A recurring theme of mine is that policies aimed at “dealing with” or preventing climate change (as if we could) have a tendency to cause more harm than good, certainly overall, and often in their own terms. Anger on my part at the willingness of “greens” to damage and even destroy the environment in the name of climate change was on display when I wrote, inter alia, “Saving the Planet By Trashing It”i and “For Peat’s Sake”ii.
It is also my view that many of the problems experienced by the UK (and elsewhere) with regard to energy prices have been caused by the rush to renewables in the name of “net zero”. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many who are in favour of renewables and “net zero” seek to argue that what is needed to solve the energy crisis (shorthand for both dramatically rising prices and uncertainty of supply) is to step up our reliance on (inherently unreliable) renewables. I gave this argument short shrift in “Energy Through The Looking Glass”iii.
What follows is a summary of news articles in the mainstream media over the last few days, which seem to my jaundiced eye to support my belief that “green” policies often suffer from unintended consequences and usually end up making things worse.
Rewilding, or just a greenwashed land grab? It all depends on who benefits
This was the title to an articleiv which appeared on the Guardian website on 28th May 2022. I am pleased to see that writers at the Guardian are, perhaps, starting to recognise that “green” policies can have negative consequences. Rewilding is a case in point. Beloved of many at the Guardian or who share the Guardian mindset, it seems that it comes with its own particular set of problems, largely because “rewilding” can in reality be a form of “greenwashing” around “carbon” offsets:
The race for land to use for this kind of offsetting has been supercharged by a combination of government green subsidies such as environmental land management schemes, which pay farmers and landowners to rewild, and a global appetite for carbon markets. As the researchers Laurie Macfarlane and Miriam Brett point out, land markets in the UK are lightly regulated, and tax breaks encourage investment in both land and property. This system fast-tracks sales of large areas of the UK with little scrutiny.
In the UK, Scotland is the most affected: the average price of land, according to research by the estate agent Strutt & Parker, jumped by 87% in the last year. Some estates have seen a 333% price increase since 2018. Many of the landowners are colloquially and pejoratively titled “green lairds”, echoing the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. The new Somerset-based venture Real Wild Estates recently said its business model was “making nature pay, by delivering sustainable business returns” for investors.
Part of the issue lies in offsets themselves. Many activists demand the UK reaches negative, not net zero, emissions – which will require significant domestic rewilding as well as huge financial flows to the global south. Offsets should be a last resort for residual emissions, reserved only to offset so-called hard to decarbonise sectors such as the steel industry. The current system provides impunity to corporations and the super-rich who can emit as much as they like so long as they plant enough trees later.
No doubt much of this criticism is justified. I share some at least of the Guardian’s anguish. Where I differ is that it strikes me as inevitable that rich people and corporations will seek out subsidies, tax breaks and all the rest of it, if they are made available by misguided and naive politicians. The Guardian’s conclusion strikes me as idealistic and equally naïve:
Rewilding should not be about profit and offsets, remote and alien from rural communities. The value of a real, democratic rewilding is that it doesn’t just secure a home for beavers and sequestered carbon dioxide – but for people too.
Secret sales: Community fears as land prices rocket for carbon offsetting forests
Speaking of naïve politicians, the Sunday Post website contains an articlev under the above heading, which develops the story, and makes the point more forcefully. It seems that there are many issues indeed resulting from “efforts to combat climate change”:
A planned forest backed by £3 million of public money has already been sold off market, we can reveal, as the secret sale of swathes of Scotland provokes rising concern.
Ministers hailed the proposed woodland in Sutherland as a landmark in the efforts to combat climate change when it was announced in December 2020, but the land has already been sold once and part of it is on the market again, with the public funds available a key selling part of the pitch to potential buyers seeking to offset their carbon footprint.
The so-called green rush by billionaires, investment firms, and big charities to buy thousands of acres of rural Scotland to create so-called carbon credits, to offset their own emissions or to sell, has triggered a booming market, with land prices spiralling upwards.
Communities and land reform campaigners warn Scotland is being sold in secret as buyers rush to secure Scottish Government grants aimed at securing net zero emissions by 2045.
Demand is unprecedented as prices of farmland in Scotland rose by 31% last year – compared to 6% in England – with a third of sales being carried out “off market” without publicity, while two thirds of estates sold were also bought in private deals.
