Blog piece by Joe Otten
1. Rational Environmentalism
2. Climate Change
3. Air Quality
4. Biodiversity and the natural environment
1. Conventional thinking is that environmental problems are legion and interconnected; that they cannot be solved individually, but must be solved all at once in a utopian sweeping-away of conventional thinking. This a counsel of despair. Our environmental challenges are few and tractable. Although it may not always be easy to solve them, it is easier than bringing about Utopia.
This project is born out of a frustration with the woolly demands and lack of progress of the environmental movement, informed by my personal journey from the Green Party to the Liberal Democrats.
2. The environmental debate is polarised between on the one hand complete denial, and on the other, complete doom. And nowhere on the spectrum between these extremes can be found a rational, hard-nosed, focused application to the problem – instead we are overwhelmed with symbolism, , moralistic exhortation and the insistence that other noble causes such as social justice are “inextricably linked” to the environment.
My goal here is to untangle all this – to understand the environmental challenges we face, and to consider the solutions to those challenges.
3. The first and greatest challenge is that of climate change. We have no better scientific authority on this than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and while many dispute its findings from one side or the other, it is for my purposes the best we have. Broadly, the solution is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted. This may seem obvious, because it is.
However there is a Tragedy of the Commons. The global atmosphere is a shared space, and we all use it by emitting our carbon into it, essentially for free. The cost of exceeding the global commons capacity to absorb carbon is not felt directly by each emitter, but by us all, collectively.
The central goal, therefore, is to reach international agreements that are effective in reducing carbon emissions, and we should consider what might facilitate this, and what kinds of agreements are easier to reach. Social justice campaigners may demand a formula for sharing the burden that incorporates the transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor. This is a noble enough aspiration but it should be resisted if it makes reaching any effective agreement more difficult.
4. The second challenge is that of air quality, particularly in urban areas. This is by far the greatest measurable way in which the environment impinges on human health, typically costing us each some months of life. There is clearly a relationship to the climate change issue, in terms of the burning of fossil fuels, but I will try to avoid holistic (i.e. woolly) thinking here. Solutions to air quality are worth pursuing whether they help with climate change or not.
Most of the effort here seems to go into exhorting people to walk, cycle, or take the bus, whether or not this is practical. And even when it is practical, relatively few people are moved to change their habits. I will look at some of the other options.
5. The third and final environmental issue I intend to examine is that of the amount and quality of green space, wildlife and biodiversity – the natural world and our appreciation of it. Many reasons are given for the importance of this. Some might be considered hard-nosed, and others are just perhaps natural human preferences – that people will be happier in a more “natural” world. And there is nothing wrong with that.
6. Beyond these three issues, I submit that environmental problems are largely in hand, at least in the West. The ozone layer has been saved. Acid rain? What happened to that? Food and water are perfectly good, organic or not; there is junk food, but that is a lifestyle choice not an environmental problem. We recycle most of what there is a demand for, and there is no natural law that says it is better to recycle everything. Emission of toxic pollutants is strictly regulated, at least in the West, and the political will is there to shut down any exceptions to this that come to light.
I recognize there are concerns over radioactive waste but overall the nuclear industry’s record is of being much safer than, say, coal mining and coal burning. So although this remains a challenge it is not of even comparable importance to climate change.
The risk of depletion of natural resources leading to economic catastrophe, if it is real, is an economic problem not an environmental one. It became attached to the environmental movement ever since the Club of Rome, which foretold economic problems due to resource shortages, and this was taken as a sign that the utopian vision of making do with less and living in harmony with nature was the way forward. But there is no logic to the connection, and indeed environmentalists today are more likely to express a hope that the oil runs out fast enough.
The question of animal welfare or animal rights is often also associated with environmentalism in the UK, but this is a cultural accident. Elsewhere in the world environmentalists are more likely to engage in hunting and shooting. Again there is no logic to the connection and combining the issues comes at the cost of a sharp focus.
7. The next three chapters offer the kind of solutions to the three environmental problems that can be found if the utopianism is discarded. One seemingly insurmountable problem is broken down into three merely challenging ones.
