Breaking news: Paul Ehrlich still wrong about population


There’s a story floating around about how new studies show that even if there’s another world war, or some mass pandemic, the human population of the world is going to keep on rising. That’s true, for most of those who are going to have children in the coming decades are already alive and we’ve a reasonable enough idea of how many children each of them is likely to have.

The bit that caught my eye though is that the paper is edited by Paul Ehrlich. That’s usually a sign that there’s going to be something wrong with it. And so there is:

Amoral wars and global pandemics aside,
the only humane way to reduce the size of the human population
is to encourage lower per capita fertility. This lowering has been
happening in general for decades (27, 28), a result mainly of
higher levels of education and empowerment of women in the
developed world, the rising affluence of developing nations, and
the one-child policy of China (29–32). Despite this change, environmental
conditions have worsened globally because of the
overcompensating effects of rising affluence-linked population
and consumption rates (3, 18).

It’s that “despite” that grates. For while female education and empowerment are indeed correlates of lower fertility, they are not the causes. It is that rise in affluence that is behind all of the three. In a subsistence economy there is no spare capacity to educate anyone, let alone women. And a subsistence economy is also going to be a human and animal powered one, an economy in which there’s not going to be much empowerment of the physically weaker sex. It’s only when a society gets richer that we can all start, male and female alike, using that attribute that makes humans different, our brains, as we leave the heavy labour to the machines. and it’s also that greater wealth that leads to the falls in child mortality, the education of women, those correlates of falling fertility.

That is, Paul Ehrlich is still getting the drivers of human population numbers wrong.  Not that we should be too hard on him: probably a bit late in his career for a fundamental rethink, isn’t it?

The answer isn’t blowing in the wind

Last week, EU leaders agreed to the next round of targets for reduction of carbon dioxide emissions: a headline target of a 40% reduction on 1990 by 2030. But rather than let the market decide how to reach this goal most efficiently, they also set a 27% target to add more renewable energy to the mix.

In practice, this love affair with renewable energy means promoting wind and solar; there is little scope for new hydropower plants and large scale, practical wave and tidal power seems to be as far away as ever. There is no rational justification for this, but politicians seem to be incapable of fixing top level targets and providing a market framework to meet them.

Wind and solar power have been heavily promoted by the green lobby as the clean alternative to fossil fuels and policymakers have swallowed the bait enthusiastically. The more perceptive of them may already have realised that life is a lot more complicated than that but, for those who still need to see the light, I recommend they read a new report published by the Scientific Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute.

Wind Power Reassessed: A review of the UK wind resource for electricity generation will make uncomfortable reading for those who continue to put their faith in wind farms. The author, Dr Capell Aris, has analysed the data on wind speed and direction collected from a total of 43 sites across the UK (22), Ireland and northern Europe over a period of nine years. He then used this data to calculate the output of a fleet of wind farms.

The results will be no surprise to anyone who has looked at this topic in any detail: output is highly variable, and the entire fleet would only produce 80% or more of its rated output for about one week a year. The problem is that, however much we hear about wind being a free resource and the cost of equipment coming down, the effect of adding more and more wind turbines to the electricity grid is to push prices up with only a modest impact on carbon dioxide emissions (the whole reason for current policy) and no improvement in energy security.

If there were no arbitrary renewable energy target, governments would be free to focus on what most voters expect: providing a framework in which a secure and affordable energy supply can be delivered. If emissions are also to be reduced, the most effective measures currently would be a move from coal to gas and a programme of nuclear new build. In the meantime, the renewables industry continues to grow on a diet of subsidies, and we all pick up the tab. Getting out of this hole is not going to be easy, but it’s time the government started the process rather than continuing to dig deeper.

Martin Livermore is the Director of the Scientific Alliance.

There’s a reason why we have farming you know

There are those out there who think that we should return rather to our hunter gatherer roots. Simply pick from nature’s bounty rather than intensively farm the planet. There’s really only one problem with this delightful idea: we’d all starve within months having stripped the Earth of everything edible:

Epping Forest, an ancient woodland straddling the border of greater London and Essex, is one of the best fungi sites in the country, with over 1,600 different species. But, like other fungi-rich sites such as the New Forest, it is being stripped out by illegal picking by gangs believed to sell the wild mushrooms to restaurants and markets.

“They leave a trail of destruction,” says Dagley, who has been head of conservation for 20 years at the 6,000 acres wood. “It has stepped up over the last five years. Sometimes people run away when they are challenged, but we have been threatened too. People pick using knives so they feel armed.”

He says pickers often take everything away and sort the edible from the poisonous later: “You can find people with 40kg of fungi, which is huge” but much is just thrown away.

Dagley says it is distressing to see the destruction, and it prevents the forest’s 4.5 million annual visitors enjoying the spectacular variety of fungi. The weird and wonderful shapes and colours of the fungi he points out revives his enthusiasm. “You have gills, frills and pores and the puffballs, they are like things from outer space,” he says.

