Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Monbiot on Air Fuel

My little brother, when he was somewhat younger than he is today, once told us that he didn't think he would learn much at school in the coming year because "everything I think of, I already know". I think for most people, certainly myself, your perception of how much of the universe there is left to understand goes in an inverted U through the educational experience. You start out young, clueless and constantly being offered new knowledge by adults; you know that you have a lot to learn. From the beginning of secondary school you have a decent grasp of the basics of a slew of disciplines and it becomes quite unclear that there are things you do not understand. Once in university, however, you start to get a sense of the sheer amount of work science has left to do. By the end of my master's programme I had a pretty good sense of how little we know with how little certainty in my field of Economic History.

George Monbiot does not appear to have absorbed this. His opinion piece for Comment is Free argues that Branson's investment is a poor idea as alternative fuels are not suitable for airplanes. It would seem absolutely bloody obvious that Branson knows this or he wouldn't be planning on spending billions on research. The method for a climate change friendly air fuel is that knowledge that Monbiot does not have; he therefore assumes that such knowledge is not there to be discovered.

The rest of his article is equally questionable.

"Now it could be that Branson's money will help develop a new source of biofuel - algae grown in ponds in the desert for example, or waste products from crops and forestry. If so, that's something we should welcome, while remembering that it can't comprise more than 10% of his fleet's fuel. The problem is that we need to cut carbon emissions by 87% by 2030 in every sector - aviation included - and there's no conceivable way in which a change of fuel could do this, especially if the number of flights keeps growing."

Large reductions can be made. 87% by 2030 is a very strong figure, stronger than any practical policy programme can deliver, and is designed to give the answer that only swinging reductions in consumption will work, but large reductions in SO2 emissions have been achieved in the US without drastic measures. It won't be possible entirely through a change in fuel but more efficient engines and larger planes are already increasing fuel efficiency thanks to market pressure.

"Other forms of agriculture are being driven onto virgin land as the global demand for grain rises. Rising grain prices, blamed by the UN food and agriculture organisation primarily on the demand for biofuels, already threaten the food security of the world's poor - and it is likely to get a lot worse."

Biofuels are not the chief danger to food security. There is more than enough food grown in the world and more than enough agricultural production to allow a shift towards biofuels. Starvation is not a result of global food shortages but localised crises as highlighted by Amartya Sen's finding that there are no famines in democracies.

"Branson's announcement was a marvellous publicity coup, as so many of his initiatives are. But is there anything behind it?"

Don't you feel clever and cynical now? If it were aimed at a PR boost spending £1.6 billion would be deeply inefficient. If he were pledging a few million, or even a few hundred million, then maybe but there is no way that Branson will, in selfish terms, make a positive return on this investment. Whether or not Monbiot is right that more drastic measures are needed as well his scorning of a pledge of huge funds towards an improvement in technology demonstrates that his views may have more to do with a dislike of enterprise than a real concern for climate change.

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