Azara Blog: February 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/02/26

Federation of Tour Operators sues government over Air Passenger Duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Federation of Tour Operators (FTO) has launched a legal challenge to Air Passenger Duty (APD), which may mean it has to be withdrawn altogether.

The tax was doubled at the beginning of February and now ranges from £10 for an economy class short-haul flight to £80 for a first class long-haul flight.

The FTO says that the way the tax was doubled breached the Human Rights Act.

It also says that the government is not allowed to charge passengers for the right to leave a UK airport.

A Treasury spokesperson said: "The government is confident that APD is entirely legal and will robustly defend any challenge in the courts."

The FTO says that the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which has been part of EU law since 2004, only allows the government to make charges for providing a service - and that has to be related to the costs incurred.

If the tour operators are successful, the government may have to withdraw the tax and could also have to pay back more than £2bn that has been collected since 2004.

FTO Director General Andrew Cooper says: "Tour operators absorbing £50m of retrospective taxation is simply not an option."

He says the doubling of APD has had a disproportionate effect on tour operators, which, "unlike airlines, are largely precluded by law from passing on surcharges to customers who have already booked".

The legal challenge will argue that depriving tour operators of income to which they are entitled breaches their human rights.

Yes, the government was stupid and abusive of its power when it arbitrarily doubled the air passenger duty, and at the same time decided that people who had already paid for their tickets should be liable for the increased tax. Yes, the government was stupid and abusive. (And why does anyone think that Gordon Brown is such a great chancellor?) But to say this is a breach of human rights is a bit ridiculous. All government taxation policy is completely arbitrary, and all changes to tax policy announced by any government are completely arbitrary. That is unfortunately the rule of the game. Of course most people in the UK would be happy for the FTO to win its case, because the government was stupid and abusive. But the government will probably win the case.

Schools should allegedly not control their own admission (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

State schools should not control their own admissions because it increases the risk of cherry-picking of bright pupils, says an influential think-tank.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says allowing some schools to run admissions increases social segregation.

It says it would be fairer if local authorities ran all admissions, and all intakes were of mixed ability.

The government said schools should have an element of freedom on admissions.

City academies and some faith schools can administer admissions, within rules designed to stop selection.

IPPR director Nick Pearce said: "At the moment, schools that control their own admission arrangements are selecting their pupils, and our classrooms are more socially segregated than the local communities outside the school gates."

The IPPR wants local authorities to run admissions for all state secondary schools and says the allocation of places should be by "fair banding", under which intakes contain pupils across a range of different abilities.

This would mean a shared admissions system across a large number of schools.

The think-tank says that schools that act as their own admissions authorities are less representative of the social and ability mix of their local areas.

Although there are rules to stop schools selecting, it says that administering their own admissions lets schools operate a form of covert selection - allowing popular, oversubscribed schools to draw a more affluent intake.

It says its research shows that faith schools that operate within local education admissions systems are more representative of their neighbourhoods than those that run their own admissions.

It argues that faith schools should continue to give priority to children from their own religious community, but alongside fair banding.

All fairly obvious stuff, but still aiming for the wrong thing. Unfortunately the education policy of all the main political parties and most of the rest of the chattering classes seems to be an attempt to force middle class parents (excepting themselves of course) to send their children to sink schools, rather than make all schools better. Needless to say, middle class parents are not going to put up with that, and they can run rings around the half-wits that come up with these dreadful admission systems.

Date published: 2007/02/25

New lakes under Antarctica (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have discovered four giant lakes under the Antarctic ice.

Together the four are as big as Lake Vostok, the biggest body of water so far discovered in Antarctica.

Researchers say the newly found lakes appear to affect how rapidly ice is transported from the interior of the continent to the sea.

Writing in the journal Nature, they say that understanding the interaction of lakes and ice is crucial to forecasting the impacts of climate change.

The four lakes lie under the Recovery ice stream which brings ice from hundreds of kilometres inland into the Weddell Sea.

They were found using a combination of radar data gathered by satellite, and records of an expedition mounted to the area in the 1960s on which scientists had used a pioneering ice-penetrating radar.

Sub-glacial lakes create tell-tale shapes in the surface of the ice above, while readings taken through the ice had detected, in the words of the 1960s expedition, "a possible melt layer at the bottom of the ice-cap".

About 150 lakes have been discovered under the frozen Antarctic surface.

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in water under the Antarctic ice, for various reasons.

Biologists have been intrigued by the possibility of finding new organisms in ecosystems which may have been cut off from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

Climate scientists have become increasingly keen to understand the process of "accelerated melting", where lubrication of ice flows by water and the disintegration of ice shelves could speed up the transfer of ice to the sea.

The research team found that the Recovery stream accelerates significantly as it passes over the lakes.

Upstream of the lakes, it flows at two to three metres per year; after passing them, at about 50 metres per year.

Whether there is a link to climate change is another question. The lakes lie in the eastern portion of Antarctica, where evidence suggests the icecap may be gaining mass rather than losing it.

It is the west of the continent that primarily concerns climate researchers. Much of the Antarctic rock here lies below sea level, meaning that a warming of the oceans could lubricate ice flow on a significant scale.

But if sub-glacial lakes are affecting ice flow, that is something scientists will want to study further.

As this research team puts it: "The Recovery sub-glacial lakes and the associated Recovery ice stream tributaries have the potential greatly to affect the drainage of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and its influence on sea level rise in the near future."

Interesting stuff and it shows that fundamental discoveries about the planet still await to be made.

Iran says it will continue its nuclear programme (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iran will not go back on its controversial nuclear programme, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says.

A day before leading UN members discuss further sanctions against Tehran, he compared Iran's programme to a train with no brakes and no reverse gear.

The president's tone was echoed by a deputy foreign minister who said Iran was ready for any situation, even war.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said what Iran needed was not a reverse gear, but a stop button.

She also said she was prepared to meet Iranian officials if Iran stopped nuclear enrichment.

How generous of Rice. America (or its proxy Israel, on its behalf) will almost certainly attack Iran. Bush is losing one war and is extremely unpopular at home. Starting a new war and playing the patriotism card is a sure way to increase his popularity in the US, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, currently many Iranian citizens despise their own government and are actually pro-American. If Bush bombs Iran that will all change, and all Iranians will back their government.

Date published: 2007/02/24

Ministry of Defence concludes that psychic powers are bunk (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Ministry of Defence has defended a decision to carry out tests to find out whether psychic powers could be used to detect hidden objects.

The previously secret tests - conducted in 2002 - involved blind-folding volunteers and asking them about the contents of sealed brown envelopes.

Most subjects consistently failed to establish what was in the envelopes.

The MoD said the study was to assess claims made in academic circles and found the theories had "little value".

Revelations about the hitherto secret research is contained in a previously classified report released under the Freedom of Information Act.

During the tests, defence experts attempted to recruit 12 "known" psychics who had advertised their abilities on the internet.

However, when they all refused to take part in the research, "novice" volunteers were drafted in.

During the study, commercial researchers were contracted at a cost of £18,000 to test them to see if psychic ability existed and could be used for defence purposes.

Some 28% of those tested managed a close guess at the contents of the envelopes, which included pictures of a knife, Mother Teresa and an "Asian individual".

However, most subjects produced guesses that were not close to the correct answer and one subject even fell asleep while he tried to focus on the envelope's content.

The MoD refused to discuss the possible applications of psychic techniques, but said that the study had concluded there was "little value" in using "remote viewing" in the defence of the nation.

"The remote viewing study was conducted to assess claims made in some academic circles and to validate research carried out by other nations on psychic ability," said a spokeswoman.

She added: "The study concluded that remote viewing theories had little value to the MoD and was taken no further."

Well it is good to know that this report was classified, what would have happened to the security of Britain if Al Qaeda knew that our psychics could not defend us from the terrorist threat.

More seriously, although this was in some ways a waste of public money, perhaps the fact that the MOD showed that psychic theories are rubbish lends more credibility than if a bunch of academics had demonstrated it, especially since the MOD covered the result up, so obviously were not just out to rubbish the theories in the first place. Not that the charletans who promote the idea that we have psychic powers will be persuaded. (Not finding a positive result is not the same as proving a positive result cannot be there, blah, blah...)

BBC claims that London Olympics bill is now £9bn (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Opposition politicians have called for tighter control of spending for the 2012 London Olympics after the BBC revealed the cost could rise to £9bn.

The new figure is four times that set out in the city's bid for the Games - up from an initial figure of £2.35bn.
...
Costs have mounted since London won the right to host the games in July 2005.

In the wake of heavy criticism of the government's handling of the games, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell admitted to parliament in November that the cost of the Games would rise by £900m - 40% - to £3.3bn.

But the BBC has found that construction alone will equal that figure.

In addition, the BBC has learned that a £2bn construction contingency fund will be set aside, with regeneration costs of £1.8bn and a £1bn VAT bill taking the total higher.
...
Along with the 60% contingency added to the construction cost, the rise in commodity prices, adjustments to transport figures to reflect 2012 prices and a revised estimate for inflation on construction costs have led to the spiralling Olympic bill.

In addition, the land in the east end of London chosen for the site needs decontamination and major remedial work before it can be fit for the games.

The Treasury has also decided that the Olympic Development Authority will have to pay VAT.

While VAT is in effect paid to the Treasury, the cash initially still has to be found before it is reclaimed.

A contingency fund is (or should be) normal in any building work, so it's amazing it was not mentioned before now. And although most people work with much smaller contingencies than 60%, this is the government we are talking about, and 60% is probably optimistic.

On the other hand, the regeneration costs are not really the responsiblity of the Olympics, although somehow the ruling elite of Britain decided that the only way the regeneration could go ahead is if there were Olympic Games in that area. Go figure.

And the VAT could be a non-issue. The Treasury should have decided long before the bid was made that VAT was due. But given that it is now due, the question is who is going to pay that part of the bill. If it is the national government then the bill makes no difference because it is just the government paying itself. (Well, perhaps someone in the civil service gets a whacking great bonus if enough VAT is collected in a given year, so this might not be quite a zero sum game.) But if the London council tax payers have to foot the bill then the VAT is a straight transfer of money from London to the rest of the country. (Of course, the Olympics generally is a transfer of money the other way around.)

Date published: 2007/02/23

Dick Cheney admits that America does not have peaceful aims (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has expressed concern over China's military policies, saying they were at odds with the country's stated peaceful aims.

On a visit to Australia, he praised China's role in a nuclear deal with North Korea but criticised its military build-up and anti-satellite tests.

The American military budget is approximately equal in magnitude to the rest of the world combined. America has a military presence all over the world. America has a Star Wars program. Taking his logic to its obvious conclusion, America's vice president evidently thinks that America does not have peaceful aims.

Tony Blair emails 1.8 million road pricing opponents (permanent blog link)

There was an online petition asking the Prime Minister to "Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy". Tony Blair emails the 1.8 million people who "signed" the petition:

Thank you for taking the time to register your views about road pricing on the Downing Street website.

This petition was posted shortly before we published the Eddington Study, an independent review of Britain's transport network. This study set out long-term challenges and options for our transport network.

It made clear that congestion is a major problem to which there is no easy answer. One aspect of the study was highlighting how road pricing could provide a solution to these problems and that advances in technology put these plans within our reach. Of course it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible.

That is the backdrop to this issue. As my response makes clear, this is not about imposing "stealth taxes" or introducing "Big Brother" surveillance. This is a complex subject, which cannot be resolved without a thorough investigation of all the options, combined with a full and frank debate about the choices we face at a local and national level. That's why I hope this detailed response will address your concerns and set out how we intend to take this issue forward. I see this email as the beginning, not the end of the debate, and the links below provide an opportunity for you to take it further.

But let me be clear straight away: we have not made any decision about national road pricing. Indeed we are simply not yet in a position to do so. We are, for now, working with some local authorities that are interested in establishing local schemes to help address local congestion problems. Pricing is not being forced on any area, but any schemes would teach us more about how road pricing would work and inform decisions on a national scheme. And funds raised from these local schemes will be used to improve transport in those areas.

One thing I suspect we can all agree is that congestion is bad. It's bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment. That is why tackling congestion is a key priority for any Government.

Congestion is predicted to increase by 25% by 2015. This is being driven by economic prosperity. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997, and predictions are that this trend will continue.

Part of the solution is to improve public transport, and to make the most of the existing road network. We have more than doubled investment since 1997, spending £2.5 billion this year on buses and over £4 billion on trains - helping to explain why more people are using them than for decades. And we're committed to sustaining this investment, with over £140 billion of investment planned between now and 2015. We're also putting a great deal of effort into improving traffic flows - for example, over 1000 Highways Agency Traffic Officers now help to keep motorway traffic moving.

