Sunday, 23 October 2005

Carbon sequestration and tree planting

Soon after the World Land Trust started taking an interest in carbon sequestration as a means of combatting global warming the critisisms started. The critics argue that planting trees and preserving forests is a "cop out" allowing the polluters to continue polluting. It was, they argued, far more important to reduce emissions and become more energy efficient. And I agreed.

However, over the past few months I have begun to seriously question the relative importance of emissions reduction versus preserving forests and reforestation. The latter is complex and controversial, since it depends on a variety of factors such as where the planting is taking place, the species used, and the ultimate use of the trees. But to me preserving standing forests is clear cut and conclusive. With something like 20% of carbon dioxide still resulting from forest clearance, forest fires amnd other destruction, anything that can be done to reduce this figure must be a benefit. That to me is demonstrable and self evident.

What is not so clear are the benefits of emissions reduction, and improved energy efficiency. As far as I can see, this will not actually lead to any overall reduction in the levels of non-renewable energy being consumed. It will simply change the patterns of use. A very simple model that I have used from time demonstrates on a local, domestic level what is involved internationally. If an ordinairy consumer reduces their energy consumption, uses an energy efficient car, cuts out pointless journeys, they can easily end up saving £500 or £1000 in the course of a year. So whoopee they can then spend that £1000, on what? A holiday in Sicily? Whoosh. All that energy in air travel etc. And even if it isn't spent on air travel, virtually everything we do and buy these days consumes energy. If Britain and the rest of Europe halved their imports of oil, it's all the more for China and India -- it won't be left in the ground for future generations.

That is why I now think the biggest single priority for the future of the planet is saving every last acre of forest, swamp and wilderness that we can. Acre, by acre, hectare by hectare, pound by pound, euro by euro and dollar by dollar.

Friday, 21 October 2005

Water, water everywhere. Bottles, bottles everywhere

In the USA alone, 30 million bottles are thrown away because of the developed world's obsession with bottled water. Some are plastic, some are glass. Some go to landfill, some are accumulated as litter by the roadside. Even those that are recycled (virtually none are reused) use huge amounts of energy in the recycling process. And there is no evidence that most of this water is any healthier than the water that comes out of a tap (or faucet for that matter). In fact some of it is quite possibly less healthy.

Oh, and I forgot to say, that figure of 30 million, is per day. Which equates to 10,950,000,000 a year. And that in the USA alone. Surely this must equate to one of the biggest environmental disasters of the 21st century. Millions of those people buying those millions of bottles of water worldwide must be claiming to be environmentally friendly; they must be making donations to green organisations. How can they justify supporting an industry that is helping destroy the planet as surely as any other energy-dependent industry? Pause and think of all the energy used in making the bottles, filling them, transporting them, disposing of them. And all for a commodity that comes almost free out of a tap.

I was horrified to see in the wake of the tsunami, earthquake and other disasters, relief organisations shipping pallet loads of small bottles of water. Compounding natural disasters with man-made disasters ? when water can be shipped (as it was in the past) in reusable tanks.

It has often been claimed that wars of the 21st century would be fought over water ? and seeing the profligate waste of water and the overpackaging of it, I cannot but think that the poorer half of the world must think the richer half is completely mad. And yet such is the power of advertising and marketing, I will also bet that the purveyors of bottled water are now looking to the impoverished countries of the world to expand their markets.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

How environmentally friendly is Public Transport?

Every time I drive to Norwich I pass a bus either travelling to or from the city. And it is invariably nearly empty. A big, double decker bus, with two or three passengers. How can this be environmentally sensible?

There is a sort of mantra that goes along the lines "buses and trains good for the environment, cars and aeroplanes bad. Private transport bad, public transport good." But hang on, aeroplanes are public transort, every bit as much as buses. And on all the flights I have been on recently, there have not been many empty seats.

I also read somewhere (I have forgotten where) that some modern trains are now so heavy, and carry relatively fewer passengers, that they are less energy efficient than a private car with four passengers.

While I am sure that public transport makes sense in urban areas, I am equally certain that it is not environmentally friendly in rural areas. Huge empty buses lumbering around tiny country lanes, do not make sense, and are only viable because of the subsidies given by local councils.

Another fact that the green movement is ignoring when constantly pressing for more and better public transport, is that this simply encourages people to make more and more uneccessary journeys. Cheap efficient public transport makes it possible for people to live further and further from their place of work. And it makes it possible to travel more frequently. Airlines such as Easy Jet and Ryan Air demonstrate this very clearly and simply. Their flights are nearly always full, because they are so cheap -- or you caould express that the other way round. But the net result is that people now travel more frequently, and further afield. There is no difference in the economics of this phenomenon, between airlines and trains, it's just that we are more readily concious of the effects it has had in the airline industry.

Like so many aspects of the energy debate we are actually ignoring many of the fundamental realities. Perhaps the most fundamental of them all is that while energy is cheap, we will continue to use is. Cheap air travel is possible, because the tax on aviation fuel is less than that on car fuel. But beyond that, the other fundamental reality is that we, in the UK are, relative to most of the world, wealthy. We have large disposable incomes, that are not needed for survival. Food is cheap, and once we have paid for the bare essentials in life, we still have, on average a lot left over. Shopping has become a leisure pursuit, an end in itself (sad, but true). And virtually everything we spend our money on has energy implications. And while the world's population continues to soar, there is no possibility of energy consumption falling. And no possibility of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. That is why preserving natural habitats is SO important. Every acre we save is one less contribution to global warming, but it is also one more step to preserving something for the future. One day the world's human population will crash. It's not if, it's when (to quote health experts discussing bird 'flu'). It may not be in my life time, but it will crash. I want to see as much of the natural world left behind for the time after that crash.

Monday, 10 October 2005

A Letter to Nature

The Letter in Nature (vol 436/18 August 2005) by Orme et al.: "Global hotspots of species richness are not congruent with endemism or threat" demonstrates the proposition that "hotspots" and many of the interpretations of the importance of "biodiversity" are potentially misleading when applied to the implementation of conservation policies for endangered species -- or at least that is the interpretation I inferred.

The paper deals almost exclusively with birds, which are generally accepted as one of the better-studied taxa. However, even these taxa demonstrate the failings of the hotspot concept. A glance at the maps immediately demonstrates one of my fundamental criticisms: all hot spot concepts, as currently used, have an automatic bias towards the tropics. Tundra, steppe, temperate woodlands and all other species-poor habitats are absent from any of the hotspot maps.

In order to understand the relative importance of locations for setting conservation priorities, hotspot concepts need to be allied in some way with the species diversity potential for an area; not treated as an absolute. There is absolutely no point in stating the obvious: almost all of Ecuador is bound to have a greater species diversity than an equivalent area of Patagonian steppe. However, this does not mean that from a conservation point of view a given area in Ecuador is more important than that of the Patagonian steppe, since however much of Ecuador is protected, it will not protect a single species of the Patagonian endemics.

If future researchers wish to develop the hotspot concept into something useful, then they must express data in proportion to the potential, not in absolute numbers. Furthermore, it is also essential to take into account the carrying capacity of a habitat; deserts and other species poor habitats usually need much larger reserves if they are to be effective. And finally the island effect needs to be taken into account when proposing conservation areas.

But meanwhile species continue to become extinct, and of greater interest to the present writer, would be evidence that the modelling and theorising has been subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, and been shown to actually conserve threatened species any better than the hunches of informed biologists and field workers. Huge amounts of money in the form of research grants are expended on developing these models, and even reputable conservation bodies give grants for such purposes, but is it justified? The trouble with most of the scientific models is that they are nearly always based on biology and science. Unfortunately, in the real world, politics and economics are invariably more important. I would far rather buy a piece of forest that is actually on the market and under threat, than spend money on working out which piece of forest has the theoretical greatest number of endemic species. As far as I am concerned the economics are relatively simple: In the US or Europe, it will cost around $100,000 a year to keep a single fairly junior scientist employed on researching these issues. That will buy at least 4000 acres of wilderness. Often enough to save more than one species from extinction, as Bob Ridgely, Nigel Simpson and others have demonstrated in Ecuador.

But this is not to say I am anti-science. It's just that I think conservation money should not normally be used for research -- it's a form of fiddling while Rome burns.