Ten of the worst global warming mistakes - Mar 2010

The build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and resulting global warming is the result of centuries old habits and ill thought out policies that may do more harm than good.  Here we list the ten worst mistakes which have either led us to the present situation, or appear incapable of solving it.  

1) Economic growth

The New Economics Foundation recently said "We urgently need to change our economy to live within its environmental budget since there is no global, environmental central bank to bail us out if we become ecologically bankrupt"

Economic growth has become a cultural obsession. To achieve this, consumer products are designed with either a physical or psychological obsolescence to increase sales and profits and provide the illusion of wealth. This leads to waste, resource depletion, and profligate energy use resulting in widespread environmental damage at both a local and global level.

It is still widely believed that we can continue to expand economically yet reduce carbon emissions at the same time without a revolutionary technological fix. This myth has been heavily marketed through the catchphrase 'sustainable growth’,  but despite almost half of a century of effort to dissociate growth from increases in fossil fuel use these factors are still inextricably linked.    

The scale of the problem should not be underestimated. We continue to live in a society where extravagance is still envied rather than frowned on. Introducing more sustainable economic policies will be politically difficult without a paradigm change in our values.

2) World population explosion

Whereas the political right wing abhors restricting economic growth, many in the left wing are crippled with their own ideological dogma; the opposition to population control.  Their argument revolves around tenuous claims that poor developing countries, which generally have the greatest increases in population, contribute little to global warming.  However, this doesn't tie with the evidence.

NASA recently estimated that black carbon emissions (such as smoke) from biomass burning is the second greatest contributor to net radiative forcing after transport, and significant quantities of this originates from cooking and heating in open wood fires, a common practice in developing countries. However, more importantly all global residents will aspire to high living standards exacerbated through advertising pressures.  China's middle classes already number several hundred million people due to the countries earlier population explosion and more recent economic success fuelled from high carbon coal. China is now the world highest emitter of greenhouse gases and Indonesia the third highest highest, although much of this is still driven by industrial exports to developed countries.

Unfortunately, this is water under the bridge for China and much of of the world whose birth rates are low or rapidly dropping.  Their population is only growing due to the large proportion of young people from previous high birth rates.  However fertility remains high in Sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and many small poor countries.

Even people with a low carbon lifestyle could store up an environmental time bomb for the future. In fact calculations show that population control is nearly five times more cost effective in mitigating global warming emissions than green energy technologies like wind and solar power.

3) Non-global carbon trading schemes

While emission trading schemes are not inherently bad, regional ones with arbitrary limits such as the European emissions trading system are a recipe for disaster.  In theory, this scheme places a limit on the total allowable carbon emitted from the major industries within these countries. However, many sectors of the economy and imports are excluded. International transport for example has been difficult to include until now, partly due to the difficulty allocating emissions to specific countries. Of the businesses that are involved, these subject governments to intense politically lobbying which then over-subscribe free carbon allowances to them which have led to windfall profits for the companies involved. Worse still, participants are allowed to import goods and outsource labour from non-complaint countries that do not subscribe to carbon limits at all. They are also allowed to offset their emissions there, effectively paying developing countries to reduce emissions so they can increase theirs, but this sometimes results in payments for projects that might had happened anyway! The net effect is an increase of consumer energy prices within the EU while having virtually no influence on reducing the rate of increase in global carbon emissions.

Other market-based schemes are claimed to be superior to the EU trading system. However, any scheme is only as effective as the loopholes.  Any successful mechanism must be global in scope, with the limits or tax levels dictated by the environmental objectives free from business lobbying or political pressure.

Unofficial offsetting schemes are a microcosm of the same problem. These typically allow smaller organisations to offset their carbon emissions using conservation projects such as reforestation without having to reduce emissions directly.  This effectively provides them with environmental credentials which relives them of guilt, and allows them to market a green image while continuing with a business as usual approach.  However, once again it is difficult to be sure that these projects are truly additional.  

There are many other problems with offsetting, especially with forestry projects. Forestry in high latitudes are less effective at absorbing carbon and reducing temperatures than in the more politically unstable tropical regions, so it is difficult to guarantee that the forests in these later areas will be managed well into the future. This is critical since that beside preventing illegal logging activities, the climate may change leading to drought and forest fires. Another problem is that preventing deforestation in one area may also simply drive loggers elsewhere, so once again there is necessary for national and global monitoring.