But all the evidence shows that improving public transport and tackling traffic bottlenecks will not by themselves prevent congestion getting worse. So we have a difficult choice to make about how we tackle the expected increase in congestion. This is a challenge that all political leaders have to face up to, and not just in the UK. For example, road pricing schemes are already in operation in Italy, Norway and Singapore, and others, such as the Netherlands, are developing schemes. Towns and cities across the world are looking at road pricing as a means of addressing congestion.

One option would be to allow congestion to grow unchecked. Given the forecast growth in traffic, doing nothing would mean that journeys within and between cities would take longer, and be less reliable. I think that would be bad for businesses, individuals and the environment. And the costs on us all will be real - congestion could cost an extra ££22 billion in wasted time in England by 2025, of which £10-12 billion would be the direct cost on businesses.

A second option would be to try to build our way out of congestion. We could, of course, add new lanes to our motorways, widen roads in our congested city centres, and build new routes across the countryside. Certainly in some places new capacity will be part of the story. That is why we are widening the M25, M1 and M62. But I think people agree that we cannot simply build more and more roads, particularly when the evidence suggests that traffic quickly grows to fill any new capacity.

Tackling congestion in this way would also be extremely costly, requiring substantial sums to be diverted from other services such as education and health, or increases in taxes. If I tell you that one mile of new motorway costs as much as £30m, you'll have an idea of the sums this approach would entail.

That is why I believe that at least we need to explore the contribution road pricing can make to tackling congestion. It would not be in anyone's interests, especially those of motorists, to slam the door shut on road pricing without exploring it further.

It has been calculated that a national scheme - as part of a wider package of measures - could cut congestion significantly through small changes in our overall travel patterns. But any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected - as it should be. Existing technologies, such as mobile phones and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, may well be able to play a role here, by ensuring that the Government doesn't hold information about where vehicles have been. But there may also be opportunities presented by developments in new technology. Just as new medical technology is changing the NHS, so there will be changes in the transport sector. Our aim is to relieve traffic jams, not create a "Big Brother" society.

I know many people's biggest worry about road pricing is that it will be a "stealth tax" on motorists. It won't. Road pricing is about tackling congestion.

Clearly if we decided to move towards a system of national road pricing, there could be a case for moving away from the current system of motoring taxation. This could mean that those who use their car less, or can travel at less congested times, in less congested areas, for example in rural areas, would benefit from lower motoring costs overall. Those who travel longer distances at peak times and in more congested areas would pay more. But those are decisions for the future. At this stage, when no firm decision has been taken as to whether we will move towards a national scheme, stories about possible costs are simply not credible, since they depend on so many variables yet to be investigated, never mind decided.

Before we take any decisions about a national pricing scheme, we know that we have to have a system that works. A system that respects our privacy as individuals. A system that is fair. I fully accept that we don't have all the answers yet. That is why we are not rushing headlong into a national road pricing scheme. Before we take any decisions there would be further consultations. The public will, of course, have their say, as will Parliament.

We want to continue this debate, so that we can build a consensus around the best way to reduce congestion, protect the environment and support our businesses. If you want to find out more, please visit the attached links to more detailed information, and which also give opportunities to engage in further debate.

Yours sincerely, Tony Blair

What can one say:

Dear Mr Blair,

Thank you for your email. It is up to the people proposing this vast new road tax to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it will be of benefit to the country. Most of the people promoting road pricing hate cars and/or will benefit financially from road pricing going ahead. So their analyses cannot be trusted. The government needs to hear advice from other people. The government should set up an independent committee to investigate road pricing, and other aspects of the UK road network. This committee should consist of people who want the road network to work (i.e. drivers), and not contain any people who want the road network not to work (i.e. Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth, etc.), and not contain any people who have a potential financial interest in road pricing (i.e. transport consultants).

Road pricing cannot be revenue neutral because of the huge cost of its implementation. Someone has to pay for that implementation and of course it is going to be drivers. So it will be yet another "stealth tax" whether anyone wants to deny this or not. Of course there is going to be some benefit, in that congestion would no doubt be reduced if the price is set high enough. So the purely economic question about road pricing is whether the cost of implementation will outweigh the benefit from reduced congestion. Governments of all parties have always underestimated costs of implementation of these big projects and always overestimated benefits. It is reasonable to assume that all costs estimated by government advisors (who remember have a financial interest in seeing road pricing going ahead) should be doubled and all estimates of benefits should be halved. This is why we need an independent committee, to ask the transport consultants the hard questions that they never get asked.

Further, this is ignoring the non-economic issues, which are almost all negative. For example, it is claimed that one of the benefits of road pricing is that road network usage will be optimised. What this means is that instead of having two rush hours, each lasting a couple of hours per day, we might instead end up having an almost continuous stream of traffic for more than half the day, as people are forced to change their driving times. Is this really what the country wants? A perpetual near rush hour.

And the people who mainly benefit from road pricing are the rich, and those who lose out are the poor. The rich will just pay the tax and continue to go about their business as usual. The poor will be forced to change their lifestyle. This societal inequality is never accounted for by economists.

And if there is road pricing the government will have every incentive to invest less and less in the road network, since the worse congestion is, the more tax that can be raised to "make it better".

And of course there is the issue of the government knowing where every vehicle in the country is at all times. No matter how much the government might like to pretend otherwise, this is data that will be accessible not only to government, but to businesses that process the data for government. The idea that this data will not be abused is ridiculous. The privacy of UK citizens will definitely be invaded. Do not pretend otherwise.

Finally, there is no point trying to play emotional blackmail with drivers. It is not up to drivers to fund education, the health service, etc. This already happens of course (since drivers pay much more in taxes than they get out in return). But the government should not assume that this is acceptable, since it is not. Services like health and education should be paid for from income tax. Other services, like so-called public transport, should be paid for by the user of these services. Why should ordinary drivers pay for rich London commuters to get to and from work by train? And the reason more motorways are not built is not the cost so much as the fact that the ruling elite has decided (under the influence of the so-called environmentalists) that more motorways should not be built.

Of course road pricing will be introduced. The ruling elite long ago decided this should happen.

Date published: 2007/02/22

DTI reducing amount of money given to UK research councils (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK science has become an unexpected victim of the Rover collapse as funds used to soften the impact of the failure were clawed back from research.

The Department for Trade and Industry said it faced financial pressures that required it to re-balance its spending.

Ongoing costs related to the loss of the Rover car company and the rescue package put together for British Energy were cited as causes for the shortfall.

It means £68m given to the UK Research Councils by the DTI will be taken back.

"The sum involved amounts to less than 1% of nearly £10bn awarded by government to science over the current three-year spending period," explained a spokesman.

"The science budget has more than doubled since 1997 to £3.4bn a year and, even in the light of this decision, it continues to rise year on year."

The money will come out of the pot the Research Councils use to buffer their own spending at the end of the year - money which can be carried forward if unspent.

The reality, however, said several senior scientists, was that such money is always spent eventually, and the claw-back would have real, negative results.

A bit of a disaster, and the consequence is that some jobs will go. The quote of less than 1% over three years is disingenuous, you might as well compare the figure over a hundred years. The point is the money has to be clawed back this year, and the real fall is 2% this year, which still sounds small, but is significant when you have a tight budget, as all research councils do.

Date published: 2007/02/21

When the rivers run dry (permanent blog link)

The second lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by Fred Pearce, a journalist from New Scientist, on "When the rivers run dry".

The lecture seemed to consist mainly of an endless stream of statistics about water supply and demand on the planet. Of course there is no point talking about something in a "sustainable development" series if you couldn't claim that the world was in deep trouble, and that was indeed the claim here. Forget about our carbon footprint, what we should be worrying about just as much is our water footprint.

So it seems that the average UK citizen drinks about 5 liters per day, and directly consumes about 150 liters of water per day (for flushing the toilet, washing, etc.). However this is dwarfed into insignificance compared to the water that is used in the creation of the goods that the UK imports. Pearce claimed that the average UK citizen indirectly consumes around 4000 or 5000 liters of water per day. This is mainly for agricultural goods (food and cotton). Apparently someone has decided to label this indirect consumption by the name of "virtual water".

Pearce claimed that the world could "sustainably" consume around 4000 liters of water per day. So the UK is just over the limit of what was "sustainable" if all the world consumed water at the UK level (which of course it does not).

Apparently (so says the UN) it takes around 500 liters of water to produce a kg of potatoes, 1000 liters for a kg of wheat, and 2000-5000 liters for a kg of rice. And around 11000 liters to produce the feed for cows to produce enough beef for one hamburger. Well, these figures are no doubt not that accurate, but they are quite amazing none the less.

The problem these days is that so much available water is being used to produce agricultural goods that many rivers are running dry, at least for much of the year. Apparently two thirds of the world water supply is used for irrigating crops. And this does not just affect the developing world. America is the world's biggest exporter of agriculture, and Pearce said that these exports account for about a third of US water consumption.

Back in the good old days, in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of the doomsayers claimed that not only would the world population double (which it has) but it would not be able to increase its food supply to match so that billions of people would die of starvation. Well the doomsayers were wrong about that one. There was a "green revolution" where better crop yields were achieved. Apparently these new crops could produce twice the food per acre but have used three times the water (never mind energy).

Of course most people these days worry about carbon emissions, but some worry about water, and it is often claimed, as Pearce did, that many of the major wars this century will be about water, not land or oil.

Well what is there to do. One option is to desalinate sea water. Another option is to build more storage areas (i.e. build dams) to protect against droughts and dry seasons, although this is controversial. Another option (which seems crazy) is to move water from where it is plentiful to where it is not. Another option is to use water more efficiently (it seems that a lot of water used in agriculture is wasted, mainly because it is not priced correctly). Another option is to have a "blue revolution" where crop varieties were bred to require less water. Some combination of these options will be forced on the world, since you cannot do without water, and the world population is still increasing.

Even in the UK we need to worry about our (direct) consumption of water, especially in the dry south-east. Pearce pointed out there were ways of re-using water that were not commonly done yet, and that the government should consider tightening the building regulations on this front, given how many houses it wants to add to the south-east. And many UK houses do not have water meters (so just pay an annual flat fee to cover their water consumption, independent of how much is actually consumed).

In the question and answer session, someone pointed out that if you take the figures that Pearce provided at face value, then whatever the UK does in its own backyard is largely irrelevant, since our direct (i.e. internal) water consumption is dwarfed by our indirect (i.e. external) water consumption. Pearce didn't seem to understand the question and didn't answer it.

Someone asked, in that regard, whether we should all be eating more British-grown food instead of imported food. At this point Pearce then admitted that the whole basis of calculating the water cycle was very complicated and it was difficult to actually do the sums properly. In particular, for example, all the water that is used to grow some crop is not lost to the planet, it just (possibly) ends up in differing locations to where it once would have gone, and perhaps more polluted.

As a related example, he said that in France the per capita water consumption was relatively high because it included the water needed to cool all their nuclear power plants. But most of that water was not lost, it just went back into its original source (somewhat warmer, which is a different problem). And some water used in growing agricultural crops might well have the same fate. Pearce said he could not quantify this issue, but of course it is crucial to understanding what the real problems are.

Some businesses want carbon emission targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An international grouping of corporate leaders has called on governments to take more action on climate change.

The Global Roundtable on Climate Change, which includes more than 80 big companies, says politicians need to agree new targets for carbon emissions.

Targets should be "scientifically informed", they say, and lead to pricing carbon in a global market as a route to cutting emissions.
...
While many business groups have called for political action on climate over the last few years, not all have sought binding targets on emissions.

Some have argued that voluntary actions are a better route.

But the Global Roundtable, which includes companies such as Air France, the aluminium giant Alcoa, re-insurers Swiss Re and Munich Re as well as energy companies Electricite de France and Centrica, is unequivocal in saying that politicians need to reach a new binding deal beyond the current Kyoto Protocol targets which expire in 2012.

Businesses like stability and a "level playing field" and so it is not unbelievable that many of them are happy enough to have carbon priced via some mechanism or other, especially if other taxes are reduced in compensation. Of course this could well still be a minority view amongst businesses.

Date published: 2007/02/20

House of Lords defeats government over Mental Health Bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has suffered three defeats in the House of Lords over plans to detain mental health patients who have not committed an offence.

The Mental Health Bill would allow people with severe personality disorders to be confined if judged a threat to themselves or others.

Peers voted that treatment could only be given if it is likely to help.

They also voted to remove some grounds for diagnosis and ensure more frequent examinations of detained patients.

Critics argue the bill is draconian and could prevent some people from coming forward to seek treatment.