How and why has this ridiculous and damaging state of affairs come to pass? According to the Sunday Post:
The Scottish Government aims to plant 18,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and forestry grants totalling around £72m will have to be handed out to wealthy landowners every year to ensure this happens.
The Forestry Grants Scheme has already awarded grants totalling £172m since it was set up in 2015. Ministers have also set aside £250m for grants aimed at restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded peat by 2030…
…The impacts on the land market are really the symptoms of a dysfunctional climate policy and relationship to natural capital, symptoms that are exacerbating land inequalities.
Dysfunctional climate policy, indeed. There seems to be a lot of it about.
COP26: ‘Serious lessons’ to be learned as Glasgow summit proves to be the most polluting COP in history
Sticking with Scotland, the Scotsman breaks the newsvi (funnily enough, news that I haven’t yet spotted on the websites of either the BBC or the Guardian) that COP 26 in Glasgow has emitted levels of greenhouse gases which have smashed the emissions records set by all the previous COPs. Residual greenhouse gas emissions apparently totalled 131,556 tonnes of CO2e. The opening paragraph sums up, in short order, so much that is wrong with policy:
Greenhouse gas emissions from the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow were nearly 30 per cent higher than first forecast, with the UK government using a firm in an offshore tax haven to buy carbon offsets in the wake of last November’s gathering of world leaders.
Higher than forecast, higher than previous COPs (205% more than the Paris COP), use of “carbon” offsets, offshore tax haven involvement – what a shambles. Extraordinarily, emissions are estimated to have totalled approximately 2.7 tonnes for each of the 38,462 delegates. Compare and contrast – the average person in the UK is, we are told, responsible for emissions of around seven tonnes of CO2e a year. And what did all these COP-related emissions achieve?
It comes amid mounting scrutiny of COP26’s legacy. Six months on, there is little progress on climate finance, and emerging evidence of countries turning back towards coal, sparked in part by the war in Ukraine and the resultant energy crisis.
The Government claims that COP26 achieved “carbon neutrality”, but some are sceptical as to how that was accomplished. Those pesky offsets again:
[A] major carbon offset strategy was pursued, with the government purchasing 136,720 tCO2 equivalent of carbon offsets across projects around the world…
…There are also concerns over how the UK government bought its offsets. While some carbon offsets were purchased at projects in Vietnam, Laos, Honduras, and the Pacific Ocean island nation of New Caledonia, Arup’s report notes that more than 40 per cent of the total – 58,839 units – went to a clean cookstove initiative in the West African country of Ghana…
However, the UK government purchased the units via ClimateCare Limited, a company based in the offshore tax haven of Jersey.
And it seems a lot of the organisation of the event leaves much to be desired:
The decision to sail a cruise ship up the River Clyde and use it to provide accommodation near to the Scottish Event Campus venue had a major environmental impact, generating approximately 7,350 tCO2e of emissions.
It also shows that despite vows in the COP26 event strategy to “effectively manage waste by repurposing or recycling wherever possible”, just 53 per cent of waste – nearly 61 tonnes – in the summit’s prominent blue zone was recycled.
It all reads as though it would have been far, far better, both for the environment and for the long-suffering UK taxpayer if the event had never taken place, or at the very least if all the hype and the ridiculously disruptive scale of it had been massively reduced.
Do wood burners add to air pollution in cities? Yes, say citizen scientists
This was the heading to an articlevii on the Guardian website on 29th May 2022. The sub-heading tells us: “Pioneering Bristol study blames the solid-fuel burners in people’s homes for breaches of World Health Organisation guidelines”.
The article actually makes the sort of points that we sceptics tend to make whenever we are confronted with near-hysterical reports and articles about supposedly appalling air quality in UK cities, given that our cities’ air has probably not been cleaner for decades if not centuries:
“We’ve forgotten the journey we’ve been on with clean air. In the 1950s at least 4,000 people died in the smog in London in five days,” said Crawshaw. “That led to the clean air act, then natural gas started to get piped into homes in the 1960s…”
So what’s the problem? This:
The number of solid fuel appliances such as log burners installed in Bristol increased sevenfold in the decade after 2007, with just over 900 installations recorded in 2017…
…Crawshaw said: “Even if people burn clean, dry wood, those stoves are still grossly polluting compared with gas and electric.”
The smoke in the ward is not just coming from middle-class homes. There is a van-dwelling community in the area, with some burning wood to stay warm. Soaring energy costs are also driving some struggling families to use open fires again.
