By Lewis Page • Get more from this author
Posted in Science, 16th May 2012 08:19 GMT
Analysis Extremist green campaigning group WWF – endorsed by no less a body than the European Space Agency – has stated that economic growth should be abandoned, that citizens of the world’s wealthy nations should prepare for poverty and that all the human race’s energy should be produced as renewable electricity within 38 years from now.
Most astonishingly of all, the green hardliners demand that the enormous numbers of wind farms, tidal barriers and solar powerplants required under their plans should somehow be built while at the same time severely rationing supplies of concrete, steel, copper and glass.
The WWF presents these demands in its just-issued Living Planet Report for 2012. It’s a remarkable document, not least for the fact that it is formally endorsed for the first time by the European Space Agency (ESA) – an organisation which would cease to exist in any meaningful form if the document’s recommendations were to be carried out.
The report is also unusual in that it seeks to set policy on economics and energy, but doesn’t anywhere give any figures expressed in units of energy (watt-hours, joules etc) or currency (dollars, euros or what have you). Instead the WWF activists prefer to base their argument on various indices invented either by themselves or by other international non- or quasi-governmental organisations.
For instance one key figure used in the report is the Living Planet Index, invented by the WWF, which apparently shows “trends in the overall state of global biodiversity”.
It does this by examining the number of individuals (or sometimes pairs) in various local populations of 2,688 selected species – of vertebrates only. Every two years WWF changes what species and populations are included, in large numbers: and anyone would acknowledge that a limited, localised picture of a couple of thousand vertebrate-only species is an utterly minuscule, extremely selective pinpoint on the picture of all the Earth’s life.
Nonetheless WWF think that their LPI number offers conclusive proof that “biodiversity has decreased globally”.
This is bad, because:
Biodiversity is vital for human health and livelihoods …
All human activities make use of ecosystem services – but can also put pressure on the biodiversity that supports these systems.
If that’s not enough for you, the document is liberally spattered with case studies showing how various animal populations have plunged. For instance there are now many fewer wild tigers than there were in 1970, which is plainly a bad thing for human health and livelihoods.
The report then assumes that global resources in general are limited, which is easily achieved by measuring them in terms of “biocapacity” expressed in hectares of Earth surface, and further stipulating that no resources can come from beyond Earth (which seems an odd idea for a major space agency to endorse, but there). WWF goes on to assign numbers showing how much of these hectare-resources everyone is using, their “ecological footprint”.
In these terms, the only people on Earth who are living within their means are those in the poorest nations – their “footprint” exactly matches the “biocapacity” in their countries (doubtless a coincidence) offering a picture of the sort of life all human beings could aspire to in a WWF-run world. Middle-income nations use more “biocapacity” than they actually have, and high-income ones – all the ones where you as a Register reader are most likely to live – use nearly twice as many eco-resources as they produce.
What does this mean?
The Earth’s natural capital – biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services – is limited …
Human demands on the planet exceed supply.
The WWF eco-nomists also argue that human beings actually don’t – or anyway, shouldn’t – want to get richer, as people getting rich means economic growth and that (regardless of what all world governments and almost all economists think, especially right now) is a Bad Thing as it leads to consumer demand which leads to resources and energy being used.
“We need to measure success beyond GDP,” says WWF, an argument they’ve made before. In particular the organisation argues that “human development” or the still-flakier metric “inequality adjusted human development” is a far better one than GDP per capita. (One may note that under the normal HDI (Human Development Index) it is better to live in Ireland, Hong Kong, Israel, Korea, Slovenia, Spain, Italy or the Czech Republic than in the UK.)
As the green hardliners note:
In countries with a low level of development, [HDI] development level is independent of per capita [ecological] Footprint.
As development increases beyond a certain level, so does per person Footprint — eventually to the point where small gains in development come at the cost of very large Footprint increases.
Or, paraphrased, provided that development and consumption are both miserably low, you can achieve some development without noticeably increasing consumption. Of course only a cynic would suggest that the very design of the “human development” index – whether adjusted for inequality or not – ensures that there will come a point where only tiny increases in development can be achieved no matter the resources used. This is because the Human Development is on a scale from zero to 1, with 1 being unachievable.