This Mental Health Bill is perfectly in keeping with the Blair belief in the so-called precautionary principle, that if something is bad you do all you can to prevent it even if a lot of innocent people suffer. Here the idea is that some mentally ill people will attack other people, and to prevent this we need to lock up lots of mentally ill people because we don't know which ones will actually cause the problems. Well, with this excuse you might as well lock up all men between the age of 15 and 30 because they cause most crime. The only reason Blair gets away with this crazy approach is that everybody assumes it is someone else who will get swept up in the draconian dragnet. Fortunately on this front the House of Lords is a small counterweight to Blair.

EU environment ministers agree to cut emissions from 1990 levels by 20% by 2020 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU environment ministers have agreed in principle to cut greenhouse emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The ministers, meeting in Brussels, also agreed to seek a 30% cut worldwide if matched by other developed nations.

The proposals, outlined by the European Commission in January, are seen as a key measure to curb climate change.

The EU must still decide how to make cuts, allowing for a possible compromise with member states opposed to mandatory targets.

Hungary and Poland, who joined the EU in 2004, are said to have opposed the cuts.

Finland has also reportedly voiced opposition to the Commission's targets.

But German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said his country was prepared to go further and cut emissions by 40%.

You have to wonder if the citizens of Germany are so keen as is their Environment Minister on cutting emissions by 40%. More power to them if they can achieve it without destroying the German economy and without just exporting the emissions to another country. Britain already pledged to reduced emissions by 20%, and is currently expected to miss this target. And the devil is indeed in the detail, how will these cuts be made? One thing you can guarantee is that it is the ordinary people of the EU who will carry the can, not the EU ruling elite.

Wave power farm on Orkney (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scottish ministers have announced funding for what has been described as the world's biggest wave energy farm.

The Pelamis device has been tested at the European Marine Energy Centre (Emec) on Orkney by Leith-based company Ocean Power Delivery.

Scottish Power wants to commission four more at the same site.

Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen announced a £13m funding package that will also allow a number of other marine energy devices to be tested.

It's worth testing this technology (and other minority technologies) out, in order to see how competitive it will be with more mature technologies, such as wind power, on price and on environmental damage.

Date published: 2007/02/19

Christian Aid claims Britain's greenhouse gas emissions are much worse than stated (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Official greenhouse gas figures hugely underestimate Britain's contribution to climate change, a report concludes.

Christian Aid says adding in emissions from UK-funded operations in other countries would raise the UK's share of the global total from 2% to about 15%.

British companies wanted globalisation, it says, and must take responsibility for the associated emissions.

The charity is calling on the government to ensure that companies measure their emissions thoroughly.

"Our research reveals a truly staggering quantity of unreported carbon dioxide is emitted around the world by the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange," said Christian Aid's senior climate change analyst, Andrew Pendleton.

"The government should now oblige companies to report their emissions properly," he told the BBC News website. "In our view, this is a litmus test of how serious they are about climate change."

Working with the environmental research company Trucost, Christian Aid attempted to calculate emissions associated with FTSE-100 companies.

"While only 2.13% of the world's CO2 emissions emanate from the UK's domestic economy," says the report, entitled Coming Clean, "through the process of globalisation, CO2 is emitted around the world on Britain's behalf, in China, India, Africa and elsewhere.

"Britain's apparently light carbon footprint rapidly begins to assume a much greater profile when worldwide investments made with British money, through the mighty City of London, are taken into account."

About one thing Christian Aid is correct. Official greenhouse gas figures are not correct because they completely ignore trade. But the way Christian Aid wants to go about calculating the correct figures is equally nonsensical. In particular, anyone who thinks that the UK is responsible for 15% of emissions has no credibility (if we were that rich we would all be living in palaces). The problem is that Christian Aid wants to make the figures look as bad as possible, rather than doing a serious analysis.

The worldwide investments of the UK are not by themselves a good proxy for emissions (especially the way that Christian Aid has done it, with such a silly result). What you should really be counting is the emissions created to make the goods and services that the UK consumes, minus those that the UK makes on someone else's behalf, with some contribution from investments (but both ways, in and out) because they represent deferred consumption. This is a non-trivial calculation to make. Almost certainly today you will come up with approximately the same answer as, but slightly higher than, the official 2% figure. But in future, as the EU requires a reduction in the official, but not unofficial, emissions for EU countries, the official and unofficial figures can be expected to diverge markably.

Some EU ministers want the EU to reduce emissions by 30% by 2020 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

All EU nations must back proposals to cut harmful emissions by 30% by 2020 or risk jeopardising the global effort to curb climate change, warn ministers.

The call for unity among the 27-nation bloc was made by the UK Environment Secretary, David Miliband, and his Spanish and Slovenian counterparts.

Failure to act would threaten efforts to get nations such as the US and China to agree to cap emissions, they said.

EU environment ministers will discuss the proposals at a meeting on Tuesday.

In an article on the BBC News website, the ministers wrote: "We all know that the current Kyoto deal does not go far enough.

"If we are going to avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change... then the EU must stand up and lead the debate on committing to further action."

They called for all members to endorse the proposals outlined by the European Commission in its strategic energy review.

The review, published in January, called for an international commitment among developed nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The current target for the UK is 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (relative to 1990 levels). And not many people believe the UK will even hit that target, on current form. So any British minister who is seriously suggesting that the UK should aim for an even higher 30% reduction should at least give some indication where and how he expects the approximately 1% reduction per year from today to happen. What will UK airplane emissions be in 2020 relative to today? What about road transport? What about rail transport? What about domestic energy consumption (electricity and gas)? What about industry? And for the latter, is the UK just going to reduce its nominal emissions by moving more of its consumption of industrial goods off-shore? (That would not be a real reduction in emissions, just a slick accounting reduction in emissions.) Any minister who cannot give a believable analysis of where the cuts are going to come from and how they will be achieved should not be taken seriously.

Scientists watn fishing fleet subsidies to end (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fuel subsidies that allow fishing fleets to "plunder" the deep seas should be scrapped, claim a group of leading international scientists.

They said more than $150m (£80m) was paid to trawler fleets, promoting overfishing of unviable resources.

In particular danger were slow-growing deep-sea fish and coral species caught by bottom trawling, they argued.

2006 UN talks failed to implement a ban on the method, which uses heavy nets and crushing rollers on the sea floor.

"Eliminating global subsidies would render these fleets economically unviable and would relieve tremendous pressure on overfishing and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems," said Dr Rashid Sumaila, of the University of British Columbia.

Eleven nations have bottom-trawling fleets, with Spain's being the biggest.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia estimate that without subsidies, these fleets would operate at a loss of $50m (£27m) annually.

Most of the subsidies were for fuel, the marine researchers said, which allows the trawlers to travel far out to sea and drag the heavy nets needed for bottom-trawling.

"There is surely a better way for governments to spend money than by paying subsidies to a fleet that burns 1.1 billion litres of fuel annually to maintain paltry catches of old-growth fish," said Dr Daniel Pauly, one of the researchers who has looked at the issue.

Japan, South Korea, Russia, Australia and France are amongst the other countries that subside their trawlers.

Sure, no industry should receive subsidies. Cut off all subsidies to fishing, agriculture, public transport, etc. Let everybody stand on their own two legs. What a great idea. Only it will never happen, because everybody always has their own pet reasons why such and such a subsidy should be given. And if some trawlers managed to make money even without these subsidies, would the scientists be happy for the damage to continue? No, of course not, so their argument is not only impractical, it is asking for someone to call their bluff. The real point is that these fishing fleets are causing direct damage to the ocean ecosystem which they are not paying for, and the fuel subsidies they are receiving are a but a fraction of this substantive damage.

Date published: 2007/02/18

Blair is supposedly going to send an email to anti-road-pricing petitioners (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair is to send an e-mail to the million-plus people behind an online petition against road pricing telling them it is "surely part of the answer".

Mr Blair told the Observer he did not expect to win critics over at once, but a useful debate had been started.

The petition calls the policy "sinister and wrong" and warns the charge would be unfair to those who live away from their families, and poorer people

The petition was so popular that at one point it crashed the PM's website.

It appears on a new section of Downing Street's website which was set up in November last year to allow anyone to address and deliver a petition directly to the Prime Minister.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander has accused the organisers of the petition on the 10 Downing Street website of spreading "myths" and pledged to press ahead with plans to pilot the scheme.
...
The Observer reported that the government was considering introducing road pricing on a voluntary basis initially.

Under plans suggested by the RAC Foundation, drivers who choose to have satellite-tracking equipment to measure how far and where they travel could be given discounts on other motoring taxes.

One scheme is for people to pay their tolls at the fuel pump in return for discounts on petrol duty.

Hopefully Blair, or some of his flunkies, will read the many replies he will no doubt get to his email. (Or will Downing Street use a non-returnable email address?)

Alexander, unable to mount any real reply to the petition, has talked about the organisers "spreading myths", but he has yet to point out which "myths" he is talking about.

And if the road pricing is initially "voluntary", then the government will definitely lose money on it. Drivers who pay more on fuel duty than they would on road pricing (e.g. because they have large cars or live in rural areas) will opt for the latter, and vice versa for other drivers. So the tax take will go down. And on top of that there is the massive cost of implementing and running the road pricing scheme. So the net revenue to the government will go way down. Any civil servant can figure that one out, so presumably this idea will never happen.

Local councils seem not to want to be forced to have "pay-as-you-throw" charges (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Councils in England and Wales have urged the government not to force them to adopt a "pay-as-you-throw" charging scheme on household rubbish.

The Local Government Association says decisions on whether to charge people for the amount of rubbish they generate should be left to each authority.

The environment department, Defra, said no decision had been made on whether to allow variable charges.

If allowed, councils would decide what worked best for each area, it said.

Charges based on the amount of rubbish left by households are common in other parts of Europe and are proven to encourage more recycling.

Sure it increases the recycling rate if recycled goods are not charged for and other waste is. But it also would no doubt increase the dumping rate. And not many people are going to clear up the odd bit of rubbish from their street any more (why pay extra just to be a good citizen). And why should recycled waste itself not incur a cost? What is it about the ruling elite of Europe that they think recycling is so holy? (And by recycling they mean handing over waste in tidy parcels so that the State can industrially process it back into some other form to then be re-used.)

Date published: 2007/02/17

Kensington and Chelsea protests against so-called congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of drivers have taken part in an anti-congestion charge protest in London in a last-ditch attempt to stop the western extension of the zone.

Organised by the West London Residents Association, the go-slow began at Addison Road, in Kensington.

Protesters argue the £8 charge, being introduced from Monday, will damage businesses and cost residents hundreds of pounds a year.

But Transport for London believes congestion will be cut by 15%.

TfL also claims the number of vehicles will be reduced by 10 to 15% once the charge is introduced.

The zone will expand west from central London on Monday to include Kensington and Chelsea.
...
A TfL spokesman said: "The central London congestion charge has worked. Since the introduction of the charge in 2003, traffic levels have been reduced in the central zone by 20%."

He said this meant that each day in 2006 there were almost 70,000 fewer vehicles entering the charging zone compared with the daily figure before charging began.

Mr Livingstone said congestion charging had cut pollution and CO2 levels and improved safety for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as increasing the reliability of buses.

If the citizens of London don't like the so-called congestion charge then they can just vote the bum out. As it is, nobody is going to feel very sorry for the (mainly rich) citizens of Kensington and Chelsea. Indeed, some of them will benefit because they will now be able to drive in the original charged area at a 90% discount.

On the other hand, TfL is a typically dishonest government organisation. They can't even call their tax by what it is, an access charge (once you pay your fee you can cause as much congestion as you like; and buses and taxis pay no charge, although they are responsible for much of the congestion). And although they trumpet the obvious fact that less vehicles enter the charged zones, they fail to say what has happened to these vehicles. Have drivers just moved the traffic elsewhere (and so in total ended up causing if anything more pollution)? Have they just given up on doing their business, so decreased the London economy? Have they just taken the bus? What is the actual total impact (on the UK, no just on the centre of London)?

If Livingstone has shown one thing, it is that the ruling elite can successfully screw ordinary drivers, which is a taste of things to come.

Former mayor of Cambridge laughingly accused of being anti-gay (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A former Cambridge Major has demanded an apology after being accused of "heterosexism". John Hipkin, a Liberal Democrat, says he is enraged and distressed by the complaint which came after he demanded more homes to built for families.

"Family homes can be built for gay people with children," he said.

The council's equal opportunities officer took up the complaint after it was lodged by the Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual Group.

Mr Hipkin, who has a gay brother, said that he took "deep exception" to the allegation that his comments had been discriminatory.

"The government is demanding that 47,000 homes be built in the Cambridge sub-region by 2016.

"My only point is that we must make provision for families, too.

