Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Green energy can be a killer

When it comes to ecology, there are debates about evidence, and how reliable it may be.

Michael Crichton's 2004 sci-fi novel "State of Fear", which I read recently, shows how scientific data can be misleading or contradictory. For example, historic air temperature measurements in New York City seem to prove that the atmosphere is heating up; but figures over the same period from an instrument in rural New York State show the opposite. Some of the scientists in the book start with a quasi-religious belief in global warming and bend or discount counter-evidence. By the end of the story I was certainly more skeptical than when I started it, though that doesn't mean I was necessarily persuaded to "cross the floor". There's plenty still to argue about; for example, this internet essay offers a reexamination of some of the science in Crichton's book.

In fact, Crichton himself adds an author's note at the end, in which he gives his view that global warming probably is happening, and that human activity is probably contributing to it. His real point (other than entertainment) is to have us examine evidence more critically, and to watch out for the influence of a scientist's more personal motives - grants for research, career progression, public attention.

There are also debates to be had about competing values.

Most of the world's nations have ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on "greenhouse gas" emissions reduction (in force eight years come next Wednesday). We're trying to do our bit to "save the planet": as part of the UK's 2011 Carbon Plan and 2009 Renewable Energy Strategy the Government has initiated the Renewable Heat Incentive. This encourages the burning of waste as a way of providing heat as well as disposing of rubbish. Sounds good, and there happens to be recently-contructed incinerator only a couple of miles away from me, in south Birmingham.

But it's not purely beneficial, as the readers' letters pages in The Oldie magazine point out. In response to TV personality Johnny Ball's lately-expressed support for incinerators, Michael Ryan of Shrewsbury (January 2013 issue) used ONS data to suggest a link between incinerator emissions and increased infant mortality. In the February issue (just out), Chris Butler of Borough Green in Kent writes in to say that the Public Health Observatory blames atmospheric particulates for 5.6% of mortality in England. (That's not to say that all the particles come from incinerators; nor that we'd live forever if the air was clean. But this London website quotes the same PHO figure and says it's worse in London: 6 - 9% of mortality so attributable.)

Mr Butler makes a second reference in the same letter, this time to the DECC's own July 2012 impact assessment of the Renewable Heat Incentive. This attempts to quantify in monetary terms the pros and cons of (a) doing nothing about incinerators' emissions and (b) introducing stricter rules. If the sums are right, the cost of extra regulation discounted back to today would be £420 million, but the benefits in terms of better health and reduced mortality are estimated at nearly £3 billion. (How are exactly are these figures calculated? What happens if the discount rate used (3.5%) is higher or lower? One can imagine the money-debate rattling on.)

And it can be very hard to apply money to values. How do we price health and life per se, apart from the cost of medical interventions, social security costs for the sick and so on? What counts as the best solution depends so much on what kind of, and the degree to which, "negative externality" is internalized into the calculation, if at all. For example, one of the externalities not assessed in this report is the impact on the ecosystem (see paragraph 33).

And one option is simply not to care at all. Stalin's view on externality was brutally simple: no man, no problem.

Not all particulates are equally hazardous, but none is deemed safe: "the World Health Organisation advise that there is no safe exposure level to P(articulate) M(atter)," says the DECC's report. The danger is not uniform in time, either, e.g. more dioxins are emitted at operational startup and shutdown than in mid-burn.

The damage caused by other pollutants is not yet completely known, and there are many of them: "Incinerator emissions are a major source of fine particulates, of toxic metals and of more than 200 organic chemicals, including known carcinogens, mutagens, and hormone disrupters," says this 2008 report by the British Society for Ecological Medicine. Perhaps the chemtrail conspiracy-hunters should turn their attention from the skies to their local waste tip.

What are the facts, then, and what are the relevant facts, and what values should we use in relation to them? There's so much uncertainty and room for disagreement that the precautionary principle might save us much ill-tempered controversy as well as, possibly, harm to life and health: let's simply make less waste in the first place.

Now to put out two large bags of washed plastic bottles, for tomorrow's binmen.

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A K Haart said...

I spent all my working life and an environmental scientist and I’m sure there are links between pollutants and human health.

However, the subject is so complex and uncertainties so problematic, that my approach is to note the claims but believe as little as possible.

People make claims and people have agendas and sadly they make good science all but impossible.

Cleaner is better, but usually we don’t have any idea how to quantify or cost “better” except in extreme cases. The precautionary principle is too liable to be misused in my view.

"Cleaner" tends to drive agendas. As analytical instruments and techniques improve, "unclean" seems to be revealed, but so often yet another can of worms has been opened.

Sackerson said...

Hi AKH: a week after your comment China was weighing the issue in regard to its smog!

Which I begin to discuss here: