Wednesday, November 16, 2005

2005-09-18 [1] 004Doing things I've never done before, part 1.

Yesterday, in a break from the usual perpetually radically reassessed, I when to yet another evening lecture on the environment. This time the executive director of the European Environment Agency, Jacqueline McGlade (and what does it say about me that my opinion of her went up when I found out she was the former head of Biological Sciences at Warwick?).

Fascinating lecture, which trounced the UKEA's effort (probably mentioned a fortnight ago if I blogged it at all). Although it was a bit obvious that her style has adapted to presenting to governments rather than to students. She went through a lot of it so fast that I have annoying instances where I got down three out of five bullet points. And given I have no reason to think she was pushed for time, this suggests her usual audience doesn't actually expect to pay attention. Which possibly isn't the best realisation to come to when it concerns the people that run a fair chunk of the world.

Some of the implications about Barroso were none too flattering. JMcG was adept in pointing out flaws in the kindest way possible, but some of the conclusions left to be drawn... Barroso believes there are 3 pillars supporting sustainable development; economy, society and environment. And he takes the view that the EU should be nursing the ailing one, and only the ailing one, which he considers to be the economy. So he'll be trying to stimulate struggling development, which isn't sustainable and therefore can't be maintained, and which will need even more input in the future to produce a sufficient response. So taking short-term action which will worsen all future long and short-term actions, and each successive layer of short-term action will make the next layer more difficult. Anyone else thinking "none too bright"?

Some of the lecture repeated the content of previous lectures (i.e. why environmental regulation is good - but I only got 4 of the 5 reasons), other parts provide more information or a different standpoint (apparently some European nations are unhappy that the EEA encourages environmental regulation on the Anglo-Saxon model, which is therefore all the fault of the UK. It's odd the way people who use the term Anglo-Saxon often forget just where the Saxons came from. And anyway, apart from being common to Northwestern Europe, Eastern Europe has proved remarkably receptive to this model. So by Anglo-Saxon they mean that common in the British Isles, le Pays Bas, the Baltic, the Balkans, Asia Minor and most of the area inbetween. Wouldn't NOT-NW_Med be easier? I should probably mention that Anglo-Saxon in this context means market-driven, so working with the economy rather than pretending capitalism doesn't exist (I would make some pointed comment about Liberté, Fraternité et Egalité here, but as we've all seen Egalité doesn't mean equality as we usually understand it)).

Although looking at the site I've realised that quite of lot of what she said matches precisely what's on the website (barring the Barroso bit). But then again, before the lecture I'd never heard of the EEA (and neither had anyone else I talked to).

The website also doesn't include all the currently embargoed things we where told about. I'll now pretend I can remember what was embargoed and what wasn't and that it would be impossible for me to break any embargo, hence I couldn't possibly tell you about this very important and riveting bit of information.

Although one feature which she stressed quite heavily was the revelation that treating the end results of a process rather than controlling the input was far more inefficient and expensive (in the 1970s the Netherlands realised they would have a problem with waste water and sought to mitigate this by encouraging curtailment of use, reducing the input. At the same time Denmark had a similar problem. They choose to invest in large scale technologically innovative treatment. Cut to 30 years later, and spending per capita on waste water is 6 times in Denmark that in Holland. The Danes aren't too happy about this). As revelations go... it is something that anyone who has done chemistry, engineering, medicine, biology, geography or even psychology would probably already know.

And how come environment lectures always pivot around the word "decoupled". By the end of the environmental improvement process (is there one?) even the economy will be decoupled from GDP. It is quite interesting to discover that the new member states, actually far out perform the older core of the EU in terms of decoupling things like waste production and GDP or fossil fuel use and construction (although the hopeful yet-to-be-MS are managing to go in the wrong direction). The NMS are quicker acting, more effective and more innovative. Which rather highlights the fact we are not. Shouldn't we be? Oughtn't we be?

The older MS apparently are scraping through Kyoto because of the impact of the newer ones (I'm not sure how this works, as I thought each country is allowed X much and that it was country specific).

In waste production the EU has produces twice the volume of the nearest comparable competitor. The IT revolution had no impact on the levels of paper waste produced. Spain somehow manages to have nearly 3 times the rubbish production of other EU countries. And most of it comes from construction and demolition.

