Friday, 29 July 2016

Wasting the Water of Life

I want to recommend the work of Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, University of Twente.

Hoekstra invented the Water Footprint, similar to the carbon footprint, and has published vast amounts of data. He also has emphatic views:
In Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint: the vast majority relates to the products you consume ... about 90 per cent of our global water footprint relates to food. About one-third relates to the production of feed for the animals we consume.
In California, for instance, the state’s biggest water use is for feed crops. Meanwhile, you have this drought going on, and all of the time the focus is on how terrible it is to have a drought. But the real focus should be on how stupid it is to have such a big water demand in a region where droughts are fully expected.
You can use less and less water per unit of production, but if your population is growing and your consumption booming, then that is simply not sufficient.

Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable.  

We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
 All round the world we are mining water rather than recycling it. Ground water WILL run out and if we aren't ready we will all be in bad trouble.

Silly Questions about Air Pollution

I've just filled in the survey that forms part of the Mayor's consultation on air pollution. Since air pollution kills nearly 10,000 Londoners each year (70 times as many as die in road traffic accidents!) this is a big issue. And I'm pleased to see Green Assembly Member Caroline Russell working on the issue.

But the questions!

Take question 2:  Q2. To what extent do you think each of following is responsible for air pollution in London? - diesel cars, petrol cars, taxis, etc.

The contribution of, eg diesel cars, to air pollution is a matter for scientific study - not public opinion. And its something that the Mayor should tell us before asking our opinion on policy options since he and his advisers have access to scientific advice and time to read it. We don't. Without that the results will reflect some mixture of self-interest, time spent with good quality news sources and random prejudice.

Or take question 15: Do you think that residents should receive a 90% discount from the Emissions Surcharge?

To answer that I need to know what proportion of travel is due to residents's vehicles. That sounds simple but if a discount was introduced you can be sure that some smart residents would find ways to hire their vehicles to non-residents so that proportion would appear to increase.

And for every proposed policy we need to know simply this - How many lives will it save?

This is a poor quality consultation and a missed opportunity. Please, Mr Khan, do better next time!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

How Politics rules out Fracking

In March the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a body established by Parliament, produced a report on fracking. The report - The compatibility of UK onshore petroleum with meeting the UK’s carbon budgets - is rather sceptical. (And it does not consider most of the objections to fracking, eg pollution of water supplies, since the CCC is not charged to do so.)

The main conclusion is that:
"exploiting shale gas by fracking on a significant scale is not compatible with UK climate targets unless three tests are met:
  • Test 1: Well development, production and decommissioning emissions must be strictly limited. Emissions must be tightly regulated and closely monitored in order to ensure rapid action to address leaks.... Production should not be allowed in areas where it would entail significant CO2 emissions resulting from the change in land use (e.g. areas with deep peat soils); The regulatory regime must require proper decommissioning [and] ensure that the liability for emissions at this stage rests with the producer.
  • Test 2: Consumption – gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budgets requirements. ....This means that UK shale gas production must displace imported gas rather than increasing domestic consumption.
  • Test 3: ..... .Additional production emissions from shale gas wells will need to be offset through reductions elsewhere in the UK economy, such that overall effort to reduce emissions is sufficient to meet carbon budgets.
The obvious questions are whether these conditions can be met and, if so, whether they will be. The report is clear that the conditions can be met, but will they be?

Test 1
The government's obvious enthusiasm for fracking is based on US experience so its useful to look at that experience. In 2011 Robert Howarth of Cornell Uni. estimated that methane losses during fracking were so large that burning fracked gas was worse for the climate than burning coal! Of course, US regulation is notoriously lax and the UK would doubtless do better but is shows the vital importance of actually doing much better. The committee says that the 'minimum necessary regulation' should reduce methane emissions to 0.5% of gas produced. That's 4-20 times better than the US situation.

Since regulation increases costs and given that a mixture of political and geological factors is undermining the viability of large-scale fracking its obvious that the industry will resist strict regulation. The government's general approach to fracking which includes over-riding local opposition, makes it unlikely that it will be robust in this area.

Test 2
To ensure that fracked gas replaces imported gas would be easy for a government that was prepared to intervene in the economy in order to safeguard the climate. In 2015 the Cameron government backed away from a number of such commitments. It's possible that the May government will be different but early signs, and the inevitable emphasis on BREXIT and protecting the economy make this look unlikely.

