Tuesday, 9 August 2011

More Asking the Right Questions

I've often pointed to articles by UK Guardian commentator George Monbiot. He thinks things through from the beginning, and can't easily be labeled. His conclusions are often discouraging and not what we want, but thoughtful and intelligent. Here are two from this week on tough issues as important here as in Europe.


Greens must not prioritise renewables over climate change

Abandoning nuclear at a time of escalating emissions is far more dangerous than maintaining it

Before considering the case that Jonathon Porritt makes, "Why the UK must choose renewables over nuclear: an answer to Monbiot", we should ask ourselves what our aim is. Is it to stop climate breakdown, or is it to engineer the maximum roll-out of renewable power? Sometimes it seems to me that greens are putting renewables first, climate change second.

We have no obligation to support the renewables industry – or any other industry – against its competitors. Our obligation is to persuade policy-makers to bring down emissions and reduce other environmental impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The moment we start saying we won't accept one technology under any circumstances, or we must use another technology whether it's appropriate or not, is the moment at which we make that aim harder to achieve.

Porritt is right to say that we could meet all our electricity needs through renewables. But it would take longer and cost more. He acknowledges this by setting his date for decarbonising the electricity supply through renewables and efficiency alone at 2050, while the Committee on Climate Change is seeking to do so, through nuclear, renewables, efficiency and some carbon capture and storage, by 2030. When the government's statutory advisers propose a shorter timescale for cutting emissions than one of Britain's leading greens, we should ask ourselves some hard questions about our priorities. The longer it takes, the less likely we are to prevent runaway climate change.

If we shut the door on nuclear power, we create a generation gap. As the committee points out, the maximum likely contribution to our electricity supply from renewables by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. Where will the balance come from?

To my utter amazement, Porritt's answer appears to be unabated fossil fuel.

I say "appears", because something odd happens in the paragraph in which he discusses it. He first proposes that the generation gap should be filled by more gas plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS), but then acknowledges that CCS is "hugely expensive … and still unproven at scale." He then points out that "gas is relatively cheap, relatively easily available, and relatively easy to build." This, as he has just acknowledged, applies only to gas without CCS. So what exactly is he calling for as his "generating bridge"? Gas with or without CCS? It looks as if a fudge has taken place here.

He talks of "frittering away at least another decade in pursuit of some unattainable nuclear dream". But nuclear power is eminently attainable. Unlike CCS, it has already been proven at scale and will produce low-carbon electricity from the outset. The likely outcome of Jonathon's contradictory bridge proposal is that we fritter away another 40 years, in which CO2 emissions rise because we shut down and failed to replace our nuclear power plants.

In one respect we in the UK are fortunate: someone else is making these mistakes, and we have an opportunity to learn from them. The someone else is Germany.

In last week's New Scientist, David Strahan points out that Germany's decision to shut its nuclear plants will, despite its massive investment in new renewables, create an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That will cancel out almost all the savings (335Mt) brought about in the entire European Union by the new Energy Efficiency Directive.

In June, Angela Merkel announced that she would bridge the generation gap caused by shutting down nuclear plants by doubling the volume of coal-fired power stations Germany will build over the next 10 years. Outrageously, her government will help pay for them with a fund originally intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This shows what a fix you can get yourself into when getting rid of nuclear power takes precedence over dealing with climate change.

This isn't the only respect in which Porritt suggests we should follow Germany's disastrous precedent. He also wants us to repeat its experiment with solar power. He claims that "Germany plans to generate 50% of its daytime electricity from solar by 2020 – with installed capacity of 52 GW."

Keep an eye on that word "daytime". Daytime on certain hot sunny days perhaps, but this does next to nothing to solve the supply problem. In 2010 Germany had an installed capacity of 17.3GW of solar power. This produces about 2% of its year-round electricity. So 52GW, which will be installed at an astronomical cost, is likely to produce around 6% of its total supply.

What's more, much of the electricity it generates will be of little use. Peak electricity demand in the UK (and presumably in other northern European nations) takes place at 5-7pm on a winter's evening, when solar panels are producing nothing. Peak solar output takes place in the middle of hot summer days, when demand is much lower. Solar electricity in a cold, high-latitude country displaces none of the coal and gas plants currently producing electricity on winter evenings. The money being spent on it is largely wasted.