The desired response to this is to shift the burden of taxation upstream. If a material costs more per yard then fewer bits will cut of the end and chucked away. But the newer member states are more effective because they can and do introduce this shift in taxation patterns. If your economy used to be communist, and you've spent the past few years rewriting the legislation to allow it not to be, what's another amendment? Whereas if you try mentioning the words "new tax" in this country, Murdoch's minions will cremate you before you even get the pie charts out. Oh and there's the fact that five sixths (spelt out longhand because superscripts are a pain and mess up the formatting. Except it would be 5/6, with the -th adding mentally. Really should get round to learning how to write. But then I did remember to edit someone else's "Tuesday the 15th of November" earlier today).

Anyway, another reason for governmental reluctance over shifting the burden of taxation upstream is that 5/6 of the resources consumed in the EU come from beyond its borders. So any shift looks like an increase in import tax and suddenly we're back squabbling over where we buy bananas, agricultural subsidies, steel price-fixing and how many jumpers people can import. Which reminds me; someone out there must have written a history of America under the title "Protestantism, Prohibition and Protectionism".

Which brings me onto land. Demographic changes mean that the new member states are facing chronic land abandonment. The average age of farmers in the region is far older than in Western Europe. As the population becomes more urbanised, rural communities break down encouraging further migration. The remaining population declines through ill health and death. The land is too far away from a town to be swallowed by suburbs. The children are working in towns and cities. The land is worthless. It is left to its own devices, which, after generations of being farmed in a set way, are devastating. A couple of years in and biodiversity has slumped. The land has reverted to poor scrubland. Fires increase. Floods increase. Diseases increase.

You, like someone asking questions at the end of the lecture, might see this as a good thing, a recovery perhaps. But bear in mind that the species are adapted to their environment and form that environment. Just think of the number species with field or hedge in their common names. Fields and hedges aren't naturally occurring features. The environments are manmade. This isn't inherently bad. Entire species rely on human behaviour. So if the humans disappear, so do the environments, so do the species.

But just to take the truly self-centred view, if the place catches fire, what stops the fire. If no-one lives there, and no-one cares, the fire burns. And it will keep burning until it reaches an area people do care about. Like a town. At which point people will try to control it, except like any battle it is a result of many gains and loses. Those whose houses, offices and factories were the losses won't be too happy (and the gains will be making firefree areas where there was fire, which probably ought to be counted as loses as well). And neither will their banks and insurance companies. And neither will be the investors and shareholders in those banks and insurance companies. Which ends up meaning the entire economy is now unhappy, and unhappy economies make more unhappy people. Unhappy people donate less to environmental charities and are less willing to spend money to make changes to improve the environment; think of Barroso's 3 pillars. But hey, what's that matter? Because after all there are now a heck of a lot more gorse bushes than there used to be. Yeah, sure they can't be grazed, and don't support as many species as whatever it was they replaced, but they're wild. Wild in a post-human environment that is, so not technically wild, but that's still a sort of wild. And wild is good.

Now run through the same system with flooding. For generations Vernon, Viktor, Vladimir or Vassilli has opened the sluice gates to flood his meadows in winter. Each autumn he spends time digging out trenches, rebuilding terraces, shoring up walls, replanting hedgerows or generally tinkering with his pet engineering project. Every so often a bit fails. He comes out and repairs it. He puts it back to pretty much how it was. Then socio-economics kicks in. V leaves to live with his children. He misses the farm, but not the freezing mornings hefting cold earth. The farm begins to miss him. Mice feast on the remaining food, on the wheat coming up a couple of years too late. One of the new burrows is behind the loose wall holding the hill out of the ditch. Water seeping through the earth finds this new hole, and takes the easy route out. As it does it carries out the unobstructed earth. The hole grows. More rain increases the water flowing through until the wall can no longer hold up the roof of the emerging cave. The stone and earth tumble into the ditch. Water backs up behind it, causing the land upstream to become more sodden and more unstable. Surface runoff increases from this saturated area, and penned in water finds any new way out. A new trickle grows, undercutting a different hill. Parts of that too slump into the water. Up and down the valley water is pulling earth down ontop of it or simply sweeping earth into it. The valley is slowing filling with small pools amongst muddy, saturated ground.