"Yet by saying it, I get accused of being homophobic with the only mitigating factor being that I don't consciously know I am."

Heterosexism is the unintentional discrimination towards or against non-heterosexuals due to cultural bias.

The Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual Group, which represents members on the council, was unavailable for comment on Saturday.

Unbelievable, you cannot say anything in public any more without some group or other getting hysterical about it. If the Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual Group think that Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual people cannot be part of a family then they are the ones who are being discriminatory against non-heterosexuals. Everybody with half a brain cell knew what Hipkin was complaining about, namely that these days they are building almost nothing but flats and tonka-toy houses in Cambridge, which is not what most people want, it just happens to maximise developer profit. (And worse, a lot of the new builds are just aimed at London commuters. Why is Cambridge building houses for Londoners?) The Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual Group should grow up.

Date published: 2007/02/16

International politicians make some agreement on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Leading international politicians have reached a new agreement on tackling climate change, at a Washington summit.

Delegates agreed that developing countries would also have to meet targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as rich countries.

The informal meeting also agreed that a global market should be formed to cap and trade carbon dioxide emissions.

The non-binding declaration is seen as vital in influencing a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, correspondents say.

The forum's closing statement said man-made climate change was now "beyond doubt".

"Climate change is a global issue and there is an obligation on us all to take action, in line with our capabilities and historic responsibilities," said the statement from the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (Globe).

The two-day meeting brought together legislators from countries including the Group of Eight rich nations, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.

Well let's see if anything comes of it. Needless to say, the people at this meeting were some of the richest on the planet, and are responsible for far more carbon emissions than almost anyone else on the planet, but they will not be the ones to suffer, no matter what happens.

Although the BBC report does not say so, apparently the delegates also agreed that 550 ppmv of CO2 was the "stabilisation" level the world should be aiming not to go beyond. (We are currently at around 380 ppmv, compared with pre-industrial levels of around 315 ppmv.) Today in Cambridge there was a meeting about climate change at the Scott Polar Institute (it was called "Debating the Evidence" although there was little in the way of a debate). One of the speakers, Myles Allen, from Oxford University, said there was no great evidence that 550 ppmv was a level we could live with, and that the only reason scientists now seem to be pushing this line is that something drastic needs to be claimed in order for politicians to do something, anything (otherwise we will end up far beyond 550). It's lucky there were no politicians around to hear that one.

Cameron tries to take political advantage from three dead teenagers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has called for more powers to "compel" fathers to look after their children in an effort to tackle gang culture.

He said he backed tax breaks to help families stay together and promoting a "culture of responsibility and respecting authority".

The comments follow the fatal shootings of three London teenagers.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair said the killings were not "a metaphor for the state of British society".

Mr Cameron called for a "complete change in our values".

He said: "I believe in marriage. I believe in people making a commitment to each other and staying together and trying to bring up their children properly."

Children were often attracted to gangs if they lacked a father figure, he added.

Mr Cameron said: "We have got to sit up and realise we are running things by the wrong values. We need to support families."

New Labour is on the rocks (mainly because of Iraq) and this is the best that the Tories can come up with. The media love the fatal shootings because they death and destruction sells copy. But with Poisson statistics you are always going to get the occasional bunching of events, it means absolutely nothing. So for Cameron to jump on this bandwagon is pathetic. (He even claimed that "our society is badly broken". Right, it's amazing anyone can get to work or the shops without being shot.)

At least the interviewer on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning had one decent question to ask Cameron. Allegedly drugs are part of the reason gangs are allegedly such a problem, and the interviewer wanted to know what the difference was between a poor kid in a gang using drugs and being condemned for it, and some rich kid at Eton (i.e. Cameron) taking drugs and brushing it off twenty or twenty five years later as a youthful indescretion. Unbelievable that anyone had the nerve to ask that question. Of course Cameron had no real answer. Evidently moral strictures are for the little people. (And can you imagine anyone asking Bush such a pointed question?)

And onto the idea that Cameron "believes in marriage". Fine, he is married. The question is whether he wants to give tax breaks to married people just for being married. It seems that yes, he does. Does Cameron think that unmarried partners are scum? Does Cameron think that single people are scum? It seems that yes, he does. Of course people with children (married or not) already get loads of State subsidies, including free schooling. It's not yet clear (since he never answers a question straight) how much money Cameron wants to throw at people just for being married, and how much more money he wants to throw at people just for having (young) children.

Date published: 2007/02/15

Humans and the Global Carbon Cycle: A Faustian Bargain (permanent blog link)

There was a talk this afternoon at New Hall by Berrien Moore, from the Institute for the study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire, about "Humans and the Global Carbon Cycle: A Faustian Bargain" (part of the Environment on the Edge series). He showed some standard slides that always come up in the climate change debate, with numbers attached. For example, with the carbon cycle, the atmosphere has around 750 gigatonnes of carbon in it, humans produce about 5.5 (well now more like 7) gigatonnes of carbon per year, etc. He showed the standard CO2 concentrations measured by David Keeling from 1958-2005 at the Mauna Loa observatory (it's an almost straight line going upwards when you average out the small, mainly annual, fluctuations). He showed some of the standard slides of temperature over the last thousand and more years. He showed some of the standard slides about the Arctic ice disappearing.

Of course all the evidence points to fossil fuel burning as leading to the increased atmospheric CO2, and the problem is not the CO2 per se, but the consequences of having so much in the atmosphere, which usually goes under the name of global warming. So the talk was pretty much the usual litany.

He did mention that in the most recent IPCC reports, they had a prediction of a rise in average surface temperature of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees C by 2100, and that around half of that uncertainty was down to not knowing what future carbon emissions would be like, and about half was down to model uncertainty, which is interesting.

Of course there are a lot of feedback systems in the carbon cycle. Presumably many of them are negative, because our climate is fairly stable. But the big worries for him were the potential positive feedback mechanisms. For example, the oceans are estimated to store around 38100 gigatonnes of carbon, which dwarfs the 750 in the atmosphere. As temperature rises, the solubility of CO2 in water decreases. So that by itself is of course a possible serious positive feedback mechanism.

His bottom line, like most climate scientists, is that even if we stabilised CO2 emissions at (say) 2000 levels, the atmospheric concentration would continue to rise. The only way to avoid that is to actually reduce emission levels. Well, most people seem to recognise that, it's just a question of how one goes about that.

In the question and answer session his opinions were fleshed out a bit more. For example, he claimed he was not so worried about the increase in temperature per se than in the effect on water (e.g. desertification, etc.) (After all, as he joked, in the US, Arizona is attracting many more new citizens than New England. So many people seem to prefer it hotter. Well, that is because they can air condition away the heat in summer.)

Someone asked about whether people would do anything before it was too late, because the worst consequences would not happen before it was too late to prevent it getting even worse. His take on that was that people had to do something, which of course is then down to political leadership. As he said, knowledge about what is going to happen is not the rate-limiting step. (That is one of the problems with the current debate. Far too much time is spent on trying to "prove" that humans are responsible for the increase in temperature. Far more time should be spent on trying to figure out what to do about it.)

Someone asked about nuclear power and he said he would seriously consider using it, even though he was once opposed to one in his backyard. One of the standard lines of people who are now considering nuclear power is that France, which gets much of its electricity from nuclear, has one of the lowest emissions per capita of any developed nation (about a third of the US). Of course the zealots (and Cambridge is full of them) would have nothing to do with nuclear power.

Someone asked about population. We are now 6 billion and we are allegedly headed for 9 billion by mid-century. He said that someone had recently quipped to him that the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions was to reduce the population. And of course this is true, but it is also the one thing that most people refuse to address. Many European governments practically bribe their citizens to have as many children as possible. Of course most of the population increase is happening in the poor world, but they are also responsible for far fewer emissions per capita.

Someone asked about carbon credits (e.g. you pay someone to plant a few trees when you fly). He said he was not totally opposed to them (since in theory they reduce the carbon in the atmosphere) but he was philosophically queasy about them. (It seems like too good a thing. You can continue with life as normal as long as you can afford to pay a tax associated with it.) He said everyone should take personal responsibility for their carbon emissions. Well that is a bit of a meaningless statement. Everybody who was in the room to hear the lecture is far, far richer than the average citizen of the world and so is responsible (directly or indirectly) for far, far more emissions. And although lots of the academic middle class like to wring their hands on the subject, in truth the best way to reduce your carbon emissions is to become poor (well, and not have children), and none of them are volunteering to do that.

Someone asked whether we would have to go back to a pre-industrial age. His take on that was no. Somehow we would figure out how to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. And we would even be better off than now when we did. Well, that sounds like a bit too much wishful thinking. And it would be a big disaster for so-called environmentalists if mankind found a cheapish, cleanish source of energy, because it would mean we were even more capable than ever of changing the environment as we saw fit.

Judge throws out UK government's nuclear power plans (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A High Court judge has ordered a rethink of the government's nuclear power plans, after a legal challenge by environmental campaigners Greenpeace.

A judge ruled that the consultation process before making the decision last year had been "misleading", "seriously flawed" and "procedurally unfair".

Greenpeace said the ministers should "go back to the drawing board".

Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said the government would re-consult, but still favoured nuclear power.

He told the BBC they could appeal but accepted the judge's ruling and would consult again, although there was "a race against time" with climate change.

There was also the need to ensure the UK was not overly-reliant on imports of oil and gas, he said.

Mr Darling said "counter views" would be taken into consideration, but "on a matter so important as climate change it just isn't possible to stand back and say: 'We don't have any views'".

The government also stressed that the judge's ruling was on the "process of consultation, not the principle of nuclear power".

Greenpeace's Emma Gibson told the BBC: "The government's so-called consultation was a sham and we are very pleased the judge has agreed with us on that.

"If Tony Blair wants to continue with his misguided plan for a whole new generation of nuclear power stations, the government will have to go back to the drawing board."

In some ways the government deserves what it got for running such a cynical public consultation in the first place. But they are the government, and they should be able to do what they want (subject to it being passed by Parliament) without first having to get approval from the unacccountable middle class control freaks (such as Greenpeace and the judge). And if there is anybody more cynical than the government, it is Greenpeace. They do not care about the public consultation either (except that it offers them a platform to grandstand, which is their strong point). What they really just want is to stop nuclear power and they will use any tactic to achieve their goal. The big losers are the UK taxpayer, who will have to hand over more millions of pounds to dozens of overpaid and useless lawyers and consultants, all in the name of a fatuous public consultation. This is a perfect example of how dysfunctional UK public life is. Not enough money gets spent on science and engineering. Far too much gets spent on middle class chatterboxes.

Department for Transport not meeting its targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Department for Transport is not meeting most of its targets and lacks a "clear strategy" to put it right, a committee of MPs has concluded.

Targets for congestion, air quality, public transport and carbon dioxide emissions, are being missed, it said.

Of seven targets, the department was meeting only two, for road safety and rail punctuality, the report claimed.

The DfT said it did not agree with the committee's findings, but recognised there was still work to do.

Commons transport committee chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody said: "This is a terrible picture of failure."
...
Ms Dunwoody also said road pricing would not solve all the problems of the road network, and public transport had to be improved and made more affordable as well.

The DfT was also accused of not "pulling its weight" on tackling climate change and improving air quality - which should be made a priority.

The Commons transport committee comes out with these kind of reports every few months. The one thing they seem not to have asked here is whether the targets make any sense. Dunwoody, along with most of the rest of the ruling elite, believe that the solution to all transport problems is to screw car drivers and to throw ever more public money at so-called public transport (which is so wonderfully "sustainable" that it needs whacking great public subsidies in order to sustain it). You would think MPs actually had more important things to do than write such vacuous reports.

Date published: 2007/02/14

Feeling insecure is allegedly bad for the immune system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Feeling insecure in a relationship may take its toll on the immune system, Italian research suggests.

A study of 61 healthy women, showed that those who struggled to form close, trusting relationships may have weaker immune function.

Blood tests revealed that the women's "natural killer" immune system cells did not function as well.

However, the study in Psychosomatic Medicine could not show if this made the women more susceptible to illness.

A classic case of confusing correlation and causation. The second paragraph could equally have been written as: "A study of 61 healthy women showed that those who have weaker immune function may struggle to form close, trusting relationships". Nobody knows which slant on the story is correct (assuming either are) because the "research" has only demonstrated a correlation, not a causation. The reason they get away with the slant they have proposed is that everybody believes it to be true. But this "research" provides no evidence one way or the other. And they only had 61 women in the study, which is hardly a large number. All in all, it's unbelievable that the BBC just publishes this kind of stuff without question. Of course it's Valentine's Day and perhaps the BBC felt it needed to have some angle on this.