And even this assumes that the UK is in track to meet its obligations - which it isn't.

Test 3
It's worth quoting the report directly here: "... accommodating additional emissions from shale gas production of 11 Mt/year may be possible, although it would require significant and potentially difficult offsetting effort elsewhere."

When an official body says "significant and difficult"it genesally means 'probably won't happen'.

The bottom line here is that the use of fracking is only compatible with the UK's carbon budgets if associated with resolute efforts by successive UK governments. Nothing in the recent behaviour of the UK government makes that seem likely.

So the conclusion is obvious and unoriginal - No fracking here!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Another Reason for the Rebellion of the 'left behind' People

Is Trump's triumph due to rising US death rates? Looks likely.

A study by Nobel-prize winning economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case showed that death rates for white Americans aged 30-64 has have risen significantly since 1999. This is remarkable because death rates for US blacks and hispanics and for all citizens of other developed countries and for US whites before 1999 all fell. And, strikingly, the mortality increase is concentrated amongst the poorly educated.

The main increasing causes of death were suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease. “I don’t think there’s any single explanation,” says Angus Deaton who went on to blame booze, drug addiction and financial anxiety. He drew particular attention the the greater availability of heroin to US whites from the 1990s.

I think Deaton is missing the point here for suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease have something in common. They are diseases of despair. They reflect the situation of poor whites who have seen their incomes, social standing, political influence and health decline as the USA has become more unequal and more multicultural.

These are just the factors implicated in the rise of UKIP by the authors of Revolt on the Right. So what more natural than that they should find expression in support for the US's answer to Nigel Farrage - Donald Trump.

The US and UK situation are not the same. The NHS and better pension and welfare system provide protection against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But the parallels are real for all that.

Monday, 25 July 2016

A Lesson from Jellyfish

Jellyfish aren't really my thing. I'm not a biologist and on the now rare occasions when I'm in the sea I don't see them. I suppose they're interesting - they're certainly weird - and I'm willing to be concerned that their numbers are increasing as those of ordinary fish (those with backbones) are falling. So I read a recent New Scientist article with interest.

The article documents the growth in numbers and the problems they cause then looks at ways of controlling the numbers. (The increased numbers are due to human activities such as overfishing, run-off of agricultural chemicals and global warming.) Those ways include swarms of specialised robots (!) and manipulating their fertility with hormones but nothing seems to work well. And, given how little we know about them, a killing spree seems a bad idea.

And jellyfish, like everything else, are food for something. Probably the main predators include those very fish we've been removing by overfishing! So the right answer to the jellyfish problem is to restore the health of the oceans by stopping overfishing, over-use of agricultural chemicals and global warming; and possibly by releasing lots of little fish.

The Jellyfish lesson, then, is to show restraint and restore the balance of nature. A true ecological lesson.

Friday, 22 July 2016

World Biodiversity on the slide

A recent major report in Science magazine by 23 scientists shows that biodiversity has fallen to dangerously low levels across two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. By ‘dangerously’ they mean likely to undermine the natural services, such as food production and waste disposal, on which we depend. The loss of biodiversity is mainly due to changes in land use.  

They authors found that original species are more than 14% less abundant as before we started changing the land and are at least 10% less abundant – the accepted warning level – over 90% of the Earth’s surface.

The authors further show that this is true for that 58% of the planet on which 71% of people live; so this is not a small issue for our species. 

Should we panic?

Probably not. The loss of biodiversity does not imply the immediate collapse of world farming (though there are certainly risks) or the pollution of all ours rivers. 

But, it will make the ecosystems more vulnerable to shocks such as the droughts, floods, storms, etc. that climate change will make increasingly common and severe. Over and over we’ve seen how areas of original habitat are reduced to patches in which all the species seem present. But after shocks, or just lapse of time, key species disappear. Though we don’t know the tipping points we do knows that they are there.

The changes in land use have neither stopped nor slowed. Neither will they stop whilst our numbers and impacts grow. The extrapolation is obvious: Further loss of habitat and biodiversity.

So though we shouldn’t panic we should ACT. We need to adopt genuinely sustainable policies – as the Green Party has always said.

·         Title: Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment
·         Author: Newbold, Tim, et al.
·         Ref:  Science  15 Jul 2016: Vol. 353, Issue 6296, pp. 288-291
·         DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201

The paper is behind a paywall but there’s a summary in ZME Science.