An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute finds that the entire German solar sector produces less than half the power that Fukushima Daiichi – a single nuclear complex – generated before it was hit by the tsunami. To build a Fukushima-sized solar industry in Germany would, it estimates, cost $155bn. To build a Fukushima-sized nuclear plant would cost $53.5bn. And the power would be there on winter evenings.

Porritt dismisses the detailed cost estimates produced by the Committee on Climate Change. In doing so, he relies on the strangest of sources: a note of just 400 words written by Andrew Broadbent, a man whose job is "modelling the competition between shopping locations across Great Britain, to predict where people will shop in the next few years."

This would be an odd choice under any circumstances. It's stranger still when you find that the two main claims Porritt extracts from Broadbent's note – that "the principal source for the committee's estimates" is the figures prepared by its consultants Mott MacDonald in June 2010, and that "Mott MacDonald produced a new report in May 2011 which pretty much contradicts its own 2010 report" – are flat wrong. The cost estimates the committee uses actually come from Mott MacDonald's 2011 report.

This shows the importance of reading the source material, and not relying on other people's interpretation of it. If you are going to accuse someone else of "inadequate research" and "untrustworthy sources", your own work needs to be a lot more robust than this.

Porritt warns that "considerable scepticism is warranted in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry". He's right, and this is why I avoid them in favour of figures from independent bodies. If only he did the same. He relies for his estimates of solar costs on a study (by Ernst & Young) commissioned by the UK Solar Trade Association. Worse still, the study's predictions for the reduction in solar costs come from "UK solar industry data". If ever there was a case for "considerable scepticism in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry", here it is.

Porritt goes on to discuss the hidden subsidy nuclear power enjoys as a result of the lack of insured liabilities. The figures he uses are, to say the least, very odd. The study he cites prices a worst-case (level 7) disaster in Germany at over €6 trillion, whereas the maximum projected cost of the level 7 Fukushima disaster, even assuming that the government buys all the land and property within 20 km of the plant, is $245bn. Could the study's scientifically-groundless estimate have anything to do with the fact that it was commissioned by the German Renewable Energy Federation? What happened to that "considerable scepticism in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry"?

But if unfunded liabilities are a killer argument, where does this leave the extra CO2 that will be produced by abandoning nuclear power? Who's insuring us against the impacts that will cause? With nuclear power you get a small chance that things will go badly wrong. If they do, a small number of people could – in the worst possible case - die, and several hundred square kilometres would need to be evacuated. Beyond a certain level of climate change there is a very high chance – approaching certainty – that things will go badly wrong. When they do, they have the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people, and to necessitate the evacuation of much of the earth's surface. No one's insuring us against that.

There's plenty more I could say on all the points Porritt raises, but I've already gone on for far too long. My point is that abandoning nuclear power at a time of escalating greenhouse gas emissions is far more dangerous than maintaining it. To abandon it in the knowledge that much of that power will be replaced with unabated fossil fuel is even worse. It is hard to think of any issue with greater moral consequences. We have a duty to get this right, using reliable evidence, not wishful thinking.


EU and fish quotas: Who will protect these fish from our feeding frenzy?

The EU tells Iceland and the Faroes to stop their fishing frenzy of mackerel, but only because it wants to plunder the stock itself

    * George Monbiot
    * guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 August 2011

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a year, after which no one will ever eat fish again. Almost everywhere fish stocks are collapsing through catastrophic mismanagement. But no one in the rich world has managed them as badly as the European Union.

So when the EU tells Iceland and the Faroes that they should engage in "responsible, modern fisheries management", it's like being lectured by Attila the Hun on human rights. They could be forgiven for telling us to sod off until we've cleaned up our own mess. Unfortunately, this is just what they've done, with catastrophic results.

