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Newsletter 19th October 2007

- Obesity as big a problem as climate change - The problem with cement - Development in China

Obesity as big a problem as climate change

We would not normally comment on a purely health issue, but then it is not often we see such eye-catching statements as that of Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, who at the weekend said that obesity in the UK is a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change”.  This is a good illustration of the all-pervasiveness of the climate issue: it is the metaphor which government ministers use when they want to emphasise the seriousness of a problem.

But another interesting point is raised: in other reports, the headline is that obesity is not the fault of individuals. The argument is simply that we are physiologically hunter-gatherers, but now have ample food readily to hand and no reason to expend much energy. That much is true, but the conclusion seems a little dubious. Surely, just because food is there in quantities larger than we need, it doesn’t mean we are obliged to eat it. Indeed, the opposite message is being given by the self-same government regarding alcohol consumption.

Headlines this week have focussed on the “middle-class vice” of social drinking, reported to put people at more risk than they might have thought. In this case, we are told it is the individual’s responsibility to limit their own alcohol consumption, and we now seem to be on the brink of a concerted, long-term campaign to put even moderate alcohol consumption in the same league as smoking. Given the proven health benefits of drinking red wine regularly, and the inconsiderate tendency of the French to live long, healthy lives despite their wine habit, this seems a bit excessive. Nevertheless, the concept of alcohol consumption being under the control of most people seems a healthy one (pun intended).

On the other hand, the way the government proposes to tackle the obesity problem – and it clearly is a problem – seems to be via social engineering. If people are victims, then the culprits must be made to change their ways. And the culprits in this case seem to be the food industry and urban design. Reduce the availability of “junk food” and obesity rates will fall. Make cities harder to get around in without walking or using the stairs and we will all be fitter and healthier.

Would that it were so, but things are much more complicated than that. The fact is that average calorie intakes have not risen in line with our increasing girth, but exercise levels certainly seem to have fallen. But re-engineering our urban areas is a project which would take decades to have any real effect. In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise if we put our minds to it. And as for “junk food”, the old adage of there being no such thing as bad food, just bad diet, is surely true. Eating hamburgers every day is the basis of an unbalanced diet, but there are many other ways in which people manage to eat unhealthily.

In previous generations, obesity was largely confined to the well-off, while for the majority of the population life was harder and for many diets were barely adequate. But the lack of fast food did not in itself prevent obesity, just as banning fast food advertising now will make no difference to people’s weight.

To come back to the original point of comparison – climate change – there is a very real difference. We know what causes obesity: an imbalance between calorie intake and energy expended. However much the government may tell us it’s not our fault, the remedy lies with the individual: take more exercise and be careful with your diet. And, judging by the statistics, a large number of people choose not to follow this advice. How much more difficult, then, to persuade those same people to make sacrifices with the goal of controlling the climate for future generations. This is a reality which policymakers have to grapple with.

The problem with cement

One of the side-effects of our present concerns over carbon dioxide emissions is the occasional interesting insight into industries we take for granted. One in particular is the manufacture of cement, the key ingredient of concrete. And concrete, we learn, is perhaps the most common material in use round the world: a staggering three tonnes for every single person on Earth. This figure will continue to rise as China and other major economies maintain their rapid growth.

Cement factories are large emitters of carbon dioxide, currently 900 kilos for every tonne of finished product. This is due in part to the furnaces required, but mainly to the fact that limestone is heated to convert it to calcium oxide (quicklime) which then combines chemically with the other components. It is claimed – by the manufacturers themselves – that the two billion tonnes of cement manufactured each year contributes 5% of Mankind’s total global emissions of carbon dioxide.

And whereas most other emissions are directly related to energy generation and use – and therefore in principle can be reduced by making greater use of renewables – cement is clearly in a different category. Continuing urbanisation will only increase demand, and it is unlikely that a material which has been in use since Roman times will easily be replaced.

Development in China

Something we have argued for some time is that China will never compromise its economic development for the sake of a global post-Kyoto treaty, unless non-fossil fuel technologies are subsidised for them by the West. If carbon dioxide does turn out to be the primary driver of climate change, we are simply not on course to slow down emissions to the degree believed to be necessary. A timely article by Carl Mortished in the Times (China’s drive for wealth means end for our low-carbon dreams) summarises the situation very well.

Having doubled per capita income to $2,000 in five years, the Communist party is now planning to double it again by 2020. The country, already the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, will be the dominant emitter by far, although conceivably India could be vying for that position by then. China now accounts for one third of the global consumption of coal, and has become a net importer despite large reserves of its own.

This, of course, does not mean that we should give up on attempts to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. If, for example, nuclear fusion or any other emerging technology becomes commercially viable in the West, it will undoubtedly be used by other countries, including China. But a dispassionate view of the facts shows us that we simply have to plan for a mid-term future where global carbon emissions continue to rise, and to plan policies accordingly. To pretend otherwise is just burying our heads in the sand.