Little Green Lies

July 18, 2012

The green movement is very good at emotional claims, but not all of them stack up under scrutiny.

The book Little Green Lies: An exposé of twelve environmental myths by Jeff Bennett,has put a dozen of the claims under scrutiny and found them wanting:

There are twelve propositions addressed in the twelve chapters of this book. Although each proposition is considered in a separate chapter, many of them are interrelated. In the list of the propositions that follows, a short outline of each ‘little green lie’ is set out along with a brief exposition of the counter-proposition that will be advanced in this volume.

Proposition 1:‘Peak Oil’ has been reached.
The annual production of oil, while rising over the last century, is about to fall because of growing scarcity. Such is our dependence on oil and the fast rate at which we are using it that we now need to take active policy measures to save what we have left.
BUT
No-one knows for sure what petroleum reserves are available. As known reserves are depleted, price rises stimulate more exploration and technological advances that will expand the available supply of petroleum as well as substitute energy sources.

Proposition 2: Renewable energy production should be stimulated.
Non-renewable energy supplies are being depleted so quickly that we will soon experience power shortages. Non-renewables are also ‘dirty’ sources of energy. Renewables must be stimulated to ensure the on-going supply of clean energy.

BUT
Renewable energy sources are limited in their short to medium term potential to meet demand. Picking ‘winners’ to be stimulated is likely to be mistaken given rapidly evolving technological change. Renewables have their own environmental downsides.

Proposition 3: Consumption choices need to be informed by products’ ‘food miles’/’ecological footprint’/’embodied energy’/’virtual water’/’carbon footprint’.
People need to be aware of the impacts they have on energy/the ecology/water/climate etc. when they buy goods and services so that they can reduce their impact on that resource. Each of these resources is scarce and we need to conserve them, especially for future generations.

BUT
By focusing on just one scarce resource (water, energy etc.) in their consumption decisions, people can ignore their impacts on other scarce resources and result in a ‘false economy’. What happens when the ‘virtual water’ index goes against the ‘embodied energy’ index? Which index is ‘trumps’?

Proposition 4: World population should be capped.
More people mean more pressure on the world’s scarce resources, including the environment. The only way to protect the environment, stop starvation and ensure that there are enough resources for future generations is to stop population growth.
BUT
People are a resource. They have the capability to develop innovative technologies and institutions to deal with growing scarcity in specific resources. New ways to satisfy peoples’ wants and new sources of scarce resources can be discovered.

Proposition 5: Economic growth and trade are bad for the environment.
Economic growth, fuelled by international trade, means more pressure on scarce resources including the environment. To protect the environment and to save resources for the future, trade should be restricted to cut growth.

BUT
Trade and growth bring wealth to people. Wealth increases peoples’ demands for environmental protection and the ability of society to provide environmental protection, especially through technological development.

Proposition 6:No waste should go to landfill.
Waste should not be wasted. It is a resource that can be re-used and re-cycled. Sending waste to landfill means that more ‘virgin’ resources must be harvested/mined. Waste in landfill can also be a source of air and water pollution.
BUT
Recycling and re-using ‘waste’ is a process that uses scarce resources. Policies that prevent landfill disposal can cause more resources to be used than they save and do not necessarily reduce virgin resource use. Landfills need not be pollution sources.

Proposition 7:Water and energy should be used ‘efficiently’, whatever it costs.
Water and energy are scarce resources. Their use needs to be minimised so that future generations will have enough. Governments should invest in technologies that ensure the least amounts of energy and water are used in producing goods and services.
BUT
Investing in ‘efficiency’ measures means using other scarce resources as substitutes for energy and water. A ‘false economy’ results because the other resources including labour and capital may well be scarcer than energy and water.

Proposition 8:The environment is of infinite value and must not be harmed.
The environment provides us with our ‘life-support-system’. Without it we cannot survive and so we should protect it at all costs. We should make absolutely sure that rare and endangered species are cared for so that their numbers increase.
BUT
Without the environment we could not exist and so its absolute value is infinite. However, that is not the relevant question for policy. Changes to the state of the environment yield finite benefits and costs that need to be traded off.

