Putting 2017 in perspective

Putting 2017 in perspective

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 18, December, 2017

ANOTHER YEAR has nearly finished. For the EU, the combined tensions of Brexit, Catalonian nationalism and a much-weakened Chancellor Merkel seem to be doing little to disrupt normal life. On the other hand, the underlying contradictions inherent in a 27-member bloc technically united by a single currency – but in practice divided by very different economies and cultures – will surely be difficult to resolve, particularly with the current unwieldy and opaque system of governance.

The fudge of contradictions is very apparent in the supposedly evidence-based systems for approval of GM crops and licensing of pesticides. Independent scientists assemble and assess data and make their recommendations. Politicians normally take the official advice – after all, that’s why scientific advisors are appointed – but only when it suits their purpose. Unfortunately, the politics is such that a number of member states routinely vote against approvals of GM crops on totally spurious grounds, simply because it plays to their core supporters and powerful lobby groups.

The crop protection sector is slightly different, if only because there is a much longer history of use of approved products and a functioning, evidence-based approvals system. But the pressure from environmentalists has continued to increase and the barriers to continued approvals have risen. Approval conditions have always been stringent, with environmental or safety problems largely down to poor practice by users. Until a few years ago, decisions were based on a risk assessment and management.

But then came a change to hazard evaluation, representing a move to an even more precautionary approach. Pesticides are assessed based on the hazard they present with no risk management in place, and new compounds are required to present a lesser hazard than anything they might replace. There is no attempt to balance this by assessing hazard (or potential risk) against benefits, merely a blanket approach to minimise hazard.

The drawbacks of this should be obvious, but are ignored by those whose aim is to favour ‘natural’ over ‘synthetic’ and thereby supposedly make life as risk-free as possible. By way of parallel, we all have in our homes compounds that could maim or kill if misused, an unfortunately topical example being household bleach. And caffeine is more toxic than pretty much any pesticide on the market today, but only those with a highly excessive coffee consumption are ever likely to suffer ill effects.

More recently, circumstantial evidence of harm has been used to obtain a temporary ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, with that ban increasingly looking like becoming permanent. And campaigners have eagerly leapt on the rather dubious classification by a single agency of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen to push for this extremely useful, low toxicity herbicide to be refused re-licensing. Despite a positive recommendation from scientists working on behalf of the EU, it was only narrowly reapproved for a limited time on a qualified majority vote shortly before the licence expired, and then only by a last-minute change of stance by Germany.

So, this year has seen a continuation of the slow ratcheting of pressure on a range of useful chemicals and technologies. It is difficult to see the tide turning any time soon. In the meantime, there have been some interesting shifts in what has become the key issue of the early 21st Century: climate change. The annual end of year climate summits, this year in Bonn, are still news but are now largely confined to the inside pages. The international IPCC travelling circus continues to put out bullish statements, but the reality is that there is no longer concerted international political action. Instead, the mitigation programme proceeds via voluntary agreements, with many governments making big claims while doing comparatively little.

Not that this has made much difference to the emissions reduction policies of some major players. The German energiewende continues on its very expensive path with one of the major unintended consequences being the increased use of coal. While not the only reason, the differences of opinion across the political spectrum have made the forging of a new coalition government even more problematic.

The UK is also suffering from political turmoil, with a weak minority government (inevitably) focussed on the complexities and ambiguities of negotiating a Brexit deal acceptable to all 27 other EU member states and to a majority of Westminster MPs. But that hasn’t stopped continued support for emissions reduction policies nor a new focus on electric and hybrid cars.

By 2040, the UK government intends there to be no sales of new petrol or diesel cars (2032 for the Scottish Government). The implication is that all new vehicles will be electric, but the reality (in the absence of major technological breakthroughs) is that hybrids will dominate the market. France has the same goal and, in both cases, the ostensible rationale for the change is the drive to reduce urban air pollution. Hybrids will certainly do this, for typically short city journeys, while providing the flexibility of a conventional car for longer trips at what policymakers no doubt hope will be an acceptable price for the consumer.

The two rather large flies in the ointment are the continued high price of all-electric cars and the major infrastructure challenges posed if they do become a major part of the market. Not least of these is the need to generate substantially more electricity that has to be low-carbon if the whole policy is to make any sense. However, providing a workable network of charging points and recouping the foregone revenue from fuel sales in a way acceptable to motorists will also pose major headaches.

Looking further forward, (partial) electrification of transport will at some stage lead on to a push of electrification of heating, coupled surely with a massive investment in insulation to reduce heating needs in the first place. By the time such policies start to take effect, we perhaps will be much closer to an understanding of what drives climate change and so whether the policies are in fact needed.

This is my last column of 2017; normal service will be resumed in January. For now, I wish all readers – whatever their views on the issues covered this year – a very happy Christmas and a safe, healthy and prosperous 2018.

Martin Livermore writes for the Scientific Alliance, which advocates the use of rational scientific knowledge in the development of public policy. To subscribe to his regular newsletter please use this link.

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