It’s not just resources that are limited, in the WWF’s view: human potential itself is up against a hard limit beyond which the race cannot ever advance. Even progress thus far, as seen in the wealthy nations, has been achieved only by an unfair and wasteful over-use of precious resources: we rich Westerners are already beyond the practical limits that humans should ever aspire to achieve in terms of health, wealth – and even of education.
That’s not economics – that’s religion. And not very nice religion either.
All this is followed up with some standard rehashing of the standard carbon-driven apocalypse arguments, so setting the stage for WWF’s policy agenda. Some of it is relatively uncontroversial: creation of nature reserves, efforts to control overfishing, efforts to ease deforestation.
But then we get onto the big stuff. First up, there must be an “immediate focus” on “drastically shrinking the ecological footprint of high income populations”.
That means you, Reg reader: you are to accept a massively lower standard of living, in order to reduce your “footprint” to match your nation’s “biocapacity”. Then you’ll have to take another cut, because your nation – being rich – has more “biocapacity” than a poor country does (despite their claim that planetary resources are finite, WWF acknowledges that new “biocapacity” can be created in the form of cropland, forests etc), but this should be shared with the poorer lands under “equitable resource governance”.
That means less heating when it’s cold – no cooling at all, probably, when it’s hot. It means sharply limited hot water: so dirtier clothes, dirtier bedding and a dirtier you – which will be nice as you will also have to live in a smaller home and travel almost exclusively on crowded buses or trains along with similar smelly fellow eco-citizens. Food will be scarcer and realistically much less nutritious (milk for kids will be a luxury, let alone meat, fruit, coffee, that sort of stuff. Get ready to eat a lot of turnips, if you’re a Brit.)
Windfarms, tide barriers, solar panels to power EVERYTHING. But you can’t have any concrete or steel or iron or copper. Or glass. Or shipping either. Get on with it!
All this means more disease, and there will also be less health care (only rich nations can afford proper health care for all or most).
Everything – everything – will be a lot more expensive: materials, tools, books, booze, gadgets, clothes. Holidays will be bus trips to the seaside if you’re lucky, not trips overseas by plane or car. So it goes on.
Even this grim poverty-stricken dystopia, though, is not the biggest of the WWF demands. The real biggy is that by the year 2050 all energy is to be supplied in the form of renewables-generated electricity, that is by means of windfarms, solar plants, tidal barriers and so forth. For almost all of human history and prehistory we have burned things to generate energy – it is one of the things that makes us human – but now, within a single generation, that is to almost completely stop. After a million years, the fires will go out.
That won’t be simple. At the moment, the great bulk of energy used by humanity is not electrical at all – it is generated directly by burning fossil fuels (a little, by burning biofuel such as wood). What electrical energy there is (only a tenth of the total even in countries like the UK) is also mostly fossil-generated right now, and the small proportion of this small proportion which isn’t fossil is mainly nuclear, not renewable – presumably to disappear for some reason under the WWF plan.
Then, regardless of the impression one gets from the media, it is not perhaps-dispensable things like aviation or gadgets which use most of our energy. Overwhelmingly, energy is used either in the home, by industries – including for example the health and construction industries – and for ordinary everyday forms of transportation.
And as even WWF acknowledges, billions of people worldwide have no access to any electricity grid at all.
Yet nonetheless – without giving any specifics as to how – WWF considers that just about everyone on Earth can be hooked up to an electrical grid and that these grids can be entirely powered by renewables; and the transport sector can be pretty much entirely electrified; and all of industry, all the mines and smelters and refineries and factories, all of it, can go electric. All this, within 38 years.
There will need to be quite a lot of industry remaining. Even quite limited renewable power goals – for instance (pdf) getting the US onto 20 per cent wind electricity by say 2030 (in other words achieving roughly 2 per cent renewables power for the US) would require every year:
About 6.8 million metric tons of concrete, 1.5 million metric tons of steel, 310,000 metric tons of cast iron, 40,000 metric tons of copper, and 380 metric tons of the rare-earth element neodymium.
