26 April 2008

We told you so

By Rupert Read

If something bad happens, people who had warned that it was likely often say, "I don't like to say it, but, I told you so!"

Why is it that one is supposed not to like to say it?

Is it perhaps that we don't like to admit it when we were wrong, especially when we were warned that we were wrong? Are people who make us realise that we made a predictable - almost wilful - mistake unwelcomed because of that fact?

The honest truth is that we ought to listen to those who told us so. They saw it coming – they will be better at heading it off, next time.

22 years ago today, April 26 1986, Nuclear Reactor Four at Chernobyl exploded, releasing more than a hundred times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. A scientific report commissioned by Greenpeace estimates that over 100,000 human beings will die of Chernobyl-related cancer.

I recently watched a brilliant and chilling film called Surviving disaster, a drama-documentary on Chernobyl: on those who warned of impending disaster, and of their warnings being ignored.

The government tells us that its new nuclear programme will involve power stations that are much safer than Chernobyl was: that Sizewell C would be much better than Sizewell B or A. Funnily enough, that is exactly what the Soviet government said a generation ago about Reactor Four at Chernobyl – that it was much safer than Reactors Three, Two or One…

Before Chernobyl, those who warned that a catastrophic nuclear disaster could quite easily befall a civil nuclear power plant were mostly ignored or scoffed at. Afterward, they were quite entitled to say, "We told you so." For a generation, people seemed to listen, and very few nuclear power plants were built.

But memories are short, and our economy's desire for energy apparently insatiable. We seem now to be forgetting that, to truly learn from something bad happening, we need to take long-term notice of those who warned it was coming.

And now for something completely different – but, actually, not so different: biofuels. When large scale biofuels first appeared on the scene about five years ago, they were welcomed by most as a 'green' solution to the long oil-depletion crisis that we are undergoing, in that they supposedly had low net carbon emissions. Those of us who spoke out from an early stage against these 'agrofuels' were at first ignored – it was very hard for us to get a hearing in the broadcast media, and the editorial line of this august newspaper too didn’t seem to pay attention to our warnings.

Now, we are finally being heard loud and clear, as it becomes obvious that large-scale biofuels are devastating the world's rainforests abroad, pushing many of the world’s poor to the edge of starvation, and, as food prices go through the roof worldwide, depriving us of food-security at home. Do we grow crops to feed ourselves – or to feed our cars?

Large-scale biofuels are killing the world's poor right now. One day their consequences might even kill you and me.

What conclusion should we draw from all this? Large-scale biofuels and domestic nuclear power, diverse as they might seem, have in common that they are attempts at a 'techno-fix', a purely technological way of meeting our desire for energy. They impose huge risks upon us and upon our descendants – those risks are supposedly justified by our craving for more energy, now.

Examples could be multiplied: 'clean' coal is another such mythical techno-fix, the fire of which we are seemingly about to leap into, from out of the frying pan of biofuels…

New technology has of course a vital role to play in steering us through the vast environmental crisis that we currently face – but only appropriate technology. Only low-risk-technology that will actually make things better, such as solar hot-water heating and combined heat and power systems. And there is also a critically-important role for us changing our behaviour. For example, wasting less energy, so that there is less of a need for new fuels in the first place.

We would do well to listen to the critics of techno-fixes. Those of us who got it right, who are entitled to say, "We told you so". Nuclear power and agrofuels are and were always disasters in the making. Before it is too late, let us learn from those who were ahead of the curve in criticising them.

The best way in which we can honour the victims of Chernobyl is to vow never to repeat the mistake of depending upon any deadly-dangerous source, to power our society.

19 April 2008

The laws of war and terrorism

By Liam Carroll

When is the use of force in international affairs legitimate, and when is it not? These are big questions in the international arena, but if you want to canvass some strong well-informed views on the topic you could do worse than travel down to the US Air Force base at Lakenheath, in Suffolk on Sunday May 18th where a peace protest is being held by the Lakenheath Action Group.

The group normally meets at this time of year to mark the anniversary of the bombing of Libya in 1986 when US jets flew from Lakenheath to strike targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. Although this was far from being the first blow in the conflict between Libya and the United States, the strike itself raised serious questions in the United Nations about the legitimacy of the airstrikes in international law.

Petitions to the Security Council to condemn the strikes were made, but no resolution or statement was issued because it was vetoed by the United States, who were supported by the UK and France. None-the-less in the view of many countries the US had violated an important principle of international law that prohibited the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any State."

The United States, for their part, claimed the right of self-defence (Article 51, UN Charter) against Libyan financed terrorism that had claimed the lives of two US servicemen in the West Berlin disco bombing of a few days beforehand, and against wider state-backed terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Libya, however, claimed to oppose terrorism, but openly provided support for liberation movements. This raised yet another question; to what degree can states support the militant activities of liberation movements in other countries? If there was a genuine liberation struggle ensuing in another country, was it reasonable for any state to funnel weapons to an organisation involved in that struggle?