1. Any disputation of the science of climate change is outside the scope of this work. I propose to accept the best scientific evidence we have and proceed accordingly. This shows that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are likely to drive dangerous increases in global temperature in a matter of decades.
There are three possible options for us:
i) to reduce the global amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere
ii) geoengineering to artificially reduce the temperature of the planet and/or extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
iii) eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die
Option iii seems to reflect the state of current policy. It represents a significant generational unfairness.
2. Prima facie, option ii, geoengineering seems more attractive than reducing greenhouse gases. If we can cool a beer, why not a planet? Well it turns out that fridges, like all machines that use energy, are net generators of heat. So it is not so simple.
There are a number of interesting ideas to manage the Earth’s temperature by modifying the reflectivity of the surface or the amount of cloud cover. They are all currently unproven, and this is dangerous. If we mistakenly believe geoengineering will bail us out, we might not reduce carbon emissions as much as required.
To avoid this risk, and because something might actually work, research into geoengineering should be increased. And because geoengineering may stoke international tensions as temperatures, water supplies etc. are affected in different ways in different places by particular projects, it is important for the international community to develop protocols for it ahead of time.
While large-scale geoengineering is unlikely to work, small nudges may still make a useful contribution. For example, it is known that aircraft contrails have different heating or cooling effects at different times of day . It may be feasible to reschedule existing flights so that the contrails have a cooling effect while they persist.
3. This leaves us with the first option – of reducing the global amount of greenhouse gases emitted. There is no shortage of suggested solutions for this, all the way down to unplugging your phone charger when you’re not using it. There are two main problems with these approaches: first, that small actions such as this are largely tokenistic – they will make little difference even if everybody does them. – and second, they are not global solutions – not everybody is going to do them.
Suppose we had, which we don’t, an effective EU Emission Trading System (EUETS). Such a system would cap the total emissions across the region at some sensible quota level, and allow the right to emit to be traded in the form of allowances. Installations that wish to produce more emissions than expected, may purchase more allowances, which will ensure that the full quota of emissions is used effectively.
What is then the consequence of your decision to cycle to work instead of driving? The consequence would be that your right to emit carbon that you would have been paying for through your fuel costs, would be available to somebody else through the emissions trading system. No carbon would be saved, but you will have nobly contributed to the well-being of society by reducing everybody else’s cost of living by an infinitesimal fraction. That might not be what you had in mind.
The reason that we have yet to achieve an EU-wide agreement is that the politics of establishing an effective emissions trading regime is too difficult. Partly, this is because many people choose to drive rather than cycle, but more directly it is because heavy industry won’t stand for it and can threaten to leave the EU altogether. So, for the time being, you are saving carbon by cycling.
What this thought experiment shows, however, is that any global agreement promising to limit carbon emissions will consequently remove the moral imperative from our individual choices, though they would still be constrained by regulation or cost.
This represents a profound cultural change from what we are used to, and not one, I suspect, that the environmental movement is ready for. The wider public might just find it liberating.
4. We saw the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) gutted under political pressure, by the issuance of sufficient permits to keep the price down. This happened without much political fallout, perhaps because the quantity of total permitted emissions is not a figure that is widely known to be significant in contrast to, say, the price of a litre of petrol.
Were a similar scheme to the EU ETS to be attempted worldwide, any system of national quotas would be at risk of either transferring large amounts of wealth generation between countries, or preventing the economic development of less developed countries, or both. Any system of auctions to allocate quotas would effectively be introducing a new global tax. Few governments will have any appetite to sign up to either of these. The challenge is to find a design of agreement that respects national sovereignty, national wealth and national economic ambitions; to find a design that allocates carbon emissions efficiently, and creates confidence for investors in low-carbon technology.
Such an agreement will be much easier to reach than one that has none of these properties. It is better to push at the unlocked door rather than the locked one.
5. I propose the following kind of agreement: That each government imposes a carbon floor price at a rate that is linked, by formula to its GDP per capita. The revenue raised by the carbon floor price would accrue to that government, not any international body. The exact formula would be difficult to agree but this need not prevent a gentle introduction.
