5 Jan 2008
Clean air kills and other eco dilemmas
I have blogged recently on who I want to see as the next American President, why I think Stephen Fry would make an excellent Green Party Leader and I am being asked in no uncertain terms who I would like as the next Mayor of London.
However today I want to blog on something even more important: ecology.
I think that the Green Movement and even the Green Party does not take ecology seriously enough. I don't think it is enough to be an 'environmentalist', now of course we know that Green politics is about social justice, peace, grassroots democracy and a lot more than the 'environment'. A point well made by my friend Andrew Dobson.
However if we take the 'green' bit of green politics, to be for the environment is not enough...the increasingly brainless media suggests one is either for or against nature, we can all be for virtue or for apple pie (vegan organic of course) but what does this mean in practice?
This is where the science of ecology comes in. Ecological matters are pretty richly contradictory and there are big time lags, in fact this is one of the really big problems with climate change that once the symptoms occur it may be too late to treat the disease and as we have seen in long decades of CO2 increasing, politicians have done all they can to increase greenhouse gas emissions. The symptoms are sadly increasingly obvious.
Now the contradictions can be exploited in silly ways by often rather crazy anti-environmentalists, for example, I came across a Ayn Rand blog that argues not very convincingly that plastic waste in the oceans could be good for biodiversity.
It is conceivable that plastic waste has a beneficial impact on the oceans, as it is well known for attracting schools of fish, perhaps because it forms a base for microorganisms. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that environmentalists were dramatically wrong about the impact of a deadly pollutant. A similar entry argues 'Let Polar Bears go extinct'.
However there are almost always dilemmas and complexities, for example, I have been blogging and even getting nearly arrested in my efforts to flag up the threat of biofuels. What could be 'greener' than growing fuels....well just about anything if growing the biofuels involves cutting down the rainforests for palm oil.
It can be difficult to get good information on ecology, my first degree was in environmental archaeology back at the good old Institute of Archaeology (now a department in UCL)....incidentally Jenny Jones my Green Party collegue on the GLA studied there as well...this gave me a good grounding in basic human ecology but since the 1980s the science has moved on immensely...so I need to keep learning.
One source of more sophisticated thought on ecology is Fred Pearce's New Scientist blog, which I am reading regularly. In fact I have already found his articles on biofuels really useful to my campaigning.
One of his recent posts looks, in what seems like a bit of bold but well intentioned revisionism, at the dangers of catalytic converters. Although shockingly around a thousand people still die in London each from air pollution from vehicles, catalytic converts have made our air much cleaner. A good example of Lomborg's argument that with economic growth and technological progress the environment becomes cleaner not more polluted.
However as Pearce notes the problem is that catalytic converters use one of two metals, palladium and platinum. Both are dangerous:
Most of the palladium comes from Siberian mines and is refined at the world’s biggest, and most notoriously polluting, metals smelters at a godforsaken spot called Norilsk, a closed Russian city on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
The Norilsk smelters are the biggest concentrated source of sulphur dioxide pollution on the planet.
Sulphur dioxide makes acid rain. And for hundreds of kilometres round Norilsk, the trees of the tundra are dead because of the acid fallout. In effect we are destroying huge areas of Arctic tundra with acid rain, so the rest of the world can keep its city air clean.
The smelters are so spectacularly inefficient that they also release large amounts of palladium up the stacks. One recent study suggests the metals fallout onto the tundra is so great it may soon be worth mining the soils!
Tha platinum is mined mainly in South Africa, the mines are very deep and the death toll is high.
So catalytic converters either kill miners or the environment of Siberia, I don't think Pearce is calling for them to be banned. The high tech optimists would say simply make the smelters in Siberia more efficient, I would say lets reduce traffic by building more localised economies, working from home on the net and where we do travel introducing good public transport, proper cycling facilities and such like. These policies are being implemented by Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, the Green Party members on the Greater London Assembly.
The dangers of catalytic converts provide a dilemma and a good example of why we need to think more deeply about ecology.
As the Green Party manifesto notes, here goes
TR042 Local airborne pollutants are also produced when petrol and diesel are burnt, for instance, particulates, NOx, ozone and partial combustion products such as PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons). The negative affects on human health and the environment of these 'local pollutants' are to some extent mitigated by using technology such as catalytic converters. However, these can cause pollution, so do not offer a solution on their own to the problem of fossil fuel use.
Merrick, another friend of mine, lays into Chris Huhne and has further observations about cats and cars here:
The American car industry is organised around petrol engines. Even though diesel gives around a third more miles to the gallon and the engines last three times as long, for America petrol is how it has to be and any solution to an automotive problem has to has got to be a bolt-on rather than a redraft.
Hence in the 1980s they dealt with taking lead out of petrol not by having a redesign but by inventing the catalytic converter. Most car journeys are under five miles, too short to get a catalytic converter warm enough to work.
Also, catalytic converters require platinum - a metal rarer than gold - as an essential material. But it doesn't matter that it's an ineffective anti-environmental expensive solution, it's good because it doesn't affect the way the USA runs its automobile industry. Profit is the goal, rather than the best use of resources.
Read this account of the environment around Norilsk and you may never want to get into a car again.