And then the rains really come. They always come at the same time every year. But that's what the sluices are for, that's what the ditches are for. But they don't work anymore. The valley has gone from being like an ice cube tray to being a mousemat. Slope it slightly and pour water into one end and what happens? Each compartment on the icecube tray fills, and then the water drains into the next one. Pour water on a mousemat and where does it go? Straight off the bottom. So this year, instead of the rains falling and overspilling into the watermeadows, or going off to top up the fishponds, and spending much of the year leaking back out again, the rains fall onto sodden ground and run across the surface. And they'll run across the surface until they can find somewhere which isn't sodden. Towns do quite well on not being sodden, but usually any earth capable of absorbing the water is covered beneath roads or buildings. So the water will flow in and across. Occasionally it will get lucky and find a basement, which is just a compartment on a ice cube tray punched through a mousemat (although pumping out will start the moment flooding starts to subside, so the peak lopped off is deposited onto the back of the wave of flooding, instead of spread over the next few weeks or months). And the water will carry on flowing until it finds something which can accept that volume of water. Which if the retaining capacity was the fields far upstream probably won't be found until this block of water reaches the sea (why have something which is only needed if something else fails? Do people go out and buy 2 loaves in case one has gone off?), so the flooding sweeps through every town until it reaches the mouth of the river. Which applied to relatively little rivers can be devastating, but when applied to things the size of the Danube... (guess whose geographic knowledge runs out of big rivers east of the Danube).

Now add in the effects of global warming: more frequent severe weather. More mini-monsoons, more sudden cloudbursts: more flashflooding (and damage from that will probably include more erosion, increasing normal flooding). More freak periods of high temperatures and no rainfall: more widespread fires (and of course fires damage or destroy surface cover, leading to greater soil instability, promoting greater movement and so more flooding).

So if you want a farm near the Romanian border, wait a couple of years, then buy it for next to nothing. If you maintain it, not only can you live in a rural idyll, but you are fulfilling your civic duty (and I know civic is not the right word).

Of course what will happen is that everyone will buy the places as holiday homes, minimal maintenance to the land will be done (no doubt newspaper supplements will talk of people creating eco-havens by buying an underused farm and letting it revert, so providing a brand new habitat for wildlife which can be viewed from the patio/loggia/veranda/terrace/deck [depending which is the current vogue] while drinking imported wine), and then there'll be a big hoo-ha about property investors being ripped off by unscrupulous locals and incompetent local administrations when people drive out from the airport to find the place has either been redecorated with a chocolate brown up to about 4 ft which comes with its own unique odour, or that the house the owners jokily call "the ruin" has scorched walls containing piles of shattered blackened tiles and some dramatically positioned charred beams.

Sorry, slight lecture there (that carried on past the peak), but I was getting increasingly annoyed by the environmentalist at the back asking the same questions in a loop and not listening to the answers. This is why much of the scientific community (oxymoron I know, but I'll ignore it for the time being) takes a dim, and slightly sneering, view of environmentalists; because they're dim. They are thick. Gross oversimplification, but for the majority it's true (and rather depressingly so - some of what they say is good, and they have a point, and then they go and ruin it).

But getting back to property investors. Apparently Europeans appreciate indigenous biodiversity. So much so that people go on safaris. And then return home to the immaculately kept luxury villa on an estate built round a golf course. So that's appreciate biodiversity in other places, so much so that they'll happily campaign (or pay someone else to campaign) against logging in Burma, while looking out over the expanse of gravel to the greater expanse of one single species of rye grass.

Probably ought to remind people at this point that the total number of households is rising and likely to continue. And where do people want to live? In a nice big house with a nice big garden on a quiet little road somewhere in the country (but which is still within reach of towns). So a big house is a large area with limited biodiversity (being the human occupants, whatever's in the maid's spit, the contents of a couple of jars of Yakult (other sources of charlatanism are available) and three sticks of bamboo). A big garden often is (so monoculture of grass, plus thoroughly cleansed swimming pool, plus hard tennis court, plus a few selected shrubs, all fenced in with the same species of conifer). On a quiet road demands that the traffic is carried on other roads, which increases the area of paving and thus biodiversity. And somewhere in the country invariably assumes that someone else does the country (which if you can retire by selling the land off to become more prestigious housing...). Within reach of towns means that the customers for a shop come from areas with too low a density to support mass transport, so that's an endless series of car journeys. It also means that out of town developments become ever more popular as they cut out the traffic and parking problems of going into town. Except each new out of town development draws part of the town round it, creating its own little hub, which means another development even further out is more accessible to the customers beyond the town. Let this process continue, and it's not so much the string of pearls model of development, more a beaded dress.

