The false trade-off between green laws and environmental protection

December 2, 2019 | Environment
Environment: is green legislation always the best option? | Photo: Creative Commons

Last month, I described seven New Zealand examples of environmental laws that haven't worked as intended.

They are:

1. A plastic bag ban that increased emissions because the alternatives have much higher carbon footprints;

2. A halt to native timber milling that resulted in importing less sustainably logged rainforest hardwoods;

3. Mining restrictions which shifted extraction to other countries with added emissions from shipping;

4. Disallowed hydro-electric schemes which resulted in New Zealand importing coal for electricity generation;

5. Planting a billion pines to sequester carbon while simultaneously eradicating others that self-seed;

6. Absurd proposed water quality laws that will tank the economy and degrade our health and well-being;

7. And "green" construction materials that have just fed a $0.25 billion fire with toxic smoke and harbor run off;

This struck something of a chord with respondents suggesting others.

Green legislation: are we always adopting the best and most sustainable environmental solutions? | Photo: Creative Commons

The Green Footprint

An obvious one is that Germany's subsidy-driven move to electric vehicles (EVs) is increasing emissions according to reputable studies that include the carbon footprints of manufacturing and disposal.

This is mainly because Germany generates most of its electricity from gas and coal.

In France, EV adoption is (marginally) reducing emissions because they use nuclear power plants for most of their generation.

German energy policies - with strong support for wind and photovoltaics (PVs) - have resulted in electricity prices on average three times what they are in the US, a significant roadblock for their economy.

The most contentious is: what has caused recent bush fires in Australia and California?

Some conservatives are sure that Greens are the cause, by stopping tree-felling, undergrowth clearance, and pre-emptive burns.

Environmentalists are equally sure it's all due to climate change and react with outrage to being fingered. Increasing temperatures - about one degree in the last 100 years - cannot by themselves be the cause.

Wildfires: are they a consequence of extreme weather events? | Photo: Creative Commons

Extreme Weather and Wildfires

If they were, then hot places would burn more often than cold places, but they don't. Siberia has had extensive wildfires in 2018/2019.

Are wildfires being caused by more extremes of weather then?

Maybe, but even the IPCC has not found evidence that weather events are becoming more extreme.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but the connection is not as strong as is often claimed.

The largest bush fire in Australian recorded history was in 1851, when 300,000 hectares burnt out of control. After this, logging and undergrowth clearances (often by pre-emptive burns) reduced their incidence.

From the 1970s, "Save our Forests" movements incrementally reversed these practices with local councils bringing in by-laws preventing felling and undergrowth clearance.

Last year, friends near Sydney showed me their overgrown back yards and told me they are heavily fined if they clear brush or fallen trees and were increasingly worried about fire risk.

They weren't wrong in this either as it's turned out. So yes, green policies are a cause of increasing forest fires (with their massive CO2 emissions) in Australia (and in California, I strongly suspect).

Nimbin, an "alternative" community in Victoria, which was the birthplace of the "Save our Forests" movement in the 1970s, recently had to be evacuated because of self-inflicted extreme wildfire risk.

When Green Gets Grey

Which leads to the question: Why do environmental initiatives so often have perverse outcomes? They have a much worse record in this respect than other laws, so it can't just be bad drafting.

One reason is competing priorities: a desire for a "natural" environment and pristine views over emissions, for example.

Protecting endangered species can also conflict with other environmental goals. Another is political expediency. This is certainly true for plastic bag bans.

Politicians and their advisers know that such bans increase emissions and don't significantly reduce plastic in the oceans - only a tiny percentage of this waste comes from developed countries.

They enact them anyway because there are votes in it.

And then there is virtue signaling. NZ has recently banned new gas and oil exploration. This doesn't help the planet, as the activity will just shift elsewhere.

Nor is it good for NZ because we'll now need to import more, with extra emissions from shipping. Its purpose seems to be to boost our prime minister's international image.

Nuclear power plant: estimated to release 29 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt-hour | Photo: Creative Commons

GMO, Nuclear Power and Geo-Engineering

A second question is: why are environmentalists so opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power, and geo-engineering?

Seeing as international efforts to reduce human-generated CO2 are not even slowing the rate of increase (and seem unlikely to, considering the complexities of international politics), these are about the only realistic options if their belief that there is a climate emergency is sincere.

GMOs could solve many environmental problems: reducing methane emissions from farmed animals, and limiting the antibiotics they are fed.

They could decrease the use of pesticides and herbicides and feed many more people using less land area.

They could even mitigate some human ailments ("golden rice," for example) and provide a better way to produce pharmaceuticals.

And if emissions are the priority, why not nuclear power? Over a nuclear power plant's life cycle, it's estimated to release just 29 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt-hour (GWh).

By comparison, hydro and wind release 26 GWh, biomass 45 GWh, PVs 85 GWh, gas 499 GWh, and coal 1,000 GWh).

Geo-engineering - sequestering carbon underground, for example, or cooling the planet by dispersing sulfur aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight - also has the potential to mitigate climate change.

Ostensibly environmentalists are opposed to this trio because of safety concerns, but are these valid?

GMOs: safe or dangerous? | Photo: Creative Commons

Assessing Risks

Humans aren't good at assessing risks - overestimating some while underestimating others - because we use an "availability heuristic," judging by how strong an impression similar events have made on us rather than their frequency or severity.

By this, sharks, which kill just a few people worldwide each year, are much more feared than buses - which kill hundreds of thousands.

These biases are now understood and can be corrected for.

Back when gene manipulation was science fiction, a moratorium until consequences were better understood made some sense.

Now that safe processes have been developed, it no longer does.

Gene editing using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and other techniques is, in most respects, just sped-up selective breeding anyway - which humankind has been using for at least 10,000 years with crops and domesticated animals.

And by every objective measure, nuclear power is safe.

Almost all related deaths to date are from Chernobyl, a typical communist screw-up, and Fukushima, which could have been avoided by not building in a tsunami risk area.

Even including these, nuclear is around 40 times safer than gas, 66 times safer than biomass, and 4,000 times safer than using coal; no figures are yet available for renewables.

Except for small scale carbon sequestration, geo-engineering hasn't yet been attempted. Atmospheric interventions are strongly opposed by environmentalists - they even oppose studies looking at their safety!

Environmentalists need to be open to the possibilities of GMOs, nuclear power, and geo-engineering, or it will be believed that they don't really want the problem solved.

Either because their identity is now so defined by pronouncements of doom that they can't let them go, or worse, that they are intent on punishing humankind in some warped reprise of the Garden of Eden and original sin.

Words by Peter Lynn | Founder of Peter Lynn Kites

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