Proposition 9: We must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid global climate change.
Human induced global climate change is a serious threat to the continued ability of the planet to support humanity and current ecosystems. The damage caused by climate change will be so large that GHG emissions must be reduced now.
BUT
Reducing GHG emissions would be costly. The decision to bear those costs should be made with reference to the expected benefits reduced GHG emissions would yield. Reducing GHG emissions will not eliminate the risk of climate change.

Proposition 10: The care of the environment cannot be entrusted to the private sector.
The environment provides ‘public goods’ that should be available to all for free. That means the government has to be responsible for caring for the environment. The private sector will either destroy it or try to profit from it.
BUT
The public sector will face problems in managing the environment. Information for decision making is costly. Incentives for politicians and bureaucrats can conflict with public best interest. Private solutions can be lower cost and better aligned with society’s well-being.

Proposition 11: Agriculture and mining are always in conflict with the environment.
Agriculture and mining are extractive industries which deplete our stock of natural resources, often irreversibly. They also cause environmental degradation including soil erosion, biodiversity loss and chemical contamination of water and air.
BUT
While there are some trade-offs between agriculture, mining and the environment these can be reduced through the use of management techniques and technologies. Offsets and remediation work on farms and mines can improve the environment.

Proposition 12: Decisions regarding the future of the environment should be made using the ‘precautionary principle’.
If there is a risk that a proposed action will harm the environment, the precautionary principle requires policy makers to place the burden of proof on those proposing an action that it will not cause environmental damage.
BUT
There is always some risk of environmental harm resulting from human action. Demonstrating that there is no risk of harm is impossible. There are also uncertainties associated with not taking action which the precautionary principle ignores.

This writer is not an ill-informed zealot. His qualifications are impressive:

Jeff Bennett is Professor of Environmental Management in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Jeff lectures, researches and consults on the economics of environmental policy issues.

None of this takes away from the need to tread lightly on the earth but it does reinforce the need to base claims on science.

Good intentions aren’t enough if they’re doing more harm than good.

Hat Tip: Kiwiblog


Dishing up delusions

January 13, 2011

Dish magazine usually gets my taste buds tingling but the latest edition contained a letter (not online) which also made me choke.

It came from a Devenport woman who  began by explaining her family had recently returned from a holiday in Spain where they visited a village in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

. . . Upon arrival we marvelled and delighted in the fact that we had found ourselves in such a remote and beautiful part of the world. We were truly a world away from our home in Auckland.

You can imagine then, our astonishment and dismay to be offered New Zealand-grown kiwifruit at the hotel’s breakfast buffet!

Having completed the arduous flight from Auckland to Malaga, via Hong Kong and London, and the the perilous drive up the mountain, our minds boggled at the thought of just how far those little beauties had travelled to arrive on our plate. Did we really need to have kiwifruit for breakfast?

Surely at that time of the year there is enough fruit grown in Spain or nearby European countries to satisfy the palates of mountaineers and tourists alike.

Now, I mean no disrespect fo those entrepreneurial New Zealand farmers who have managed to sell their product to the world, but as we all try so hard to arrest global warming and decrease our carbon footprints, surely this can’t be a good thing.

Upon reading this letter I muttered and despaired at the fact someone could be so deluded.

I couldn’t imagine her astonishment and dismay because I am always delighted to find New Zealand produce in far flung parts of the world.

You can’t get further in the world from New Zealand than Spain yet it’s our biggest importer of kiwifruit. Unlike Ms Davenport they travel by boat rather than plane so  their trip to Spain would have had a much smaller carbon footprint than her family did on their trip.

At that time of the year, presumably summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it is possible in Spain to find fruit from many different parts of the world, all of them closer than New Zealand. But as Lincoln University has proved, this doesn’t mean their carbon footprint is lower than that of produce from New Zealand. The efficiency of our production often more than makes up for the environmental impact of the journey.

I’m pleased Ms Devenport means no disrespect to entrepreneurial New Zealand farmers who mange to sell their products to the world. If it wasn’t for them and other exporters no-one in New Zealand could buy imports or travel overseas.