4) Feed in tariffs and micro-generation

Feed-in tariffs used in several EU countries oblige electricity companies to pay private consumers a premium rate for any excess renewable micro-energy they produce at home, although this payment is gradually reduced over time.  To cover the up front costs of installing the technology the initial premium has to be extortionately high which will be passed on by the electricity companies to the rest of their customers, as higher bills.

Feed-in tariffs are supposed to accelerate the development of renewable technologies and provide producers with enough initial sales to achieve economies of scale and become market competitive without a subsidy.  However the qualifying projects, which usually consist of photovoltaic panels, are far less inefficient than if they were scaled up into energy parks located in the sunniest regions such as Southern European and southwest United States.  Instead they have been mostly installed on house roofs in Germany.  

Ten years ago the German government offered generous feed-in tariffs costing E1.2bn. Their total contribution to the country's electricity supply was 0.4%, however even these meagre savings allowed other industries to raise their emissions by the same amount due to the EU Emissions Trading scheme (see item3). Estimates also suggest that Germany's solar programme destroyed more local jobs than it created, and many of the panels installed were manufactured abroad in the Far East   

The UK government is about to repeat the mistake. It is estimated that feed in tariffs will cost £8.6bn to save 20m tonnes of CO2 by 2030. This means it will cost around £430 to save one tonne of carbon dioxide compared with £8 per tonne by building a nuclear power plant, or a net saving using energy conservation measures.

5) Poor design and build quality of properties

Building homes with high levels of insulation and passive solar heating always seemed like a sensible precaution even before the more recent energy and climate crisis since it helped to prioritise fuel supplies for industry during times of war or industrial action.  However, residential planners and house-builders throughout most of the last century largely overlooked even these basic measures. As a consequence much of our older housing is grossly energy inefficient, which is now difficult and expensive to retrofit with energy conservation measures. Three million properties in the UK still fall into the lowest two categories of energy efficiency, which are often occupied by low-income occupants. Many of these buildings are solid-walled, with a pitched roof, single glazing, with virtually no insulation and may be still heated by electricity.

While most properties in the UK are of a potentially higher standard, in 2005 there were still over  nine million homes with uninsulated cavity walls and 6.3 million lofts that have either no or poor insulation in England alone. These types of property are easy and cheap to retrofit with insulation and this could save a third of the heat lost; yet progress carrying out these measures are still slow.

While new homes are designed to conform to much higher thermal standards, many are still not built to an adequate quality, with 57% of houses and a third of all properties failing a standard pressure test. These leaks result in air ingress compromising the effectiveness of the insulation. These low quality standards are thought to be partially the result of a lack of building inspectors and the privatisation of building controls.    

6) Food waste and meat

The UN says that Food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the world's growing population.   However, most of the worlds farming land is already in use, so increased food production will require extending intensive farming methods with greater use of pesticides and fertilisers leading to the increased release of greenhouse gases.  

Paradoxically, the UK government policy is attempting to deal with both of these problems simultaneously with plans to "boost food production in Britain and reduce its impact on the environment" .  However, it is estimated that only about 45% of the food actually produced at the farming stage that is used, is really necessary for adequate nutrition, and most of the remaining 55% of waste is preventable.  This amounts to about 10% of the total UK carbon output, almost as much as its entire transport system!  No doubt this situation is repeated elsewhere throughout the developed world.

Much of the food production in the world is also used for animal feed to produce meat. Together with the emissions these animals produce directly, meat is responsible for a substantial proportion of the world greenhouse gas emissions. The recent increase in food prices has been partially driven by higher meat demand due to a more affluent world population, as well as the demand for biofuels which competes with food for land use (see item 10). One study found that grain-fed beef is responsible for 13.82g of CO2 equivalent emissions per Kcal of energy, compared with 1.67g for an intensively reared chicken, and only 0.14g for the average vegetable.  

Without more sustainable farming practices and the reduction of waste by the affluent, the future looks bleak for food availability as well as for the  environment.

