Monday, 26 March 2012

Greening Pancevo

Strolling along a tree-lined boulevard, past classic old buildings and people sitting drinking at street cafes, this could be one of any number of tourist destinations. But, this is Pancevo in Serbia.

Looking beyond the immediate town, the skyline is dominated by heavy industry. The petro-chemical plant has new owners who have fitted modern filters, so it is now much cleaner than it was (so I am told) but the fertilizer plant continues to spew smoke into the sky forming an orange cloud that hangs over the town.

The community and industry existing cheek by jowl makes you stop and reflect on priorities. Pancevo has the potential to be a lovely town, and the people could not have been more welcoming for my visit, but it seems odd that a community tolerates pollution so close to home.

A representative of a local NGO explained that they had arranged a protest march but very few people had turned out. The concern seems to be over jobs. People want to work and the industry provides jobs so they do not want to protest too much. The risk of losing income is seen to be worse than the risks to health from the pollution. This seems to be the world’s industrial society in a microcosm.

At the global level, we are locked into economic progress based on industrialisation. Conveniently for many of us, the dirtiest and most polluting processes can be pushed so far away from our immediate area as to seem irrelevant. China, for example, where much of our stuff is manufactured is half-a-planet away from Western Europe, out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Closer to home, in Pancevo, the consequences of industrialisation are there for all to see. It seems unfair that they have to endure more than their fair share of pollution on the argument that the industry has to go somewhere. There is another solution; we can clean up industry to work as an integral part of the natural ecosystem so living with production facilities is not a risk to health. We already have the technology to achieve this in many cases and the capability to invent new processes – but it will cost more.

I reflected from my visit to Pancevo that perhaps we need more industry collocated with towns, rather than less. If all of us were brought face-to-face with the consequences of our consumption we would demand cleaner processes. I am sure that people will respond positively when they face the issue in their own lives, and are given a real choice, not between a job and destitution, but between paying more for goods and services in exchange for a clean and healthy environment.

My final hours in Pancevo were at an outdoor restaurant serving delicious food under warm spring sunshine with the industrial complex screened from view. It was easy to forget the industry and put it out-of-sight and out-of-mind. In Pancevo, this convenient ignorance is an obvious delusion.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Sustainable Aviation

Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.
Henry Thoreau (1861)

‘Aviation is a showcase of civilization, demonstrating human ability to harness advanced technology to improve people’s lives. The complex global web of aviation services shows how, working together on a common objective, human society can achieve incredible advances. That single-minded focus, which brings such success, can also makes us blind to the wider consequences. The time has come to open our eyes to the impact of the emissions from flying and collaborate to make aviation fit for the twenty-first century.’

Opening paragraph of my new book Fly and be Damned: What next for aviation and climate Change? published by Zed Books in the UK and distributed in the US by Palgrave MacMillan ISBN: 9781848139749.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Blow Away the Accountants

“If we are concerned about the cost, then renewables have no part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.”

So writes Clare Spottiswoode, chair of the nuclear energy company Magnox, according to yesterday’s Sunday Times. The words are purported to be contained in the foreword to a report to be published today which shows that it would be cheaper to invest in gas-fired power stations and nuclear than to offer subsidies to wind turbines. This would seem to be a deeply flawed report but I hope it is widely read so people understand that economics can be misused and remind everyone that economics has to be kept in its place as a tool of policy to be used intelligently with full knowledge of the underlying assumptions.

The accountants have done the sums and the numbers ‘prove’ that it would be cheaper to build gas-fired and nuclear power stations for the UK to meet its CO2 reduction targets by 2020 and 2050. The economic advice is to stop investing in wind turbines, a message that opponents of wind like to hear.

Concurrently with this breaking story, I was participating in a seminar on environmental economics and a number of the economists were adamant that every decision could be boiled down to a cost/benefit analysis. The attraction seems to be that the answer is clear cut and expressed in numbers, with the least-cost option the preferred option. The economists would like us to accept the result and act upon it; but policy makers need to reflect about what is really going on.

The number crunching of a cost/benefit analysis may be impressive but the process is simply computation. The answer is entirely dependent on the input assumptions. Intelligent policy makers use the tool of cost/benefit analysis but focus the intellectual effort on the real issues and key factors. In this case, key factors include security of energy supply, long-term liabilities and the risks of climate change. Diligently working out the numbers for investment options to hit a certain target date can hide these issues and obscure the real picture.

Policy makers in the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) will not give this report much credence. Putting up wind turbines may not be liked by some people but once the site is established it will generate energy into perpetuity with maintenance and equipment renewals as required. This is clean energy to underpin a secure energy future without the long-term liabilities that come with nuclear power – for which accountants have a tendency to discount the calculation to shove the problem outside the reference frame of the calculation.

The authors of this report may yet see sense and pull it, but I would like to see it widely read, countered and then filed where it deserves to be filed ...