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Newsletter 2nd March 2007

- The myth of sustainability - Green fuel - The IPCC: maintaining the pressure - Climate change documentary - A guide to scientific uncertainty

The myth of sustainability

Sustainability is a term which we hear constantly, but most of us would be hard put to define. In 1987, the Brundtland report (Our Common Future) introduced a definition of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Few would argue with the sentiment The usual formulation is that there are three dimensions of sustainability – social, economic and environmental – and that all need to be given equal attention. . But, in practice, this seems to be that environmental and social considerations always trump economics, despite the fact that businesses must be financially healthy if they are to produce environmental goods.

The key problem seems to us to be that many proponents of sustainable development assume that something started now is only right if it could be carried on indefinitely. Anything which uses depletable resources is automatically unsustainable. But history tells us that development does not proceed like that. One technology takes over from another because it is better or cheaper. Oil did not replace coal as the major source of energy for many applications because the coal ran out. Far from it, there are still much greater reserves of coal than oil, but for many uses (particularly transport) oil has distinct advantages.

Equally, horse-drawn transport was not displaced by the internal combustion engine because there were no more horses. However, an observer with a copy of the Brundtland report suddenly taken back to the early 20th century would have concluded that horsepower was unsustainable: as demand for transport grew, keeping and feeding enough horses would become difficult and clearing manure from city streets a major problem. But instead, over a period of time, buses, lorries and cars replaced the horse, with no thought for the sustainability or otherwise of either the old or the new.

Progress does not occur smoothly and steadily. Instead, disruptive technologies are introduced which change the way we do things. These, in turn, may well themselves be supplanted before too long. There is no need to guarantee their sustainability over the foreseeable future. If a needed resource becomes scare, simple economics dictates that something else replaces it. If a need can be met better or more cheaply using a new technology, we can be sure that it will happen.

Placing less emphasis on sustainability does not mean taking the environment less seriously. Prosperous societies rightly demand higher environmental standards, as seen by the enormous improvements in air and water quality in the lifetimes of ourselves and our parents. It really is time to take a less black and white view of technological and economic progress.

Green fuel

The Department for Transport has just launched a consultation on the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, due to run until 17th May. As announced in last year’s Budget, the intention is that, in 2008, 2.5% of all fuel sales will be renewable, rising to 3.75% the following year and 5% in 2010. This consultation is on how the scheme would work and savings be reported, and how the RTFO might evolve after 2010. For those interested in responding, the consultation documents can be found at http://www.dft.gov.uk/consultations/open/draftrtfo/.

This is set against the backdrop of renewed EU enthusiasm for biofuels. There is an existing, voluntary, target of 5.75% by 2012 across the whole bloc, with a proposal for a mandatory level of 10% by 2020. However, as reported in last week’s Economist, only Germany and Sweden met the previous target of 2% by 2005. Simple economics makes meeting the targets unattractive. In the UK, biofuels manufacturers are finding it difficult to sell their output, despite agricultural subsidies and a 20 pence per litre tax break. As has been noted by others, maize prices have been pushed up significantly by demand from bio-ethanol producers. This is good for farmers, but not necessarily for the poor for whom maize is the staple food.

Some commentators believe that prices are being unnecessarily inflated, and that in the UK 10% of transport fuel could be biofuels without a conflict with food production. This may be true; markets do tend to over-react initially to new developments. There have been other concerns raised regarding the environmental impact of growing palm oil for bio-diesel production, and the carbon savings of bio-ethanol can be rather low unless the residual grain is either burnt as fuel or used as animal feed.

However, these are probably just the growing pains of a new industry. When the problem of producing fuels efficiently from waste biomass is cracked, there must be an assured future for the sector.

The IPCC: maintaining the pressure

The Financial Times printed a story last week based on a leaked copy of the draft report by the IPCC working group 3, to be presented and discussed in Bangkok in May. The story leads with the words “The world has less than 15 years to take urgent action against global warming through the use of new technology if it is to prevent a climate catastrophe”. It seems that certain people within the panel are keen to push the alarmist agenda via the media. And if the IPCC again publishes a summary for policymakers before the chapter on which it is based, this will not be good for their credibility.

Doubtless the intention is good. By creating a sense that this is a really serious issue, sufficient political traction could be gained to do something about it. However, despite the media’s tendency to stress worst-case scenarios, it seems that the majority of the public is probably still apathetic if not downright sceptical. In such circumstances, introducing stringent controls on carbon emissions is likely to remain politically suicidal in a democratic society.

Climate change documentary

On 8th March at 9 pm, Channel 4 will be showing a documentary entitled “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. This will feature many well-known (and less well-known) critics of the IPCC view on the importance of carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change. And it will undoubtedly come in for strong criticism. We encourage all readers to watch this programme and make up their own minds. It is rare to have such a prime-time slot devoted to a critical look at the issue.

A guide to scientific uncertainty

Finally, this week we made our own small contribution to the debate in the form of a booklet published by the Centre for Policy Studies. Called Climate Change: a guide to the scientific uncertainties, it is available for download at http://www.cps.org.uk/latestarticles/.