Fortunately, this last question was well on it's way to being answered by the World Court which was hearing a complaint from Nicaragua about support for the Contra liberation movement / terrorists by the United States. Interestingly the World Court judged that there was no support in international treaties or customary law for such activities and therefore requested that the US desist. The US did not desist from supporting the Contras (nor indeed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan), however the judgement did somewhat undermine their case against Libya for conducting similar activities.

Further complications for the case against Libya arise when one considers other liberators / terrorists they supported, like the IRA. This too was a charge that the United States were not entirely free from either; Sinn Fein were frequently feted in America, and no small measure of funding for the IRA flowed from the Irish-American business community in Boston, to the Irish militants.

The charges and counter charges illustrate well the incoherence at international level about the legitimate use of force in international affairs (and indeed the problems of defining terrorism). These issues did at least stimulate greater examination of the principles in question and the United Nations has made serious attempts to codify the legitimate and illegitimate uses of force by states and to define the use of the term 'terrorist'; recognisng that lack of clarification on these issues undermines trust in the international community.

Firstly, there is an attempt to draw up a Law of Aggression which, incredibly, despite being named as the supreme international crime by the Nuremburg Tribunal, remains unspecified in the existing body of international law. This law should enable policymakers to clearly understand the distinctions between 'self-defence' and 'aggression' and thus enable events like the US airstrike to be more clearly understood in terms of their legitimacy or otherwise.

Secondly, the Security Council has passed a number of resolutions on terrorism and has set up a counter-terrorism committee to address the ambiguities in the law and to monitor the compliance of states in implementing the important conventions on the suppression of terrorism. This process is not being conducted without some sensitivity to the issue of national resistance to foreign occupation, and represents a more serious attempt than previous efforts to recognise that people will turn to violence when denied basic rights.

These attempts should be welcomed, for the international community badly needs to resolve the gaping holes in the shared understanding of what the legitimate uses of force are, if in fact they exist at all. In the meantime, though, pressure for accountability will have to be made via the age old practice of protest, of which the Lakenheath Action Group know well. For further details contact mellcndeast@cnduk.org or Mell Harrison on 08453370282.

12 April 2008

Bringing home the bacon?

By Marguerite Finn

It has become a little ritual: driving home from the supermarket and putting the kettle on before unloading your purchases into the fridge. You feel in need of that cup of tea after negotiating the challenge of all the food choices on offer and traffic chaos on the roads! No sign of the 'global food crisis' we keep hearing about on the news.

Can it be real?

I open the morning papers and two opposing versions of the story leap into view. On the one hand, The Guardian contains the warning from UN's top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, that rising food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability. On the other, The East Anglian Daily Times features a letter from Robert Sturdy MEP for the Eastern Region, enthusing about "creating a stable market for biofuels" and calling for the UK to "embrace biofuels, rather than stalling due to the unfounded, negative reports about biofuels which have appeared in the media recently".

Unfounded reports?

I get regular bulletins from the UN News Service. The global food supply picture changes daily, leaving politicians and decision-makers chasing their tails and sending out mixed messages, as reality on the ground overtakes official 'spin'. All MEPs and MPs might sign up to this service. It would prevent the development of a 'little Englander' outlook and show that selfish solutions make the overall problem worse.

In 2006, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) argued that the growth of biofuels would help eradicate hunger and poverty for up to two billion people. Across the US, UK, Latin America and Asia, tens of thousands of farmers switched from food to biofuel production. The price of basic foods started to rise. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, is now calling for a review of biofuels policy. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who not so long ago announced subsidies for farmers growing 'energy crops', and enthusiastically welcomed the European Commission's target requiring 10 per cent of plant-derived fuel to be sold in service stations by 2010, is now looking afresh (or is it aghast?) at the issue. He has written to fellow G8 leaders acknowledging that the rush towards "environmentally questionable" biofuels may be displacing much needed food production and asking them to prepare an "international package on food security".

Why the change of heart? Because his Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington, warned that the diversion of so much land to grow biofuels is threatening world food production and the lives of "billions". Global grain stores are today at their lowest level on record.

Professor Robert Watson, UK Government's highest ranking environmental scientist, fears that the headlong pursuit of biofuels might be accelerating climate change! This is the case with corn-to-ethanol conversion in the US - the main driver of the food-to-biofuel revolution. Agricultural Scientist David Pimentel from Cornell University, admits: "70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol, so every time you make a gallon of ethanol there is a net energy loss." Corn production in the US also erodes the soil twelve times faster than it can be re-formed.