The carbon floor price, expressed in £, $ or € per tonne is a meaningful figure that can have traction in a political debate. Voters will be able to hold their governments to account for the difference between £10 and £20 per tonne, and they may contrast richer countries with poorer ones if the richer does not levy at least as high a carbon floor price.
Climate science, combined with a little economic analysis will lead to a figure for, say, how many £ per tonne of CO2, per £10,000 of GDP per capita (to take an example where rich countries collect linearly more from their carbon emitters) it is necessary to levy for the climate to stabilise. As a result of this, we will then see, for the first time which countries are leading the way and which are letting us all down.
The advantage of the carbon floor price over carbon taxation or carbon trading is that it gives much more certainty to investors in low-carbon technology that they will have a market in the future.
Governments that are ambitious with their carbon floor price will lead the way in adapting to a low carbon future – as with any other kind of agreement. But, in contrast to simple agreements to reduce emissions, carbon sacrifices come back in revenue, rather than being donations to the global commons.
Modest agreements on carbon reductions have been reached already, but I suggest that my style of agreement is intrinsically more tolerable to governments, and therefore can be more ambitious, given the same amount of political will.
6. It is important to show that it is possible to live the material lifestyle associated with an advanced industrial economy without the correspondingly high carbon emissions. If this can be done, it will make the necessary global agreement on limiting carbon emissions much easier to reach.
This calls for huge investment into low carbon R&D, in transport, energy, housing, industry and agriculture. This should be the first priority for all governments with the appetite to spend money on climate change, and a higher priority than geo-engineering.
Rolling out low carbon solutions is also important, for the direct carbon savings, and to show that the solutions work. We won’t know, for example, whether the EPR reactor design proposed for Hinkley C and under delayed construction in France, Finland and China, actually works until it is built. But we shouldn’t be gambling on a single reactor design turning out well.
If, however, the point is to show that a rich, low carbon lifestyle is possible, there may not be so much value in subsidizing the roll-out of known lower-carbon technologies – such as condensing boilers (beyond it being driven by carbon pricing). We know it can be done, and there may be something better coming soon.
8. It may fairly be said that I have focused exclusively on the price mechanism to achieve carbon savings and that there are many cases where this is broken. Landlords have little incentive to insulate homes when their tenants pay the bills. Some people buy swanky gas-guzzlers as status symbols.
In my defence I am addressing the rule and not the exception. Most things are price sensitive to consumers and virtually everything is price sensitive in business. To lower carbon emissions requires more expensive carbon and anybody who claims otherwise is guilty of wishful thinking. Where the price signal breaks down, it is reasonable to regulate – e.g. to impose duties on landlords – or to look for nudges or exhortations that might work.
3 .Air Quality
1. We have good food and clean water. Known toxins are carefully regulated. The one remaining way for the environment to damage our physical health directly is through air pollutants such as particulates, oxides of nitrogen, ozone and PAHs in our urban air, largely from vehicles.
2. An obvious regulatory step is to demand improvements in the cleanliness of vehicle engines. However, progressively tighter standards as measured in the lab have not brought progressively better performance on the road. Manufacturers have been found cheating the tests.
Even if we did see the new standards met on the road, this would represent slow progress and be undermined by increases in traffic volume.
3. Hybrid vehicles are significantly cleaner and more efficient. Hydrogen or electric battery or fuel cell vehicles even more so. Emission of air pollutants displaced to power stations will have considerably less impact on human health than that which occurs in urban areas. So as far as urban air quality and human health is concerned, remotely generated electricity can be considered clean. If this electricity is high carbon for the time being, I suggest we shouldn’t let that prevent us using it for urban transport to improve air quality.
Widespread adoption of electric vehicles is unlikely to happen without widely available rapid charging, and this is unlikely to happen without widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Forcing the issue with policy is an option, through very expensive and probably premature without both an established rapid charging technology and vehicles which are more appealing to consumers.