A feeding frenzy is taking place in their territorial waters, as they rip into the North Atlantic's last great stock: mackerel. As the seas have warmed, the fish have moved north. When they arrived in Icelandic and Faroese waters, those nations argued that their mackerel fishing agreement with Norway and the EU should be changed to allow them to catch more. Norway and the EU refused, so Iceland and the Faroes tore the agreement up and each awarded themselves a unilateral quota of 150,000 tonnes. As a result, the north-east Atlantic mackerel catch has risen almost 50%, and is now well beyond the replacement rate. If the mackerel go, so do the many links of the food chain which depend on them.

No one is negotiating. The EU and Norway argue that Iceland and the Faroes are stealing our fish. But the mackerel migrating around the North Atlantic belong to everyone and no one. What matters is that the harvest is small enough to sustain the stock, regardless of who catches it, and at the moment no one's blinking. Iceland and the Faroes will reduce their quotas when the EU and Norway are prepared to reduce theirs. Brinkmanship by all four parties is trashing our last super-abundant food species.

Tonight, Channel 4 broadcast the latest instalment of Fish Fight, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It urges us to switch from what supermarkets call the big five – cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns – towards more viable stocks, in particular mackerel.

It's an engaging and powerful programme, and its attempt to prevent discards – throwing a large proportion of the catch overboard because of EU rules – is one that everyone should support. But what about its call to change species?

Our obsession with cod and haddock is trashing the seabed and many of the other species which live there. Species such as mackerel, herring and sardines reproduce quickly. Because they live in mid-water, catching them involves scarcely any bycatch or damage to the seafloor. "The Iceland and Faroes situation has given us a headache," Fearnley-Whittingstall told me. "But are we going to punish local Cornish handliners for doing the right thing?"

I started work on this article in the belief that he was wrong: that switching to less popular species merely transfers pressure onto new stocks. But the research I've done has changed my mind. His campaign would make good ecological sense, were it not for the insanity of a fishing policy which cannot sustain even our fastest-growing fish. The new pressure on mackerel stocks has nothing to do with Channel 4's attempt to persuade us to broaden our tastes, which has not so far been successful. An analysis of sales by Maria McLean at Surrey University suggests no significant or lasting impact on any species. People have stuck with the big five. You wonder what it takes.

The new mackerel fisheries are finding markets far beyond Channel 4's audience. Jogvan Jespersen of the Faroese Pelagic Organisation told me most of the fish his members catch are sold to Nigeria and eastern Europe. There's nothing wrong with this: the Nigerians have as much right to eat fish as we do. Jespersen says the Faroese catch is being sold only for human consumption.

Iceland's industry is another matter. The chart its fisheries ministry sent me shows that over one-third of the mackerel that ships in its waters caught last year weren't fed to people at all. Instead they were turned into fishmeal, which is sold to feed chickens, pigs, other fish and pets and – even worse – to fertilise crops. It's a disgusting, astonishing waste. Already that country has more or less wiped out its blue whiting stocks and killed huge volumes of herring and capelin for the same purpose.

But the government's website tells us something else of interest: that most of the fishmeal and fish oil Iceland sells is bought by Norway and the European Union: the very parties complaining about Iceland's plunder. Any nation which really cared about fish stocks would ban both the production and consumption of meal and oil, except from the waste produced by fish processing factories. A basic principle of marine conservation is that fish should be caught only for human consumption.

As for the UK government, if it wants to establish any credibility in this debate, it should start by sacking its fisheries minister. In Channel 4's programme, Richard Benyon gave the impression of a man without the slightest interest in his brief, let alone any mastery of it. He was unable to identify the common fish species he's supposed to be protecting. After admitting that he's never been on a trawler, he wormed his way out of an invitation.

It would also implement the royal commission on environmental pollution's proposal: that by 2010, 30% of British seas should be no-take zones in which fish could reproduce safely, greatly increasing the size of stocks. The score so far is 0.3%, and this government's contribution has been to abolish the royal commission. It would address the issue highlighted by Emma Cardwell last week: that in 1999 the UK's quotas were handed, free, to anonymous cronies, who then leased them for a fortune to big fishing conglomerates, wiping out the smaller boats.

Yes, let's demand that Iceland and the Faroes stop wrecking our common stocks. But let's not give the impression that we're doing so only in order to wreck them ourselves.

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