Azara Blog: September 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/09/30

US - EU talks on airline passenger data break down (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Talks between the United States and the European Union on sharing confidential airline passenger information have broken down, according to EU officials.

But officials say there will be no disruption to transatlantic flights.

After 9/11, US authorities demanded that airlines should provide personal passenger data for all inbound flights.

But the subsequent US-EU agreement was ruled illegal by the highest European court. Saturday was the deadline for a new deal.

A European Commission spokesman said that a legal black hole could be created by the lack of agreement.

"There is no agreement. There is a legal vacuum as of midnight tonight," said EU Transport Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd.

As a result, airlines refusing to provide passenger lists to the US may lose landing rights in the country, but those that do risk facing legal action under EU member states' data protection legislation.

Unbelievable. Of course the US is being completely over the top (as usual) but the EU should probably just bite the bullet on this one. Some day the US will not be run by a group of lunatics, and Britain will not be run by a US apologist, and we will all be able to return to normal.

Cambridge investment levels are not great (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Growth of Cambridge's cluster of technology start-ups has stalled, according to a new report.

Library House, a research business founded to help explain innovative companies to potential investors, found that 12 of the cluster's companies listed on public markets and a further 24 were sold or merged with other businesses, generating more than £1bn of value for shareholders and management teams in the past 18 months.

However, Library House has seen a net decrease of 1.5 per cent in the number of companies it tracks over the past 18 months.

Levels of investment in the Cambridge cluster have also fallen from £154m in 2004 to £125m last year, although this is partly due to a shift from later stage to earlier stage deals, which typically receive lower levels of funding.

The report proposes that Cambridge link with London, Oxford and parts of the Thames Valley to create the world's first supercluster. This combined area already receives over half of the venture capital funding in the UK.

For some reason the powers that be still run Cambridge as if it's a boom town. But Cambridge has not been doing that greatly ever since the collapse of the internet and telecoms pyramid scheme in 2000. Fortunately biotech has taken up some of the slack. Unfortunately the Cambridge politicians and bureaucrats don't seem to care whether or not Cambridge receives any inward investment, they spend their time trying to build thousands of new homes and to heck with worrying about where the jobs will be for existing or new residents (including kicking out one of the city's largest employers, Marshalls, in order to build thousands of homes on that site).

Date published: 2006/09/29

Intelligent Design starts to infiltrate Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parents are being encouraged to challenge their children's science teachers over what they are explaining as the origins of life.

An organisation called Truth in Science has also sent resource packs to all UK secondary school science departments.

It promotes the idea of intelligent design - that there was an intelligence behind the creation of the universe.
The Truth in Science website says: "We consider that it is time for students to be permitted to adopt a critical approach to Darwinism in science lessons."

Oh no, the Christian nutters have migrated from America to Britain. And you can pretty much guarantee that any organisation that calls itself "Truth in Science" is neither interested in the truth nor in science. Of course all scientific theories are flawed somehow or other, and Darwin's theory of evolution has been argued over and refined by many scientists, and some day it will be superseded. But it will be superseded by a better scientific theory, not by some religious mumbo-jumbo which its protagonists cynically try and portray as just another scientific theory. In the good old days these people just admitted to believing in creationism.

Christ's Pieces to be given "town green" status (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Bus chief Andy Campbell has blasted a move to prevent a 21st Century bus station being built in the centre of Cambridge.

Cambridge City Council has agreed to support a proposal by the Christ's Pieces Residents Association (CPRA) to award the popular park "town green" status, which would protect it from future development.

The council favours a new transport interchange as part of a redeveloped railway station, but Mr Campbell, managing director of Stagecoach in Cambridge, is calling for an improved city centre bus station.

This argument has been going on for years. The city could have done something about this recently by buying the Bradwells Court site, but chose not to (it would have cost a pretty penny). So instead we have a perpetual mess of buses at Drummer Street. Christ's Pieces has some very nice old trees, which would be a shame to lose. And the city always puts in nice flower displays there. But to label it as a "town green" is a bit of a joke, it's mainly used as a conduit between the town centre and the Grafton Centre.

Date published: 2006/09/28

California wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a law which sets targets to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Becoming the first US state to impose such limits, California is aiming to reduce its emissions by 25% by 2020.

Details on how the state will achieve the cut have not been worked out, but it seems inevitable that businesses will face tougher emissions limits.

While good news for the environment, critics argue that firms may relocate.