Our population of four million wouldn’t equate to that of a reasonably sized city in most parts of the world. There are too few of us to sustain a first world economy if we sold only to ourselves.

If we want to buy imports or travel overseas we need foreign exchange and we earn that by exporting so the presence of kiwifruit in a Sierra Nevada village is a very good thing.


NZ poorly served by Kyoto negotiators

November 20, 2008

The Emissions Trading Scheme is seriously flawed  and must be deferred engineer John de Beuger says.

There isn’t much low-hanging fruit left to pick when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint.

We already have a high percentage of hydro renewables, and because our animals are free-range and grass fed (not corn fed in feed lots), our agriculture is close to world-best practice.

We can certainly improve in transport, but this will cost.

With no other country even thinking about carbon footprints during the current financial crisis, why are we so hellbent on cutting our throats? This country was very badly served by our Kyoto negotiators.

Take two simple examples – exporting logs and mowing the lawn.

If two ships, one with imported oil and the other with export logs, pass each other outside the Port of Tauranga, under current Kyoto rules we get dinged for both – because we are going to burn the oil, and we have cut down the trees.

Compare this with an oil tanker passing a coal exporter outside Sydney harbour.

Under current Kyoto rules, Australia doesn’t get dinged for exporting coal – which is the main global warming culprit.

Meanwhile New Zealand cops it for exporting plantation forestry trees, which are good news for the planet.

To show how truly stupid the Kyoto Protocol is for food-exporting countries like New Zealand, agricultural consultant Robin Grieve has calculated that mowing a lawn with a motor mower is six times better for the environment than letting sheep graze it. (The environmental impact of sheep, as defined by Kyoto, is 19.65kg carbon-equivalent compared with a lawn mower’s 3.107kg of carbon – i.e., a sheep is 6.3 times worse for the environment than a lawn mower.)

It gets worse. The methane emissions of livestock have been seriously misrepresented because, over time, pasture grass is carbon neutral – whether it is eaten or not.

Grass grows in the spring and summer, and dies back in the autumn after flowering.

If it isn’t eaten, then depending on the decay process, it releases the CO2 it absorbed during its growth back into the atmosphere.

If cattle eat the grass, and live for several years before being slaughtered, they are acting like trees in the sense of temporarily storing carbon that would have been emitted by decay if they hadn’t eaten the grass.

During digestion, a cow discharges methane equivalent to one-third of the carbon consumed, while the other two-thirds is stored in their body until they end up on a hook at the works.

Cows are thus temporary carbon sinks – a simple truth that one might have thought was self-evident to the Kyoto negotiators.

Carbon credits should accrue to grass-fed meat producers, not penalties.

But no, we are dinged for the methane cattle emit because our negotiators misunderstood something as simple as the carbon life cycle of grass.

Under current rules we will be penalised for our agriculture – as well as achieving an own goal by exporting our energy-efficient production to Asia, where the predominant source of energy is coal.

If other countries are not prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods, why should we? In Canada, Stephen Harper has just been re-elected after reneging on Canada’s Kyoto Protocol commitment over synthetic crude oil.

Extracting the dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands leaves a footprint three times greater than normal crude.

Similarly, in the wake of the global credit crunch, any resolve in Europe to make meaningful emission reductions is crumbling by the day.

Although the European Union ETS only covers about 40% of European emissions, they are fearful that the cost of emission reductions will force energy-intensive industry to exit Europe and set up in parts of the world where there will be no carbon charge.

Never mind about China – they will cheat anyway.

The rules affecting agriculture under the Kyoto Protocol are wrong.

With the agricultural sector being so important to our economy, it is clear that Kyoto 2 seriously needs sorting out.

That’s why deferment of the current ETS is essential.

Act New Zealand’s insistence on setting up a special select committee to investigate the mess is correct.

We can’t afford to get it wrong.

As a small player in this fraught business, it is ridiculous for New Zealand to be a leader – rather than a follower.

It would be lunacy for John Key to adopt a scheme that is so obviously flawed, and shoots us in the foot for no environmental benefit whatsoever.

