Azara Blog: Engineers as honest brokers for sustainable development

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Date published: 2005/02/02

The first lecture of the university's Third Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2005) was given today by Roland Clift of Surrey University. Of course these days "Sustainable Development" is considered as a half-serious subject largely because of "Global Warming". It's always refreshing to hear an engineer discuss this subject because it will be scientists and engineers who solve the problems of the world, not social scientists or politicians or so-called environmentalists.

Having said that, this talk had the usual selection of diagrams with arrows flowing here and there that one often sees in Sustainable Development talks. In particular there was the usual three-way Venn diagram between "Eco-centric concerns", "Techno-centric concerns" and "Socio-centric concerns". The idea is that magically there is an overlap between all three concerns if only those stupid humans would move towards it. (We are today supposedly way off the overlap in the techno-centric direction. So the ecosystem is taking a hit and there is also little social equity.)

As Clift pointed out, if you don't believe there is an overlap (and that we are not there today) then you are wasting your time working in Sustainable Development. As someone who works in this area he not surprisingly claimed to be a neo-Malthusian who believes there are constraints on what we can do on and to the planet. Well there are obviously such constraints (imagine if there were a trillion trillion people) but the real question is what that means in practise, today. Malthus was wrong with his quantitative projections because he did not forsee the successes of technology. But you'd have to be pretty naive to claim there will never be limits to population growth. So we are all Malthusians in some pretty meaningless sense.

What you want from such talks are interesting facts and new ideas. There were some facts. For example, he said that in 1800 the ratio of the energy content of food produced by humans to the energy content of non-renewable sources used in making the food was 10:1. In 1900 it was 1:1. In 2000 it was 1:10. (Not clear if that included transport, hopefully yes.) And he said that large amounts of irrigation for agriculture were from non-renewable water supplies (no numbers). And the amount of phosphate available from phosphate deposits will supposedly only last from 10s to 100s of years.

Twenty years ago most anti-fossil fuel advocates would have said that the reason we need renewable energy is because fossil fuel will run out. Today the same advocates believe the problem is that fossil fuel will not run out and that emissions are the real issue. (Apparently the oil sands of Alberta cost about 15 dollars per barrel to produce, well below the current cost of crude oil. And the available supply is as much as Saudi Arabia has in oil.)

So how did we get to the techno-centric world we live in? Clift said this was because decisions were made which failed to recognise:

What he failed to mention was the reason for this is because everybody wants something for nothing, this is the whole underlying philosophy for most political systems. (As anybody who watches wildlife programs knows, this is perfectly natural, for example hyenas and lions are happy to steal food from cheetahs.) If you can pass the cost of doing something onto the rest of the planet then that is considered to be good. (For example, the "public transport" users of the world believe that other people should subsidize their journeys.)

Clift then showed a simple "taxonomy" for decisions. There are two types of decisions, those decisions with agreed criteria and those without. He put corporate decisions in the former category and public decisions in the latter. The former category was further split into decisions with prior articulation of preferences and those without. The claim was that those horrid economists with their cost-benefit analyses believe that all decisions are those with prior articulation of preferences and so can be analysed in the cold light of day. Whereas most of the big decisions of the day (e.g. global warming) are decisions without agreed criteria.

As an example of the latter he mentioned a road bypass scheme where the people for the bypass and the people against the bypass could just not see eye to eye, because, he believed, there were no agreed criteria for why the bypass should be built. This is missing the point. The people who support bypasses are those who will benefit from its construction and those who are against are those who will lose out. (The so-called environmentalists fall into the latter category because they believe the planet will lose out so psychologically they are losing out.) In the UK (as in the rest of the world) people who benefit from road schemes do not have to pay anything for their gain and people who lose out are never compensated. So their respective views are not very surprising. This is the real issue, not that decisions do not have agreed criteria.

As another example he mentioned disposal of waste. (A growing problem in the UK given the interference of the EU on the matter.) Everybody knows that waste needs to be disposed but nobody wants a waste treatment plant (or dump) in their backyard. Again, this is not very surprising. Urban people are happy to send their waste to rural areas. The people affected are not compensated and the urban people do not pay properly for the waste disposal. In effect one group of people is stealing from another group.