It is possible this will encourage California companies to produce exactly what they are producing now but using lower carbon production methods. It is also possible that instead California companies will outsource high carbon production to other states or countries, and then California residents will swap other low carbon goods (e.g. movies and software) for these high carbon goods. If that is the case then it will not be "good news for the environment", since the global emissions will be the same, it's just that they will be produced somewhere else. (This is one of the flaws in the Kyoto Treaty. China can produce steel for Europe and it does not count against Europe's greenhouse gas emission quotas.)

Rowntree Foundation wants to raise tax on high valuation homes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than two million households are struggling to keep up with council tax bills, a study has concluded.

People on low incomes are particularly badly hit as a larger percentage of their earnings is spent on payments, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said.
It suggested the proportion of tax levied on each valuation band should be revised.

There is only one tax that is "fair" (progressive) to people on low incomes and that is of course income tax. All the other zillion and one taxes must be "unfair" in this regard almost by definition. The council tax is a crude property tax and therefore it is a crude wealth tax. But there is nothing more and nothing less "fair" about a wealth tax than an income tax, and the levels for both (as for all taxes) are completely arbitrary. The Rowntree Foundation (as ever) is most concerned by those in low valuation properties. But a lot of low income people in fact live in high valuation properties, in particular retired people. The Rowntree Foundation seems to want to make people in high valuation properties pay much, much more, relative to people in low valuation properties. Since older people live in higher valuation properties than younger people (on average) the Rowntree Foundation is in effect asking for there to be a new generational tax from older to younger people. The worst thing about such a proposal is that it would be a sudden change, and so many people would arbitrarily be thousands of pounds worse off (summed over time), and all their financial planning would have been arbitrarily undermined by the State. (This happens all the time.) Like most pressure groups, the Rowntree Foundation spends too much of its time and effort on producing half-baked reports which advocate stealing from one group and giving to another, and not enough time actually doing something productive for the nation.

Date published: 2006/09/27

Richard Branson wants more efficient airports (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The global aviation industry must work together to tackle climate change, Sir Richard Branson has said.

Up to 25% of the world's aviation carbon dioxide emissions could be cut if airlines, airports and governments worked together, the Virgin boss said.
The aviation industry is responsible for around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Sir Richard has written to airlines, airport operators and engine manufacturers stressing the need for the industry to increase the pace at which it changes its practices

The self-made tycoon told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that more efficient use of aircraft at the world's busiest airports could make a big difference.

He outlined a "starting grid system" he claims could save "billions of tonnes" of carbon dioxide and cut fuel consumption before take-off by up to 90%.

"Instead of sitting on planes with CO2 spewing out of those planes for anything up to 60 minutes to 90 minutes [while waiting for take-off] you would be towed by a small tug to the starting grid," he said.

"Then the pilot would turn on the engines ten minutes before take-off and then take off."
About 12% of global aviation CO2 emissions could be saved if air traffic control systems were more efficient, according to a study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) .

All pretty obvious stuff, but it takes someone important and pushy like Branson to constantly push at the bureaucrats to ever get anything done about anything. And he doesn't even mention the ridiculous waste of energy from planes constantly circling above Heathrow waiting for a slot to land. As noted, the airline industry does not actually contribute that much to carbon emissions at the moment, but the rate of increase is higher than for other contributors to emissions (as always pointed out by the so-called environmentalists), so some day the industry might contribute a significant amount, and any efficiency that can be gained before then will be worthwhile (of course having efficient airplanes and airports is a disaster for the so-called environmentalists, since it makes their anti-airplane harangues count for less and less).

Yet another Earth temperature study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world is the warmest it has been in the last 12,000 years as a result of rapid warming over the past 30 years, a study has suggested.

Nasa climatologists said the Earth had warmed by about 0.2C (0.4F) in each of the last three decades.

Pollution from human activity was pushing the world towards dangerous levels of climate change, they warned.

As a result, plant and animal species were struggling to migrate fast enough to cooler regions, they said.
The study also showed that the recent warming had brought temperatures within about 1C (2F) of the estimated maximum of the past one million years.
This study showed that the Western Equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean was as warm, if not warmer, since the end of the last major ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago.

Nothing that new here, but some more quantification.

Date published: 2006/09/26

Trade Unions do not want pension age raised to 68 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Labour leadership has suffered a conference defeat as delegates backed criticisms of key planks of the government's pensions policy.

The conference passed a motion attacking plans to raise the state pensions age to 68 and delay restoring the link between pensions and earnings.

