Subsidising the Argument

There has been a fair amount of discussion about subsidies in the ongoing debate about energy policies recently.

Damian Carrington in today’s Guardian puffs up Chris Huhne’s speech at the Renewable UK (formerly the British Wind Energy Association) conference:

The speech is worth a read as it tackles three renewables “myths” head on. First, the myth that renewables are uneconomic and held up by government cash alone. In fact, more than 70% of global renewables investment in 2010 was private finance. Furthermore, said Huhne: “Globally, subsidies for fossil fuels outstrip subsidies for renewables by a factor of five.” Another analysis suggests a factor 12.

Below the line, a commenter with the appropriate moniker, NoneTooClever, congratulates Carrington…

Those shale gas cheerleaders also fail to take into account the huge fossil fuel subsidy their favoured hard to get at hydrocarbon gets.

The fact that ‘only’ 30% of the capital costs of renewable energy world wide are subsidised is no argument that renewable energy doesn’t enjoy huge subsidies. Moreover, the issue in the UK is not to to what extent the capital costs of renewable energy are subsidised, but how much consumers pay for their output. An article in the Telegraph earlier this year suggests that approximately half of the income generated by wind turbines is subsidy. It’s easy to find private finance when you guarantee profit for the ‘investment’. It is surprising that it needs as much as 30%. But then, Huhne was discussing global subsidies, rather than subsidies in the UK.

Even more disingenuous is the claim that fossil fuel subsidies outstrip subsidies for the renewable sector by five (or twelve) times. It makes no sense to talk about the proportions of global and absolute subsidies without any idea of how much actual substance were produced by those subsidies. If conventional energy production is more than five or twelve times greater than renewable energy production, then in fact renewable energy enjoys a greater level of subsidy than conventional energy. I will return to the point shortly.

Carrington seems completely innumerate. Not only does he fail to subject Huhne’s claim to the most basic scrutiny, he also takes the higher claim of a factor of 12 at face value. But following his link takes you to this absurd piece of doublethink:

“One of the reasons the clean energy sector is starved of funding is because mainstream investors worry that renewable energy only works with direct government support,” said Michael Liebreich, chief executive of New Energy Finance. “This analysis shows that the global direct subsidy for fossil fuels is around ten times the subsidy for renewables.”

Carrington on the one hand quotes Huhne, who seems to reject ‘the myth that renewables are uneconomic and held up by government cash alone’… and that ‘more than 70% of global renewables investment in 2010 was private finance’ and then points to an analysis which says that ‘mainstream investors worry that renewable energy only works with direct government support’. It would seem that Huhne is completely wrong, and Carrington simply daft for failing to spot it.

Then there is the problem with the analysis itself. If ‘investors worry that renewable energy only works with direct government support’, it’s possibly a sign that ‘renewable energy only works with direct government support’. If it weren’t the case, why would Huhne continue to promise government support in the form of defacto subsidies, paid for by the consumer? Why would 30% of renewable energy projects need subsidies? The analysis doesn’t seem to have an answer.

Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist does, though…

Chris Huhne, the UK energy secretary, boasts that wind farms and other renewable energy schemes will create 9,000 jobs this year. Since they are all subsidised, each one is in effect sponsored by a newly unemployed person elsewhere in the economy.

Shale gas already supports 140,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone, up from about zero in 2007. This is without subsidy; in fact, the reverse — hefty tax revenue. Pennsylvania’s population is one-fifth of Britain’s.

So much for NoneTooClever’s concern that shale gas requires subsidies.

Ridley’s makes a robust argument, and one which Carrington attempts to anticipate:

[Huhne] specifically targeted those puffed up by the ludicrous hype over the UK’s fledgling shale gas find: “Unconventional gas has not yet lit a single room nor cooked a single roast dinner in the UK.

Carrington’s an especially poor argument. Unsubsidised wind, too, has not lit a single room, nor cooked a single roast dinner in the UK. And the UK’s energy policies have contributed to a steady increase in bills and the rates of energy poverty. As argued here in previous posts, emphasis on reducing energy demand and renewable energy in policy comes at the expensive of allowing such developments that can light rooms and cook roast dinners. Five million homes in the UK now struggle to light their rooms and cook their dinners. 2,700 people die each year because the UK’s energy policies fail to respond to their needs. Carrington’s innumeracy knows no bounds. It’s easy to ignore when he’s just being simply daft, but this failure of his sense of proportion moves him into the ‘dangerously stupid’ category.

Carbon Brief take a break from getting their knickers in a twist about what the GWPF and Daily Mail are up to, to cover the same claims about subsidies.

In recent months, a great deal of attention has focused on the costs of subsidies for renewable energy – so much so that the media campaign against ‘green energy taxes’ on consumer bills has been held responsible for the government rowing back on some of its green agenda. This is in spite of the fact that, as we have detailed, many of the claims made do not appear to have anything to substantiate them – and what evidence there is undermines or refutes them.

It is therefore sobering to realise just how substantial subsidies toward fossil fuel energy are on the global level. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported this month that fossil fuel subsidies currently amount to nearly half a trillion dollars. On Monday, the chief economist of the IEA urged the world to slash fossil fuel subsidies in non-OECD countries. He told the online magazine Euractiv that

“Today $409 billion equivalent of fossil fuel subsidies are in place which encourage developing countries – where the bulk of the energy demand and CO2 emissions come from – [towards a] wasteful use of energy”

$409 billion certainly sounds like a lot of money. In UK terms, it’s £255 billion. It’s still a lot of money. But, hang on… How much money is it, really?

Cast your minds back to yesterday. Chris Huhne said

We already have more installed offshore wind than anywhere else in the world and we are determined to remain at the forefront. That’s why we set aside £200 million for the development of low-carbon technologies, including £60m for supporting major new manufacturing projects on the English coast.


With over £200 billion worth of energy infrastructure needed by the end of the decade, this is our golden chance to deliver a greener future.

It’s going to cost the UK roughly the same amount of money to produce a ‘low carbon economy’ over the next eight years as the entire world spends in a year on ‘subsidising fossil fuels’ in a year. Yet the rest of the world has 116 times the population of the UK. Furthermore, this won’t, on anyone’s measure, be making energy any cheaper for British consumers. The consumer will have to find that £200 billion, as well as meet the rising costs of energy. The words ‘dangerously stupid’ no longer seem sufficient. Carbon Brief are ‘talking pants’, as we say here.

So let’s try to establish a sense of proportion for Huhne, Carrington, and Carbon Brief.

The complaint Carbon Brief seem to be making is that $409 billion is spent on subsidising fossil fuels. The complaint Carrington makes is that this is up to 12 times the amount of subsidies that the renewable sector enjoys. The figures are somewhat confused, some referring to 2008, and some 2010. But they’re in the same ball park, and the Bloomberg complaint is that “This analysis shows that the global direct subsidy for fossil fuels is around ten times the subsidy for renewables.”

However, according to the IEA (PDF here), in 2008, the world produced fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, peat) equivalent to 10,065 million tonnes of oil (Mtoe), but only 90.2Mtoe of energy from renewables (geothermal, solar, electricity and heat, wind). So although renewables only enjoyed a tenth (or so) of the subsides that fossil fuels received, fossil fuels accounted for 112 times as much energy. In other words, on a Mtoe basis, the renewable sector received nearly 13 times as much subsidisation as the fossil fuel sector.

