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Newsletter 9th March 2007

- Sustainable development in government - The Great Global Warming Swindle - Urban pollution

Sustainable development in government

Having raised some questions about the concept of sustainability last week, we now have an opportunity to see the difficulties of sustainable development in practice, in this case in the public sector. This week, the Sustainable Development Commission – the government-appointed independent advisory body and watchdog, chaired by Jonathon Porritt – issued its fifth Sustainable Development in Government report. And the results do not look good.

Eleven out of the 19 departments studied had, for example, increased their emissions of carbon dioxide. Perhaps particularly embarrassing was the poor performance of Defra, the ministry with responsibility for the environment. And this, of course, assumes that the data is accurate; the SDC, for the second year running, commented on “patchy data and poor performance across most areas”. Indeed, even positive steps have been relatively small: there was an increase of 3% in the sourcing of electricity from renewables, and the recycling rate went up, although against a baseline of increased overall waste levels.

Another key point from the report is that most departments are unlikely  to hit the target of cutting carbon emissions by 12.5% from 1990 levels by 2010. In Jonathon Porritt’s words, "Overall, government performance is simply not good enough. Against a backdrop of non-stop messages on climate change and corporate social responsibility, the government has failed to get its own house in order. It is absolutely inexcusable that the government is lagging so far behind the private sector, when it should be leading the way."

Whatever your view of sustainable development, many of the targets are eminently sensible. Aspiring to greater energy efficiency, reduced waste and lower water usage is good. But it is no good setting targets which are impractical or for which no sensible plan exists. It is actually interesting to see Jonathon Porritt comparing the government performance unfavourably with that of the private sector. In common with many environmentalists, he seems to assume that the public sector should have the answers and be able to achieve wonders through a great overall master plan.

Evidence would suggest otherwise. Centralised planning in the ex-Soviet bloc was a disaster for its citizens. And to see how this translated into environmental impact, we have only to compare the state of the Federal and “Democratic” German republics prior to re-unification. The reality is usually that private industry, given the right incentives, can be much more flexible and effective.

The great global warming swindle

This provocatively-titled documentary was shown on Channel 4 last night. Did it live up to expectations? In most respects, we would say it had. “Swindle” is a strong word to use, and perhaps not fully justified, but viewers have to be attracted by something. It made its points via the words of experienced scientists and commentators, some actively involved in current climate research programmes.

The key messages which emerged are:

    * The global climate is not behaving as the models which the IPCC relies on suggest it should. The major anomalies are in the lack of warming over Antarctica and the relative warming of the troposphere compared to the Earth’s surface.
    * Evidence is that previous significant temperature changes were associated with raised carbon dioxide levels, but these were a consequence rather than a cause of the change in climate.
    * Plausible alternative hypotheses are able to account for the pattern of climate variability both recently and over a much longer historical timescale, and deserve to be the basis of research. The work of Svensmark et al on the mediation of cosmic rays by the sun’s magnetic field - affecting cloud formation and temperature - is currently of particular interest.
    * The focus on CO2 induced warming has resulted in a set of unhelpful mitigation policies.
    * These policies have a negative effect on poor people in developing countries, by slowing their adoption of distributed power supplies.

Criticism has come from all the expected quarters, of course. Doubtless there are flaws and points which can be refuted. However, the thrust of the argument – that the current attribution of temperature trends to rising CO2 levels is by no means certain – is surely one which deserves attention. This excerpt from the Times review this morning sums things up quite well:

As Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, remarked: “If you’re sceptical about the litany behind climate change, it’s suddenly as if you’re a Holocaust denier.” That’s not healthy for science, which surely needs a climate of reasoned debate rather than consensus.

Urban pollution

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has issued a report on the urban environment. The RCEP takes a very broad look at environmental factors, going well beyond pollution per se (or, indeed, the direct effects of urbanisation). For example, the report highlights the greater prevalence of mental illness in built-up areas, and the additional health burden arising from obesity and road traffic accidents.

On the question of actual pollution, the Commission quotes a figure of 24,000 premature deaths annually from air pollution, while acknowledging that air quality has improved greatly over the past 50 years. Of course, all these deaths should be avoided if possible, but the fact is that our air and water quality have improved considerably in the last few decades, in parallel with great strides in life expectancy and general health. The truly challenging pollution problems are those present in developing countries. Indoor cooking fires present major health risks, and lack of access to clean water is equally worrying.

The Commission makes many sensible suggestions on the urban environment, for example improving the energy efficiency of housing and retaining green areas. However, we would question their conclusions on road transport. The projection quoted in the report is for a 40% increase in urban traffic from 2001 to 2031. Inevitably, this can cause problems and, in the Commission’s view, would squeeze out more “sustainable” transport. Their solution? “We recommend that the government develops and strengthens requirements for Local Transport Plans, such that by the end of 2008 they

can include statutory targets for reduction in urban traffic.”

To us, this is meaningless. People use cars because they are the most convenient way to make particular journeys. No amount of planning, road charging or provision of public transport and cycle lanes can really overcome this. Go to Copenhagen or Amsterdam, two cities with good public transport and high usage of bikes, and you will still find traffic congestion. More radical approaches to personal transport are needed, both in towns and for longer distances.