Clift mentioned a "new paradigm". Decisions (well, big decisions) should involve an extended peer community and technical specialists should contribute to the deliberative decision process but should not be prescriptive but instead be "honest brokers" (hence the title of the lecture). Allegedly those horrid technocrats have been shoving technology (e.g. nuclear power) down peoples' throats and it is time instead for dialogue. The problem he did not mention is that "the people" is in reality in the UK a synonym for "the vocal comfortable middle classes", who are generally anti-technology (and anti-corporate) and are happy to limit the consumption of the rest of the country (they are happy with their lot in life so everybody else should be too).

He then showed a schematic diagram. On the x-axis was "systems uncertainty" and on the y-axis was "decisions stake". When both the uncertainty and the stakes are small then applied science is used, when one or both are a bit larger then professional consultancy is used, and when one or both are fairly large then we are supposedly in the arena of "post-normal science". What a dreadful piece of jargon. Apparently this idea of "post-normal science" has been promoted by some chap by the name of Ravetz, and even more scary, apparently this jargon has caught on in the EU bureaucracy.

Clift is a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), whose most influential report to date is probably the 22nd one, "Energy - the Changing Climate" (June 2000). He showed a diagram illustrating the RCEP view of "deliberative decision processes", which includes at its heart the "application of people's values". As already mentioned, in reality this means the "application of the views of the vocal comfortable middle class".

That RCEP report recommended that the CO2 level in the atmosphere not exceed 550 ppmv. The pre-industrial level was 270 and the current level is 380. Unfortunately at this point Clift mentioned the "precautionary principle", specifically: "by the time the effects of human activities on the global climate are clear and unambiguous it would be too late to take preventative measures". This argument is not good enough. There are good and reasonable arguments why 550 is going to cause a lot of problems to the planet. (Many people believe even that is too high a figure.) It is these arguments that need to be weighed against any action taken. Not the precautionary principle. If you really believe in the precautionary principle then you don't get out of bed in the morning, just in case you get hit by a bus. Or you lock up every Muslim just in case they are a terrorist.

Apparently the RCEP recommended that the entire planet ration out emission quotas on a per capita basis (for reasons of equity). Currently the UK produces 9 tonnes per year of CO2 (or was that just counting the C, and for all emissions?) and the 550 limit meant that should be reduced to 4 tonnes per year by 2050, or roughly a 60% reduction.

Clift said that the RCEP report relied on three disciplines, geophysics (to arrive at the 550 figure), philosophy (to arrive at the need for per capita rationing) and engineering (to show this was all feasible). (Well the only scary bit here is that apparently they needed a philosopher to justify the equity argument. The British middle class in action.)

To show feasibility they recommended both demand-side reductions and supply-side changes. On the demand side they recommended improved building performance (an easy target in the UK since current building performance is generally dreadful), modal shifts in transport (get those horrid car drivers out of their cars, the usual story) and improvements in manufacturing. On the supply side they recommended increases use of renewable energy sources (e.g. wind power) but for reasons of supply stability in combination with nuclear power and/or continued fossil fuel electricity generation, and that the latter would probably require carbon sequestration (apparently technologically feasible and already being done in Norway). Needless to say most so-called environmentalists oppose nuclear power at all costs, and the UK has done nothing on this front for years.

Apparently the Treasury estimated that a 60% reduction in emissions was equivalent to an expenditure of 2% of GDP from now until 2050, as compared with an expected annual increase of 4% in GDP. So half of the latter goes to saving the world and the rest goes to "consumption". Clift at this point mentioned that he is happy not to consume any more at all. Well that is a rather flippant remark, the comfortable middle classes are happy not to consume any more and they can't understand why anybody else would want to. Well, needless to say, with ever increasing health costs and expectations, any increase in GDP can easily be swallowed up, and the comfortable middle classes will consume their share of this, whether they recognise it as increased consumption or not.

Of course it is slightly ironic in view of the rest of the talk that it is the dreaded technocrats who are proposing the 60% reduction, without input from "the people". When asked at the end what would happen if "the people" decided they didn't want to reduce UK emissions by 60%, he said simply that there would just have to be public persuasion. Fair enough, but unfortunately democracy has a habit of producing the answers you don't want.

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