Category Archives: Britain

Climate security

It shouldn’t be news by now that climate change could be — already is, on a small scale — a driver of very, very nasty wars. Desertification is the source of the underlying pressure that emerges as a slow-moving genocide in Darfur, for instance, and a warmer planet will be a lot drier in a lot of places and more flooded than others.

Thirsty people, hungry people, people who can’t grow food to feed their children: these are not the constituents of mutually supportive liberal democracies.

But it’s worth repeating from time to time, as Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank, has done:

In the next decades, climate change will drive as significant a change in the strategic security environment as the end of the Cold War. If uncontrolled, climate change will have security implications of similar magnitude to the World Wars, but which will last for centuries.

Again, this isn’t new. Policymakers ought to consider the costs of preparing for this sort of thing when they’re fretting about the costs of cutting carbon emissions. It’s not a zero-sum game.

The threat, incidentally, is neatly summed up in the term “climate security,” which isn’t one I’d heard before but which make perfect sense.

Pollution fees, not fines

London mayor Ken Livingstone brought congestion charges into the mainstream by implementing them in the British capital. In extreme cases, they strike me as a reasonable way of keeping traffic moving efficiently — when the road infrastructure is fully jammed and you need some way to limit access to people who’ll use it best.

Charging polluting drivers a fee to drive in your city looks like the same thing and superficially it jibes with the idea of making polluters pay for the clean air they consume. But what “Red Ken” is actually doing is more fine than fee:

Lorries, buses and coaches who don’t meet emissions standards will pay £200, while heavy vans and minibuses, will find themselves on the business end of £100 per day. Cameras will monitor any emission-spewing entrants into the capital.

It’s difficult to imagine that any vehicle that doesn’t meet emissions standards will actually do £100 or £200 a day in damage. This is punitive.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s call the move what it is.

Congestion spying

Here’s a strong (inadvertent) argument against congestion charges. From the BBC:

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

Anti-terror officers will be exempted from parts of the Data Protection Act to allow them to see the date, time and location of vehicles in real time.

They previously had to apply for access on a case-by-case basis.

The Met will produce an annual report for the Information Commissioner, the government’s data protection watchdog who oversees how material from CCTV cameras is used.

The scheme will also be reviewed in three months’ time after an interim report by Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, so the home secretary can be “personally satisfied … that the privacy of individuals is protected”, added Mr McNulty.

That would be the same cabinet minister who’s authorized the change in the first place. The invasions of privacy are going to have to be outrageous and publicly known for her to change back.

The stated justification for the additional powers the police will get is the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London,” according to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Presumably she’s referring the car bombs that didn’t go off, allegedly planted by the doctors whom the police caught without the new power they’re getting. This “threat” will never go away, of course, long after Osama bin Laden has rotted to dust in his grave and nothing’s blown up in a decade.

There’s always mission creep where government intrusions on privacy are concerned. You let them set up cameras for one very specific reason, and the next thing you know, they’re tailing you in your car, without supervision. What is so wretchedly hard about seeking judicial permission for this kind of thing that fewer and fewer law-enforcement agencies in the world have to bother doing it anymore?

Britain is already off the deep end on surveillance, but this makes things worse, and spoils prospects for future implementations of what is, in principle, a useful and even necessary system.

Carnival of the Green No. 84

Bean Sprouts is hosting the green-blog roundup this week, and kindly picked up last week’s post on the trouble governments have dealing with institutions smaller than themselves.

Small is difficult

The Guardian describes a classic problem for governments trying to modify behaviour. It involves the Carbon Trust, an agency set up to encourage lower–carbon-emitting lifestyles and business practices in Britain:

The Carbon Trust has a £100m budget to help businesses save energy, embrace new technologies and help to combat climate change. But David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said a survey of his members had revealed widespread disillusionment.

‘Small businesses understand that they have to make changes; but what they were saying was, there’s a lack of effective help for them,’ he said.

He said one of the trust’s main services, a free energy audit, was only available to firms with an annual fuel bill of £50,000 or more.