This calculation doesn’t include hyro-electric generation. Some might say this is unfair. But large hydro projects are not included in the UNEP’s definition of ‘renewable’, though small hydro is:

$187 BILLION WAS INVESTED IN LARGE AND SMALL SCALE RENEWABLES GENERATING CAPACITY (EXCLUDING LARGE HYDRO), compared to $219 billion and $157 billion of gross and net fossil-fuel investment respectively. If the estimated $46 billion of large hydro investment is included in the renewable energy total, then renewables investment is clearly ahead of both gross and net investment in fossil fuel capacity.


The biggest sector of renewable power in operation worldwide is large hydro, with some 945GW generating in 2008 according to International Energy Agency estimates. However hydro-electric projects of more than 50MW are not included in the main figures in this report, due to the questionable social and environmental impact of some large hydro schemes.

Similarly, the figure doesn’t include the category ‘combustible renewables and waste’, which produces a surprising amount of energy — 1225.49 Mtoe, or about a third as much as coal and peat. Clearly, the practice of burning trees and rubbish needs no subsidy to make it work.

Of course, we should probably count some small hydro and waste-to-energy amongst the beneficiaries of the subsidies. And of course the calculation above is crude. But what is objectionable about the arguments offered by Chris Huhne, Damian Carrington, and the Carbon Brief is their haste to make a point based on face-value stats, which fail comprehensively to provide perspective and comparison. Adding perspective to their claims, and putting them into a meaningful context reveals a picture which, if not a complete inversion of what they claimed, certainly makes for a less stark image nonetheless. The simple black-and-white storyline they tell turns out to be the kind of misrepresentation Carbon Brief and Guardian journalists claim to want to expose, put out by ‘green economy deniers’. There is a debate to be had, only the likes of Huhne, Carrington and the Carbon Brief deny it.

Warding Off the Deniers

There was a heated twitter exchange last night between Bob Ward, Bishop Hill, and Richard Tol. Ward predictably wanted to know ‘who funds the GWPF’ — the Global Warming Policy Foundation, headed by Nigel Lawson and Benny Peiser. Ward has been making much of alleged ‘disinformation’ from the GWPF, especially in the Daily Mail. Last week, he wrote two articles for the Guardian’s eco pages. The first suggesting that Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre’s defence of the principle of press self-regulation is not credible, given his paper’s publishing of climate sceptics, especially the GWPF. The second, suggesting that the Charities Commission review the GWPF’s status, given what Ward believes to be politically-motivated (and possibly financially-motivated) perspective on climate change of its donors, staff, and contributors. In both cases, it seems, the implication is that a higher authority should descend on the GWPF and the Daily Mail, to censor, punish, and expose these climate-deviants.

The the one-man-climate-inquisition, Ward, seems unrelenting in his refusal to participate in debate with the heretics, preferring the sticks-and-stones approach. The problem which Ward has never addressed, however, is that once you set such high standards for your opponents, you need to make sure that you yourself can meet them.

According to his twitter profile, Ward is ‘Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE. The Grantham Institute at the LSE is a fairly large outfit, as is the Grantham Institute at Imperial College. What upsets the policy and communications director of the Grantham Institute — which, as far as I can tell, outnumbers the staff at the GWP several dozen or more to one — so much?

Ward is convinced that questionable interests donate to the GWPF. Richard Tol explained that donors to charities are protected by the Data Protection Act. Ward persisted. “What if the GWPF was being heavily funded by overseas sceptic donors?”, he asked, the implication being that we could not trust them.

Maurizio Morabito joined the discussion, and pointed it to a very interesting article which sheds some light on The Grantham Institute’s benefactor, Jeremy Grantham. It turns out that the fund he manages has made the following investments…

I’ve probably not done a good job of working out how much these investments are worth. Where the article says “Grantham bought 1,731,672 shares at an average price of $82.34 and now has 11,309,048 shares”, I’ve assumed that the 11,309,048 shares were worth an average of $82.34, and so have multiplied the shares by that number. I’ve then multiplied that number by the annual dividend, to see what the investments yield. However accurate this is, though, the fact remains that Grantham has invested heavily in oil companies.

But! Shock Horror! Wouldn’t that mean that, by funding Grantham Institutes at various places to the tune of a whopping $165 million, he’s undermining his own investments (nearly 10% in oil)? Well, as the article at Gurufocus says,

In his most recent shareholder letter, Grantham discussed what he foresees as the future of oil. What he mainly anticipates is shortage and rising prices. “The transition from oil will give us serious and sustained problems. We passed peak oil per capita long ago and we are within 30 years, possibly within 10, of peak oil itself. The price will be volatile beyond our wildest dreams (or nightmares), and the price trend will rise, although at times this will be difficult to discern through the volatility.”

It certainly shows that Grantham, who also seems to have invested in green energy projects, isn’t prepared to put his money where his institute’s big-mouthed big mouth, Ward, is. Ward has long pointed his finger at the likes of Exxon, for ‘funding deniers’. It now seems that the institution he now works for is funded by dirty, dirty oil money. But what does Grantham get out of it?

One thing is for sure. By investing in the green sector, and in oil, and in ‘research institutes’ who make loud noises in favour of policies and PR that will push up the price of fossil fuel and subsidise green energy, he’s not simply backing both horses in a two-horse race; he’s backing two horses in two, one-horse races.

Grantham has invested a vast sum of money in oil. This yields a huge, secure profit, which will only grow if the rank environmentalism and neomalthusianism he and the beneficiaries of his ‘generosity’ tirelessly propagate grows. His funding of research, and his influence over the public agenda vastly exceeds anything that the GWPF could muster, and also shows how private interests do actually dominate the debate — just not in the way Ward imagines it to.

But so much for arguing the toss about who is more corrupted by money than whom. It only serves to demonstrate that Bob Ward has completely failed to develop a sense of proportion. If Ward was really able to muster a convincing case for energy and climate policies, he would not be so preoccupied with ‘funding’, and he would not find himself so completely hoist by his own petard, each and every time.

'The Science is Settled', Part 858

I found myself being called a ‘climate sceptic’ and ‘denier’ this week. I find this odd, because I rarely take a view on the science, which I regard as largely a massive red herring — the climate debate is mostly political. My argument is that if you want to know what ‘science says’, you have to have a good idea about what it has been asked. Some in the debate believe that ‘science’ can speak uncontaminated, objective truth to the policy-making process; you merely have to assemble all the scientific literature, summarise it, and tell the policy-makers. Job done.

But doesn’t setting up special organisations — the IPCC, for instance, or the UK’s Committee on Climate Change — to inform special policy-making process imply something of a loaded question, to which the answer is to some extent presupposed? Doesn’t there appear, therefore, to be a dialogue in which the policy-making process to some extent informs the evidence-making process? I’m not talking about the IPCC being an explicit exercise in policy-based evidence-making, but that there’s a very naive view of science as a process entirely distinct from the rest of the world. (And it’s not as if the climate change issue doesn’t come to the rescue of politicians who find themselves in crisis.) I’m fairly confident that science can answer questions such as ‘is climate change happening’. The best available evidence will suggest that it is. But all the evidence in the world won’t shed any light on what the question means. Science can not deliver value-free answers to political questions, and cannot produce statements about the world independently of the world.