It also pressed ministers to do more to compensate workers who lost out on pensions when their firms went bust.
The pensions motion, tabled by the GMB union, welcomed many parts of the government white paper, including measures to make pensions provision fairer to women.

But it "opposes any suggestion that the state pension age be raised before health inequalities in the UK are eradicated and improved longevity is equally shared by all".

During the pensions debate on Monday, the GMB's Malcolm Sage said raising the pension age was not fair when people were expected to live to 68-years-old in Glasgow but to 74-years-old in Kensington.

More nonsense from the trade unions. First of all, it is a fantasy to talk about "health inequalities in the UK" being "eradicated", since poor people will always have worse health than rich people. Secondly, why is 68 any more or less fair than 65 given the premise that some people live longer than others? Thirdly, taking the GMB claim to its logical conclusion, women should be forced to work longer than men, white people should be forced to work longer than non-whites, people who are likely to die of cancer at a young(ish) age should be allowed to retire at (say) 50, etc. It's all a nonsense. The whole point of a government pension is that it is insurance for all, and under any insurance scheme some people do better than others. What the GMB really seems to be demanding is that the nation bankrupt itself looking after old people. In other words, the GMB is not only being silly, it is being irresponsible.

Greens supposedly worried that humans might not be dominant forever (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Humans could cease to be the "dominant species" on Earth because of the environmental damage they are causing, the Green Party conference has heard.

Party Leader Keith Taylor warned delegates in Hove that the challenges of tackling global warming urgently needed to be addressed.

Are we supposed to worry that humans "could cease to be the dominant species on Earth"? Not many humans wake up every morning worrying about how dominant we are, or not. Needless to say, there are far better arguments against environmental destruction than how dominant humans are. And anybody who knows anything about evolution knows that the odds are extremely high that some day humans will cease to be an extant species at all (even ignoring the inevitable entropic or crunch death of the universe as a whole). We certainly won't be very dominant then.

Date published: 2006/09/25

Bush pledges a few million dollars to Lebanon (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

President George W Bush has called on US companies to throw their weight behind rebuilding efforts in Lebanon.

His comments came as it was announced that US agency Overseas Private Investment Corporation and private bank Citigroup are to invest $160m (£84m).

The public-private partnership is offering the capital to Lebanese small and medium-sized companies.

It comes on top of the $250m (£132m) in aid pledged by the White House. Mr Bush said he wants Lebanon to "flourish".

So the US helps bomb Lebanon "back to the stone age" one day (it provided bombs to Israel exactly for this purpose) and then throws a few peanuts in its direction the next. And let's see how much of this alleged aid ends up in Lebanon being used for reconstruction and how much ends up in the back pockets of the friends of Mr Bush and Mr Cheney.

Hauxton does not want a dump in its backyard (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Villagers are rallying round to fight plans for a waste site.

While residents of Trumpington are celebrating the news councillors are expected to turn down plans to put a household waste recycling and transfer centre on Glebe Farm, people living in Hauxton are horrified.

A petition signed by 229 residents, collected in just two days, has now been handed in to Cambridgeshire County Council.

Villagers heard about plans to put the centre on a former waste water treatment works just days before the initial decision to go ahead and consult the public was made.

The council's development control committee heeded local concerns and asked officers to go back to the drawing board. But now Coun John Reynolds, cabinet member for environment and community services, has said he plans to recommend the Hauxton site over Glebe Farm when the cabinet meets tomorrow (Tuesday, 26 September).

Hauxton Parish Council has voted unanimously to oppose the plans due to concerns about transport, safety, damage to the green belt, the scheme's cost and detrimental effect on recreation space.

The council said arguments made against putting the recycling centre in Glebe Farm also apply to Hauxton because houses are planned for land east of the A10.

The treatment plant, which formed part of the Bayer factory, was used to clean chemicals and is currently reached by a road which goes through the middle of playing fields.

The factory's sports and social club used the space for a cricket pitch, tennis court and bowling green and villagers desperately want to hold on to their play space.

They do not want rubbish lorries trundling across it.

Surprise, surprise. Nobody wants a "recycling centre" (i.e. a dump) next door to their houses. The people of Trumpington have managed to convince the county council to go elsewhere, and so the poor people of Hauxton have been chosen to be the ones to suffer. Needless to say, they will not be compensated in any way, which is the real problem.