4. The imminent arrival of driverless vehicles is liable to increase road usage, particularly if they can be sent or summoned unoccupied, and if the drive to the pub replaces drinking at home at scale. On the other hand, access to a fleet of self-driving self-charging electric vehicles would be an alternative to car ownership for many.
It is possible to exhort people not to use new transport options as we once did, but the goal of transport policy should not be to keep people where they are, but rather to ensure that people do have access to the work, leisure and other opportunities they seek. Innovations bring new choices and therefore better access, though the effect on public transport may be catastrophic.
5. Pollution is concentrated in and immediately around main roads and drops away rapidly with distance from the roads. Physical separation, therefore, of main roads from homes, schools, workplaces and walking and cycling routes would greatly reduce exposure for all except motorists. This is achievable with newer developments but difficult in existing towns and cities.
Urban green spaces and roadside vegetation improve air quality, and research is needed into precisely what vegetation is most effective. Where roadside trees exist they should be maintained.
6. Settlements can be protected from through traffic with a bypass or ring road. Bypasses may be anathema to Swampy, but by diverting traffic away from people they can greatly mitigate harm from air pollution.
Anti-car environmentalism and Treasury parsimony has led to the neglect of road building more generally, with the view being that new roads just fill up with extra traffic. Were this to happen, the extra traffic would indeed cause a further decline in air quality. However, we have the ability to model and forecast traffic flows reasonably well to predict air quality impacts in more densely populated areas.
Policy should be more open to roadbuilding where air quality modelling predicts a benefit.
7. Transport policy that encourages a “modal shift” is fashionable, and perhaps doesn’t do any harm. But there’s an opportunity cost of doing this that may sacrifice the chief goal of transport policy– of enabling people to get to where they need or wish to be. Encouraging a modal shift seems to mean a) exhorting people and b) making it more difficult for people to get anywhere by a less favoured mode.
Exhorting people is whining about the problem, and allows governments to duck their responsibility.
Fixing the engines or moving them away from the people would solve this problem, and making significant progress on both counts is achievable in the medium term, at a cost that is not unreasonable given the health benefits that may be gained.
8. There are a number of avenues here all worthy of consideration; my preference for what it is worth is to:
i) anticipate the availability of, and nudge towards, the provision of fleets of self-driving self-charging electric urban vehicles, summoned by smartphone; plan for cities to have the infrastructure (charging parks, waiting areas etc.) to support them
ii) ensure in the meantime that planning and transport policy keeps busy roads separated from housing, and provide bypasses where this is practical
iii) continue to push for better emissions standards for personal vehicles, buses and lorries, without, yet, plumping for a particular technology, though the time to do this may come soon.
4. Biodiversity and the Natural Environment
1. Clearly demand for land – whether for human occupation, agriculture or other purposes – is a threat to the natural world. There is a trade-off here between the immediate needs of human beings which inevitably and rightly come first, and the more enlightened need to maintain natural habitats and biodiversity.
Many developed countries are largely built up or farmed, and historic habitat has been lost in this process. As such, suggestions to the developing world not to take the same path may seem hypocritical.
2. The use of biofuels for energy is an attempt to reduce the share one takes of one global commons – the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb carbon – by taking a larger share of another – land that might otherwise support other human needs or nature.
This is not so much a solution as a displacement and for this reason, biofuels should not be subsidized or recognized as “renewable”. That said it is possible for land – say a managed forest – to support some natural habitat and human demands for timber and fuel. Similarly, urban gardens may support greater biodiversity than agricultural land does. This is fortuitous but does not significantly detract from the trade-off that is the big picture.
3. Green belt policy serves to constrain the growth of cities by preserving surrounding land in an undeveloped but not necessarily high biodiversity state. The goal of constraining the growth of cities is wrong-headed: larger cities are more successful and prosperous than smaller ones, and the UK has suffered a significant economic cost from constraining its second cities.
Meanwhile much of the green belt is used for either agriculture or golf courses and provides little or no natural habitat, and little amenity value for the space it occupies. Urban parks and gardens generally offer more amenity and natural habitat than much of the green belt, and should therefore be more strongly protected. Green belt policy needs reform so that it values nature and amenity more highly, offers these things in closer proximity to a larger number of people, and stops strangling the growth of successful cities. Areas of scientific importance or natural beauty should certainly be preserved, but the locations of farms and golf courses are of little significance.