A more useful question is ‘how much has the climate changed’. But even then there are the corollaries: ‘should it have changed at all’, and ‘so what’. A more useful question is, ‘what are the consequences of climate change’. But is that a question only for science? Is climate change worth stopping at all costs? To what extent should climate change be the organising principle of the entire human race’s productive activity? In the same way that special scientific and policy-making processes implies a dialogue between them, the consensus it produces (it is presupposed) precludes another kind of dialogue.

The BEST results are out, pre-peer-review, and amidst a storm of articles reproducing the press release announcing the BEST conlcusion. Says the No Scientist,

Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed

A group of scientists known for their scepticism about climate change has reanalysed two centuries’ worth of global temperature records. Their study largely confirms previous ones: it finds strong evidence that Earth is getting hotter.

I don’t remember the BEST scientists ever being ‘known for their scepticism about climate change’. I do remember them being sceptical of some approaches in climate science, though, and in the presentation of their results. There’s been a lot of discussion about what the BEST results do and don’t say, so I won’t dwell on them. But it is curious that the No Scientist chose the headline Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed, and then goes on to quote a number of sceptics, each of whom seem to have told the article’s author, Michael Marshall that the warming was never in question. For instance, Steve McIntyre is quoted,

I haven’t ever suggested that temperatures haven’t risen since the 19th century. Quite the contrary

Moreover, as David Whitehouse at the GWPF points out,

The researchers find a strong correlation between North Atlantic temperature cycles lasting decades, and the global land surface temperature. They admit that the influence in recent decades of oceanic temperature cycles has been unappreciated and may explain most, if not all, of the global warming that has taken place, stating the possibility that the “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.”

And that’s a very different message to the many news items covering the report. Consider this story on Channel 4 last night. (H/t Bishop Hill).

The item ends with a discussion about whether the BEST results will end the debate.

What this makes clear, then, is that none of the journalists — churnalists — actually understand the debate they are purporting to have analysed. There, in black and white on the No Scientist‘s page, and across the entire climate-sceptic part of the blogosphere are many statements of position, few — if any of which — claim that ‘there has been no global warming’, or words to that effect.

Once again, then, what this shows is that the coverage of the debate tells us more than the actual substance of the debate. What is revealed by the failure of journalists to cover the debate is that they’re reporting from inside their own heads. In their view, the debate is about that familiar trope, ‘climate change is happening’. ‘The scientists’ say it is, and ‘the deniers’ say that it isn’t. That is an imagined debate. It doesn’t exist. This view of the debate precedes (and indeed precludes) any understanding of it.

This in turn reflects the presuppositions implied by the creation of special scientific and policy-making bodies, that all you need to do to move forward with climate change policies is establish that ‘climate change is happening’. Yet there does not appear to be any discussion about attribution in the BEST studies, and there is already some criticism about its methodology.

Many in the debate want to draw a line under the science, to have it ‘settled’ once and for all. But as has been discussed at length, here there and everywhere, that just ain’t science. The desire to move forward with policies, then, without further debate about ‘what science says’ — it has spoken, after all — speaks about the extent to which the policy-making process precedes the evidence-making process. Looking more deeply at the coverage of the debate reveals that expectations of science precede the science. The dialogue between the policy-makers and the evidence makers is two-way, and precludes any criticism or alternative discussion entering the dialogue.

If it were not so, the preconceptions of journalists and other activists would not dominate their analyses of the debate. They would be able to accurately reflect the claims made by ‘sceptics’. They would be able to answer them, and include them in the process. There would be a multi-dimensional dialogue; it would not consist of merely the official evidence-makers and the policy-makers, sitting apart from the rest of the world, deciding its fate.

Climate Change Policy is as Dangerous as Climate Change

According to Channel 4 News,

An interim independent report predicts that 2,700 people will die this winter as a consequence of fuel poverty, a figure greater than the number killed in traffic accidents each year.

As argued here in recent posts, fuel poverty is a direct consequence of the UK’s energy policies. The government and others have argued otherwise, and blamed ‘the market’ for rising prices. But this isn’t good enough. The market does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a world dominated by politicians who aren’t making energy a priority, and who were aware of the effect of their policies on energy prices long ago. Rather than allowing R&D and investment in energy where it is needed, politicians have given incentives to more expensive forms of production, and allowed price to coerce people into reducing their energy consumption. This is not about how much of any fuel or electricity bill is ’caused’ by a given policy, as is possible with a tax. The point is about what happens when you see energy itself as a problem, rather than make the provision of of cheap, abundant energy a political priority, if not merely possible. This is about what happens when policy-makers roll over at the merest whiff of an environmental NGO’s campaign, if governments past and present weren’t already begging them for policy ideas.

Of the 27,000 ‘excess deaths’ that occur each winter when compared to deaths which occur in the summer, 10% of them can be attributed to fuel poverty, says the Hill Report published yesterday by DECC itself.

If I’m right, and these deaths are caused by the UK’s climate and energy policies, then that effect should be compared to what the policies that caused it were intended to achieve.

As discussed in the previous post, the WHO’s World Health Report 2002 attributed 150,000 deaths a year to climate change in ‘high mortality developing countries’ (HMDCs). (Actually the figure is 148,000, but they rounded it up in the press releases).

The HDMCs are listed as the countries belonging to groups AFR-D, AFR-E, AMR-D, EMR-D, SEAR-D. Or, for those who are interested: Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Togo, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal.

According to this Wikipedia page (apologies for using Wikipedia, but, dammit, it is useful sometimes) those countries have a combined population of 2,792,190,752. So that means, taking the WHO’s word for it, the 148,000 deaths caused by climate change amounted to one death in every 18,866 people living in HMDCs.

Now, the UK’s population is 62,435,709, and 2,700 people died in the UK last year as a result of fuel poverty. In other words, on in every 23,124 people in the UK died last year, because of fuel poverty, caused by the UK’s climate change and energy policies.

What else can we conclude, but that climate change policy is as dangerous as climate change? In fact it is more dangerous, because those deaths occurred in the developed world. Imagine, then, what effect climate change policies are having in the developing world — the HMDCs.

Curiously enough for a report commissioned by the DECC, the Hill Fuel Poverty Review of doesn’t meaningfully discuss the possibility that the 2,700 deaths it attributes to energy poverty can thus be attributed to the shortcomings of policy-makers and their policies. It doesn’t consider that existing policies may have been the cause of fuel poverty. It concludes…

This Chapter has looked at the underlying causes of fuel poverty and who they most affect, as well as energy use. The main findings, summarised in more detail after each section, are:
• Poorer households live in smaller dwellings, reducing potential energy bills. Social housing is also more energy efficient than private housing. Being off the gas grid is a major factor increasing energy costs. Within tenures, energy efficiency (SAP rating) is not strongly linked to income.
• Those on low incomes are least likely to be on the cheapest, direct debit, tariffs. Where customers with prepayment meters have switched supplier following a doorstep sale, almost as many
switched to a worse as to a better deal.
• The net effect of government policies on different income groups will depend on how the interventions financed by some of those policies are distributed. On assumptions made by DECC in 2010, the net effect would be a loss on average for low-income households, tending to increase fuel poverty. Whether this actually occurs depends on decisions yet to be taken.
• We do not know what temperatures households are now living at. Data on actual energy use suggest that even better-off households do not live at the temperatures assumed in modelling fuel
poverty. However, the poorest tenth of households appear to be living at lower temperatures than contemporary norms.

