eking a living from subsistence farming and suffering from the direct effects of climate change. And much of the BBC report seemed to be focusing on a little bit of EU-bashing, as they seemed to feel that the real cause of the problem was the EU Directive on Biofuels, which sets targets for each member state. Under this Directive, Britain will have to provide 5.75% of its road fuels from biofuels by 2010 - a high figure based on current levels, but probably achievable substantially from land that won't be competing with food crops2.

So I declined the BBC's opportunity, as
although I felt that the emotive language used by Mr Ziegler was not really advancing the debate at all, his real target was probably the US support for bioethanol from corn, and I really did not want to start defending that. Certainly in the past, exports of surplus US grain have helped "feed the starving" (although they may also have undermined indigenous agriculture by making it easier for farmers to receive food aid than to attempt to grow their own crops on difficult land), and the diversion of grains (wheat as well as maize) into bioethanol reduces the surplus available for the needy. But in truth, the support for the US bioethanol industry looks as if it is as much targeted at providing a valid excuse for farm subsidies in swing political states, as towards attempting to combat climate change through biofuels.

And as the BBC didn't want to hear my views on how public transport and cycling might help solve the fossil fuel problem with minimal need for biofuels, I thought it better not to be drawn into this debate!

1 See BBC Americas website, 27 October 2007

2 It may however be competing (indirectly) with rain forest, especially if it's biodiesel from palm oil, produced in South East Asia, or bioethanol imported from Brazil. This bioethanol comes from highly efficient sugar plantations that do not directly lead to the cutting down of the Brazilian rain forest, but there is evidence that the use of land for fuel crops has led to ranching shifting away from the coast inland to the Amazon basin.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Which is scarier: Obesity or Climate Change?

The question posed may seem trivial, weird even. But clearly not to the new British Government - Dawn Primarolo was shown on the news last night keeping a perfectly straight face as she announced that Obesity is a greater risk to the UK than Global Warming. Apparently she was only echoing the words of her boss, Alan Johnson, but it does raise another interesting question about perceptions of risk - just after we have heard how the public perceive the risk from terrorism vs. Climate Change.

Of course, I suspect that in truth we have a little bit of jumping on the bandwagon here. You can almost see the frustrated health minister listening to all the positive coverage on Friday about Al Gore and Climate Change, and thinking "Why can't we have some of that?". So some bright young intern no doubt comes up with comparing obesity risk to climate risk and - hey presto! - you get an excellent soundbite that makes climate freaks like myself spluttering into my cocoa1.

So how do we compare the risks? Well, in one sense, Ms Primarolo may be right. If we look at premature deaths among UK citizens, then there may be more attributable to obesity than to climate change, and will almost certainly be so over the next 25 years. Longer term, it's harder to hazard a guess - indeed if some of the predictions about the loss of agricultural land (and lower yields) due to rising sea levels (and weather instability) are true, the obesity issue may dissipate as food prices rise. I doubt that we'll starve in Britain, but the days of cheap meat (and hence cheap burgers) and vegetable oils may be over sooner than we expect. But if we fast forward past 2050, and don't take action against climate change in the near future, I suspect that even in the UK climate related deaths (including ones from illnesses associated with shifting climate patterns) will outnumber obesity ones.

Perhaps I can square this circle with a suggestion for something that can simultaneously tackle obesity AND climate change. Cycling. Yes, using the humble push-bike to commute to your work or school will address both issues at ones, at a very low cost. And there's some evidence that healthy people feel happier, too, and so worry less about Government pronouncements on obesity, climate change, or whatever...

1 Of course, we environmentalists too can be guilty of jumping onto bandwagons to try and elevate our message. I fondly recall an advert I saw in 1992 in Northern Ireland that carried the message in block capitals "ENERGY INEFFICIENCY IS AS ANTI-SOCIAL AS DRINKING AND DRIVING". Maybe...or maybe not...

Friday, 12 October 2007

Al Gore and the Nobel Peace Prize

This blog may be sometimes accused of being a little grumpy, so let's give a big Hurrah! to the Nobel Prize Committee for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC. Al Gore needs no introduction, although unlike some of the current crop of green politicians he's no johnny-come-lately; I prize my copy of his 1992 work "Earth in the Balance", written just before he became vice-President.