Date published: 2007/02/13

Buying flowers from Africa is allegedly environmentally friendly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Romantics in the UK should woo their loved ones with flowers imported from Africa rather than those grown in Europe, a minister is expected to say.

International Development Secretary Hilary Benn will ask consumers to aid "social justice" on Valentine's Day.

Importing African flowers is better for the environment as they are not grown in heated greenhouses, he will add.

The European Federation of Professional Florist Associations called Mr Benn's argument "very strange".

The minister will tell a sustainable food conference that emissions produced by growing flowers in Kenya and flying them to the UK can be less than a fifth of those grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in Holland.

He will say: "People want to buy ethically and do their bit for climate change, but often don't realise that they can support developing countries and reduce carbon emissions.

"Recent research shows that flowers flown from Africa can use less energy overall than those produced in Europe because they're not grown in heated greenhouses.

"So, this Valentine's day, you can be a romantic, reduce your environmental impact and help make poverty history.

"This is about social justice and making it easier, not harder, for African people to make a decent living."

Mr Benn said: "Climate change is hugely important to the future of developed and developing countries but if we boycott goods flown from Africa we deny the poor the chance to grow; their chance to educate their children and stay healthy."

It is estimated that almost a third of the UK's imported flowers come from Kenya, with about 70,000 people, most of them women, working on the country's flower farms.

The European Federation of Professional Florist Associations general secretary Toine Zwitserlood told BBC News: "What he [Mr Benn] is not doing is looking at the big picture.

"The big picture is not only energy; it's other things like child labour and how employees are treated on farms.

"Our employment standards in Europe are high."

He added: "There is also the question of what is done with waste.

"I think we could make a case for moving many industries to Africa and stop all our agriculture because it's cheaper to produce elsewhere, but where do you stop?

"It's a very strange argument Mr Benn is using."

Well it is useful that Benn is at least pointing out that many environmental calculations are not necessarily obvious. The current dogma of the ruling elite, egged on by the so-called environmentalists, is that flying goods by air is evil. But like on so many other issues, the ruling elite is wrong. On the other hand, Benn is not very bright picking on a sector of the UK economy just so that he can patronise the citizens of Africa. New Labour has probably just lost another few thousand votes (and gained none), for no good reason.

Of course Benn could also have pointed out the obvious fact that cut flowers are rather pointless, and that instead of throwing money at dead plants, people could instead buy something more permanent. That is even more environmentally friendly than flying in flowers from Africa. But it still loses the votes of the UK florists, for no good reason.

And Zwitserlood is correct that Benn "is not looking at the big picture". To do the sums correctly you have to take account of all the indirect subsidies that both sides receive (e.g. because of waste disposal, non-taxation of airplane fuel, taxation generally, etc.). Unfortunately doing the sums correctly is difficult, and anybody doing them will almost certainly not admit that the error bars are huge, and also usually has an axe to grind, so cannot be trusted. The bottom line is that EU citizens should not listen to the ruling elite and instead just do what they themselves think is best.

To further illustrate the complications, EU wages are obviously higher than in Africa. These wages in turn represent an additional, indirect, consumption of energy. This indirect consumption is always ignored in calculations about how allegedly environmentally friendly so-called public transport is, but it should not be. And indeed, if for some reason you wanted to do a brute-force reduction of European energy consumption, then hammering the wages of its citizens would be a way to do it. But is that what we really want? Not many people would say yes (except perhaps many so-called environmentalists, who think Europeans consume too much).

New flight paths and stacking areas allegedly bad for Cambridgeshire (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridgeshire skies could be crammed full of planes if plans to create two new flight paths and stacking areas get the go-ahead.

Stacking areas, allowing up to four planes to circle while waiting for a landing slot, would feed Stansted, Luton and London City airports.

It is not yet known exactly where in Cambridgeshire the flight paths and stacking areas would go.

Today (Tuesday, 13 February), Coun Sebastian Kindersley, who represents villages directly underneath one possible site, said the idea was "frightful". Coun John Reynolds, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said the authority had already voiced its concerns.

Both said there was a direct link with the Government's support for a second runway at Stansted.

Laurence Wragg, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), warned people on the ground could be breathing in kerosene fumes and CO2.

If the plans go ahead thousands of residents could have their rural quiet shattered by the noise of jet engines and more air pollution.

Coun Kindersley, Gamlingay, said:

"It's frightful. One of the areas they are looking at is the border between Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire - exactly where I live and the villages I represent.

"We already have positioning of planes for Stansted and Luton while they are getting ready to start their descent, although they're already pretty low by that time to go into their respective airports. So we are already suffering. If we get jets stacking above us it's going to be very busy and we suffer quite badly from aircraft noise.

We don't want it."

Nats, the company that manages Britain's air traffic control systems is behind the scheme.

The number of flights over the UK is expected to double from 2.4 million a year to five million in 2030. Britain's 15 air corridors will be used more heavily and four new flight paths are being proposed altogether.

Coun Reynolds said the county council felt it was far more important to improve road and rail networks than increase flight path capacity and was concerned the move would pave the way for the expansion of Stansted.
...
Mr Wragg, chairman of both the CPRE's aviation advisory committee and the East of England region, said:

"Sometimes aeroplanes dump fuel, although they say they do not, and that makes pollution even worse. It's always harmful - we do not want to have to breathe in kerosene fumes and CO2, it's not good for us."

A perfect example of pathetic NIMBYism if ever there was. Hopefully all the people that are reacting hysterically to this proposal will agree that they will never, ever, ever fly anywhere under any condition. Or is it ok that they are in planes above someone else's house but nobody is allowed to fly above their house? The CPRE person is particularly ridiculous, since although a high level of CO2 is bad for you, airplanes flying above you in the sky will not get you anywhere near that limit. And fresh air, for example, is around 300 ppm CO2 (by volume), so perhaps the CPRE will attack fresh air in the near future. Hopefully central government will treat these people's complaints with the derision they deserve.

EU parliament votes for binding waste targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Members of the European Parliament have voted for binding targets to reduce the amount of waste produced in the EU.

The parliament said production of waste should be stabilised at 2008 levels by 2012, and scaled back by 2020.

MEPs also said 50% of municipal waste and 70% of industrial waste should be recycled by the same 2020 deadline.

Each EU citizen produces more than 500kg of waste per year, with recycling rates varying from below 10% to above 50% in some countries.

Member states are expected to fight the parliament's proposals, but MEPs say the vote at least allows an important debate to begin.

"We are going to work very hard to sell it to the member states," said British MEP Caroline Jackson, who is guiding the legislation through the parliament.

"This is what our voters expect - they expect to be told not to produce so much waste."

The vote came as MEPs gave a first reading to a revised version of the EU's Waste Framework Directive, first adopted in 1975.

The European Commission, which put forward the revised directive in 2005, does not favour binding limits on waste production.

MEPs also modified the commission's proposal to allow incineration of waste to be classified as "recovery" rather than "disposal" when the incinerator is an efficient source of energy.

They accepted the principle that incineration could count as recovery, but did not define how energy-efficient the process needed to be in order to qualify.
...
Opponents of incineration say that it wastes materials that can be re-used, and creates greenhouse gases.

Advocates say it would apply to materials that cannot be recycled, would result in the consumption of less fossil fuel, and prevent waste going to landfill sites where it produces methane - a very powerful greenhouse gas.
...
If, as expected, governments reject binding waste prevention and recycling targets, the two sides will attempt to reach a compromise in a process known as conciliation.

Caroline Jackson said the recycling targets might be "unrealistic" but they provided something to aim at.

However, she said there were signals that the member states may accept another amendment introduced by the parliament, proposing a five-stage waste hierarchy.

This ranks waste treatment in the following order, from best to worst:

Caroline Jackson said this did not impose firm obligations on member states, but would establish a "general rule or guiding principle" which could shape the next 50 years of waste management.

The European Parliament is mainly a talking shop for the comfortable middle class who have little real-life experience (except how to fill out expense claim forms), who like to control freak over the rest of society (witness the hilarious claim that EU citizens are just dying "to be told not to produce so much waste"), and indeed who themselves create far, far more waste than your average EU citizen. So nobody needs patronising lectures from them.

On the other hand, the current EU waste directives focus totally on the recycling percentage, implying that it doesn't matter how much waste you create, as long as you "recycle" enough of it (i.e. hand it over to the State in tidy parcels so that they can industrially process it). This is nonsensical for various reasons. So addressing this stupidity makes sense.

But what faith can you have in the MEP do-gooders? Especially when the lead person on this issue admits that "the recycling targets might be 'unrealistic'". And a ten-year old could have listed the "five-stage waste hierarchy", we don't need overpaid and underachieving MEPs to spell out the obvious. And if the baseline is 2008, they are just saying that EU citizens should create as much waste as possible in 2008 in order to be able to more easily hit the later targets. And do these targets take account of population change, economic growth, etc.?

Date published: 2007/02/12

UK transport secretary says nothing to justify road pricing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The transport secretary has pledged to listen to opponents of the introduction of UK road charging.

Douglas Alexander said he will hear the concerns of more than a million people who signed a petition opposing pay-as-you-drive road charges.

The government has insisted that doing nothing would lead to a 25% increase in congestion in less than a decade.

But Mr Alexander said it was important to have a proper debate on the subject and consider a range of views.
...
When asked if he would take into account the views of those who signed the petition, Mr Alexander told the BBC that the government would "listen to people".

It was important to "deliberate, discuss" and then take a decision, he said.

"Ultimately, it will be a matter for parliament to make decisions but it is important that people have the chance to have their say and no doubt people will offer a range of opinions during that debate."

He added that people needed to recognise that the UK did not have a choice "but to deal with congestion".

"Our roads are literally filling up," he said.

The prime minister's official spokesman said it was a "lively debate" but that "debate in itself does not produce policy".

But Labour MP John Spellar told the BBC's Today programme that the government was too busy looking at the "big idea" to see the "small boring details" that would provide the real solutions to congestion.

He said flexible working hours, staggered school opening, improved traffic signals and the use of the hard shoulder on motorways would have a significant impact on congestion.

"The big idea doesn't have public acceptance," he said.

This morning on Today, the alleged flagship programme on Radio 4, they conduced a surreal interview with Douglas Alexander. It was very similar in flavour to the old Monty Python sketch where you can pay to have an argument but the whole argument is about whether or not you have had an argument. Alexander keeps calling for a debate but there was no debate on Today, just posturing about a debate. And similarly, on the BBC website "Have Your Say" section, the question was whether there should be a debate about road pricing, not about what were the pluses and minuses of road pricing.

John Spellar was the only person on the Today programme who said anything sensible, and that was in spite of, not because of the interviewer. In Cambridge you can always tell when it is half-term in schools, because the morning rush hour suddenly becomes very quiet. Allowing parents to put their kids in pretty much any school they want, and the hysterical media coverage about how vulnerable kids allegedly are to murderers, rapists, child molesters and car drivers, has meant that more and more kids are driven to school.

The reason the BBC is having trouble with this story is that most of the people who work for the BBC hate cars (except those that they themselves drive of course). Indeed, most of the ruling elite of Britain (most of the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, most transport planners, much of the major media including the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4 News, as well as the BBC) hate cars (except those that they themselves drive of course). Given this background, it is hardly surprising that there has been no debate about road pricing. The philosophy of these people is that car drivers (at least other, especially poorer, car drivers) should be screwed, and whatever policy does that is fine by them, however little or much it makes sense. And transport planners have a direct financial interest in seeing road pricing going ahead (it means they have a lucrative job for life, implementing the scheme), so the government receives no independent advice on the subject.

There is one good reason for road pricing. Roads are an economic resource, and (in theory) putting a price on it means that it will be most efficiently used. Unfortunately for the car-hating pro-road-pricing zealots, there are many negative points about road pricing. For one thing it is extremely expensive to implement. Unless by some miracle the road pricing so improves congestion as to more than make up for this cost, the net "benefit" to UK Plc will be negative. (Of course transport planners claim this benefit is higher than the cost, but because of their vested interest one should take their claimed benefits and halve the figure, and take their alleged costs and double the figure.)

Further, road pricing means that society is saying that rich people have more right to be independently mobile than poor people. This seriously negative social consequence is never costed by the economists who are happy to promote the latest attempt to put a price on everything.

Further, if we are supposedly pricing roads to promote their efficient use, then roads in rural areas that are hardly ever used should also be priced, because their cost (in particular their maintenance) is not fully paid for by the people who use them.

Further, if congestion is the real enemy, then everything that leads to congestion should pay a tax, including buses (which are much worse than cars since they keep starting and stopping and obstructing the rest of the traffic), bicycles (since they get in the way of everybody) and indeed even pedestrians (since by using pedestrian lights and zebra crossings they cause other traffic to flow less optimally).