The report concludes… (My emphasis)…

The issue of fuel poverty also ties in strongly with the urgent need to tackle climate change, as part of which a priority is to improve energy efficiency standards in UK homes in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change policy delivery is made more difficult by the existence of fuel poverty. If the price mechanism is used to encourage carbon reduction, some low-income householders face disproportionate costs, but the capital investment needed to bring about efficiency improvements and carbon savings is beyond them. If carbon emissions from these households are to be reduced, assistance will be needed. Once made, interventions should have a sustained impact on the costs they face and then in a combination of warmer homes and their own carbon reductions.

How can the UK government only now be commissioning reports which state the obvious? How did it fail to anticipate that rising energy costs would cause harm to people? Why did it not consider the human cost of its policies before rushing them through parliament? Why did it not think to consider mitigating the effects of fuel poverty before creating the problem of increasing fuel poverty? Why should we think that the government’s attempts to intervene to mitigate the effects of fuel poverty will be any less damaging than their attempt to mitigate climate change?

Expect more intervention and more policies. Expect more fuel poverty. Expect more deaths.

Meanwhile, as was established in the previous post, there are 10% fewer cases of malaria — one of the main diseases that the WHO believed to be exacerbated by climate change — now than when the data for the WHO 2002 report was compiled. It seemed unlikely that the 150,000 deaths were attributed to climate change safely before we discovered that malaria rates were in decline. Now it seems even less likely. Climate change policies really are worse than climate change.

An Inconvenient Eradication

One of the things mentioned very often here is the case of the WHO claim that 150,000 deaths throughout the world can be attributed to climate change. This figure was then upped to 300,000 by the now defunct Global Humanitarian Forum, under the stewardship of former UN chief, Kofi Anan.

The WHO and GHF studies were used to make the case that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. But, as argued here, the expression ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ amounts to a much stronger argument for creating wealth than it does for the abolition of climate change.

The WHO’s and GHF’s method was to estimate the increased prevalence of malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition caused by climate change. Here, for instance is the GHF’s table, in which they assume that climate change increases the prevalence of these diseases by around 4% in 2010, rising to around 6% in 2030.

As pointed out here, given that malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition are diseases of poverty, the greater problem is one of lack of wealth. Tackle that problem, and you don’t merely save the lives of the 302,000 people who die from ‘climate change’, you also save 7.5 million lives lost to poverty, as well as the costs caused by 5.8 billion cases of the diseases it causes. To say that environmentalists and the ‘global leaders’ urging action on climate change lack a sense of proportion is an understatement.

Anyway, the BBC are now reporting that,

There has been a fall of just over 20% in the number of deaths from malaria worldwide in the past decade, the World Health Organization says.
A new report said that one-third of the 108 countries where malaria was endemic were on course to eradicate the disease within 10 years.

Experts said if targets continued to be met, a further three million lives could be saved by 2015.

It’s not clear how much credit the WHO can take for reducing the human cost of malaria. But what is clear is that malaria has got nothing to do with climate change.

Who Are the 'Reality Checkers' Kidding?

Polly Curtis is the Guardian’s ‘reality checker’. Today’s she’s been live-blogging the debate about the margins of the ‘Big Six’ energy retailers, discussed here yesterday.

Reality check: Are energy price hikes inevitable?
Temperatures are about to plummet and energy bills soar with gas and electricity bosses claiming further rises are unavoidable. Are the price rises really inevitable? Polly Curtis, with your help, finds out.

I’ve always wondered how firm the grip that The Guardian and its staff — much as with the environmental movement more broadly — have on reality. Indeed, Curtis’ attempts to get to the bottom of the debate does little more than reproduce official arguments put out by the government, quangos and NGOs. As such, then, she only reproduces official reality. The problem here is, as has been discussed previously, the UK’s energy policies have been essentially drafted by NGOs, and quangos are defacto government bodies, who aren’t really able to criticise policy in any meaningful way.

There’s plenty to take issue with in Curtis’ account of the fiasco. This is perhaps the most bizarre.

This is the most striking set of figures I’ve seen. This graph documents the price changes at the big six suppliers for an average dual customer paying by direct debit over the last seven years. It’s quite breath-taking how tightly they mirror each other, and how in the last two to three years the variability has reduced. I think it demonstrates a total lack of competition in the market.

The reason the curves ‘mirror each other’ so ‘tightly’ is that the margins are so low. In other words, there is a great deal of competition in the retail market. If there was no competition, you would see higher margins.

This, however, makes slightly more sense…

The other area where the government is putting pressure is by making wholesalers sell more energy on the open market, instead of to their own retailers, in order to allow new providers to enter the market and improve competition.

… But only just. The figures produced by OFGEM, which have sparked this row do not discuss the difference between the retail and wholesale parts of the ‘big six’ energy companies’ groups. And the ‘competition’ this will seemingly create is still only competition in the retail market, not in the wholesale market, which, thanks to the UK’s renewable energy targets, is heavily regulated… Suppliers must take a rising percentage of their energy from renewable producers, and so on.

This, however, is completely nuts:

• Over the long-term it is very likely that the unit costs of energy will rise as resources become scarcer, the UK becomes more dependent on imports and there is a bigger shift towards green energy policies.

Curtis has just forgotten about 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, sitting under the North of England. She needs a reality check herself.

The Big Lie About the 'Big 6'

In spite of their having campaigned tirelessly over the last few decades for more expensive and less efficient forms of energy production — ‘sustainable energy’ — many of a greenish hue are getting heated up about about UK energy market regulator OFGEM’s latest report. The Left Foot Forward blog reports,

Outrage at 733 per cent rise in energy companies’ profits
There was anger today at the news this morning that energy companies’profits had soared eight-fold from £15 to £125 per customer per year.Friends of the Earth said it was “outrageous” the energy fat cats were raking in the profits while people face “rocketing” bills and “shiver in cold homes”.

As discussed here recently, it’s just a bit rich that FoE are complaining about rising energy prices. Few organisations have done more to make using energy more difficult for poorer people in the UK than FoE.

Rising bills and increasing levels of ‘fuel poverty’ have embarrassed the UK government. And perhaps for the first time, the UK public is finding itself exposed to the realities of climate change policies. In other words, climate change policies just got political. They are now part of people’s daily lives, exactly as the green NGOs wanted. Now everybody has to think before they turn their lights and heating on. Everybody is now forced to think of ways to cut their fuel consumption. And as a consequence, Quangos, NGOs, government departments, and their ministers past and present are trying to distance themselves from those consequences, by pretending to champion the interests of the consumer. “It wasn’t us”, they scream.

The Guardian reported last month that,

The Labour party is to put the UK’s big six energy companies “on notice”, pledging that the next Labour government will break up their “stranglehold” of the market in order to tackle soaring bills.

Labour will pledge to break up the existing market which allows the major energy companies to both generate and sell energy to households, which the party argues fails to minimise prices and prevents new companies entering the market.

Earlier in the year, the same paper quoted Chris Huhne,

As concern grows that the other five major energy companies are preparing to follow Scottish Power and announce big rises within weeks, the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, told the Observer that consumers should not accept the increases “lying down” but “hurt” their supplier by finding cheaper alternatives.