Of course, this was - like most Nobel Peace Awards - a political decision, and coming just after President Bush's rather strange anti-climate change summit, it shows that the committee in Sweden can tell real McCoy from the fake. What Al Gore realises, is that we have to act; climate change may be an inconvenient truth, but it is the truth, and needs a concerted global response.

And it's also pleasing to see that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shares the award, for this is the group that has cautiously advanced the scientific case, building a consensus and providing hard facts on which the rest of us can base our arguments. Without the IPCC, the nay-sayers really would still be denying the evidence all around us.

However, to end the short celebratory post, I'll return to the words of Al Gore, in his 1992 book1: "We can work to achieve it and preserve it [the balance now missing in our relationship to the earth], or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance."

1 Conclusion on p 368, British Edition (Earthscan Publications)

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Which is scarier: Terrorism or Climate Change?

Are the British public becoming scared of Climate Change? A recent Yougov survey1 indicated that one couple in seven were reluctant to have children because they were concerned about the future of the world. Apparently, of this group who were polled online, 70% cited terrorism, 58% immigration, and 38% Climate Change as a contributory reason.

Quite apart from the fact that it's always wise to take this sort of survey result with a pinch of salt, I find the results a little perplexing. As a former mathematician, I find perceptions of risk interesting, as I can tell you precisely the chance of rolling 10 sixes on a dice in a row (1 in 60,466,176), which is roughly the same chance as being the next person in the UK to be struck by lightning. But how can we balance these highly unlikely events in any meaningful way? The chance of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is actually very low in most Western countries2. Just compare the number of deaths in the tragic event of 9/11 with the number of homicides or road accidents in the USA in the same year, and you'll wonder why the US President didn't start bombing the gun makers or General Motors. Nonetheless, the fear of random - and at times inexplicable - events can be very real.

To give the survey its due, Yougov's client, the Mental Health Foundation, were using the results to demonstrate how rising anxiety and general feeling of helplessness was leading to possibly irrational decision-making. Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy was quoted as saying "As social animals, we are sensitive to dangers from other humans that are intentional, such as terrorism. Accidental dangers, such as natural disasters, fail to motivate us in the same way."

I am not sure whether Dr Reddy would place Climate Change into the natural disaster category or not. Hopefully it is not intentional (although I might point an accusing finger at some politicians for behaving as if they didn't really care whether it is happening or not), but equally, it is generally accepted to be humanly induced. So are the reluctant parents behaving rationally by choosing not to bring children into a world that maybe severely affected by Climate Change?

Here the answer is less clear cut. There is a very small chance that we may reach a tipping point that leads to unchecked and major climate changes - a 5-10°C temperature rise (with massive sea level rises) or the "switching off" of the North Atlantic conveyor system (the Gulf Stream rendering parts of Northern Europe uninhabitable). But based on IPCC predictions and fairly firm science, a 2-3°C temperature rise over the forthcoming century is manageable, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in fully developed countries such as Britain. Yes, there may be famines and floods, but they will largely affect developing nations, and not the middle class web users being polled by Yougov. So are people over-estimating the risk of the big events, or basing their choice on a less rational fear of a smaller shift in climate?

But is there a second, almost hidden, moral issue: is it right to bring more people into a world that cannot really meet adequately the material needs of its current 6 billion inhabitants without creating major environmental problems, such as Climate Change? Or to put it in more biological and less social terms, by holding back from starting a family, are couples already instinctively starting a mechanism that is common in nature of reducing population sizes when times look tough? Big questions, and perhaps ones that I will return to in another blog.

1Poll of 2,012 adults online by Yougov, for the Mental Health Foundation, as reported by BBC News on Monday, 8 October 2007.

2Terrorism (and its reporting in an era of 24 hour news) tends to have a much wider impact than those directly affected. For example, we can almost all remember where we were when we first saw a news report of the 9/11 atrocity, and I, for one, was forced to cancel a planned meeting in London due to the suspension of public transport on the day of the 7/7 London terrorist attacks.