Agriculture is one of the most important sectors in our economy yet we’re the only country to include it in our Kyoto commitment. The looming economic crisis may well help us because because if other countries put their economies before their Kyoto commitments, many of which will do little or nothing to improve the environment, we will be able to renegotiate our commitments too without being penalised.

We’ve been very poorly served by past negotiations but we can take some comfort from the knowledge that the new Minister for Climate Change negotiations, Tim Groser, has both the will and skills to ensure we’re better served in negotiations from now.


Embedded water new hurdle

August 2, 2008

First it was food miles, now it’s the carbon footprint and soon it might be embedded water.

The NZ Farmers Weekly (not on line) warns that virtual or embedded water – the amount used to produce food – could be the next hurdle primary producers have to leap over for export markets.

…this is a natural extension of carbon footprint analysis, only more specific to New Zealand’s pasture and irrigation-based farming systems.

If we thought we were in trouble on our carbon footprint, consider what the bean-counters might make of our water use. It’s questionable how well placed New Zealand would be, for instance, if European Union food officials started routinely asking for an audit of our water use from farm to shipment or flight.

The push for livestock traceability would pale in comparison.

Fortunately judging by a Crop and Food Research project announced last week, agricultural scientists seem to have seen the threat coming. The Crown Reserach Institute aims to develop plants with much-imporved root systems that require less water, pesticides and fertiliser, enabling New Zealand to compete strongly in overseas markets where consumers are increasingly demanding “green” food products.

This project tagged “roots for sustainability” seems a natural response to farmer demands for cheaper and longer-lasting plant growth – and better profitability. But like so many forms of farming innovation, it can also be seen as a response to changing political and social trends.

Mainstream awareness of embedded water is unlikely to be far away and NZ would be in the spotlight because of its growing dependence on man-made irrigation schemes.

When the world is short of food there will be something amiss if we are penalised for using innovative techniques which boost production providing we use them efficiently and sustainably.

Hopefully Crop and Food research is correct in asserting that its project … will see more effective water, nutrient and pesticide use, with reduced nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

All of which have environmental and economic benefits.

To alternatively do little is to allow the concept of embedded water to leak into people’s way of thinking and for farmers’ reputations to again take a battering. If this latest environmental concept indeed sticks between people’s ears, agriculture will need to come up with quick answers and real solutions.

Pointing out that putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of producers inevitably leads to higher costs for consumers won’t do it. We need to be prepared to counter both the facts and the emotion this notion will generate.


Ausssie farmers want ag out of ETS

July 16, 2008

Australian farmers  want their Government to keep agriculture out of its Emissions Trading Scheme.

AUSTRALIA’S proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) could affect international food and fibre prices at a time of food crisis, the nation’s farm sector has warned.

National Farmers’ Federation vice-president Charles Burke said rarely did governments pursue policies like the ETS that could have such broad-reaching ramifications.

”If we don’t get this right, this could become a new and additional factor putting pressure on global markets, affecting both supply and prices in Australia,” he said on the eve of the release of the Federal Government’s green paper on emissions trading.

Mr Burke said Australian farmers’ input costs – fuel, electricity, fertiliser and chemicals – may increase regardless of agriculture’s role in an ETS.

All of this sounds very similar to what farmers are saying on this side of the Tasman.

Westpac’s senior agribusiness economist, Justin Smirk, said global markets responded immediately to any event, be it floods in Iowa, food export tariffs in Argentina or aggressive US and European biofuels policies.

”Actions, events and seasonal conditions in Australia and their impact on our farm sector are no different, reverberating through global markets,” he said.

”Markets are closely watching the complex problem of climate change, its potential impact on global farm output, and the policies proposed to mitigate global warming emissions.”

Competitors will also be working out if they could use the ETS to impose non-tariff barriers to imports.

NFF president David Crombie warned against including agriculture in the ETS, citing the difficulty in measuring, monitoring or verifying the sector’s emissions. No country had included agriculture in an ETS, he said, with the exception of New Zealand, ”where farmers are now looking at margins reducing by up to 160% as a result”.

And how silly is that when it won’t do anything to reduce the global carbon footprint?


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