12 little green lies

Professor Jeff Bennett has published “Little Green Lies: An exposé of twelve environmental myths“.  The very very very abbreviated summary of them is:

Proposition 1: ‘Peak Oil’ has been reached.
The annual production of oil, while rising over the last century, is about to fall because of growing scarcity. Such is our dependence on oil and the fast rate at which we are using it that we now need to take active policy measures to save what we have left.
BUT
No-one knows for sure what petroleum reserves are available. As known reserves are depleted, price rises stimulate more exploration and technological advances that will expand the available supply of petroleum as well as substitute energy sources.

Proposition 2: Renewable energy production should be stimulated.
Non-renewable energy supplies are being depleted so quickly that we will soon experience power shortages. Non-renewables are also ‘dirty’ sources of energy. Renewables must be stimulated to ensure the on-going supply of clean energy.

BUT
Renewable energy sources are limited in their short to medium term potential to meet demand. Picking ‘winners’ to be stimulated is likely to be mistaken given rapidly evolving technological change. Renewables have their own environmental downsides.

Proposition 3: Consumption choices need to be informed by products’ ‘food miles’/’ecological footprint’/’embodied energy’/’virtual water’/’carbon footprint’.
People need to be aware of the impacts they have on energy/the ecology/water/climate etc. when they buy goods and services so that they can reduce their impact on that resource. Each of these resources is scarce and we need to conserve them, especially for future generations.

BUT
By focusing on just one scarce resource (water, energy etc.) in their consumption decisions, people can ignore their impacts on other scarce resources and result in a ‘false economy’. What happens when the ‘virtual water’ index goes against the ‘embodied energy’ index? Which index is ‘trumps’?

Proposition 4: World population should be capped.
More people mean more pressure on the world’s scarce resources, including the environment. The only way to protect the environment, stop starvation and ensure that there are enough resources for future generations is to stop population growth.
BUT
People are a resource. They have the capability to develop innovative technologies and institutions to deal with growing scarcity in specific resources. New ways to satisfy peoples’ wants and new sources of scarce resources can be discovered.

Proposition 5: Economic growth and trade are bad for the environment.
Economic growth, fuelled by international trade, means more pressure on scarce resources including the environment. To protect the environment and to save resources for the future, trade should be restricted to cut growth.

BUT
Trade and growth bring wealth to people. Wealth increases peoples’ demands for environmental protection and the ability of society to provide environmental protection, especially through technological development.

Proposition 6:No waste should go to landfill.
Waste should not be wasted. It is a resource that can be re-used and re-cycled. Sending waste to landfill means that more ‘virgin’ resources must be harvested/mined. Waste in landfill can also be a source of air and water pollution.
BUT
Recycling and re-using ‘waste’ is a process that uses scarce resources. Policies that prevent landfill disposal can cause more resources to be used than they save and do not necessarily reduce virgin resource use. Landfills need not be pollution sources.

Proposition 7:Water and energy should be used ‘efficiently’, whatever it costs.
Water and energy are scarce resources. Their use needs to be minimised so that future generations will have enough. Governments should invest in technologies that ensure the least amounts of energy and water are used in producing goods and services.
BUT
Investing in ‘efficiency’ measures means using other scarce resources as substitutes for energy and water. A ‘false economy’ results because the other resources including labour and capital may well be scarcer than energy and water.

Proposition 8: The environment is of infinite value and must not be harmed.
The environment provides us with our ‘life-support-system’. Without it we cannot survive and so we should protect it at all costs. We should make absolutely sure that rare and endangered species are cared for so that their numbers increase.
BUT
Without the environment we could not exist and so its absolute value is infinite. However, that is not the relevant question for policy. Changes to the state of the environment yield finite benefits and costs that need to be traded off.

Proposition 9: We must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid global climate change.
Human induced global climate change is a serious threat to the continued ability of the planet to support humanity and current ecosystems. The damage caused by climate change will be so large that GHG emissions must be reduced now.
BUT
Reducing GHG emissions would be costly. The decision to bear those costs should be made with reference to the expected benefits reduced GHG emissions would yield. Reducing GHG emissions will not eliminate the risk of climate change.

Proposition 10: The care of the environment cannot be entrusted to the private sector.
The environment provides ‘public goods’ that should be available to all for free. That means the government has to be responsible for caring for the environment. The private sector will either destroy it or try to profit from it.
BUT
The public sector will face problems in managing the environment. Information for decision making is costly. Incentives for politicians and bureaucrats can conflict with public best interest. Private solutions can be lower cost and better aligned with society’s well-being.

Proposition 11: Agriculture and mining are always in conflict with the environment.
Agriculture and mining are extractive industries which deplete our stock of natural resources, often irreversibly. They also cause environmental degradation including soil erosion, biodiversity loss and chemical contamination of water and air.
BUT
While there are some trade-offs between agriculture, mining and the environment these can be reduced through the use of management techniques and technologies. Offsets and remediation work on farms and mines can improve the environment.

Proposition 12: Decisions regarding the future of the environment should be made using the ‘precautionary principle’.
If there is a risk that a proposed action will harm the environment, the precautionary principle requires policy makers to place the burden of proof on those proposing an action that it will not cause environmental damage.
BUT
There is always some risk of environmental harm resulting from human action. Demonstrating that there is no risk of harm is impossible. There are also uncertainties associated with not taking action which the precautionary principle ignores.

On proposition 1, George Monbiot has conceded that the peak oil claims were wrong, and that supply is increasing and has not peaked.

The book is only $30. Professor Bennett is speaking at the CIS in Sydney on the 1st of August.

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