“Consumers don’t have to take price increases lying down,” he said. “If an energy company hits you with a price increase, you can hit them back where it hurts – by shopping around and voting with your feet.”

But come the conference party season, Huhne had a new target.

Price rises were the energy companies’ fault. And then they were the consumer’s fault. But they weren’t the fault of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, DECC, the coalition government or the previous government/s,  oh no.

Now the quango seemingly charged with being the ‘energy consumer watchdog’ OFGEM, has entered the debate to attempt to give substance to the claims about the energy companies’ dubious selling practices. The press release announcing its intervention said,

After extensive analysis, Ofgem has decided to progress its preferred model for the reform of the retail energy market. It has also published today its latest report on prices which shows that the average dual fuel bill now stands at £1,345 and, following recent price rises, estimated suppliers’ margins have peaked at around £125 per year, but are likely to fall back next year. This report on prices does nothing to alter Ofgem’s findings in March that competition is being stifled by a combination of tariff complexity, poor supplier behaviour and lack of transparency and that radical change is needed. […] In December further decisions on proposals on liquidity to break the stranglehold of the Big Six in the wholesale electricity market

Spurious claims are made about the conduct of energy companies. They’re making excessive profits. They’re misleading consumers. They’re ripping people off. See this interview with Adam Scorer from quango Consumer Focus, for instance.

But who is really doing the misleading and ripping off here? A closer look at the OFGEM (another quango) report reveals a far less straightforward picture.

Between 2004 and 2009, it seems that energy companies were not making a profit (if margin is assumed to be profit) at all. There followed two years of profitability, which can barely be described as excessive. In fact, the margin between Aug 2009 and June 2011 looks modest. By June this year, the margin was just £15. The apparently shocking rise of 733% is extraordinary, only when we forget that the margin represented by 100% (£15) is so low. Moreover, the margin reported by OFGEM this quarter is unusually high — an anomaly, in fact. It makes no more sense to talk about the margin rising over just one quarter in this way than it does to talk about climate change by comparing minimum winter temperatures with maximum summer temperatures, as is discussed shortly. It should be treated with some care before it is used as evidence that the energy companies are ripping us off. After all, the idea that they have been ripping us off simply isn’t demonstrated by the curves on the graphs representing their profits. I asked OFGEM for the figures, and how they were derived. They said they couldn’t tell me. It’s ‘commercially sensitive’ data.

OFGEM produce this report quarterly. Take a peek at the headline from the June report, then, and it seems that it’s much harder to portray energy companies as evil b*stards.

We estimate net margin on supplying a typical, standard tariff, dual fuel customer to be approximately £15 per customer for the year from June 2011. This is a significant reduction on the net margin indicator published in March. The main driver of reduced net margins is the increase in wholesale gas and electricity prices. Gas prices, in particular, have had a strong upward shift in the last six months, owing to global events. This means that the price for next Winter‟s gas is around 30% higher than the price for last Winter’s gas. Other factors have also had an effect on suppliers’ margins, and these are explained in the report. The £15 net margin figure is not affected by the recent price increase announced by one of the Big 6 energy supply companies, as this price increase is not effective until August. This will cause the average dual fuel customer bill in our analysis to rise from that date by about £15.

In other words, in June, energy companies would have seen that their profits were going to go negative again. Perhaps this explains the apparently shocking 733% rise in the margin. Faced with the very likely possibility that wholesale prices would rise considerably, the suppliers had to anticipate the market price — which was both high and volatile. Looking at the June report for winter gas prices shows the problem.

Between October 2010 and April 2011, gas prices for winter 2011-12 increased by a third. The apparently huge increase in profits may merely reflect the fact that prices are high, volatile, and the energy companies’ need to anticipate prices.

To make the point more clearly, here are the October to October year increases given by the latest OFGEM report.

(Sharp-eyed readers will observe that there’s an error in the calculation of gross margin for October 2011.)

The first thing to note is that the October ’10 to October ’11 increase is lower than the June ’11 to October ’11 increase, in both absolute terms, and proportionally. It’s a 300% increase, rather than a 733% increase. Still an increase, but hardly as shocking. Second, the increase in the margin represents just over a third of the total increase. The shocking increase in margin was produced by taking a anomalous relative low from a corrective, anomalous high.

Now, let’s assume that the ‘right’ amount of margin for a duel fuel energy company is £50, and then that the current October price was caused by increases in wholesale costs, and the other actual rises.

So in the real world, wholesale prices increased Oct-Oct from £490 to £605 or by 23%. In our imagined scenario, prices rose from £490 to £685, or by 40%. In other words, the energy company would have to anticipate a rise in prices, and the hypothetical energy company estimated a rise of 40%, against the reality of 23%. Is that so unreasonable, given that we have seen prices increase in the order of 33% in just half a year, and that energy companies were barely making a profit at all back in March?

I don’t believe that it is is. And there are many problems with the vilification of energy companies. Why take the June 2011 margin £15 as the starting point to show the increasing profits of energy companies? Why not choose October 2007, when the margin was -£55?

The reasons for this vilification are obvious, and discussed above. Those individuals and organisations need a scape goat. Now let’s consider their solution: breaking the putative monopoly that the ‘big six’ energy providers have on the market. Says OFGEM:

Today’s consultation is the first of four waves of reform:
* In November detailed proposals to reform the energy market to help the businesses sector
* In December further decisions on proposals on liquidity to break the stranglehold of the Big Six in the wholesale electricity market
* In the New Year the findings of an independent report into making energy company accounts more transparent.

Ofgem’s Chief Executive Alistair Buchanan said: “When consumers face energy bills at around £1,345 they must have complete confidence that this price is set by companies competing in a fully competitive market. At the moment that is not the case.

“That is why a radical break with the past is needed. Ofgem’s tariff reforms offer the quickest way to create a market where consumers can have confidence that prices are set by effective competition. Suppliers have told Ofgem they want to restore confidence in the industry and now they have the chance to do so.
“With £200 billion of investment needed to overhaul Britain’s energy industry and the pressure this and rising energy prices puts on bills, consumers rightly demand a major improvement in the way suppliers behave towards them.”

One of OFGEM’s complaints is that the energy tariffs set by companies is too complex. This is undoubtedly true. But it is hard to see that, looking at the margins of the energy companies, simplifying the price structure will yield much of a positive effect for the consumer. These margins are not big. Yet if you listened to the likes of Chris Huhne — who claims that consumers can save themselves £100s by switching tariffs — you would form the impression that energy companies are making £100s per customer. They aren’t. Yet he blames energy suppliers for deliberately confusing customers, and he blames customers for failing to shop around for the best deals. He, the DECC, the ENGOs, and the quangos then blame the monopoly — as though it were a cartel.

But even if these reforms did break the ‘cartel’, how would new players in the market cope with such low margins? For five of the last seven years, the margins seem to have been negative. Who would be foolish to enter such a market? Given the emphasis that the actual cartel — the DECC, quangos, and ENGOs — have put on renewable energy, which rewards new players on the electricity market with such high returns, making conventional energy even more expensive, it is hard to see how the plans to transform the market will yield any benefit to the consumer. Will new players simply be subsidised by the old, just as ‘renewable energy’ is subsidised by conventional energy, and won’t the net effect be to increase prices even further?