Further, one of the big problems with road pricing is that the government will have every incentive to make the roads worse. The worse they are, the higher the tax they can collect. Indeed, in Cambridge the local council has already deliberately decreased road capacity (out of car hatred rather than financial benefit) and the consequences have been massively increased congestion. (Of course they blame drivers rather than themselves, as the ruling elite always do.) (And they have made other stupid decisions which have not helped, such as dumping more and more retail in a very congested area.)

Further, with road pricing as it will (soon enough) be implemented, the government will be able to permanently track the movement of every vehicle in the UK. The government might be silly enough to trust itself with this data, but no sensible citizen would trust any government on this score (not only because the government is incompetent and will let the data be stolen by unscrupulous people, but also because the government itself is unscrupulous).

Unbelievably, when Alexander says that "something must be done", nobody in the media has bothered to suggest that perhaps more road capacity should be introduced. It has become a staple of the so-called environmentalist lobby that there is no point in building more roads because they will just be filled. Well, if you provide 1950s capacity for the UK road network (e.g. the A14 near Cambridge) then it is not too surprising that increasing the capacity to 1980s levels in 2015 might have this effect. And of course when the UK hits the situation that everybody is in a car getting to work (and we are not that far off that today) then adding more road capacity will not lead to increased road usage. And it is amazing how dreadful it is deemed to be that giving the citizens what they want, and then them using it, is considered to be a sign of bad governance.

The UK ruling elite is fundamentally incapable of considering road pricing from anything other than a prejudiced point of view. So there will be no real debate on the issue, just hollow platitudes about a debate.

Terminally ill woman asks for the right to die (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A 30-year-old terminally ill woman is to launch a legal battle to force doctors to allow her to die.

Kelly Taylor, from Bristol, who has been given less than a year to live, wants doctors to increase her medication to induce a coma-like state.

Mrs Taylor, who has heart and lung and spinal conditions, has also made a "living will" asking doctors not to provide artificial food or hydration.

Her doctors have refused her requests, saying it amounts to euthanasia.

Mrs Taylor's lawyers plan to use part of the European Convention on Human Rights which bans "inhuman or degrading treatment" to argue in the High Court that she should not be refused steps which will end her life.

A full hearing has been scheduled for the end of March.

But the British Medical Association said that giving morphine with the deliberate intention of ending someone's life was "unlawful and unethical".

A brave woman who for now has to put up with the control freaks who run society thinking that they have the right to torture people, all in the name of prolonging the quantity, but not quality, of life. Of course day in and day out doctors are prefectly happy to use morphine in a way which leads to people being killed, only they think that only they should be allowed to make this judgement and heaven forbid if a patient has the temerity to suggest that perhaps she instead should be the one who decides on the way her life ends.

Date published: 2007/02/11

Small spat over Putin's remarks about the US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

So will the 43rd Munich Security Conference be remembered as the start of a new Cold War?

That is probably the single most important question to emerge from this long weekend of speeches and private chats among the world's most powerful.

Certainly Russian President Vladimir Putin's strident speech stands out from the crowd.

In it, to recap, he strongly criticised the US and its European allies, with his harshest criticism reserved for Washington.

The US had, he said, overstepped its borders in every way, seeking to impose its will on the world.

But Washington has clearly decided to politely brush aside Mr Putin's remarks rather than to escalate tensions with Russia.

Making his first appearance at the conference as the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates tried to deflate President Putin's attack by poking a bit of fun at their past careers as spies.

"As an old Cold Warrior," he said, "one of yesterday's speakers almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost.

" Many of you have backgrounds in diplomacy or politics. I have, like your second speaker yesterday, a starkly different background - a career in the spy business.

"And, I guess, old spies have a habit of blunt speaking"

Mr Gates bluntly said there was no new Cold War and that the US certainly did not want one.

Rather, he said, it sought Russia's partnership.

Overall though, Mr Gates's performance will surely be remembered for it being very unlike his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld - the man the conference used to love to hate.

Clearly hoping to reach out to America's European allies he acknowledged that the US had made mistakes in the last few years and that it needed to work on restoring its reputation as a force for good in the world.

Like most countries, America likes to view itself as a force of good. Needless to say that has not been the case the last four years. So it's fair enough that Putin points this out, since nobody else on the international stage has bothered to. America likes to lecture the world, so the world should have the right to lecture the US. Of course Putin himself is not the world's best leader, but that is another issue.

And the BBC should not let itself get so suckered by Gates. He might be a reasonable person (although words count for little), but his boss (Bush) and many of the people at the top of the current US administration (e.g. Cheney) are not reasonable, indeed they are fundamentally nasty, dishonest and disreputable. And needless to say, these people have more power and influence than Gates does.

Date published: 2007/02/10

Anti-road-pricing petition hits a million "signatures" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than one million people have signed an online petition against plans to introduce road charging in the UK.

The petition, which is the most popular on the Downing Street website, calls for the scrapping of "planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy".

But No 10 has insisted that doing nothing would lead to a 25% increase in congestion "in less than a decade".

The petition was posted by Peter Roberts, from Telford, Shropshire, who said it was an "unfair tax".

Mr Roberts - whose petition broke through the million signature-barrier by 1045 GMT on Saturday - believes charging is unfair on poor people and those who live apart from their families.

He said the numbers signing his petition were "unprecedented".
...
The next-most popular transport petition on the Downing Street website has little more than 5,000 signatures.
...
Plans to introduce a nationwide "pay-as-you-drive" system were unveiled by former Transport Secretary Alistair Darling in 2005.

Mr Darling's successor, Douglas Alexander, has since suggested that road pricing could be brought in within a decade.

He said the scale of the response to the petition showed more debate was needed on congestion charging for motorists.

"The response to this petition makes the case for more debate, not less, on the issue of road pricing," he told the Times.

"It makes me more determined to debate the real issues about how we tackle growing congestion.

"I understand there are strong feelings on this issue but strong feelings alone are no substitute for considering how we tackle the challenge of congestion."

According to Edmund King of the RAC Foundation, the government needed to rethink its strategy.

"They need to be setting up a scheme overseen by an independent body, they need to guarantee that there will be other tax reductions on fuel tax or vehicle excise duty and they need to guarantee that the road network will be improved," he said.

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the petition "misrepresents the case for road user pricing".

But he said it showed the government needed to be open with people about their plans.

"If the public feels that road user pricing is just another cash cow for the Treasury, then it will meet stiff resistance, and a real opportunity to reduce congestion will be missed," he said.

It is just weird how some things take off. The Downing Street website is full of petitions (anyone can create one) but most of them get (literally) only a few "signatures". Of course drivers are the most exploited tax resource in the country, so it's not that surprising that a lot of them are pissed off that the government is proposing to hammer them even more in future. (And no matter what the propagandists say, this is not going to be a revenue neutral tax because the cost of running a road pricing scheme is massive, and drivers will have to pay for that, to start with.)

Douglas Alexander is rather taking the piss. The government has no interest in a "debate". They have made no attempt to justify their lack of investment in roads (in comparison to how much tax that drivers pay). Indeed, their introduction of a congestion tax could encourage them to make the road system even worse, because the worse they make it, the more money they can raise from a congestion tax. And the government has given no indication that they will listen to any arguments against road pricing. They will introduce it no matter what, so any "debate" is fatuous.

If there is one thing you can guarantee, the congestion tax will indeed be used as "just another cash cow for the Treasury". And if anyone is taking the piss more than Alexander, it is Alistair Carmichael and the rest of the Lib Dems. Their entire transport policy seems to resolve around screwing car drivers and airplane passengers. Any car driver voting for the Lib Dems might as well hit their head with a hammer.

Of course economists love road pricing, since they believe everything should have a price. Unfortunately they don't know how to value things like societal solidarity, where poor people have just as much right to be on the roads as rich people. Road pricing is just an expensive way of removing poor people from the roads so that rich people can get about more easily.

UK hits two gigawatts of operational wind power capacity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK has become only the seventh nation in the world to have more than two gigawatts (GW) of operational wind power capacity.

The milestone was passed on Friday when the Braes O'Doune wind farm, near Stirling, began producing electricity.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling described it as a "major landmark" for the UK wind industry.

The government has set a target for 10% of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2010.
...
Latest government figures show that 4.2% of the UK's electricity is generated by renewables, including wind, solar, hydro and biomass.

Onshore wind farms have proved to be controversial, with a number of high-profile projects facing fierce opposition from local residents.

Plans to create England's largest wind farm in Cumbria were thrown out last March after campaigners said it would ruin the landscape of the Lake District.

The £55m development would have seen 27 turbines, each 115 metres (377ft) high, erected at Whinash, near Kendal.

And proposals to create one of Europe's largest onshore wind farms on Lewis, the most northerly Hebridean island, have been challenged by wildlife groups.

They say the 181-turbine development will harm important peat bog habitat, and threaten wild bird populations.

However, local councillors on Thursday backed the £500m project, although a final decision on whether the scheme can go ahead is likely to be made by the Scottish Executive.

Despite having some of the best wind resources in Europe, the UK is still a long way behind the world's leading nation on wind power.

Germany has more than 20GW of wind energy capacity, 10 times as much as the UK.

Wind power is not the carbon free miracle that its proponents always seem to claim (e.g. you have to build, install and maintain the kit) and it has some other negative environmental consequences (e.g. birds get killed, and there are probably other unforseen problems that will not be discovered for many years), but for the UK, wind power makes more sense than a lot of the alternatives (e.g. solar and nuclear).

Barack Obama officially launches presidential campaign (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Democratic Senator Barack Obama has launched his presidential campaign with a speech in which he pledged to "build a more hopeful America".

He began his official campaign with a call for the Iraq war to end, saying US troops must withdraw by March 2008.

Mr Obama, 45, is considered by many to be the first African-American candidate with a realistic chance of winning.

He, along with Senator Hillary Clinton, is leading the race for the Democratic Party's nomination for the 2008 vote.
...
Though undoubtedly ambitious and charismatic, with relatively little national experience and formidable opponents, including Mrs Clinton, many question whether he can really secure the Democratic nomination, and whether he has the depth of policy to match.

He sounds good and he looks good. (The only reasons he is being considered at all.) But is there any substance? And does he have any decent advisors? Time will tell.

Date published: 2007/02/09

Richard Branson sets up "competition" to remove CO2 from atmosphere (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Millions of pounds are on offer for the person who comes up with the best way of removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson launched the competition today in London alongside former US vice-president Al Gore.
...
Overseeing the innovations are James Hansen, head of the Nasa Institute for Space Studies, the inventor of Gaia theory James Lovelock, UK environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell and Australian conservationist Tim Flannery.

They are looking for a method that will remove at least one billion tonnes of carbon per year from the atmosphere.

A gimmick perhaps, but good for Branson, at least he is putting some money where his mouth is.

Date published: 2007/02/08

There are allegedly too many accidental injuries to children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government's record on preventing accidental injuries to children is a "disgrace", watchdogs have said.

Two million children a year visit A&E because they have been hurt in an accident, the Audit Commission said.

And not enough has been done to tackle the problem, which is thought to cost the NHS £149m a year.

The report, produced with the Healthcare Commission, found "shocking" inequalities in rates of accidents in children from poor families.

Injuries such as those caused by burns, falling down the stairs and poisoning are a leading cause of death and illness in those aged one to 14 years old.

In recent years the number of deaths from accidents in children has fallen, according to the joint report.

The health and safety control freaks are out in full force again. Trying to abolish accidents is almost akin to trying to abolish gravity. Sack these useless "watchdogs" and spend the money on something useful.

BA plans to ripoff customers with more than one checked-in bag (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British Airways (BA) is planning to add up to £240 to the cost of a return long-haul flight if passengers want to check in an extra bag.

Travellers on shorter international trips will face a bill of £120 and those on domestic journeys, £60.

Analysts said the tactic allowed BA to cover costs - and possibly to ease its move to Heathrow Terminal 5 next year.

Yet BA said it would make exceptions for passengers who "cannot comfortably carry" one heavy bag.

Until now, customers have been allowed to check in more than one bag as long as they did not exceed weight restrictions.

Some commentators said the change could damage BA's image as a full-service carrier.

The fees, which apply from Tuesday, 13 February, will be imposed even if the combined weight of the two bags is below the allowance.

However, passengers will be able to carry one piece of sporting equipment free of charge.

From 30 September, the maximum weight of a bag that can be checked-in free of charge will be 23kg - down from the current limit of 32kg.

In a statement on its website, BA said the new system aimed for a "single allowance system based on the number of bags that can be checked in".

"Our vision for London Heathrow Terminal 5 is to create the best possible airport experience before you fly," it said.