Date published: 2006/09/24

Leonardo da Vinci, Rodin and Modigliani exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

London, as usual, has some good exhibitions on. (It's one of the few reasons to go anywhere near London.)

The Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings (on until 7 January 2007). Leonardo (everyone seems to call him just by his first name) is perhaps the world's favourite genius, since he was suitably brilliant and suitably eccentric. The exhibition featured just over 60 of his drawings, mostly from the collection of Queen Elizabeth, and providing a snapshot of his wide-ranging interests, from anatomy to weapons to geometry and architecture. The exhibition is in the usual V&A exhibition space, but only in the front half (the first room). The exhibition was not crowded numerically but you pretty much had to view the two long displays in linear order. The pace was not unreasonable but occasionally it stopped because someone had one of those audio guides. They had some amazingly well-done animations on the walls above, so one could at least keep occupied during the waits.

You might expect the Leonardo exhibition to be the hit of the season. But over at the Royal Academy there is a large exhibition on Rodin (on until 1 January 2007 at the RA, and then at the Kunsthaus in Zurich from 9 February to 13 May 2007). It contains at least one version of all his famous works ("The Kiss", "The Thinker", "The Burghers of Calais", etc.), but also a lot of preparatory work, minor sculptures and drawings. The drawings were not great. And some of the sketches were just scribbles and Rodin would have been sorry to see those shown in this way. But he's a great sculptor and his great sculpture is all on display in this one place. There is even a full-size version of the "Gates of Hell" in the RA forecourt. For those who like exhibition catalogues, that is unfortunately not complete photographically, not even including, for example, a decent copy of the large "Burghers of Calais" sculpture which dominates the largest room in the exhibition, nor of "The Kiss". The exhibition was busy but there was never any problem seeing the sculptures properly, it almost felt like a private viewing.

Also at the RA, and soon to finish (on 15 October 2006), is an exhibition on "Modigliani and His Models", up in the Sackler Gallery. After Rodin, seeing Modigliani is a bit of a shock to the system. Here you can see a portrait of a woman and another one of a man right next to it, and if you didn't read the labels you might think it was one and the same person. In fact one advantage of showing so many Modiglianis in one spot is that it is totally obvious that his style was rather fixed. Oval face, two small black lines for eyebrows, two curved lines for a nose, and red lips. He must have had a great personality because it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to sit for him, given the unsympathetic result. Unbelievably there seemed to be more people in the Modigliani exhibition than in the Rodin one, and given that the former occupied a fraction of the space of the latter, it was rather too crowded for comfort. But at least the catalogue is worthwhile.

Middle class protestors invade Nottingham Airport (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Police have arrested 24 protesters who broke through a security gate at Nottingham East Midlands Airport.

Members of an environmental campaign group used cutters to gain access through a fence. The airport said six outbound flights were delayed.

The group, which called itself Plane Stupid, had claimed the number of short-haul flights from the airport was affecting climate change.

Managers at the airport condemned the protest as "irresponsible".

The protest lasted for about four hours. The campaigners sat on a taxiway between two cargo holds. Baptist Minister Rev Malcolm Carroll led a ceremony in memory of those "who have died as a result of climate change."

The shape of things to come. (But the TR7 was not.) Perhaps the Reverend Carroll should lead a ceremony in memory of those who have died as a result of religion. And perhaps they should chain themselves to trains in London to decry all the crazy waste of energy which is caused by the thousands of people who commute more than (say) a hundred miles round trip every day, to and from London.

Date published: 2006/09/23

Gordon Brown says he wants to devolve power from central government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown will seek to devolve power away from central government if he becomes prime minister, he has told the BBC in an interview.

The "Bank of England independence" model, devolving policy from ministers, would let those "better able to manage, just get on with it", he said.

Earlier, it was revealed Mr Brown would consider giving day-to-day control of the NHS to an independent board.

Letting the Bank of England set interest rates was one of the most sensible decisions ever taken by the Blair government, but it was done mostly to prove that Labour was serious about the economy. And the precise power to give the Bank was clear-cut. The situation is completely different in the NHS, and elsewhere. This looks more like Brown trying to prove he is not a control freak, rather than a serious policy announcement.

Date published: 2006/09/22

Richard Branson wants to invest in energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sir Richard Branson is to invest $3bn (£1.6bn) to fight global warming.

The Virgin boss said he would commit all profits from his travel firms, such as airline Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains, over the next 10 years.

