New study on reducing emissions with coherent social policy

It’s often been assumed that a heavy carbon footprint is highly correlated with levels of national development. Moreover, it’s assumed that economic development is an essential part of building national well-being. The logical conclusions of such propositions is that national well-being must decline if carbon emissions are to be cut. Here is a most interesting study from nef, the new economics foundation, which challenges these assumptions.

nef begins by rating countries in the EU on a well-being index, which combines life satisfaction and life expectancy measures. Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Switzerland rate highly on this index. Transition countries such as Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania rate lowest. The largest European countries, such as German, France and the UK, rate somewhere in the middle.

nef then rates these countries by carbon footprint, the amount of resources used by each European nation to support its lifestyles. Again Scandinavian countries rate highest in efficiency, with the UK, Finland, Estonia and Luxembourg at the bottom. Interestingly, only Latvia is rated as truly sustainable in its use of resources. Again, Germany and France are in the middle.

Combining the two indices gives a picture of how well countries are doing in delivering well-being to their citizens with low impact on carbon emissions. Scandinavian countries stand out, as having some of the lowest per capita carbon footprints while delivering high levels of economic, social and personal well-being. Iceland rates highest in Europe, along with Sweden and Norway. The UK sits at 21st (out of 30), just behind France and Germany, with only transition countries such as Portugal, Greece and Luxembourg doing worse. Latvia, despite being a transition country, come a respectable eleventh.

nef concludes from this study that there are three key targets for policy makers who want to reduce national carbon emissions while maintaining high levels of well-being:

Reduce consumption overall and set legally binding targets for carbon reduction: shift to lifestyles which require the consumption of less resources, particularly in energy, through renewables and decentralisation; set carbon budgets for 3-5 year periods.

Reduce inequalities: maintain the social cohesion and social capital required to develop shared solutions to our environmental problems; provide more support to local communities.

Support meaningful lives: particularly in the workplace, through flexible work practice, volunteering, eduction and training; incorporate well-being to inform policy making across government.

nef concludes: “Individuals, communities, governments and societies at large can afford to greatly reduce their levels of consumption without it needing to undermine the well-being of the citizens of Europe.”

Download the nef report here.

KPMG report finds climate change risk management inadequate

A recent KPMG survey of executives in large companies across the world has confirmed the findings of other recent surveys by PriceWaterhouse and Lehman Brothers: executive teams are significantly under-prepared for handling the risks associated with climate change. In fact, less than a quarter of these executives said that their companies had any plans at all for handling the effects of climate change on their businesses. The KPMG authors comment that this is an example of a general shortfall in corporate risk management: dealing with so-called ‘tail risks’.

This phrase refers to the assumptions made in most quantitative models that deal with risk. These models almost always use probability theory based on the Gaussian curve–the normal distribution. This bell-shaped curve, as everybody knows, falls sharply away from its peak frequencies as it moves away from the mean. That implies that highly unusual events will occur with vanishingly small frequencies. In fact, there is a growing view that this doesn’t model our world particularly well. Unusual events seem to occur more often, and to have very large, system-wide effects, than probability theory suggests. Another description of this phenomenon is known as ‘fat tails’–a reference to the shape of the distribution curve when extreme events are modelled as being more probably than the normal distribution curve.

A highly readable, if somewhat arrogant, account of this view can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) The Black Swan, Allen Lane Penguin, New York.

Summary of the KPMP Report link here.

Solar global warming hypothesis refuted

With ABC television about to show ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ (despite its being discredited by the protests of participants in it that their contributions had been manipulated) it’s worth noting a reasonably conclusive scientific refutation of it that was published this week. A central argument of TGGWS was that global warming, to the extent that it was recognisable, is likely to have been caused by increased solar activity. A study published by the Royal Society strongly suggests that this is unlikely to have been the case. The relevant solar trends, in sunspot activity, sunshine and cosmic rays since 1987 have all been moving in the opposite direction to global temperatures, which rose 0.3 degrees Centigrade during that period. Unless there is some decades-long lag mechanism at work, this finding seems to present strong evidence against the solar thesis.

Report from The Guardian link here.

Again, as noted in my last post, there seems to be a visceral desire on the part of the developed world to clutch at any argument rather than face the realities of what is required to deal effectively with global warming: change our lifestyle. TGGWS may be presented as science, but it is driven by values and beliefs that lie well outside the scientific framework. The reality of this mechanism in the scientific evidence was recognised and demonstrated more than forty years ago by Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions–a book that all people growing up in this aggressively scientific age should read.