The BA statement is the usual nonsensical corporate speak which means the exact opposite of what it says. It's interesting that "the best possible airport experience" means worse service conditions. Why would anyone ever fly BA if they had a reasonable alternative? They make Ryanair look jolly good.

Date published: 2007/02/07

The Promise of Energy Biosciences (permanent blog link)

The first lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by Steven Koonin, Chief Scientist of BP, on "The Promise of energy biosciences". Koonin has spent most of his life in academia, culminating as Provost at Caltech. In 2004 BP headhunted him to become their Chief Scientist. Now most Americans with substantial jobs, including those high up in academia, tend to be corporate types, and Koonin was a refreshing exception to that.

His talk was mainly about how the world might be able to replace fossil fuels, and in particular oil, in road transport. He quickly went through the usual arguments about supply and demand. His take on "peak oil" was that "the world was not running out of crude oil any time soon". Some people, even inside BP, might not be so optimistic, but that was not the real issue at hand in his talk in any case.

The two main concerns to do with fuel supply now are security (the countries that have oil are unstable and not very nice) and climate change (the world will end if carbon emissions continue to grow). He claimed that biofuels ("advanced" ones, not the ones we have today) would be the main way to get around both concerns. (The so-called Hydrogen economy would be even better, only it is decades away at best.)

He mentioned that hydrocarbons are hard to beat for how much energy you got per unit volume and weight, which of course is why the world uses them for transport. For example he claimed that with gas you could get around 6.6 miles per kg, but with current batteries, for example, the figure was more like 0.5 miles per kg.

He showed a graph giving the US consumption of energy and agricultural production in terms of million tonnes of carbon, and it was pretty clear that agriculture by itself was unlikely to be able to provide a substantial substitution for fossil fuels (especially given that the world still needs to eat). Biomass, on the other hand, might provide a reasonable substitution for some fuel.

BP has apparently decided that biology is the way forward. Well, the trivial point is that biology is about carbon, and so is energy. The substantive point is that biofuels might well provide a good proportion of liquid fuel in the near future, and today's biofuels are rather lacking, and biotechnology will be the way to improve that situation.

He gave the example of corn ethanol. Apparently 20% of the US corn crop was used to make ethanol in 2006 (up from 6% in 2000). But that only accounted for 2.5% of petrol use. And more significantly, to make 1 MJ (megajoule) of corn ethanol, apparently (and this is no doubt hard to estimate) it requires 0.9 MJ of input, including (in the US) around 0.4 MJ of coal, 0.3 MJ of gas, 0.04 MJ of nuclear/hydro and 0.05 MJ of crude oil. Apparently some people doing the same sums even claimed the net energy "gain" was negative. So the net energy benefit is not great. Net CO2 emissions were around 18% less using corn ethanol compared with oil (so ok, but not the super-wonderful story painted by bioenergy zealots). Koonin said you could view this as a painful way to convert coal to liquid fuel. But if your main concern is security of oil supply, rather than climate change, then this was a useful way to convert 0.05 MJ of oil to 1 MJ of another liquid fuel.

There are other problems with corn ethanol. Its energy density is only around 2/3 that of petrol. And it picks up water. And it is corrosive (so needs better tanks than petrol).

Koonin then moved onto his most important point. The world has spent over a hundred years optimising the petroleum production process. The world has spent thousands of years optimising the food production process. With food, mankind has managed to make amazing advances even using very low-tech methods (i.e. pick out the best examples of a species and breed those). Even with these low-tech methods the world has made amazing productivity gains in producing food. (Of course many of the gains are due to other reasons, e.g. chemical fertilisers.) It is only recently that biotechnology has allowed more precise agricultural advances.

Meanwhile there has been very little work on biofuels. In particular, what is optimal for producing food from plants is not likely to be anywhere near optimal for producing energy from plants. This is where the world should be investing some money. Indeed, BP has recently announced the setting up a 10-year 500 million dollar (i.e. 50 million dollars per year) grant to exactly do end-to-end research in this area. This new institute will be based at Berkeley with collaboration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Cambridge and Oxford were in the running but lost out.)

At the end there was a question and answer session. Now the British academic middle class are naturally anti-corporate, and, for example, there were a couple of such folk picketing the lecture. So several of the questions were as to be expected. One person complained that BP was not spending enough money on renewable energy. One went further and complained that BP's rebranding as Beyond Petroleum (from British Petroleum) was just a PR exercise. (This was what the picketing was about.) And one complained that Koonin was only addressing supply and not demand. Koonin managed to answer these all in deadpan. But, for example, is anyone surprised that an energy supply company is more interested in supply (in particular supply efficiency and increase) than in demand (in particular demand reduction). The UK academic middle class might think it's a good idea to travel less (although they show little indication of this themselves) but meanwhile back in the real world most people want to travel more, and not just when and how the middle class says they should. What can you say about the world when a corporation serves the interest of ordinary people better than the academic middle class.

One person did make a relevant remark that biofuel could have other negative environmental consequences, e.g. cutting down the Amazon rainforest to grow crops. Koonin agreed as such with his stock remark that this was a problem and the problems needed sorting out. (The academic middle class only like to state problems, never solve them.) And he claimed that, for example, in the US there was a lot of unused arable land that could be used to grow crops for biofuels, with little of this kind of environmental problem. (But there is no such thing as a free lunch.)

One can imagine a few reasons why BP might have set up its biofuels research institute in the US rather than the UK. For one thing, the American middle class are not nearly so negative about energy. For another, the UK (and European) middle class have successfully blackballed the production of GM foods. Is there any reason to believe they would be less negative about GM biofuels? It's best to let this work be done in the US (or China) where people are not so fanatic. One person did ask about whether biofuel crops would lead to increased monoculture and an alleged gene transfer risk. Koonin answered this (valid) question with his stock response: it's a problem which needs solving, which is fair enough. But one of the points of his talk was that biofuel crops were likely to be different from location to location, because of geography. And there is no reward without risk. People who believe otherwise are in sales and marketing, not science and engineering.

Jack Straw outlines House of Lords reform (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Jack Straw has told MPs his plans are the "best opportunity" to reform the House of Lords for "many decades".

The Commons leader outlined details of the White Paper which proposes a house where some peers are elected and some still appointed, as they all are now.

Mr Straw, who wants 50% of peers to be elected, said MPs would be given the final say on what proportion of peers should be elected in a reformed Lords.

He said reform would increase Lords' legitimacy and "strengthen democracy".

The plans, an attempt to end long-term deadlock, also propose cutting the number of peers from 746 to 540.

The White Paper - a document which puts government ideas to MPs for consultation before a final bill is drafted - does not propose removing Church of England bishops and archbishops from the Lords.

While there appears to be backing for the idea that there should be elected element in the future, there is no agreement on what proportion of peers should be elected and what proportion appointed.
...
All parties are giving their MPs a free vote on the issue.

At the moment all peers are appointed, apart from the 92 hereditary peers who survived the first phase of Lords reform during Tony Blair's first term in office.

MPs will vote first on whether they want any kind of second chamber at all and then whether the current House of Lords should be reformed.

If they back that, they will then vote on seven options for reform: all elected; 80% elected and 20% appointed; 60% elected and 40% appointed; half and half; 40% elected and 60% appointed; 20% elected and 80% appointed; or all appointed.

But, in a controversial move, instead of going through the division lobbies, MPs will indicate their preferences in order on a ballot paper.

The least popular option will be knocked out and its second preferences redistributed until one option achieves a majority, in a process which would break from standard Parliamentary practice.

Mr Straw said he personally preferred 50% of peers being elected, 30% being appointed from part political choices and 20% from among non-party candidates.

The White Paper does not detail how peers might be elected.

But Mr Straw said elections were likely to take place at the same time as the European elections and be based on an "open" list.

Peers would be able to resign from the Lords, be able to vote in general elections, and would serve 15 years before facing re-election.

New Labour has left the House of Lords as a bodge, so it's time to sort this out. The most sensible option would be to make the second chamber 100% elected (in particular, bishops should not be given automatic seats), but it seems that many MPs are so mediocre that they feel that a democratic second chamber would somehow be a threat to their power. Whatever, hopefully they will vote for something not too crazy.

EU Seventh Framework Programme is launched (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe has begun rolling out its new research and development initiative - the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

FP7 will see more than 7bn euros (£4.6bn) a year handed to investigators to advance scientific knowledge and, by extension, boost the EU's economy.

It runs until 2013 and amounts to a significant jump in investment over previous community programmes.
...
A little over 40% of the EU's expenditure is currently reserved for agriculture but an increasing proportion (5.3% last year) is committed to research.
...
The money is structured under themed headings and directed into priority research areas, such as information and communication technology (9bn euros), health (6bn euros), transport (4bn euros) and the fast-emerging nanotechnology sector (3bn euros).

The intention is that this money acts as an innovation growth factor, bringing on the next-generation high-value services and products that keep Europe at the forefront of world markets.
...
The downside in the past for any would-be Euro-scientist - as all who have gone through an application for funding will testify - has been the "legendry bureaucracy". The paperwork demands put off many, particularly from small enterprises.

The European Commission has promised a more streamlined process for FP7. There is also a commitment to pay more of the total costs of a research project, so a university or other research institution is not forced to "steal" from its other activities to sustain work through to completion.
...
At present the EU spends about 2% of its GDP on research and development, significantly less than the US (2.8%) and Japan (over 3%).

Some emerging Asian countries, such as China, are now increasing their R&D investment to a rate where they will soon catch and overtake Europe.

FP5 and especially FP6 were ridiculously bureaucratic, and the people that ended up with the money tend to be the usual suspects. It's unlikely to be the case that FP7 will be any different. The fact that the EU will be spending eight times as much on farming as on research says it all. And a lot of the budget will not go to research but to bureaucracy. It would be interesting to know how much of the previous FP budgets actually ended up doing any good, and whether it is value for money, but that is unlikely ever to be known. Still, the bottom line is that more and more UK research positions are dependent on EU money, and FP7 is better than a kick in the teeth.

Date published: 2007/02/06

European Commission proposes cut in CO2 emissions for new cars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission is proposing forcing carmakers to make an 18% cut in CO2 emissions from new cars by 2012.

A spokesman said the commission was aiming for a 25% cut in car emissions overall, with the "bulk of the effort" coming from better motor technology.

The rest of the cut is expected to be achieved by measures such as greater use of biofuels and better tyres.

Details of the plan, which has divided the commission, will be unveiled on Wednesday after a two-week delay.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas had wanted to oblige carmakers to achieve the full 25% emissions cut alone, but ran into strong opposition from the German car industry and Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

Industry sources say Mr Dimas's proposal would have pushed up the cost of a new car by 2,500 euros (£1,640), though other studies suggested the increase would be as low as 600 euros (£400).

Reports from Brussels say the commission will propose a package of measures designed to bring emissions from the average new car down to 120g of CO2 per kilometre by 2012 - 25% below the 2005 level of 162g/km.

Carmakers would be responsible for getting emissions down to 130g/km through the use of better car technology, under the commission proposal.

Increased use of biofuels, better tyres and measures to ensure drivers change gear at the right time would help to save the extra 10g/km.

European carmakers agreed in 1998 to aim for average emissions of 140g/km by 2008/9, but are no longer expected to meet this target.

The EU originally wanted to get emissions under 120g/km by 2005, but the deadline slipped to 2012.

The European Commissioners haven't a clue about business, or much else, for that matter. But hopefully this will indeed lead to improved technology, rather than just worse cars. If the industry says the cost is 2500 euros per car and "other studies" (almost certainly by people who haven't a clue about business) says 600 euros, then you can probably split the difference. Of course 1000 or 1500 euros means nothing to rich people like the European Commissioners.

Diamond synchroton lab opens up (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The biggest science facility to be built in the UK for 30 years - the Diamond Light Source synchrotron - has opened its doors for business.

The vast machine, which covers the area of five football pitches, generates intense light beams to probe matter down to the molecular and atomic scale.

The South Oxfordshire-based facility will be used by many fields, including medicine and environmental science.

Researchers have now commenced their experiments at its "beamline" stations.

Gerhard Materlik, chief executive of Diamond, said: "The first users possess an extensive knowledge of synchrotron science and bring a range of research projects to Diamond, from cancer research, to advancing data storage techniques, to unravelling the mysteries of the Solar System."

Within the machine, which is sometimes described as a "super microscope", electrons are accelerated into a thin, doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, which measures 562.6m (1,846ft) in circumference.

As the particles whizz around and around, almost reaching the speed of light, they lose energy in the form of synchrotron light.