When we moved from our last home (which had a log burner) we made it a priority to replace the gas fire in our current home with another log burner. Part of our thinking was that apart from being very pleasant on miserable winter days and evenings, it also enables us to heat just one room, rather than the whole house. Given rising gas and electricity prices, it appears that others have arrived at the same conclusion. Our other reason for installing a log burner was in anticipation of this:
Millions warned of power cuts this winter
The articleviii with this heading also appeared on the Times website on 29th May 2022. For me, this was the key paragraph:
A minister said the briefing suggested that electricity could have to be rationed for up to six million homes at the start of next year, mostly at peaks in the morning and evening.
The report was prompted by a letter sent on 25th May 2022 by Kwasi Kwarteng, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, to National Grid ESO, in which he explained that he has written to the owners of the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations to ask them to stay open longer than planned. The sub-heading to the Times article was “Ministers delay closure of coal-fired generators over fear of gas shortages caused by Ukraine war”, but the reality is that the UK’s energy strategy is increasingly dysfunctional. That much is evident from the contents of Mr Kwarteng’s letter, which first of all states that his department has identified certain coal plant [sic] which could be considered as part of any potential solution to the risk of lack of capacity in the system next winter. Then he says that any frameworks agreed with the operators of such plants must ensure system stability, enable them to be reliably available over the winter and have the potential to generate significant amounts of electricity. Of course, this is the very desirable state of affairs that over-reliance on renewable energy has been sabotaging over the past few years. But then he goes on to reaffirm the recently published (and ironically named) British Energy Security Strategy, which includes reducing our dependency on imported fossil fuels, accelerate the transition away from oil and gas, yet “recognising the critical role fossil fuels will play as we deploy low carbon alternatives”. He concludes by saying that he remains committed to the government’s coal generation closure deadline of September 2024 and the government’s deadline for the phasing out of imports of Russian coal by the end of the year. What a shambolic and disgraceful state of affairs.
Anyone wanting to read the letter can find it reproduced at Paul Homewood’s websiteix.
Is nitrous oxide a climate risk? Yes, but doctors say effective pain relief in childbirth should be the priority
This is the heading to an articlex on the Guardian website on 31st May, the first of two articles on the same topic. The otherxi has the heading: “Experts have queried a report urging women against ‘laughing gas’ as pain relief during labour due to its environmental impact”.
Both articles are a response to a paper within the latest edition of Australasian Anaesthesia 2021xii, which arguably puts climate change ahead of pain relief. It tells us:
Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG); it absorbs atmospheric infrared radiation, trapping heat with a cumulative global warming effect and resultant climate change. This has several adverse health implications including heatwave-related cardiovascular compromise, respiratory disease related to air pollution and altered patterns of infectious diseases.
It makes no mention of the fact that recent warming has reduced, rather than increased, the numbers of deaths worldwide from extreme temperatures. It concludes:
Nitrous oxide is used widely for the management of labour pain in Australia and New Zealand. While the medical literature acknowledges the lack of good quality evidence for its effectiveness, a common theme is that it is safe and convenient, and its use should therefore be continued. While it may be innocuous for the pregnant woman and unborn baby, that is certainly not the case for the environment. ANZCA’s statement on environmental sustainability illustrates that as anaesthetists we are “uniquely placed in that the choices we make at work can have an impact on our carbon footprint many times greater than that of our other day-to-day activities”. This sentiment is echoed by ASA25, ESA26 and the Royal College of Anaesthetists statements on environmentally-responsible anaesthetic practice. By educating medical staff and pregnant women about the carbon impact of N2O, ensuring that it is delivered and used as efficiently as possible and considering the use of more carbon-friendly [sic] alternatives, we can reduce GHG emissions from labour ward and help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
It takes a lot to bring Greenpeace and the Guardian (twice in a day) out against anything that might reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but this story has achieved that. I particularly liked this response:
Associate Prof Gino Pecoraro, president of Australia’s National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that while some pregnant women might be concerned about the environmental impact of their childbirth, alternative pain relief such as epidurals are not available at every hospital, especially outside of capital cities.
He added that nitrous oxide can be a more attractive pain relief option as it doesn’t restrict walking or movement ability to the extent epidurals do.
“If you’re in rip-roaring pain during labour, carbon footprint might not be the thing you most want to discuss,” Pecoraro said. “During childbirth, some women wouldn’t care how many coal-fired power stations are needed to reduce their pain.”
Never mind the pain. Just think of the climate.