"We must rapidly wean ourselves off our dependence on coal and fossil fuels," Sir Richard said.

The funds will be invested in schemes to develop new renewable energy technologies, through an investment unit called Virgin Fuels.

One of the UK's best known entrepreneurs, Sir Richard made the announcement in New York on the second day of the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual conference hosted by former US President Bill Clinton.

Sir Richard, 56, said that transport and energy companies "must be at the forefront of developing environmentally friendly business strategies".

Well this was perhaps a PR exercise more than anything else, but at least he is putting (or says he is going to put) some money where his mouth is. Of course the so-called environmentalists don't like Branson, because he runs an airline, but most people want to be able to fly, and Branson is on the side of the people on this one, unlike the so-called environmentalists (who of course themselves are more than happy to fly, it's just that they think the ordinary people should not be allowed to).

Biofuel has a downside (permanent blog link)

Jeff McNeely (IUCN), on the BBC says:

With soaring oil prices, and debates raging on how to reduce carbon emissions to slow climate change, many are looking to biofuels as a renewable and clean source of energy.

The European Union recently has issued a directive calling for biofuels to meet 5.75% of transportation fuel needs by 2010. Germany and France have announced they intend to meet the target well before the deadline; California intends going still further.

This is a classic "good news-bad news" story.

Of course we all want greater energy security, and helping achieve the goals (however weak) of the Kyoto Protocol is surely a good thing.

However, biofuels - made by producing ethanol, an alcohol fuel made from maize, sugar cane, or other plant matter - may be a penny wise but pound foolish way of doing so.

Consider the following:

Little wonder that many are calling biofuels "deforestation diesel", the opposite of the environmentally friendly fuel that all are seeking.

With so much farmland already taking the form of monoculture, with all that implies for wildlife, do we really want to create more diversity-stripped desert?

Others are worried about the impacts of biofuels on food prices, which will affect especially the poor who already spend a large proportion of their income on food.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. All energy sources (even solar and wind) have concomittant problems. But although biofuels have plenty of problems (as stated), they are probably going to be part of the "solution" to the energy supply in the medium term, along with a whole mix of other sources.

Date published: 2006/09/21

California tries to extort billions of dollars from the rest of the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The state of California is suing six carmakers for costs associated with their cars' greenhouse gas emissions.

The suit names General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Chrysler and Nissan.

California is asking for "monetary compensation" for the damage which it says their emissions are doing to health, economy and environment.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), a pan-industry body, called it a "nuisance" suit and suggested it may be dismissed
State lawyers want any judgement for damages to be ongoing, so that manufacturers will be liable every year.
The lawsuit, lodged on behalf of the Californian people by state attorney-general Bill Lockyer, alleges that emissions from cars made by the firms in question account for 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions in California.

The complaint alleges that the firms' activities have harmed the state's environmental health, with California having to spend million of dollars responding to environmental threats such as coastal erosion.

Mr Lockyer said he had not put a figure of the level of damages he was seeking but that it was likely to run into "hundreds of millions of dollars".

Politicians taking the piss (as usual). No mention is made of the fact that cars make a huge contribution (probably billions of dollars per year) to the California economy (e.g. allowing people to get to work and to shop). And if cars are so evil then California should just ban them. Period. Or put a whacking great tax on gasoline (petrol). But of course these dreadful politicians don't want to do that, since that would cost California residents some money and be inconvenient. What they are trying to do instead is to extort money from the people of the rest of the world (since that is where this money would mostly eventually have to come from, when you follow the money trail). This is a combination of cynical grandstanding and attempted racketeering.

UK housing is expensive (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Growing numbers of people are being squeezed out of the housing market while first-time buyers find themselves very stretched, research has concluded.

Inadequate affordable housing, rising repossessions and failure to apply for housing benefit were serious concerns, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said.

Its research found that a third of all working households with occupants under 40 cannot afford to buy property.
The amount of money that first-time buyers are having to set aside for mortgage repayments as a percentage of their monthly salary has risen to its highest level since 1990.

Who would have thought it. Why is money being wasted on this kind of trivially obvious, and therefore pointless, "research"? As the report itself points out, we are not at a unique situation, this has happened all before, at the end of one of the previous house price bubbles. Young people since the beginning of time have had a hard time affording to buy a property. The most fundamental problem in the UK housing market currently is supply of building land. There is plenty of land, but the UK ruling elite (including the sort of people that write these reports) refuse to let most of it be built upon. This by itself pushes up house prices, and is one thing sustaining the current house price bubble.