Governments are big, unwieldy things staffed by people with credentials and clear responsibilities. They do best when they can deal with other big, unwieldy things staffed by people with similar skills. The program David Frost mentions seems like a fine idea, but obviously requires a significant degree of professionalization in the companies that choose to take part — the Carbon Trust wants site plans and an opportunity for their consultant to “meet with key members of staff,” and promises follow-up briefings for senior management and perhaps for technical staff and so on and on and on.

The Carbon Trust doubtless gets a lot of bang for its bureaucratic buck this way. One consultant can go out and save a company thousands of pounds in wasted energy and cut carbon emissions from power generation proportionately. Britain’s big businesses are the low-hanging fruit in the carbon-cutting orchard.

The question is, though, how much of the U.K.’s greenhouse-gas problem comes from big energy users and how much comes from small businesses — which, according to the Department of Trade & Industry, provide a greater percentage of Britain’s jobs than large businesses do — and individuals. Big businesses already have a huge incentive to cut their energy use (if I had a £50,000 energy bill I’d be keeping pretty close tabs on it) and probably have professional engineers, or at least building managers, to help them do it. The woman who runs a clothing store or the partners in a small accounting firm probably don’t.

Yet the Carbon Trust’s energy-audit program is overkill for a small business, and so will just about anything the Carbon Trust dreams up to try to extend its help in that direction. Having been self-employed for a bit, in the incredibly simple occupation of writing freelance out of my bedroom, I can attest to how atrocious dealing with the government is as the smallest of small-businesspeople. Just figuring out the tax implications of buying a laptop computer can take most of the afternoon, and I’ve no doubt it’s the same in any industrial democracy with a well-developed state apparatus, Britain included. Governments don’t deal well with small. They’re elephants trying to shake hands with mice.

Unfortunately, small is where it’s at, particularly where conservation is concerned. Small improvements times many, many people equals huge results. We’ve all seen the advertisements telling us what a huge difference it would make if everyone replaced one 100-watt bulb with a compact fluorescent — vastly more than energy audits at every one of Britain’s 6,000 large companies (ones with more than 250 employees) could.

It’s simply unreasonable to expect anything as clumsy as a government agency to reach all the people who need to be reached if the fruit is going get picked all the way up to the treetops. The only way to make that happen is for individuals to choose to do these things, probably in response to higher electricity prices — pushing people to get on with the conservation projects they’ve already thought of but that aren’t worthwhile yet, like reinsulating walls and replacing old draughty windows — combined with a thorough campaign explaining some possibilities they might not have considered yet.

Energy audits for big firms? I wouldn’t bet my climate on them. At work and at home, it’s going to have to come from us.

You want nukes? Build ’em yourself, says U.K. government

Bravo for the British government, having decided that if anybody wants more nuclear power stations, he or she is going to have to build them without help:

“The government is not going to build a single nuclear power station,” Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling told a committee of members of parliament.

“We are not going to contribute to the cost of it,” he said, rejecting suggestions the government might have to give money to get companies to make the multi-billion pound investments.

“If the energy generators don’t want to build them, then there won’t be any,” he said.

All of the country’s existing nuclear power plants were paid for and built by the state, but none has been built since the power sector was privatised in the 1990s.

According to Wikipedia, the U.K. currently has 24 nuclear plants that supply about a fifth of the country’s power, though not a single one has been built since the British government privatized electricity.

The risks involved in nuclear power (mainly business risks, I mean, given the staggering costs — not environmental or BOOM! risks) are so great that stations generally require at least some government support, even if it’s only a publicly supported locked-in contract to buy the power. But it should be obvious that if the state has to kick in, it’s not a good way to serve consumers. Just getting rid of waste and decommissioning old reactors is guesstimated to cost 70 billion pounds.

The Reuters story goes on to note that the cheapest large-scale generation available in Britain is gas-fired power plants, suggesting that the alternative to state-supported nuclear expansion is greenhouse-gas-emitting gas plants. To even things out a bit, the state will definitely have to find an effective scheme to put a price on carbon emissions.

(Via Grist Mill.)

The worst possible objection to personal carbon credits

Tony Benn speaks at an anti-war rally, 2006Britain’s aged socialist icon Tony Benn demonstrates why socialists can’t be trusted with environmental policy as he denounces the idea of tradeable personal carbon allowances.

I’m not hot on the idea myself, which is being kicked around by Britain’s current environment minister, because I can’t imagine any government introducing something just about as complex as a second currency to any modern economy without screwing it up — actually, probably more complex than a second currency, because its value would have to be re-pegged periodically according to how much carbon … — look, anyway, nobody could get it right.

But get a load of Benn:

In the war it was a criminal offence for me to sell my ration book to somebody else, because the purpose of the rationing was to see that everybody had a fair share … If we need to ration [carbon expenditure] that’s one thing, but fair distribution is the key to it. If the world is short of resources we have to ration them, which is different from selling them… The earth is a common treasure; it is a crime to buy and sell it for personal gain.

So in Benn’s vision, virtue cannot be rewarded. Also, during the war, nobody traded rations of stuff they didn’t want to get stuff they did, and if they did, it was wrong. Why would anybody listen to this?

(Photo credit: “Tony Benn,” Flickr/BinaryApe)

An organics challenge in Britain

A major British organics-certifying organization is considering stripping its labels from food that’s been flown in from abroad, according to the Guardian:

The problem stems from the public’s desire to consume more and more organic crops and meat. Demand for organic food now greatly outstrips UK farmers’ ability to supply it. Supermarkets imported 34 per cent of all the organic food they sold in 2005, most of it by air.But increases in the numbers of flights in and out of Britain are also linked to environmental worries because air transport is considered to be a major cause of greenhouse warming. For the Soil Association, which claims it has impeccable green credentials, this link is embarrassing.

Technically, an “Organic” designation is meant to convey information about how food is produced and grown — with an utter minimum of chemicals and so on. How it gets to market is a separate question, notwithstanding some people’s argument that an apple that travels 1,500 miles before being sold gets coated in dirty dust and fuel fumes.

Expecting an “Organic” label to stand in as a general stamp of approval for environmental friendliness is a mistake, though of course a lot of people do. It’s like assuming that a hybrid car engine is necessarily low-emissions, even though some hybrid vehicles use the extra battery power to provide more torque, rather than higher efficiency.

Buying local is good, but many fruits and vegetables can only be coaxed out of the ground in unfriendly climates with the addition of fertilizers and the protection of pesticides. Maybe what’s needed is different labels: green for organic/local, blue or something for organic/flown-in, yellow for non-organic/local, and no label at all for God-knows-where-this-is-from-and-what-they-did-to-grow-it.

Paying for Gordon Brown’s eco-towns

Gordon Brown, who almost certainly succeeds Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister at the end of June, wants to help create a “home-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy” by, er, sponsoring the construction of 100,000 houses (BBC).

The good news is that he has in mind five carbon-neutral “towns” of 20,000 houses each, ideally built on brownfields, contaminated old industrial sites that the government will presumably clean up and then sell.

The Scotsman has the most thorough story I can find:

The eco-town idea is the first concrete proposal to emerge from Brown’s campaign nerve-centre.

In a speech to Labour party members in Kent yesterday, he said: “If we are to meet the aspirations of every young couple to do the best for themselves and their children, then we need to build new homes. We need to deliver well-planned, green and prosperous communities where they will want to live.”

The eco-towns will be built primarily on brownfield land. Each home will be constructed to environmentally friendly zero-carbon standards, using energy generated locally from sustainable sources.

Brown aides said the towns would include state-of-the-art zero-carbon schools and health centres, supported by extensive public transport.

The first eco-town is proposed for the abandoned Oakington Barracks in Cambridgeshire, and will include 10,000 new homes, with electricity delivered entirely by solar and wind power.

The Sunday Mirror has it that the government will provide the land, and private developers will do the rest. After Oakington Barracks, Brown wants local councils to “bid” in some way to have the others constructed in their territory.

Brownfields are a significant public-policy problem. They often end up in government hands because a private owner or owners have so fouled the land, perhaps over decades, that the cost of cleaning it up exceeds any profits anybody can imagine making from building on it afterward. They can be as small as an old gas station (though usually cleaning up such a site is within a private owner’s reach), or as big as the 100-hectare (250-acre) Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia.

Trouble is, when the government gets its hands on a piece of fallow ground, it frequently has an overwhelming impulse to build Something Special on it. A prime district in Ottawa sat empty for 40 years after the government expropriated it from hundreds of private owners planning to build an office complex, then changed its mind. In this case, Gordon Brown seems to see an opportunity to make a bricks-and-mortar statement about, I don’t know, wanting Britain to be green and very slightly less rented.