The argument from the idiots at Left Foot Forward would seem to suggest that it would be:

Ofgem say the consultation unveiled today is “the first of four waves of reform” – in November, they will unveil detailed proposals to reform the energy market to help the business sector; in December there will be further decisions on proposals on liquidity to break the stranglehold of the Big Six in the wholesale electricity market; and in the New Year they will publish a report into how to make energy company accounts more transparent.

As the BBC’s Damian Kahya writes, the new plans, though still complex, are likely to bring down prices:

In addition to the new simple tariffs, companies will still be allowed to offer an almost infinite range of fixed rate deals, similar to mobile phone contracts. Though complex, those deals may end up cheaper than a standard rate, especially if they are tied to the planned roll out of smart meters.

These complicated deals may also offer greater savings to households that can afford special devices designed to use more electricity when the price is low. It’s exactly that type of complexity which has put many lower income households off switching to cheaper tariffs, a problem Ofgem is trying to solve.

The coming consultation will give the regulator a chance to see if it can be fixed, perhaps by making all tariffs – even smart meter deals – directly comparable on the same terms.

Let’s hope they do.

Let’s hope they don’t get the chance. As a rather more sober BBC article claimed in 2009,

Plans for smart meters for millions of homes have been unveiled with trials suggesting the £8bn scheme may help people save £28 a year.

Hurrah! A saving of a whopping £28! But, the article continues…

Energy suppliers, rather than distribution networks, will be responsible for the roll-out of the meters at a cost of about £340 per household.

So where’s the money going to come from?

From energy bills, of course. The energy suppliers are going to want to recoup that £8 billion capital cost. They’re not making enough money to pay for them. In fact, if they really were making £15 a year back in June, then it would take 23 years to raise that much in profit, or 3 years, at the October margin of £125. It gets worse, though. More recent estimates suggest that the government is being very optimistic…

Margaret Hodge MP, who chairs the Committee of Public Accounts, said the government’s track record on delivering large programmes is patchy at best. “At the moment the estimated cost is £11.3bn, but all our experience suggests that this budget will be blown,” she said.

The government predict savings of up to £18 billion, according to the National Audit OFfice, who seem rightly sceptical. I don’t trust the claim in the slightest.

And if this wasn’t enough, the UK National Grid requires £200 billion investment over the next decade, to make sure that the government’s ill-conceived emphasis on wind energy doesn’t cause chaos.

National Grid will be critical in ensuring Britain’s energy sector is given a £200bn overhaul over the next decade, making sure that new wind farms and nuclear power stations are connected to the grid.

Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, said: “The year has started well with our businesses making good initial progress toward their priorities and delivering solid operational and financial performance.

Yet not a single penny of this vast sum of money will yield a single watt of advantage to the consumer who will end up paying for it. The aim of the UK’s emphasis on renewable energy and emissions-reduction is simply to keep the lights on at best. Keep the lights on, that is, if you are lucky… Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, was also on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this year.

Evan Davis: “Get a move on”, is your message. Let’s talk about one or two specifics. Wind – as you fly in now over the Thames Estuary, you fly in to Heathrow, you begin to really see quite a lot of wind is being created – a lot of wind turbines are being created – in the Thames Estuary and around the country, aren’t they?

Steve Holliday: They are, and yet that’s still a drop in the ocean, compared to, in our own forecasts, if you look at the energy mix that we believe we are likely to need, to hit a low-carbon generation fleet by 2020 and 2030. Today we’ve got about 5 gigawatts of wind, we’ll have nearly 30 by 2020…

Evan Davis: Does it work?

Steve Holliday:…just imagine…

Evan Davis: Because if the wind doesn’t blow, how does the older grid cope?

Steve Holliday: The grid’s going to be a very different system in 2020, 2030. We keep thinking about: we want it to be there and provide power when we need it. It’s going to be a much smarter system, then. We’re going to have to change our own behaviour and consume it when it’s available, and available cheaply.

We have to consume it when it’s available? So if there’s no wind, we can’t have showers, heat, light… or listen to the moron chief executives of the companies managing the UK’s essential infrastructure on the radio… It’s not some eco-warrior or Guardian eco-loon telling us that the Grid will not be supply power to our homes when we most likely need it; it’s the CEO of the company which operates it. The thinking behind this idea is that continuity of supply will be predicated on the consumer’s ability to pay. Even if the range of tariffs on offer today are baffling, the choice offered by the ‘simplified’ schemes being considered now would be recognised best by Hobson: pay more money, or accept interruptions to your supply. That’s a ‘smart grid’. That’s the ‘future’ of our energy supply. It will cost more. It will deliver less. It will cause real harm to poorer people. And it will be less reliable. And it will be so, because those are today’s political priorities. They are shared by many companies, by politicians and government departments, ENGOs, and the quangos whose legal responsibilities are to protect the interests of the consumer.

The attempt to blame energy retail companies for increasing bills is a grotesque political manoeuvre. It is rank propaganda, designed to capture discontent for the ends of a self-serving consensus. Even if energy retailers made zero profit, it would make almost no difference to the average consumer. Energy prices rise, not because of a cartel of energy companies, but because there is a political consensus in Westminster, in Brussels, and at the UN. The bubble in which these policies are formed it impervious to criticism and to challenge. It’s inhabitants emerge from the bubble, to discover that prices have risen, and that people are angry, and so they blame the retailers.

It’s a bit like imposing tariffs on farmers and restricting the land they may use for agricultural production, and then blaming the shopkeepers for the price of bread rising. ‘We must open more bread shops’, say the government. But now the low margins are split between more people, with greater net overheads. Prices rise. ‘We must control demand’, says the government, and forces the shopkeepers to install ‘smart tills’ that vary the size, quality and price of loaves, depending on customers use of bread. When it becomes apparent that these policies have failed, who will the government turn to next? Will they continue to blame the retailers and consumers, or will they move up the supply chain?

The Poverty of 'Development Goals'

Roger Pielke asks an intriguing question on his blog:

Why is Energy Access Not a MDG?

The UN Millennium Development Goals (pictured above) focus attention on helping improve the lives of poor people around the world. In the words of the UN:
[The eight goals] form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. They have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.
Question: Why is energy access not among the goals?

It is a good question. The UN aim to ’empower’ women, for instance, but what good is being empowered, when you have no power? The freest woman in the world would have nothing to enjoy if she has no running water (also not mentioned), electricity, and access to transport. What’s the point of political liberty, if there is no material liberty?

But look also at the fact that these goals are actually rather limited aspirations. They speak of combating HIV/AIDS, malaria ‘and other diseases’, but why not eradication. They only aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The problem with setting ‘goals’ is that, fundamentally, they speak of the impossibility of solving them. After all, these are problems which legitimise supranational organisations such as the UN.

I don’t wish to sound harsh… Many of these aims are laudable. I think the UN probably is good at ‘combating’ disease. I think that it is appropriate to have an international organisation to deliver that kind of good. But what business is it of the UN’s to ‘promote gender equality and empower women’? I believe strongly in the idea; but I think it’s probably up to women to empower themselves. It wasn’t men being nice and generous that led to the extension of the franchise to women in the UK, for instance. So why not have an international project to deliver or fund disease eradication and universal education? But why aim to ‘ensure environmental sustainability’ at the same time? And what if these objectives come into conflict? What if disease, poverty and hunger are ‘environmentally sustainable’ and their cures — never mind the palliatives — aren’t ‘sustainable’? After all, we don’t see many people suffering extreme poverty where they have access to energy.