Date published: 2006/09/20

Bush blathers at the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has defended his policies on the Middle East at the annual UN General Assembly gathering of world leaders in New York.

Mr Bush said democracy was gaining ground in the region and terrorists were being marginalised.
On the Middle East, Mr Bush rejected criticism that his policies were destabilising the region: "This argument rests on a false assumption - that the Middle East was stable to begin with."

He said recent elections showed that democracy was progressing in many countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

"A world beyond terror where the extremists are marginalised by the peaceful majority" was within reach, the US president said.

Bush ever the comedian. You can just about negate any statement he makes and get closer to the truth. When others claim that his policies have (patently) destabilised the Middle East, that is not to say that the Middle East was stable in the first place. Making a bad situation worse is not a great claim to fame, especially when it costs a few trillion dollars to do so. And since he is responsible for more death and destruction than almost anyone else this century, he carries no moral authority on international affairs. (Of course the century is young, and worse leaders are bound to follow.)

Lib Dems play games on education (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Schools should be given cash incentives to take underperforming children, says Lib Dem education chief Sarah Teather.

Ms Teather told Lib Dem delegates more funds should be targeted at children who underachieve, rather than just focusing money on deprived areas.

The "pupil premium" could encourage good schools to take on challenging children rather than leaving them to go to "sink schools", she said.
She said: "We have to break the link between poverty and poor achievement at school".

She might as well have said that "we have to break the link between gravity and falling down". Well, it depends on what you mean by "underperforming children" (most kids in "deprived areas" could probably be classified as such). And it depends how much money you are willing to throw at the situation. Back in the real world, no government spends anywhere nearly enough, or could afford to spend nearly enough, money to make the education of the vast majority of British kids anything other than ordinary. And the Lib Dems are just playing cynical games to pretend otherwise. What they are proposing is to shuffle the deck so some different random selection of a minority of students is helped, while the vast majority of students are ignored, as now.

Date published: 2006/09/19

Lib Dem conference votes to crucify car drivers and air passengers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has won a crunch vote on his tax plans at the party's conference in Brighton.
Sir Menzies said he was "pleased" after he Lib Dem leadership saw off an attempt to stop the party dropping its previous pledge for a 50p top tax rate.

Delegates also approved plans to use new taxes on "gas-guzzling" cars and aviation to pay for income tax cuts.
The package is meant to have no overall effect on tax revenues.

But critics question whether there will be a black hole in the sums if the green taxes do succeed in changing people's polluting behaviour - something Lib Dem officials deny.

Of course "there will be a black hole in the sums if the [so-called] green taxes do succeed in changing people's polluting behaviour". Campbell admitted as much on television tonight. But he seems to be relying on the behaviour changing slowly and then when it does change (if it ever does) the Lib Dems would then introduce some other whacking great stealth tax to make up the difference. This is cynical politics. And of course one of their two targets, car drivers, are the only group in Britain who already pay a carbon tax, yet they are supposed to pay even more tax. And plenty of sources of carbon (e.g. domestic gas and electricty consumers) get off for free. The main principle of a carbon tax should be that if you produce a certain amount of carbon you pay the same tax no matter how you produce it. It should not be up to the control freaks in the government to decide that certain sources of carbon are somehow allegedly worse than others and therefore are subject to an extortionate tax rate whereas other sources are somehow allegedly holy and therefore have a low (near zero) tax rate. Hopefully the Lib Dems will not be part of any government in the near future. Not that the Tories are much better. And Labour under Gordon Brown will probably be similarly inane.

MPs produce report on bioenergy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British policies on bioenergy from plants and other natural materials lack ambition and clarity, MPs have said.

The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efracom) says the UK is lagging behind other countries.

It urges the government to look beyond its existing 5% target for biofuels in road transport, and promote bioenergy for heating homes and aviation.

However, it says that wide adoption of currently available biofuels could have serious consequences for wildlife.
Biofuels made from crops such as wheat and rape are currently the most viable alternative to conventional petrol and diesel for road transport.

Like other bioenergy crops, their adoption would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when they burn, but absorb it as they grow.

But land for growing them could quickly become scarce, Efracom concludes. Moving beyond the existing 5% target for road transport would, it says, have "serious land use implications".

The diversity of plants and animals would also be threatened.

The committee suggests that if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels for transport may not be the best option.