7) Automotive biofuels

The environmental principles behind the use of biofuels appear simple enough. The carbon absorbed by the feedstock plant from the atmosphere during growth is supposed to compensate for carbon emissions of the fuel produced from it. However, there are numerous other energy inputs required to refine biofuels, and this energy is sourced mainly from fossil fuel power stations. Intensive farming of the biomass feedstock also requires fertilisers that release Nitrous oxide, another powerful greenhouse gas. Worse still, new land allocated for growing biofuels can release substantial carbon to the environment due to the tilling of soils and deforestation.   For example, it has been calculated that biofuels sourced from food crop-based plants in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States on land that was rainforest, peatlands, savannah, or grassland releases between 17 to 420 times more carbon than if fossil fuels were used instead.  Along with cattle farming, the rush to produce biofuels is one main reason for deforestation and associated ecological damage.

Although more expensive, it is possible to produce relatively low carbon sources of biofuel from plant wastes and 2nd generation biofuel technologies which use the whole plant material, but little is produced at present. The European Union has set targets to source 5.75% and 10% of transport fuels from renewable's by 2010 and 2020 respectively, it remains unclear if this excludes unsustainable sources..

8) Public transport using large buses and trains

It is often claimed that to reduce transport carbon emissions we need to introduce more public transport to entice people out of their cars. This may work well in metropolitan areas, especially if the infrastructure is adapted to support them. However, outside areas of high population density, public transport is used by a diminishing number of people and is largely reliant on customers who either cannot drive or afford a car, which will continue to reduce. This low demand for public transport results in either a reduced service, or under-utilised vehicles requiring enormous subsidies from the taxpayer and generating high emissions per passenger carried.

The US Transportation Energy Data Book estimates that transit buses and commuter trains carried only 8.8 and 31.2 passengers on average so these vehicles are operated mostly empty and spend much of their time carrying mainly their own weight around. As a consequence, cars use 17% less energy per passenger than transit buses and only 17% more energy per passenger than commuter trains!  

It is therefore necessary to rethink how to adapt and operate our public transport system to meet the needs of a dispersed modern society, and if possible make it financially self supporting while retaining a low environmental impact.  

9) Large cars with expensive technologies

While the improved structural safety of cars has required some weight increases, there has also been strong consumer marketing to bolster demand for larger and higher performance cars with more ancillaries. These provide greater prestige value for the owner and greater profit margins and turnover for the motor industry than much smaller cars which are inherently more efficient.

While cars have been getting heavier, demographic changes are leading to either smaller families or single occupant households.  As a result, the number of occupants per car is decreasing and cars are getting significantly heavier relative to the people they carry. A typical vehicle in Europe will need to carry about 20 times the weight and 100 times the volume  of the driver it carries.  This is a grossly inefficient way of transporting people around.

Due to the limited scope of reducing energy while increasing the weight of vehicles and ancillaries at the same time, manufacturers have considered using exotic technologies and fuels.  The biggest white elephant of all has been hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which has diverted attention away from far more viable technologies. Fuel cells are extortionately expensive and generally require low-density hydrogen that is difficult to transport and store. In practice it is not even carbon free, since the most economic method of producing hydrogen is by steam reforming of natural gas that results in the release of carbon dioxide. Yet despite all this effort, a recent European trial of fuel cell buses showed that they emitted more carbon than their Diesel engine equivalents despite costing £1 million each!  

10) Travelling to business meetings

Modern telecommunication technologies offer immense opportunities for reducing air and land based travel especially within the business sector, since there are few of these activities which can’t be performed by teleconferencing and teleworking.  However, there is scant evidence that these simple solutions are being taken seriously.  While many corporations enthusiastically embrace high profile projects which present an environmentally concerned image, they are content to let their employees spend valuable time travelling to meetings and conferences which could be more efficiently served by teleconferencing. No doubt they perceive a marketing advantage using direct interpersonal communication, or perhaps the allure of the free foreign trip is overwhelming and this is used most by those in executive positions who dictate corporate policy.


Whilst there is no single solution to the problem of global warming, it can be mitigated through a variety of innovative, coordinated and practical solutions combined with well thought out policies. A later article will describe some of these in more detail.


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