Last on the list — but I believe to be the fundamental — is the ‘global partnership for development’. It’s a nice piece of fluffy jargon… Who isn’t in favour of global things, especially partnerships. But the problem with partnerships is… other people. If I want to do something, I have to ask you first. Says the UN,

The Millennium Goals represent a global partnership for development. The deal makes clear that it is the primary responsibility of poor countries to work towards achieving the first seven Goals. They must do their part to ensure greater accountability to citizens and efficient use of resources. But for poor countries to achieve the first seven Goals, it is absolutely critical that rich countries deliver on their end of the bargain with more and more effective aid, more sustainable debt relief and fairer trade rules, well in advance of 2015.

So the terms of ‘development’ aren’t set by those who need it. The UN says that the governments of poor countries ‘must do their part to ensure greater accountability to citizens’, but in reality, they’re accountable to the UN, to their creditors, and to NGOs, who presume to act in their interests, as discussed previously on this blog. Don’t take my words for it. Searching the web for discussions and articles by people involved in the development agenda reveals a lot. I got this passage by searching for ‘MDGs’ and Christian Aid, for instance.

The European Commissioner called for an end to capital flight which, in his view, costs poor countries seven times what they receive in aid. In fact everyone agreed that we would never eradicate poverty without addressing capital flight and tax dodging which we estimate costs developing countries $160bn dollars a year.

Gay Mitchell MEP said this money could save the lives of 350,000 children each year and this outflow needs to stop.

This is where I got excited. Having spent most of my waking hours in the past year talking, writing and dreaming of governments taking Christian Aid’s proposals seriously the head of the OECD said this: ‘Country by Country reporting and Automatic Information Exchange are anathema to those wishing to avoid or evade tax and we should pursue them’.

This is a clear signal that Christian Aid’s proposals make sense, but that it is a matter of political will to make them happen.

It is also a clear signal that Christian Aid and our partners have been successful in putting this issue firmly on the agenda of those in power.

The words belong to David McNair Christian Aid’s senior economic justice adviser. It’s curious that someone so concerned about ‘justice’ should be so keen on undemocratic, unaccountable NGOs influencing undemocratic and unaccountable supranational policy-making processes. Christian Aid may well point out that, in a world dominated by powerful interests, the least powerful lack representation, and are unable to assert themselves in the policy-making process. Maybe so. And maybe even ‘capital flight’ is a problem for those people capital certainly seems to flee from.

But surely creating capital is equally an important issue. (And this is why I chose to search Google for ‘Christian Aid, alongside ‘MDGs’). What do Christian Aid have to say about that? A report published by Christian Aid this week, argues that

In recognition of the challenges facing agriculture, donors and governments have in recent years made welcome new political and financial commitments to smallholder farming, especially in Africa. However, as this report outlines, the solutions for Africa advocated by donors, governments and the initiatives of private foundations have tended to centre around the promotion of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which are costly for farmers and very often resource depleting. This drive for a new ‘Green Revolution’ for Africa has tended to sideline more sustainable, farmer led approaches. For example, recent input-subsidy programmes in Africa have brought significant short-term benefits in certain cases, but they are looking increasingly unsustainable and risk sidelining investment in greener alternatives. And our research identifies concerns that the agro-dealer networks funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) are selling ever more quantities
of agro-chemicals to farmers, thus marginalising the space for alternative approaches that are more sustainable.

The emphasis on ‘sustainability’ seems to clash with the objective of development. And yet, as ever, the concept of ‘sustainability’ against which ‘development’ is measured is at best nebulous.

We define sustainable agriculture as a way of producing food that balances the economic, social and environmental aspects of farming. It is an approach that minimises or avoids chemical inputs, uses resource-conserving technologies and materials available on the farm, and draws and builds upon the capacity of farmers and community organisations.

So, one reason Christian Aid seem to think that the use of agricultural chemicals is ‘unsustainable’ is because it involves the use of agricultural chemicals. If pointing out this tautologous absurdity is petty, consider also the fact that using ‘resource-conserving technologies’ paradoxically leaves the producer with fewer resources. That’s the point of using things like fertiliser. Without it, it’s just the soil, the elements, the seed and the farmer. Add the process upstream of the farmer — fertiliser production — and the downstream market, and value-added processing, and you have a system which includes primary producers in a far more complex network of people able to mobilise a greater range of resources. Farmers in the west have iPods, mobile phones, laptop computers, heavy machinery. By precluding the use of pesticides, doesn’t Christian Aid preclude the possibility of life for the poorest people becoming more sophisticated, such that they’re able to assert their own interests in the political process? What’s so good about ‘[balancing] the economic, social and environmental aspects of farming’? The point of using pesticides and fertilisers was never so that these things could be ‘balanced’. They were used to produce positive change. Doesn’t this ‘build upon the capacity of farmers and community organisations’?

Perhaps this sounds unfair. After all, Christian Aid are talking about small scale farming. But their reflection on the Green Revolution in Asia reveals some dodgy use of statistics.

Punjab is the leading ‘breadbasket’ and ’rice bowl’ of India: in the early 2000s it was contributing one-third of rice and over half of the wheat procured by the Food Corporation of India. But in recent years, wheat yields have been falling: from 4.7 tonnes per hectare in 1999 to 2000 to 4.2 tonnes per hectare in 2005 to 2006. And rice yields have grown only very slowly. A recent report on the problem stated that this trend ‘can be directly linked to the ecological consequences of intensive monoculture systems’. The state government has now responded with a programme to support greater crop diversification.

I couldn’t find any data relating to wheat production in Punjab, and the reference to the data linked to by the report is not online. But UNFAOSTAT is fairly useful. It reveals the following facts about wheat production in India.

As we can see, across India as a whole, wheat yield has increased nearly fourfold since 1961. If the region which produces half of that wheat has been falling because of the ‘ecological consequences of intensive monoculture systems’, it would surely be visible. But instead we can see that the area used for wheat production remained relatively static, and production suffered a slight dip in the early 2000s, but recovered through the remaining part of the decade — the opposite picture to the one presented by Christian Aid. It is possible, nonetheless, that the loss in Punjab were absorbed by production increases elsewhere, but the point remains that the increase in yield and production across the country has been sustained, for half a century, thanks substantially to agricultural chemicals.

Now, it is still possible that what Christian Aid are saying is correct, in relation to smallholdings. It may well be the case that the economics of smallholdings are such that chemicals are inappropriate. But then, what’s so good about being a smallholder? That may sound callous, but my point is about Roger Pielke’s question: Why is energy access not among the goals?

If the economics of smallholding preclude the use of industrial chemicals, surely such ‘sustainable’ lifestyles equally preclude the connection to an electricity grid. After all, if the farmer doesn’t produce sufficient surplus to pay for chemicals, how will he be able to afford his electricity bills? How is he going to pay to be connected to water infrastructure? And if there’s not enough capital being produced for these things, what sense does it make to talk about the other development goals? How is anyone trapped in subsistence going to find the time to let their children study; to combat extreme poverty and hunger; argue for equality; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; and combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases… They are too busy meeting the two MDGs taken more seriously than any other: ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’ as their part of the ‘global partnership for development’.