On 15 April, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), will launch a new report that agriculture must revert to more natural, local production because "modern agricultural practices have exhausted land and water resources, squelched diversity and left poor people vulnerable to high food prices, even though they are highly productive." The report recommends greater emphasis on 'agro-ecological' practices, including the use of natural fertilizers and "reducing the distance between food and the consumer". "Business as usual is no longer an option," it says, "the need for action is urgent because many poor people are now reliant on the global food market, where soybean and wheat prices have increased by 87 percent and 130 percent respectively in the last year".

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) puts the problem of relying on the 'global food market' in perspective. For the first time in its history, it has had to appeal for funds, "not because of a crisis caused by famine or war but because of market conditions." Aggressive rises in food prices are pricing their operations out of reach.

The Prime Minister realises that a significant step change is required of our society, if we are to avoid mass migrations of starving people and deadly resource wars. He proposes social safety nets for the poorest and increasing the scale of our support for humanitarian programmes. This will work in the long-term only if land is used to feed people instead of vehicles. Should I have automatically used my vehicle to feed myself?

5 April 2008

RTFO - a stillborn policy

By Andrew Boswell

Despite its insipid name, the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is dangerous new legislation being introduced on April 15th that forces biofuels to be blended into the UK fuel supply. It is the policy child of wider EU plans to mandate massive amounts of biofuels into petrol and diesel across Europe. For four years, I and others have warned that these EU targets will wreak havoc on the climate and food supplies, and eco-systems and people in the global South.

Although, the RTFO has had a long gestation, only now are these concerns being echoed by senior scientists and policy makers creating a quandary for the Government. So who would relish the jobs of Ruth Kelly, Transport Minister, and deputy, Jim Fitzpatrick, in implementing this legislation as the voices calling for a suspension of the 'law of compulsory blending' become stronger, louder and more persistent?

January 14th - a Royal Society report warned that biofuels could do more damage than fossil fuels by accelerating rainforest destruction.

January 15th - policy 'grandfather', EU Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, tells the BBC that 'environment problems caused by biofuels are bigger than we thought', and suggests that targets might have to be put on hold.

January 20th - a group of MPs, the Environmental Audit Committee publishes a report Are Biofuels Sustainable?, that calls for moratoriums of UK and EU targets.

February 8th - peer reviewed scientific studies show that converting land for biofuel plantations creates a biofuel 'carbon debt'. It would take 840 years of biofuel production to repay the carbon debt in destroying peatland rainforest. Even for agricultural land reclaimed from US conservation land (similar to set-aside in UK), the figure is decades.

Asked by a journalist how policymakers might react, I replied that I could only imagine that London and Brussels were in panic. Within 10 days, Ruth Kelly announced the 'Gallagher review' on the indirect impacts of biofuel policy - a desperate response to this research.

February 26th - the UN's World Food Programme warned that due to rising food prices, it is short of $0.5billion just to meet existing food aid deliveries. Its advisers estimate that the rush to biofuels is 30% of the cause of these rising food prices.

Biofuels are making our food more expensive Graph: biofuels are making our food more expensive.

Meanwhile, Europe plans for a 12-fold EU increase of wheat based ethanol refineries. Last year's UK wheat surplus was around 0.75 million tonnes, and ministers here plan an expansion in ethanol refineries specifically using wheat that will take the UK into a 3 million tonnes deficit by 2010.

March 8th - the Government Chief Scientist, John Beddington, warns that the rush towards biofuels is theatening world food production and the lives of billions of people.

March 24th - Prof Bob Watson, DEFRA Chief Scientist, says "it would obviously be insane if we had a policy to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of biofuels that's actually leading to an increase in the greenhouse gases from biofuels." - a none too oblique reference to the RTFO.

Yet DEFRA will disregard its Chief Scientist, and the Government carry on regardless, as when I asked DEFRA minister, Joan Ruddock, on the March 28th EDP On the Spot online debate - her bland response "the advice of our Chief Scientist, Bob Watson, will of course continue to inform our future thinking on this subject."

On April 1st, RTFO minister, Jim Fitzpatrick gave the thin excuse to Parliament that the Government could not suspend the introduction of the RTFO without tiresome debates in both Houses of Parliament. Well, yes, but isn't that what Parliament is for when it is clear that legislation is dangerously misconceived?

And how independent can the 'thinking' of Gallagher review be, when it will be carried out by the Renewable Fuels Agency that was set up by the Department of Transport to roll out biofuels? It's rather like asking Dr Frankenstein to appraise his creation. In any case, its initial report is late June, two and half months after the RTFO starts on April Biofools Day.

The RTFO is a stillborn policy for it is unviable as a mechanism to reduce UK carbon emissions and there is now little public confidence in it. Further, the RTFO is an irrelevance anyway as the EU plans to do away with any member country biofuel legislation after 2010 - they are seeking to impose European wide legislation for much greater biofuel levels from then on. So the policy may be stillborn, but the monster still exists.

April Biofools Day will be marked by protests on the 15th including a demonstration outside Downing Street at 6pm, but the real work is in stopping the monster - see http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/ for details.