Using the same land to grow plants which would be burned to produce heat or electricity or both could yield better returns, it feels.
The report is optimistic too about "second generation" technologies which could take organic waste such as wood chips, chicken litter, or straw and either burn them or convert them into other fuels.

It notes with particular interest that kerosene could be produced this way for use in aviation, currently the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Most reports produced by MPs are just hot air and are quickly ignored and forgotten. This one is likely to prove to be no exception. But at least they are willing to point out that bioenergy is not a "free lunch" (well of course no energy source is).

Temperature in England has risen over the last 50 years (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Temperatures in central England are about 1C higher than in the 1950s, and humanity's greenhouse gas emissions are the reason, a new study indicates.

Researchers at the Meteorological Office analysed temperature records going back almost 350 years.

In 1950, the average temperature was about 9.4C; now it is about 10.4C.
The Central England Temperature (CET) record dates back to 1659, and is the longest continuous series of temperature measurements made by instruments anywhere in the world.

Currently, measurements are made at Pershore, Rothamsted and Stonyhurst, and then averaged.

Since the 1950s, CET has risen by about 1C - more than the global average, but less than the increase recorded in parts of the world thought to be particularly sensitive to climate disruption such as the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic Peninsula.

David Karoly (now at the University of Oklahoma) and Peter Stott of the Hadley Centre, part of the UK Met Office, used a recent computer model of climate to work out the chance that this rise was part of a natural cycle.

The probability was, they calculated, less than 5%.

Writing in the journal Atmospheric Science Letters, they conclude: "Hence, the observed annual mean warming trend over the last 50 years is very unlikely to be due to natural internal climate variability alone."

The researchers found that when they introduced into the model the factor of "anthropogenic forcing" - greenhouse gases produced by industry, transport and other human activities - the model reproduced the observed temperatures.

Nothing really new here, although the quantification is worthwhile. It's unfortunate that so much time and effort is wasted on trying to prove that mankind affects the climate, rather than on technical research about the way forward.

Date published: 2006/09/18

US observations (permanent blog link)

Yes, Americans drive big cars, every other one seems to be a black SUV. But the recent "high" price of gas (although falling this month) seems to have half-awoken the American car companies, so much so that Hummer was running adverts on television proclaiming how energy efficient one of their models was (yeah, right). Given their love of cars, it's amazing that the speed limit on (non-urban) highways is only 65 mph (a legacy of the 1970s oil crisis), so lower than the equivalent speed limits in Europe. And you certainly notice the lower limit when travelling the vast distances between cities in the US. Slow and boring.

Americans seem to be even more obsessed with health than with cars. Every other advertisement on television was for some medicine or other, offering a "solution" for practically every known ailment. Only being America, which is the lawsuit capital of the world, the ads have to list all possible side effects and cautions ("do not take if ...", "see your doctor if ...", etc.). All rather pointless since none of those warnings would stop any lawsuit.

Heathrow Airport is rather dysfunctional. But American airports seem to be far, far worse. Is Boston's Logan Airport the worst of them all? The tunnel connecting the airport to the turnpike (Route 90) is still closed in one direction (after a partial tunnel collapse in one of the Big Dig tunnels, the Big Dig being perhaps the worst public sector project of all time). The road loop around the airport is confusing (at best). Beware trying to let someone off at one of the terminals and then going to park at the central car park. That central car park is permanently under repair, and just finding your way from the car park to the terminals is an adventure by itself. Etc. Washington's Dulles Airport is better but not by much. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) people who now seem to control these airports do not help. The security checks are all rather perfunctory and played by the book, rather than being sensible or making anyone safe.

Cambridge Matters (permanent blog link)

Cambridge City Council publises a regular magazine about recycling called "Cambridge Matters". Issue 7 (Autumn 2006) has arrived. Most of it is the usual patronising cheerleading beloved of government bureaucrats. As part of the pro-recycling propaganda they state (page 5):

Everyone knows that recycling and reducing waste is better than throwing things away, but did you know that they also help to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the following ways?

Unfortunately this is mostly the usual pro-recycling narrow focus on only one part of the picture instead of looking at the whole system. It is hardly a great victory for the world if less energy is required in one part of a process and more energy is required in another part. In particular, the statements above completely ignore the cost of collecting and processing the material. For example, Cambridge City Council has a special collection (every two weeks) just for plastic bottles. This involves a huge amount of energy expenditure. The bottles then get shipped to China. What happens to them there is anybody's guess. Whether the total energy (and emission) balance sheet is positive relative to just putting plastic bottles in the ordinary waste (also collected every two weeks) is never stated. Even with glass and tin cans it is not obvious whether recycling is good or bad. (If it was such a great idea then a private company could make good money running the scheme.)

