Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Precautionary principle = reckless principle

In discussion with a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) last week, I was urged to apply the precautionary principle in relation to action to combat climate change.  I responded:
 'Better do nothing that the wrong thing.'
I was asked to give an example of what I meant.  My reply was:
In the UK and Europe we have legislated to produce 10% of our road fuels from 'renewable' sources by 2020.  It is far from clear this will have the claimed effect in environmental terms.  This post last week from the BBC's Paul Hudson is instructive.

The situation with US corn production is much more dramatic.  35% of US corn goes on biofuels.  This figure is widely seen as one of the reasons for the very significant rise in world food prices in the last year.  Corn prices almost doubled between February 2010 and February 2011 driving up the cost of rice and other food staples.  60% of the world's corn comes from the US.

The rush to biofuels has had a devastating effect on the cost of food and this affects the world's poor most of all.   Some argue it causes starvation and is immoral.

Our MSPs, in pioneering more stringent targets,  may have put Scotland in the 'groundbreaking' category with the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.  But their altruistic eagerness to lead, without due diligence on either the science or the consequences of their actions, is looking more like folly every day.

In this case the precautionary principle is the reckless principle.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima, nuclear energy and three follies

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The global warming narrative has spawned a dash for renewables.   But it has also contributed to the reconsideration of nuclear energy - which is generally seen as a very low carbon way of producing energy.

A paralysing fear is that of cataclysmic consequences should something go wrong.  The initial impression for many was that the disintegration of nuclear production at Fukushima in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, would set back the recovering cause for nuclear.  Perhaps not.

Today's Guardian contains account of a Damascene conversion to nuclear by one independent minded green.  That person is none other than George Monbiot.  The full article is here but I will reproduce the killer paragraph which challenges the sentimental, doom distorted perspective adopted by many:

"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution."
Considered in a proper context, the anti-nuclear movement is all about exaggerated fears.  Note that the earthquake and the tsunami have probably led to a death toll of 20,000 and the disintegration of the nuclear plant has led to the death of - well, perhaps no one.

That should be another nail in the coffin of the credibility of Alex Salmond's anti-nuclear policies.

The last few weeks have provided a reminder of an earlier nail - the folly of being duped by dictator Gaddafi when the SNP were persuaded to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds when he supposedly had up to 'three months to live'.  That was in August 2009 - over 18 months ago.  Megrahi may have more of a challenge surviving the current bombing of Libya than prostrate cancer.

And these follies are added to the folly of enacting the 'groundbreaking' Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, demonising carbon on the basis of similarly flawed evidence.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Frequency of severe weather in Edinburgh

Like many organisations, public and private, Edinburgh Council is putting its mind to how best it can prepare for future winter emergencies.  The Policy and Strategy Committee has set up a project to undertake a fundamental review of  preparedness, policies and practices.  The project is to report in Summer 2011 and is expected to cost between £50,000 and £100,000

It has identified twenty five issues for consideration and right at the top is
"What is the likelihood of more frequent severe weather (to be analysed using data from government sources)?"
 After the winter emergency of 2009/10 Edinburgh council commissioned a "lessons learned" report which considered a significant upgrading of equipment to increase road treatment upon threat of severe weather.  A January 2011 report noted these measures were rejected in the lessons learned report of May 2010.
"This view was clearly strongly influenced by the expert advice at the time which suggested
that such extreme conditions were unlikely to be repeated in the near future. As
stated earlier, these expectations are now being adjusted" (my emphasis).
The UK Government had also commissioned the Quarmby Report after 2009/10 winter. David Quarmby asked the question Edinburgh Council's winter emergency project are still asking.  Quarmby's reply from the Met Office advice he had received was:
"the probability of the next winter being severe is virtually unrelated to the fact of just having experienced two severe winters, and is still 1 in 20"
So we have now had three 'severe winters'. On that 1 in 20 basis the Met Office calculates the chance of three 'severe winters' in a row as being 1 in 8000!  Yet we have struck unlucky and the 1 in 8000 has befallen us.  In case you are wondering the chance of FOUR severe winters in a row, according to the Met Office,  is 1 in 160,000!

The Met Office had just spent a lot of money on a supercomputer to improve standard weather forecasting and climate change predictions. And it is asking for more as is shown in this 2011 submission to parliament:
"19. The extent and speed of this development (better forecasting) is of course dependent on the availability of resources – particularly in supercomputing power to enable modelling to incorporate new science and understanding."
The Met Office has form for predicting warmer temperatures than we experience as shown in this post last December.

Memo to Edinburgh Council's winter preparedness review:
"Don't spend too much time on that first question about the likelihood of more frequent severe weather.  At least not from the Government's Met Office!"

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Efficiency and green

". . . recycling each ton of waste employs 10 times as many people as the number required to incinerate or landfill it. . ." 
This was the section which stood out from an article in Friday's Daily Telegraph lamenting the Government's lack of enthusiasm for 'green growth'.   The author, Geoffrey Lean, was commending the regime of ten people doing what one previously did because it generates employment.  Of course, an assessment has to be made about the costs (including environmental) of landfill or incineration (though they are not all costs - both can produce energy which can be harnessed).

But the balance sheet also has to include the cost of employing those nine extra workers.  It is a false assumption that they would be unemployed.  The money released by not employing nine people would be invested in other demand which would, doubtless, require workers to meet it.

Probably more efficiently.  As someone recently put it, we seem to delight in third-world ambition.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Climate jottings

A couple of additional issues today which may be of interest to those interested in Scotland's climate change policy and Scotland's contribution to one of the enquiries into Climategate.

First, there is much criticism of today's publication of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on creating a low carbon Scotland.  See initial reactions here.

Then there is the ongoing saga of the Muir Russell inquiry.  For those not familiar with the back story here are a few articles which address aspects of it.   But this week's news is the cost of the enquiry and the obstruction of FOI requests by the University of East Anglia. There are key contributions here:

"Renewable electricity . . . economically damaging"

A few quotes this week from a new study by Tom Miers and Richard Marsh reported by Verso Economics.

The study is entitled "Worth the Candle?" and the executive summary can be found here.  The subtitle of the paper is The Economic Impact of Renewable Energy Policy in Scotland and the UK.

The report’s key finding is that  for every job created in the UK in renewable energy, 3.7 jobs are lost.  In Scotland there is no net benefit from government support for the sector, and probably a small net loss of jobs.

. . . electricity consumers and UK taxpayers subsidised the Scottish industry by c £330m in 2009/10 over and above subsidies paid for by Scottish taxpayers and consumers.  To the extent that the Scottish industry is a success, it is reliant on the wider UK policy making framework, in particular the Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) scheme.

Research in Spain, Germany and by the EU suggests that net employment effects are negative with the likely opportunity cost, or costs associated with higher energy prices, outstripping the creation of green jobs.
An intriguing aspect is the assumption that jobs created are a net benefit rather than a net cost.  In reality efficiency results in a reduction of jobs allowing for labour to be employed effectively elsewhere.