The fact is that scientific knowledge is far from the foundational truth it is presented as. That applies to the evidence both for and against global warming. However, given the assymetry in outcomes–it’s much worse if TGGWS turns out to be wrong than if the global warming thesis turns out to be wrong–the application of the Precautionary Principle would seem to be a coherent strategy. This was defined in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development like this:

‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

In any case, the logic for acting is pretty simple. That global warming is occurring is not, except in some extreme views, in dispute. That human beings are playing some part in it is also not in dispute: what is disputed is how much. Another, non-human physical cause of global warming cannot be conclusively ruled out; but, in a sense, that hardly matters, for the purposes of policy. Human policy can only affect human activity. Whatever can be done by human societies to alleviate anthropogenic climate change impacts should be done; and whatever can be done to mitigate or adapts to climate change impacts should be done.

Of course, as always, the devil is in the detail: what does ‘whatever can be done’ really imply in practice? As noted, so far it has been defined in such a way as to rule out significant lifestyle change. Against that it can be argued (as I would argue) that unless lifestyle changes are included in the scope of actions, it is unlikely that alleviation, mitigation or adaptation will occur, on any significant level. So here we are again, back at the 10% rule (see my post of July 3 on the nuclear option).

Water pollution in China increasing and damaging

The decision of Chinese authorities in the eastern Jiangsu Province to cut off water supplies to 200,000 people because of unacceptably high levels of ammonia brings into focus the actutely polluted states of China’s rivers and lakes. China’s enormous economic growth has been built on unchecked industrial expansion, which is now showing up in the stretching of its resource base. Put simply, the ecological services provided by China’s environment can’t support that kind of economic growth under the policy conditions that prevail. Seven of the nine main lakes for which the national government takes responsibility are now officially ‘wholly polluted’. It’s estimated, shockingly, that some 60,000 people in rural areas die each year from water-related diseases. The admininstrative remedies are elusive, as local government officials are effectively not under central control.

Report from the Financial Times link here.

And here is a subsequent article about a World Bank report on general pollution in China which puts the number of deaths from pollution at 750,000.

Report from The Age link here.

UK research report dismantles nuclear power option

Here is a report from an Oxford research group analysing the policy option of nuclear power as a means of combatting global warming. The group presents some withering numbers which expose the nuclear option for the nonsense it is: for example, that to make any appreciable difference to global emissions, 3000 nuclear reactors would have to be built over the next 60 years, approximately one per week, in all parts of the world, including the many nations, such as in Africa, where no reactors have ever been built. This can be compared with the maximum number per year built to date of three. The waste from these reactors, and the allied terrorist threats, both to facilities and from illegally acquired plutonium, present unimaginable difficulties in the way of such a program.

Two other things become clear from this analysis. The first is that the current push for nuclear power is coming primarily from the nuclear industry and from the uranium industry, in which Australia is playing no small part. Australia’s position, on both sides of politics, of supporting uranium mining and export but rejecting nuclear technology in its own country is cynically immoral, by any measure.

The second issue is that across the world it seems to be true that societies will do anything rather than address the root cause of global warming: the way we live. It is the addiction of developed societies to their current level of material living that has to change.

In this context, an interesting hypothesis was recently proposed by the editor of the academic journal Pacific Conservation Biology, Ian McLean [Vol.12, No.3, September 2006]. He proposes a ‘10% rule’, which goes as follows:

“What I already have is OK, but I do not seem to be as happy as I believe I could be. Surely, the reason I am not very happy is that I do not have enough X (where X could be anything, but is normally some kind of commodity.) What would make me really happy is 10% more X.”

McLean argues that the figure of 10% arises because it’s difficult to conceptualise the big jumps. He targets consumerism, the idea that “happiness tends to be defined interms of spending, having, and the process of getting.” He notes, from his own world-wide experience in the developing countries, that there are many populations that have literally nothing, such as rural Ethiopians, and who yet seem to be relatively happy; he argues that, since they have nothing, adding 10% for them is “trivially easy.” He concludes that it is not global warming per se that we have to worry about, but the “the desperate life-long search for commodity-driven happiness”, which finds expression as the 10% rule.

One can see the clear connection to the nuclear power push: it is predicated on the assumption that the energy needed to satisfy modern societies can’t be reduced. McLean’s argument challenges this assumption head on; and I believe that it is, indeed, the kind of thinking, and the action which flows from it, which alone can meet the global warming challenge.

Article on the Oxford report from The Guardian link here.

Download the Oxford Research Report here.