Even this equates to 3 per cent of current US domestic consumption of steel, iron and copper – much more in the case of neodymium. To achieve full renewable power you would be talking about doubling or tripling production of concrete, steel and copper. At the moment these materials are produced by burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, so even if you managed to slash use of energy in all other sectors then huge increases in energy demand for materials to build the windmills would cause a massive further demand for more windmills and more materials for them and so on. And all this stuff would have to be hauled all over the place, as renewable plants normally have to be built in inaccessible locations – hauled by electric transport!
But in the WWF cloud-cuckoo-land all this steel and concrete and copper is probably, somehow, unnecessary. The 2012 report says that there must be:
Ambitious energy demand management, especially in sectors with limited renewable options that are likely to be dependent on bioenergy. (Aviation, shipping and high heat industrial applications are likely to be among these.)
“Demand management” is eco-nomics code for “rationing, or making mostly illegal”. Rationed aviation is not a big deal except socially (no flying means a return to the days when only the rich and powerful ever got to travel other than for war and migration).
But rationed shipping, in a world which needs to shift gigatonnes of iron and concrete and steel and copper about, is fantasy – the more so as much of the new infrastructure would have to be situated offshore.
And far worse still, “ambitiously” rationing “high heat industrial applications” means that you basically can’t have much concrete. Or steel, or copper. Or carbon fibre for your wind-turbine blades. Or glass for your possible solar plants either.
No: the whole plan is plain and simple barking lunacy, based on comedy made-up numbers that signify nothing.
And yet WWF is big stuff. Reports of this type get picked up not just by the mass media but by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and used in official UN doom warnings (often much to the UN’s subsequent embarrassment, as in the cases of the non-melting glaciers and the non-burning rainforests). WWF turns over half a billion dollars a year: not much money in some contexts, but a very big budget in marketing or PR terms. WWF can sign up the ESA, for goodness’ sake. ESA astronaut André Kuipers – now in space aboard the ISS – is an official WWF ambassador, and his signature is in the front of Living Planet 2012. He writes:
Looking out of my window and watching Earth from space comes with my job as an astronaut. Nevertheless, I feel I am privileged … I will live on the International Space Station for five months …
Seeing Earth from space provides a unique perspective. Our planet is a beautiful and fragile place, protected only by a very thin layer of atmosphere essential for life on our planet. And seemingly large forests turned out to be small and passed by very quickly. It was this perspective, and realization, that lie behind my motivation to become a WWF ambassador.
And yet the hundreds of billions it took to build the ISS, the lesser but still enormous sums that sent Kuipers up to live aboard it – there isn’t the slightest prospect that these resources would have been available in a world of the sort that WWF advocates. In a world where governments cared nothing for GDP and economic growth and surpluses, where rich nations or populations able to afford proper space programmes had been outlawed (and poor nations with small space programmes, like India, no longer got aid payments from rich ones) … in that world, Kuipers would never have got the chance to look down on Earth. With WWF-mandated rationing on aircraft, most of his previous career as an aviation-medicine expert and airforce officer would also not have happened.
But people have a strange blind spot about WWF. They think it’s still the cuddly old World Wildlife Fund (CNN does, anyway – and so indeed does the ESA). But it’s not the WWF any more, nobly trying to save the whale and the dolphin and the tiger. It has transformed into simply WWF – the initials, like those of global arms multinational BAE Systems, no longer stand for anything.
Today’s WWF is not really about tigers and dolphins any more, though they make excellent figureheads for fundraising. Just to show how much they aren’t, in fact, in step with everyone else, the organisation’s activists would be very happy if the present desperate efforts to end global recession were to fail; and this just as a prelude to making you (perhaps still more) miserably poor and launching a frankly insane effort to stop the human race using fire in just 38 years – by building windmills without steel or carbon, tide barrages without concrete and solar panels without glass.
Think about it, next time one of your kids asks if you can sponsor a dolphin, or the next time you hear “WWF says …” on the news. ®