The growing popularity of foraging for wild food may be part of the problem, says Sue Ireland, director of green spaces for the City of London Corporation, which manages Epping forest: “In rural areas, foraging is fine if you are picking for your own personal use.”

Quite: there’s no problem at all with a couple of people going off for some ceps: nor with a bit of picking the hedgerow for some blackberries of the sloes for the Christmas Gin. But as soon as many people do it it becomes unsupportable. This is why we have mushroom farms of course. And farms for cows, because hunting the aurochs to extinction has already been done. And farms for what and so on. The truth is that, other than as a very marginal leisure activity, we just cannot live off nature’s bounty. There’s just too many of us to be able to do so.

The terrible error of Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein tells us that the polluter must pay. Something that is both logical and true. Then she tells us that the fossil fuel companies must be made to pay for the damage that they do. Also logical and true:

Up until the early 1980s, that was still a guiding principle of environmental law-making in North America. And the principle hasn’t totally disappeared – it’s the reason why Exxon and BP were forced to pick up large portions of the bills after the Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.

We might quibble about whether the damage was quite what was described or paid for but the basic principle is entirely fair. However, here comes the error:

The astronomical profits these companies and their cohorts continue to earn from digging up and burning fossil fuels cannot continue to haemorrhage into private coffers. They must, instead, be harnessed to help roll out the clean technologies and infrastructure that will allow us to move beyond these dangerous energy sources, as well as to help us adapt to the heavy weather we have already locked in. A minimal carbon tax whose price tag can be passed on to consumers is no substitute for a real polluter-pays framework – not after decades of inaction has made the problem immeasurably worse (inaction secured, in part, by a climate denial movement funded by some of these same corporations).

Assume, for a moment, that CO2 emissions are indeed causing damage. So, who is responsible for those emissions? Who is the polluter here who must pay?

When I drive to the shops it is me making the decision to do so, me making the decision to emit CO2 in gaining my supply of comestibles. I am therefore the polluter. That’s why, if there is to be a tax on polluters it should be upon me, the polluter. Which is the entire point of a carbon tax that can be passed on to the consumers. It is we consumers who are the polluters which is why we should have that tax which falls upon the polluters.

This is the most appalling and most basic error by Klein. We do not consume fossil fuels because Teh Eeevil Corporations force them upon us. We consume them because they provide us with things that we desire, transport, heat, light and so on. The fault, as it were, is not in our suppliers but in ourselves.

Of course, as many do around here, it’s entirely possible to reject the entire thesis. But working within the logical structure of the IPCC we still end up with the result that a tax which falls upon consumers is the correct action: as every single economic report about the problem, from Stern through Nordhaus and the IPCC itself, has pointed out. Because it’s the consumers who are the polluters and yes, the polluters should pay.

Amazingly, fossil fuel reserves are different from fossil fuel resources

Bloomberg has shocking news for us. When fossil fuel companies report their reserves they give us different numbers from when they report their resources. They why seems to have escaped the news organisation:

Lee Tillman, chief executive officer of Marathon Oil Corp., told investors last month that the company was potentially sitting on the equivalent of 4.3 billion barrels in its U.S. shale acreage.

That number was 5.5 times higher than the proved reserves Marathon reported to federal regulators.

Such discrepancies are rife in the U.S. shale industry. Drillers use bigger forecasts to sell the hydraulic fracturing boom to investors and to persuade lawmakers to lift the 39-year-old ban on crude exports. Sixty-two of 73 U.S. shale drillers reported one estimate in mandatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while citing higher potential figures to the public, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD) Co.’s estimate was 13 times higher. Goodrich Petroleum Corp.’s was 19 times. For Rice Energy Inc., it was almost 27-fold.

That why being that reserves and resources are different things. This being the way that language tends to work: when we want to describe something that is different we use a different word to do so. Thus helps us distinguish between those different things we’re talking about.

In general for minerals and fossil fuels a reserve is something that we’ve proven is there, we’ve proven that we can extract it, in the volume we say we can, using current technology and also we can make a profit doing so at current prices. Resource is a looser concept: we’ve good evidence that there’s what we say is there there, that we can extract it, using current technology, at current prices, and make that profit. But there’s only good to reasonable evidence, we’ve not spent the money to prove this as yet.

There’s also a gradation: proven reserves, probable reserves, inferred resources and so on but that’s the general structure.

So why do companies talk about the different numbers? Because different people are interested in different things. The SEC (and other regulators, the LSE is pretty similar) wants investors to have access to the best hard numbers there are. Great, so, report reserves according to the rules they insist upon.

But investors are also interested in what might happen, what could happen and what’s likely to happen. After all, if we’ve two companies, one with 1 billion barrels of reserves and no resources and one with one billion of reserves and 2 billion of resources then that second is logically worth more than that first.

So, that’s why the use of the different numbers. Because they’re referring to different concepts, each useful in a different manner. And that, of course, is why we use different words to describe them, so that we can distinguish between those different concepts.

Seriously, it’s not that difficult to understand, this is only geology, it’s not rocket science or anything.