But then moving out of towns will probably be a good thing, as current indicators show that urban air pollution is continuing to rise, while in the rest of the place it is likely to decline (except if the whole place becomes suburbia...). Which given the long-term greenhouse gas targets are continuing to be exceeded, with the bulk of the increase coming from transport (that whole house not near services thing).

But the good news is that water use is set to decrease. In northern Europe. In southern Europe it has been increasingly dramatically and this is unabated. Which has caused damage to infrastructure and buildings through water extraction generated subsidence. It has damaged or wiped out habitats (marshland tends not to work so well without water). It has generated huge scale diversion away from natural watercourses (But China's not in Europe. Oh, yes I forgot Spain was doing that too).

Moving on, the EEA has developed a landcover database which allows them to measure the effect of policies. They can see the impact of flooding throughout the area, so there's not disjointedness at the borders. They've seen a 40% increase in sprawl in the peri-urban area around Berlin (not sure on what timescale, think it's 10 years, so post-wall). They can plot out the impacts of schemes, and suggest to places like Estonia, who were connecting every dot to every other dot on the map with EU funded roads, that completely fragmenting their unique environment might not be such a good idea (Estonia scaled back their plans to include green corridors).

But the data for all this isn't instantaneous. There are problems with sensing. There are problems with recording in an accessible and uniform way. There are problems with reporting (apparently all member countries of the EEA have to submit data and statistics on things like ozone. We were told 4 countries regularly did this, often going beyond what was necessary. The rest didn't. They missed deadlines. The EEA's response was to announce that they would publish a map for public use showing things like localised ozone levels across the whole continent. Individual countries figured out that the EEA would be guessing when it came to their country, but their citizens would see the guesses, which might not be good if it overestimates [Oh, but it's not really that bad. We know it's not that bad. Yes, I know the map says it is, but it's just the people who made the map didn't have access to the same information we do. Because we didn't send it in. Because, er... No, it's not that we are trying to hide things from the public, it's just... What do you mean you believe the map not me? But I have the information here. Well, I don't, but I could, if we can find it. No, I'm not just stalling to give someone time to make it up. Look, would we lie to you? Trust me, I'm a politician. Oh, where are you going?]. So suddenly there are only 4 who haven't sent the data in yet, and they've all given promises and excuses.

And here she got into a complex bit, which I think included embargoed stuff (I can't find it on the website), about datanets, NASA's Sensornet system which only responds to changes (cheap, but limited use, as ozone is about the only thing it can be used for, other data being too noisy or the machines too insensitive to be used effectively), GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security - it's the and Security which sounds a bit odd) and a whole swathe of other stuff leading into things like PRELUDE (prospective land use model, quite fun, but awful scenarios titles, but half of it isn't on the website yet).

Basically they don't have enough equipment or sensing sites to be able to do what they want and what people want them to do. It's a bit hard to model something which varies from street to street when there are only 3 measuring sites in the country. And of course analysis and modelling takes time, when most applications demand immediate response. She mentioned Turkey using live ozone data to launch public health alerts (basically stay indoors and try not to breathe) as an example of the result of the data monitoring system, but I got the impression that was about it in terms of rapid feedback.

Of course my view is biased by adjourning to the drinks [yay free alcohol, boo not drinking much because I have to listen to things and sound intelligent. Less yay to the slightly desiccated buffet. It was seafood heavy (always comforting in a buffet) with much rubbery sushi; the pickled ginger was beginning to curl] afterwards and finding myself talking to the head of the EEA's "partner" (thank god for keeping quiet and not asking how long they've been working together. Memo to self: partner can also mean not-yet-married) and a lecturer I know. I was mostly an impartial observer, occasionally confusing the guy who spends his life tracking lampposts by being able to cover the entire gambit between sensing nets, benthic worms and head versus flow tidal generation, with a little PV thrown in for good measure. Hmm, biologist who sails (with a physicist for a brother); that'll cover most of it.

Anyway, so a fascinating discussion, with occasional instances of biting my lip caused by both sides (oceanic consulting engineer trying to underplay the importance of tidal estuaries to fisheries: you see muddy water, I see suspended particles and dissolved organic matter. Oh, and if it's in the tidal range it's not really benthic. I'll ignore entirely the built environment scientist's misunderstandings).

And then after that the important people were dragged off to eat worse food, and I left discovering along the way (via the BE guy) that there was some big thing going on in Camden that might be worth checking out. But that's another post.


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