This intense light, which falls in the range of x-ray, ultra-violet and infra-red, is then channelled off into beamlines, where it passes through samples of material, probing deep into their fine-structure.
...
The project has cost about £300m, funded by the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Wellcome Trust.

Hopefully the money will be worth the investment. It's unfortunate that they have to hype the science (curing cancer and "unravelling the mysteries of the Solar System" being two perennial favourites), but that is the world of spin that we live in. Meanwhile back in the real world, science advances forward in hard-fought moves of size epsilon.

Date published: 2007/02/05

EU commissioners criticise Germany over CO2 emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European commissioners have criticised Germany for challenging a cap on its industrial CO2 emissions in 2008-12.

A German minister threatened legal action last month after the commission cut Germany's emission allocation in the EU carbon trading scheme.

Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said it would be "unfair" to tailor allocations to countries' wishes.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said Germany had to put its "nice speeches" into practice.

"If Germany blocks, the rest of Europe doesn't play along. And if Europe doesn't play along, neither does the rest of the world," he said in a weekend interview.

Mr Barroso said the commission had used the same calculation basis for Germany as it had for all the other states, and it would be inappropriate to give one country special treatment.

German Economy Minister Michael Glos threatened legal action in January, following the commission's decision to allow German industry to emit only 453m tonnes of CO2 per year, compared to the 482m tonnes Germany had proposed.

It would all be very amusing, if it wasn't such a serious issue. It is bizarre that a handful of EU commissioners can arbitrarily decide on these quotas (and the difference between 453 and 482 is 6%, so non-trivial). And the quotas are not a great idea, and in particular countries will partly get around them (at least in the short term) by closing factories and moving their emissions outside the EU (this only works if they either increase the output of their service export industries in compensation, or agree to be poorer).

Government issues guidelines for labelling GM food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rules for labelling food's genetically modified (GM) content do not go far enough, say organic producers.

The government wants labels to show all produce with more than a 0.9% GM element, but green groups say the threshold should be nearer 0.1%.

The Conservatives back that call, saying customers need to have "clear information" to ensure trust in food.

The government says the guidelines, based on European Commission ones, are "adequate" and "appropriate".

No commercial GM cultivation is expected in the UK for several years.
...
The Soil Association and Friends of the Earth say 0.9% is too high, saying GM contamination is measurable for an amount as low as 0.1%.

The government, for once, is correct. The only goal of the so-called environmentalists is to stop the sale of GM food, and so everything they say has to be taken in that light. In particular, their concern is not a health issue, but a religious issue, so they should be ignored. Of course the EU guidelines will no doubt be tightened in time, since much of the Eurocracy hates GM food (for political and religious reasons).

Date published: 2007/02/04

Labour likely to lose out from parliament boundary changes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A hung parliament is much more likely at the next election as proposed boundary changes will reduce the number of Labour MPs, say researchers.

There are plans to reshape 500 of 573 constituencies in England and Wales to reflect population changes.

If changes had been in place during the last general election, Labour's 66-seat majority would have been cut to 48, say University of Plymouth researchers.

Then a swing of just 1.6% could have lost Labour its overall majority.

Parliamentary boundaries are reviewed about every 10 years to ensure each constituency has roughly the same number of potential voters.

The research suggests Labour would lost seven seats, while the Tories would gain 12. The number of seats for the Lib Dems would remain the same.
...
The changes will increase the number of seats in Parliament from 646 to 650, with all the new posts being created in England.

The large northern cities, and London, have lost seats to the rural south of England because of its population growth.

Given that the cities are losing seats and the rural (and presumably suburban) areas are gaining seats, it is fairly obvious that Labour will be worse off. This does show, though, that the UK is not as corrupt as the US, where the party in power would have managed to gerrymander the boundaries to their own benefit.

Terrorist attacks increase stress (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Terrorist attacks have widespread effects on people's mental health even when they are not directly involved or are far away at the time, experts say.

A team from University College, London, reviewed existing studies into the effects of attacks.

They found that after an attack in an urban area, 11 to 13% of the general population may suffer post-traumatic stress during the following six weeks.

Experts said the study showed it was vital to assess the impact of attacks.

In the review, Chris Brewin, professor of clinical psychology at University College London found that 30-40% of people directly affected by terrorist action are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and at least 20% still experience symptoms two years later.

These include intrusive memories and nightmares, sleep disturbance, and irritability.

People suffering from PTSD also tend to be jumpy and on edge.
...
Professor Brewin said intense media coverage, such as the repeated images of the 9/11 attacks, could increase general levels of stress.

Surprise, terrorist attacks cause stress. Who would have thought it. Hopefully the UK will not go down the US route, where everyone is deemed to require a shrink. And no doubt the media does increase stress levels, that is the entire point of their coverage, to be as hysterical and sensationalist as possible in order to gain viewers. (The government loves it too, because it helps them sell more and more draconian laws.)

Date published: 2007/02/03

On climate change, are scientists and politicians speaking a different language? (permanent blog link)

The BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black, says:

Is it so difficult to curb the growth of greenhouse gases because scientists and politicians are speaking a different language?
...
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, lies in the different ways that scientists and politicians use language.

Science is nothing without precision. You mislabel a larynx as a pharynx, call a nematode a trematode, and your career is done.

Political language, on the other hand, is a triumph of misrepresentation. A failure becomes a success when some little crumb of your plan has worked; winning a battle allows claims of victory even as the war slips away.

So you can describe climate change as 'the biggest threat confronting humanity' even when you are demonstrably doing more about hospital finances, say, about prisons, or some ill-defined threat from abroad.

When a scientist talks about 'reducing greenhouse gas emissions' - I told you we would end up back at this phrase - he or she means just that; actually reducing them. But what it is coming to mean in the political lexicon is something very different

This is a rather naive view. For one thing, although science might be precise, scientists are actually pretty sloppy and incomplete when reporting their work in journals. It is nearly impossible for anyone, except an uber-expert, to easily reproduce any such work because so many details are left out, and the raw data is often unobtainable. And most scientists will tell you that no matter how precise they word things (e.g. stressing uncertainty in climate change work), journalists will completely change the meaning when they write their story. (Of course journalists misrepresent everyone, not just scientists.)

On the other hand, politicians misrepresent because the media and the public force them to misrepresent. Any politician speaking the truth would immediately get chucked out of office. And, for example, the public cares more about hospitals and crime than it cares about climate change, because the former hits them in the face and the latter does not much yet. And further, with carbon emissions, the voters in the rich west are currently getting something for nothing, i.e. they are not, on the whole, paying a carbon tax for their energy consumption (European car drivers being the big exception, although this carbon tax does nothing to compensate people who are affected). Voters always like to get something for nothing. And politicians are always willing to oblige them, since they want to be re-elected.

With climate change the only real way forward is an international agreement which works much better than, and makes more sense than, Kyoto, and until that happens, any country that jumps first is committing economic suicide. (The EU is slowly going down this route, but that is a large group of economically significant countries.) This is why not much has happened on carbon emissions, in spite of all the scientific evidence. It has nothing to do with the idea that "scientists and politicians are speaking a different language".

Egon Ronay says there is public confusion about "organic" food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Restaurant critic Egon Ronay has called on the government to provide clearer information about organic food.

Shops and producers were profiting from public confusion about the issues, he told the BBC.

Mr Ronay - among several food experts to have questioned the way organic products are marketed - said there is no scientific proof they are healthier.

The Soil Association maintains that studies have shown that there are more nutrients in organically produced food.

The big problem, as Ronay knows full well, is that the Soil Association, a publicly unaccountable organisation, gets to decide what is and is not deemed to be "organic", and they do so based not on science but on religious views (principally that modern technology is bad, and ancient technology is good). Of course the more you pay for something, the more likely it is to be of higher quality, and on that score, "organic" food will somehow come out on top. (And of course "non-organic" food is organic in the chemical sense of the word, it is just that the Soil Association has successfully hijacked the term "organic" for their own narrow partisan interests.)

H5N1 bird flu hits England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The avian flu which killed 2,600 turkeys at a Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk has been confirmed as the Asian strain of the H5N1 virus.

The virus can be fatal if it is passed on to humans but experts said the outbreak was being contained and posed little danger to people's health.

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency carried out the tests which confirmed the outbreak in Holton.

The slaughter of nearly 160,000 turkeys has begun at the farm as a precaution.

A spokeswoman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the birds were being gassed in containers and the operation would continue through the night.

The government department earlier said the flu was the "highly pathogenic" Asian strain, similar to a virus that was found in Hungary in January.

A bit of a disaster but an inevitable one. Birds migrate, and farms near the east coast are the most susceptible.

Date published: 2007/02/02

Latest IPCC report on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global climate change is "very likely" to have a human cause, an influential group of scientists has concluded.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said temperatures were probably going to increase by 1.8-4C (3.2-7.2F) by the end of the century.

It also projected that sea levels were most likely to rise by 28-43cm, and global warming was likely to influence the intensity of tropical storms.

The findings are the first of four IPCC reports to be published this year.

Nothing that new here, and well trailed in advance of publication. Meanwhile, the BBC also published a related "viewpoint" by Oliver Tickell:

I have drafted a set of proposals under the name Kyoto 2, departing significantly from the ineffective framework of the existing Kyoto Protocol.

Key features include:

Taken as a whole, these measures offer a new approach which would achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas production in a way that is economically efficient, fair and equitable.
...
Burning a barrel of oil produces about 0.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide, so a $20 (£10) price for Rights (per tonne of CO2) would put about $8 (£4) on a barrel of oil - or 5 US cents (2.5p) on a litre of petrol.

This proposal makes more sense than most. But there are still problems. What if companies are willing to buy more "Rights" than would be deemed to be good for the planet. Who is going to decide who gets what? Or is the price just going to be allowed to rise and rise? In either case, the consequence will be that rich people can do what they want, and poor people will lose out. And, for example, it does not get around the issue that instead of properly disposing of waste, companies in some countries will just dump it in the nearest river or elsewhere, and this is an externality which in the end represents a carbon subsidy. And unless there is some global agency with the power to enforce proper accounting, the whole scheme is rather meaningless.

And the average UK motorist would just laugh when seeing the figure of 2.5p on a litre of petrol. The UK fuel duty is already 48p per litre, and much of that is allegedly a carbon tax. So the UK motorist is already paying a carbon tax way over what is being proposed. And no other consumer of energy in the UK is, including train passengers and domestic energy consumers. But of course in the UK one of the two main targets of the so-called environmentalists for an even bigger carbon tax are car drivers. Go figure. (The other target being airline passengers. But never train passengers, who in fact pay a negative carbon tax since their journey is subsidised.)

Date published: 2007/02/01

Surprise, rich people can afford to pay a carbon tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Current UK green tax plans are unlikely to curb the growth in greenhouse gas emissions from travel, a study says.

High-income groups, whose emissions were twice the national average, would absorb any price increase rather than change their travel habits, it said.

Researchers from Oxford University said the data revealed how socio-economic factors shaped how people travelled.

They said targeted measures, such as personal carbon credits, were more likely to influence people's behaviour.

Another pointless piece of "research". Surprise, travel is such a good thing that people are willing to pay extortionate taxes in order to enjoy the benefits. You just have to look at car drivers, who pay fuel duty which is way over what any sensible carbon tax would be. And it is obvious that inflicting extortionate taxes on air travel will not really affect the rich, it instead will mostly affect the ordinary people who are now at the margin of being able to afford air travel. And personal carbon credits, as usually proposed, are no different, since above a specified limit they are just another form of carbon taxation. The UK should stop wasting money on these facile studies and instead spend the money on science and engineering research to find ways of making travel less environmentally damaging.

European Commission wants more biofuel to be used (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has announced plans to force energy companies to produce greener fuels.

It says it will propose amendments to a directive on fuel quality, which will require a 10% cut in the CO2 released during production and use of the fuel.

The changes would make companies use more biofuel, and develop greener biofuels where the production process results in lower CO2 emissions.
...
The announcement comes as commissioners argue over another proposal which would force carmakers to drastically increase the fuel efficiency of the average car sold in Europe.
...
Carmakers and fuel manufacturers have reported that both proposals would increase costs for consumers.
...
The proposed amendment to the fuel quality directive would oblige manufacturers to ensure an annual 1% cut in the emissions produced during the production and use of fuel between 2011 and 2020.
...
Jos Dings, director of the pressure group Transport and Environment, said the EU had promoted biofuels "regardless of whether or not they are good or bad for the environment".

"If it's designed right this commitment to reducing carbon emissions will ensure that only the cleanest biofuels are promoted and the production process of fossil fuels is cleaned up," he said.

It is early days with biofuel, and it is not yet obvious that it is as good for the environment as the European Commission seems to believe. And of course the "proposals would increase costs for consumers". That is part of the idea.

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