I think we have an answer to Pielke’s excellent question. Energy access is not among the goals set by the supranational political institutions, NGOs, and national governments that dominate the development agenda because it doesn’t fit with their vision of how people should live. Neither does the use of agricultural chemicals. Neither do lifestyles which offer more possibilities than subsistence and… guess what… dependence on the generosity of self-serving supranational political institutions, certain national governments, and NGOs. These entities are in turn dependent on the poverty of others for their own legitimacy. Chemicals and electricity would tear through that relationship of dependency, and that’s the reality of the ‘sustainability’ agenda.

The Poverty of Opinion Polls

The Guardian has an article about a poll of Europeans [PDF], which, according to them, shows that ‘Europeans fear climate change more than financial turmoil‘.

I have little time for opinion polls. There is only one real test of opinion, and that is an individual leaving his or her home, and putting an ‘X’ in the box on a ballot paper. And I’m suspicious of opinion polls, too. It is easy to make instrumental use of the attempts to gauge public opinion they hire pollsters to carry out. Questions are too easily framed to elicit the desired answer… are you in favour of motherhood and apple pie, or letting dangerous dogs play in childrens’ playgrounds? And then there is the danger that, if the interviewee has not had to go out of his way to register his view (i.e. to the polling station) then all that opinion polls measure is a weak opinion, not a conviction or commitment to an idea, thus making weakly-held opinion appear as support for a given agenda.

Opinions about climate change and policies intended to mitigate it are even more fraught. For what it’s worth — very little — I believe ‘climate change is a very serious problem’. It’s just that I don’t believe that the expression ‘climate change is a very serious problem’ actually means very much. It’s not a problem all by itself. As often pointed out on this blog, the ‘problem’ of climate change depends more on who has to experience it than on the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Anyway, back to the Guardian’s headline. The first thing to point out is that Europeans were not polled about their ‘fear’; they were asked about what they believed were the world’s ‘most serious problems’. Second, ‘financial turmoil’ is not a global problem: many economies are not experiencing it. This Wikipedia article lists each country’s growth over the last year. Most economies are growing at fairly healthy rates. This picture puts those statistics into a global perspective. There is a difference then, between a problem with an international dimension, and a ‘global problem’.

Says the Guardian…

The Eurobarometer poll (pdf) found that the majority of the public in the European Union consider global warming to be one of the world’s most serious problems, with one-fifth saying it is the single most serious problem.

This much seems to be true. If you ask Europeans to name the world’s single biggest problem, one in 5 of them say it’s climate change, and one in 6 and a quarter say its the economic situation. But put another way, four out of five Europeans disagree with the people who say that climate change is the biggest problem in the world. The figure changes dramatically when you ask people to name four more of the biggest problems in the world. But look at the two results…

The figure on the left is what happens when you ask people to name the single biggest problem. The figure on the right shows what happens when you ask them for 3 further answers.

So, out of just eight, the interviewees are in fact to nominate half of the problems listed as ‘the most serious problem[s] facing the world as a whole’.

And look at the problems people are asked to choose from. Concern about ‘the spread of infectious diseases’ and ‘armed conflicts’, rises nearly seven-fold between asking people for one and four of the eight ‘most serious problems. ‘The proliferation of nuclear weapons’ worries six times as many people when you ask people what they believe are the most serious problems, four times. The number of people concerned by ‘the increasing global population’ seems to increase according to the number of times you ask them to nominate one of the ‘most serious problems facing the world’. Why not just ask the same question eight times, and claim that 100% of Europeans think that climate change is ‘one of the most serious problems facing the world’? Eurosceptics amongst us will remember, that this is the MO of the European Union… If you don’t get the answer you were looking for the first time, ask and ask again. If you still don’t get the answer you wanted, insult those you polled, and ignore their answers anyway. I’m talking, of course about the referenda within EU countries, which asked for assent to various treaties, to which the answers were ‘No’, ‘Non’, and ‘Nee’. When did the EU start giving such a hoot about public opinion?

There are further problems. As discussed above, polls such as this don’t really ask interviewees to volunteer their opinion; they ask him or her to chose from the pre-selected list. This may be equivalent to no more than asking them which issues they’ve heard about — a quiz, rather than a poll. Then there’s the fact that opinions, such as they are, really don’t exist in a vacuum. People form ideas about the world by existing within it, and interacting with it. So, for instance, imagine that interviewer offered an argument that may diminish the interviewee’s concern about the issue he or she selected… For instance, had ‘the economic turmoil’ issue been chosen, the interviewer said ‘do you know that only 18 countries are currently experiencing negative growth, would you like to change your selection?’. It’s unrealistic, of course, but the point is that opinions are formed by dialogue. But the biggest problem with the poll is that it forces the presupposition that there are such things as ‘the most serious problems facing the world’ that can be reduced to mere issues devoid of their context. The questions are loaded, therefore, by that familiar maxim, ‘global problems need global solutions’. After all, why else would a supranational political institution, which is most famous for failing to engage the support of its member countries’ populations, be so interested in identifying ‘global problems’? The answer is in the inversion of the maxim: global solutions need global problems.

This is further revealed by Connie Hedegaard, European climate commissioner, quoted by The Guardian,

“This is encouraging news. The survey shows that the citizens of Europe can see that economic challenges are not the only ones we face. A clear majority of Europeans expect their politicians and business leaders to address the serious climate challenge now.”

She said it was “striking” that the public were even more concerned about climate change than in the run-up to the landmark Copenhagen summit on climate change in late 2009.

Another answer might be that the public have simply grown tired of the other ‘global problem’ narratives that once dominated the media, but no longer do. Global pandemics, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, for instance, are more distant memories. In any case, Hedeegard is wrong to suggest that climate change is moving up in the public’s consciousness. Compare this year’s results to the poll conducted in 2008.

It’s more striking that people were less sceptical of climate change policies a year before the Copenhagen summit than either during the run up to it, and since it.

A final quote from the Guardian lets the political ambition cat out of the bag…

The results of the Eurobarometer poll were hailed by the European commission as evidence that the public across member states maintains its support for measures to tackle climate change. The commission is currently engaged in an argument over whether to toughen the EU’s target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, to a more stretching target of cutting emissions by 30% by the same date. The poll was conducted in June among 27,000 people from aged 15 in 27 countries.

Hedegaard wants to toughen the target but she is opposed by several other commissioners, including the energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger.

Hedegaard said on Friday: “The fact that more than three out of four Europeans see improving energy efficiency as a way to create jobs is a strong signal to Europe’s decision makers. I see this poll very much as an encouragement for us in the commission to continue fighting for ambitious and concrete climate action in Europe.”

So here’s how it works… You take people by surprise. You ask them to chose from a narrow range of issues. And then you ask them again. And Again. And again. You don’t give them the benefit of making a decision in the context of a debate. And you don’t canvass them for their opinion about costs and benefits, either ‘globally’ or in relation to themselves. You don’t tell them that the results will be used to legitimise certain policies. You compare their opinions to a historic low, and say that the answers demonstrate growing support for your policies — the bases of which have never been tested for popular assent at the ballot box.