The second part’s easy. Once you’ve cleaned up the brownfield, sell it to someone who promises to build houses on it and sell them to other people.

The first, less so. State-of-the-art schools and health centres and elaborate transit systems and solar and wind power are expensive, and not just at first — they bring ongoing operating costs. From the coverage, it doesn’t sound as though Brown intends his government to have an ongoing financial relationship with these eco-towns, so presumably the costs of these green amenities will be distributed in the usual fashion: to the customers and local ratepayers.

Which in turn means these sound likely to be middle- to upper-class (by the standards of North America, where we don’t have dukes) communities. So much for sharing the dream of home ownership with the masses. Remind me what the public interest is here again?

Not beyond the free market

TreeHugger features the story of a British artist and activist who’s “challenging global issues of waste, capitalism and globalisation by scavenging food, and setting up a cooking co-op where anybody can join in and share in the wealth.”

Her name is Eugenia Beirer and this has been in pursuit of a degree from the Chelsea College of Art & Design. The project’s website is here, but I’m half-inclined to believe that what she’s actually up to is parodying confused anti-capitalist activists.

To be clear, I think what she and her fellow artists are actually doing is great. They go around public markets and collect food that’s slated for disposal that’s still edible, then prepare meals out of it, which they serve free to anyone who wants it. Practically every food-seller in the world pitches a lot of stock that doesn’t meet enough consumers’ aesthetic standards to be salable, or that’s not spoiled yet but will be soon and has to make way for fresh stock. Sometimes it goes to food banks or homeless shelters or other worthy causes, but all too often it doesn’t. If Beirer and others want to volunteer to collect the stuff and turn it into something useful, good on them.

But why they say they’re doing it doesn’t make any bloody sense at all. Here’s an explanation in a long Q&A at the U.K.’s New Consumer:

New Convent [sic] Garden Market is one of the wholesale markets in London where fruit and veg from all over the world are delivered to, stored and sold. Food overproduction stands in high contrast with food insufficiency in the developing and third world. Within Free Trade and Free Market, food overproduction is encouraged in order to keep prices low. There was a time when farmers within the EE [sic] would be paid for their waste. This led to farmers overproducing insane amounts just to produce waste and be paid for it. You can see the complications! World poverty is not down to there not being enough food; it’s down to politics and economic global policies of food production and trading. The reason I set up BTFM [“Beyond The Free Market”] kitchens is so people can witness this and hopefully inspire them to make changes in the way they think, consume and engage with the capitalist system.

Wait … what? Using public money to encourage farmers to produce food nobody’s going to buy is a consequence of free trade and free-marketism run amok? Somebody’s confused or putting us on. As with Hazel Henderson’s recent essay at WorldChanging talking about, e.g., the failure of First World countries to knock down Third World trade barriers while keeping their own up as evidence of the failure of capitalism, Beier is blaming free markets for the failures of free markets’ enemies.

Another “problem” Beier blames free markets for is European regulations defining particular foods, such as bananas:

An example of this is bananas. Now when you think of a banana you think of a semi long, perfectly shaped fruit. In Tenerife, platanos are mini bananas which grow naturally. Because the platanos are short and thick and not long and narrow, the EU has prohibited the export of platanos, which means farmers from Tenerife can’t enter the European market even though they are part of Europe!

Instead, bananas (as we know them) get flown over from Puerto Rico or other parts of the world. So the EU legislation contributes to climate change through unnecassary [sic] food-miles when they should be supporting local farmers. Also, fruit and veg species die out due to standardisation, as producing them is not profitable or even affordable any more.

I’m not familiar with these specific regulations, but assuming they’re more or less as Beier describes them, it’s pretty outrageous that a resident of Europe can’t buy a platano if he or she wants to. It makes even less sense if the result is that they’re importing Puerto Rican goods instead of consuming something grown domestically — in that case, the regulations wouldn’t even be living up to their stated purpose. My point, though, is that there’s no earthly reason for a government to care whether its people eat bananas or platanos or stewed golf balls. Whatever the consumer wants, presumably the market would be quite content to supply.