4. Economic forces drive the fresh exploitation of land that is currently in the natural state, and to a degree this is justified by the immediate needs of human beings. These forces are resisted, rightly, by the expressed democratic will of the people to preserve the best of nature, to maintain an ecological balance out of enlightened self-interest, and to maintain opportunities to experience and enjoy the natural environment.
The balance of these two forces is different in poorer, less-developed countries where immediate human needs are more pressing. It has to be recognised that developing countries have a right to exploit their natural resources, and that it is often the right course of action to improve the conditions of their people.
As they prosper and if they embrace democratic values, consideration for the natural environment will surely strengthen. A great deal of natural habitat loss is inevitable along the way but if the worst of the practices and technologies used since the industrial revolution can be bypassed then this will occur on a smaller scale than it did in the developed world.
5. Less developed countries with more nature than they would democratically wish for can benefit from a trading relationship with more developed countries wishing to preserve that nature. To be tolerable, successful and mutually beneficial this must not be, and must not be seen to be, about restraining economic development.
5 . Conclusions
1. I am conscious that I have not said very much about
a) lifestyle changes that we can all make to do our bit,
b) the interconnectedness of environmental issues, demanding a holistic response,
c) the bulk of current environmental policy relating to transport, energy, pollution, etc.
I will address each of these in turn.
2. The idea of the environmental cause as a lifestyle movement was born out of its failure in the 70s, 80s and 90s to gain any significant political traction. It enabled activists to feel that they weren’t personally part of the problem, and that they were showing us all that things can be different. That’s marvellous, but it is not a solution.
There isn’t logically any more reason for environmentalism to be a lifestyle movement than education or criminology. We could all do our bit in improving education or fighting crime, but we reasonably expect the government to do its bit, efficiently, with our taxes. But when it comes to the environment, we seem to have the government spending our taxes telling us what to do with our lifestyles. This is an inversion of how democracy is supposed to work: the people telling governments what to do.
3. Holism and interconnectedness are words that represent a demand for woolly thinking. This thinking rejects solutions that “seem wrong”: nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions; road building to improve air quality; geoengineering to limit climate change. They, we are told, will have terrible unintended consequences. On the other hand, we have organic farming which seems right, and holistic – because our agricultural system seems wrong though it is in fact quite good enough. Yet by requiring more land than regular farming for the same amount of produce, organic farming puts greater pressure on the natural environment.
What I’m advocating is called ‘reductionism’ – breaking problems into manageable pieces to find solutions. It is fundamental to scientific understanding.
Of course policies have unintended consequences and we should always try our best to understand what we are doing. But reductionism will always bring more understanding than holism. Science brings more understanding than gut feelings about nature.
4. I recognise that there is a great deal of detailed environmental policy and regulation out there that I seem to have dismissed. Much of it is highly important – there is good momentum for the control of dangerous pollutants – though some is tokenistic or otherwise ineffective. All of it is an expression of a noble democratic will to preserve our environment for its own sake and for future generations. My demand here is for a fresh approach which I hope will see ambition focused, the effective retained and the tokenistic lost.
5. In a few pages I’ve spelled out the main challenges and how they might be solved. This is a great improvement on the intractable character of the holistic view. Our problems can be solved and when they are solved we can get on with our lives and other good causes. I hope you are as inspired as I am. If the holists and tokenists were right, we might as well berate ourselves over every plastic bag until we just give up altogether.
6. This may all seem obvious. It should be obvious, but the obvious can easily be lost in the detail; a progressive movement can attach itself to conservative shibboleths; modes of thinking and of signalling virtue can define a movement’s culture.
7. My message is one of teamwork: you don’t have to do it all yourself, we can use the best of human achievements: technology, democracy and capitalism. It is one of reason: reductionism works, science works, we are learning to understand the consequences of our actions. It is one of hope: environmental problems can be solved.