Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sometimes "saving the planet" is even more harmful.

There is a certain amount of amusement in watching the Greenies trip all over themselves trying to figure out what they can do to “save” Mother Earth. After all: the planet is dying!

Now another one of their more radical exponents is complicating the simplistic views that Greens often love to embrace. For instance, they like the simple message that cars are bad and walking is good. Walking is natural where cars are evil since they are man-made. So save the planet and walk instead.

But Greenie Chris Goodall argues, in his book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, that the choice isn’t so simple. That is only one side of the equation. People know driving emits carbon but assume walking is carbon free. But it isn’t. Goodall notes that if you walk you burn calories and calories need to be replenished or you die (which is the ultimate green solution). He says that if you walk 3 miles you burn 180 calories. If you replenish that with a piece of beef that would require 100 grams of meat.

A driving that distance, he says, would add about .9kg of carbon to the atmosphere. But the 100g of beef, he contends adds 3.5 kg of emission. Walking emits more carbon than driving. He says: “The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better.” People forgot that walking consumes energy which requires replenishment which is also carbon based.

The Times of London notes that there are many such problems for the environmentalist.
Catching a diesel train is now twice as polluting as travelling by car for an average family, the Rail Safety and Standards Board admitted recently. Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic because of the extra energy needed to manufacture and transport, the Government says.
The train issue is interesting because government policies are often based the simplistic slogans of the Greens. If cars are evil then mass transit is good, or at least less evil. So there has been a tendency to penalize driving and subsidize mass transit. But, in the case of these trains, that is actually increasing environmental impact not decreasing it.

It also appears that organic is not helpful either, at least not when it comes to cattle. Cows belch and belching releases methane so cows are killing Mother Earth. But the Times notes, “Organic beef is the most damaging because organic cattle emit more methane.”

Mr. Goodall suggests a solution: “Don’t buy anything from the supermarket or anything that’s travelled too far.” I suppose we are to forage like squirrels.

Alas Mr. Goodall still thinks life is simple when it comes to the distance food traveled. Apparently he assumes that food from a distance is more carbon intensive than local food. That is not necessarily the case. Mr. Goodall is only looking at that which is seen -- the miles traveled by the imported food.

James McWilliams, in the New York Times, says this concept of “food miles” “joins recycling, biking to work, and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.” Apparently Mr. McWilliams, in promoting biking to work, is unaware of the point Mr. Goodall is making. But that’s fair. Mr. Goodall seems to be oblivious to the point Mr. McWilliams makes regarding food miles.

McWilliams refers to a study undertaken by Lincoln University in New Zealand. They tried to look at a broader picture than just the simplistic miles traveled equation. They expanded,
...their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.
Once the broader picture were put into context the picture changes substantially.
Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
In reality the food mile scam is a combination of antiquated protectionism and counterproductive mercantilism. Many Greens would do well to read the essay by Frederic Bastiat, That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen. Understanding this one essay undoes a lot of economic fallacies.

The food miles are easy to see. That which is harder to see is the different kinds of input for agricultural products around the world. Miles are easy to measure. Total input is hard to discern, especially for the layman. Often the simplest statements in economics are riddled with falsehoods. There are two sides to the economic coin and proponents of new programs tend only to look at the benefits and never the costs. And if they do consider costs they do so in only the most cursory of ways.

For instance when a government has a “make work” project they focus only on the jobs created. Those are easy to see. The funds, however, came from the productive economy reducing demand there. The result is a decline in employment. At best the state has merely rearranged things, creating nothing in the process. In truth, it tends to produce something people didn’t want as much, at the expense of something they wanted more, making the consumers worse off on average.

Food miles are a similar myth. The carbon reduction obtained by limiting miles traveled is seen easily. That this forces production away from more efficient producers to less efficient producers, increasing the carbon impact along the way, is far more difficult to see. It gets ignored and replaced with the simplistic sloganeering that is so prevalent among the Green Left.

Too much environmental slogans are based on one-sided thinking, focusing only on the most obvious costs and ignoring the benefits. Then they flip-flop when it comes to their solutions at which point they concentrate only on the benefits while ignoring the costs.

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