Date published: 2006/09/02

Financial Times gets it right about carbon taxes (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times (FT) has a weekend edition. Today's version has three main stories on the front page, one about whether Blair will announce when he will go (yawn), one about City of London "professionals" allegedly turning to drink because of the pressure of work (the poor dears), and one about West Ham football club (not the greatest football club in the world). So the front page is all gossip, and no news. This does not bode well. But most weekend newspapers are more full of gossip than news.

Fortunately the FT makes up for this poor start with an unusually balanced editorial (leader), "Greener than thou" (subscription service) about carbon taxes. They point out, for example, that if green taxes really make consumers change behaviour (which is what they allegedly are for), then the amount of tax will soon enough drop as consumption decreases. This is one of the stupidities (but by no means the only one) behind the recent Lib Dem proposal (which the Tories seem destined to copy) to charge extortionate road fund taxes for allegedly un-green cars. If people start buying smaller cars (as the Lib Dems allegedly want) then this leaves a black hole in the government's finances.

Unfortunately the best part of the editorial is the last paragraph, in particular the last sentence (this is unfortunate because not many people read editorials through to the end):

More generally, green taxes need to move beyond targeting the motorist. In the UK, fuel duties and vehicle excise duties have together brought in nearly £30bn; the climate change levy and the air passenger duty collectively bring in less than £2bn. Domestic fuel even enjoys a relative subsidy, with a lower rate of value-added tax than most products. It is a polluting, badly aimed way to help poorer households. Carbon is carbon, and should be taxed similarly whether it is from the kitchen, an SUV or Drax power station.

The ruling elite of the UK generally just want to extort more and more tax from motorists (recently allegedly for "green" reasons). But motorists are currently the only people who pay a carbon tax, nobody else does. As the FT says, "carbon is carbon, and should be taxed similarly whether it is from the kitchen, an SUV or Drax power station".

Date published: 2006/09/01

Cameron wants a 3% annual reduction in greenhouse gases (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron has joined environmental campaigners in calling for a law on climate change to be promised in the next Queen's speech. In a letter to Tony Blair, green groups are pressing for legislation that would set targets for 3% annual cuts in greenhouse gases across the UK economy.
The UK is unlikely to meet its target of reducing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010, but could reach a cut of 15-18% by then, a government report earlier this year said.

The government set the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2010 when it came to power in 1997.

At a news conference in Devon with Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper, Mr Cameron said climate change was the biggest challenge facing the world and politicians had to work together.

Binding targets on cutting carbon emissions every year from now until 2050 would take that issue out of politicsm he argued.

"Then you can really ask politicians what are you going to do to achieve those targets," he said.

Yes Mr Cameron, "what are you going to do to achieve these targets"? Will you and your cabinet colleagues stop their airplane junkets all over the world? Will you stop the massive (indirect) emission subsidies given to London commuters? Will you double the average power bills of households so that a suitable carbon tax is paid? And what will a Tory government do if the target is missed in a given year, will you shut down a power station at Christmas and let the country sit back in the dark (while you are sitting on a beach in Australia)?

A reduction of 3% per annum from today (i.e. 2006) means a reduction of 11% by 2010 (from today), a reduction of 35% by 2020 and a reduction of 74% by 2050. It's possible but not that likely (except that the British economy might have gone seriously south by then for other reasons, and of course that is one way to achieve the targets, just kill the economy, which seems to be the favoured method of the so-called environmentalists).

NASA awards contract for new spaceships (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Lockheed Martin Corporation will build the next US spaceship to take humans to the Moon.

Nasa has awarded a multi-billion-dollar contract to the group to develop the Orion vehicle, which will replace the space shuttle when it retires in 2010.

The agency is dropping the shuttle's winged, reusable design and is going back to the capsule-style ships that first carried Americans into orbit.

Lockheed Martin beat a joint bid from Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

The US space agency wants to fly the Orion vehicles no later than 2014. Initially, they will go to the International Space Station, but Nasa plans to send one to the Moon in 2020.

It took less than 9 years from the time JFK made his famous "moon landing" speech until the US made its first moon landing. Four decades later it will take getting on twice as long, even though, of course, it has been done already, so there is nothing that novel. That's progress.

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