Are environmental groups guilty of crimes against humanity?

Environmental groups like to argue that they are protecting the planet against the crimes of humanity. But is it time to turn the tables and ask if it is they who are committing crimes against humanity with their misguided impact on global development? 

Over the last few decades, environmental groups have had a major impact on global policy. Some of this has been well judged and effective. For example, England’s recycling of household waste has improved from 11% to 43% in the last decade. In the same period, the average carbon emission of new cars in the UK fell by 30% and is set to have halved between 2000 and 2020. Similarly, new cars have become 25% more fuel efficient in the last decade and lead has largely disappeared from petrol. Ozone damaging CFCs have virtually been eradicated, meaning that the ozone layer should fully recover from the earlier impact. The success stories have common features: a mix of consumer price rises and regulation has stimulated a competitive private sector market to respond with new technology that efficiently addresses the environmental goal; the environmental groups have stuck to straightforward environmental issues (not confusing them with bigger ambitions to bring down capitalism or turn the tide on consumption) and they have not been prescriptive about the solutions. But on the big global issues (such as climate change) the environmental groups have not only been ineffective, they have set the wrong agenda and, tragically, got in the way of the effective solutions which are so badly needed. In doing this, they have alienated popular support for environmental change and, much more importantly, they have done great harm to the lives and prospects  of billions of people. 

If we are to consider a charge sheet for crimes against humanity, then let’s look at 3 issues where the prosecution may have a prima facie case – agriculture, energy and greenfield development: 

1) Agriculture
If (like me) you are prepared to accept an international scientific consensus, then it is clear that GM crops are safe. To quote the American Association for Advancement of Sciences: “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The WHO, AMA, UN Academy of Sciences, British Royal Society, all …come to the same conclusion…it is no riskier than conventional plant improvement techniques”. In 2012, the UK’s Chief Scientist said “It would be irresponsible for us to turn our back against the environmental and development benefits of GM and other agricultural developments of GM … at a time when the planet desperately needs these breakthroughs for sustainable development”. And yet no GM crops are grown commercially in the UK. Not one. The EU has only ever approved 2 GM crops for commercial use, in spite of the EU’s Chief Scientist saying that there is no single case of GM crops having an adverse impact on humans, animals or the environment. Does the protest against GM matter? Well, it matters more than almost anything. Let’s take some examples. Vitamin A deficiency is a major health problem in much of the world – leading to both blindness and death for children. Golden Rice is a strain of rice genetically engineered to have a high beta-carotene content to meet Vitamin A needs. Because it is a GM product it has been bitterly opposed by environmental campaigners. It was developed in 1999, but 15 years later it has still not been grown commercially anywhere in the world. Since 1999, 7m children have either died or gone blind due to Vitamin A deficiency. In a world where more than 1 billion people go hungry each week and which may have to almost double its food production by 2050, it is a big deal that 30% of the world’s crops are destroyed by pests. GM either has solved or can solve most of this problem. For example, an English firm has developed a strain of wheat which emits a deterrent to aphids and the same chemical attracts aphid predators like ladybirds. However, attempts at field trials were thwarted by environmental protesters. There are lots of exciting developments in the pipeline specifically tackling devastating crop diseases in Africa in cassavas, cowpeas and bananas. Where GM crops have been adopted (e.g. in cotton) the use of pesticides has been dramatically reduced.  In a world in which water shortages are arguably the greatest threat to development, it is vital that biotechnology ensures that crops need less water, given that 70% of all water use is for agriculture (and in some developing countries it is 90%). The Gates funded work on Water Efficient Maize for Africa (with a GM crop that can sit out a drought and wait for the rains to come rather than going to waste) is just one example of a major game changer. So why do the environmental groups stand opposed to the scientific consensus that GM crops are safe and essential to sustainable development? (Indeed the same groups use the argument that the scientific consensus is beyond doubt to  fiercely attack any dissident voices on climate change.) A quick look at the Greenpeace website reveals the reason. The top issue they identify in agriculture is that 10 corporations control 70% of the seed market. If you read the anti-GM propaganda from environmental groups it is clear that the opposition is motivated more than anything by hatred of both capitalism and large multi-nationals. Instead, a vision is put forward of retaining small scale organic farming in much of the world. This flies in the face of the success of intensive large scale farming – if we tried to produce today’s world’s food output with 1960 technologies we would need to farm an extra 3 billion hectares, a landmass equal to 2 South Americas! The environmental antipathy to global capitalism can look benign unless you look at the analogy of other science-based industries. For example, the pharmaceutical industry relies on the potential of a multinational corporations to make global profits from new drugs to fund long-term, expensive and high risk research into medicine. Imagine if the environmentalists had opposed the commercial use of pharmaceuticals with the same arguments they make against GM – “we shouldn’t mess with nature”; “traditional medicines will be displaced by multinationals and their aggressive roll-outs of new profitable drugs”; “trials should be prevented”; “it is better that people avoid cancer by changing their lifestyles rather than being given chemical cocktails to attack the disease”; etc. The parallels are chilling. So, if we are happy to use bio-technology to create medical products to put in our bodies, surely we should be happy to do the same with food? For the last 10,000 years we have been genetically modifying foods, as plant and animal breeders have selected the genes they want or don’t want. Now we can do it quicker and more ambitiously; now the world can’t wait; now we should get on with it. 

2) Energy

The environmental groups have scored some spectacular own goals on energy. The climate change treaties have seen the West’s production of carbon fall. But its consumption of carbon has risen sharply. The treaties imposed production targets on the West but not on the developing and emerging economies – as they were driven by a Western guilt-trip, rather than a comprehensive solution. So the West has outsourced its production of carbon to the emerging economies. The result has been the worst of all worlds. The emerging economies have produced our goods in a more polluting way than we would have done ourselves – burning coal and generating unabated pollution. Any rational analysis would before the treaties would have shown that the biggest threat to the environment always comes from newly industrialising countries. Over time, industrial countries reduce their pollution through abatement and efficiency. For example, the high income countries reduced emissions per dollar of GDP produced between 1940 and 1998 by 90% for sulphur, carbon monoxide and volatile compounds. But China is burning nearly twice as much coal to produce a dollar of GDP as the West. (However, Chinese cities are better than Japan’s early development, where for example its cities were 3 times as polluting as Beijing and Shanghai today.) The hard numbers on the treaty failures are bracing. Since 2000, two-thirds of carbon emissions have come from China, which uses 2.5 times as much energy to produce industrial goods as Germany. By 2015, China will emit twice as much carbon dioxide as the US. Not only have the climate treaties been disastrous for carbon emissions, they have been destructive for the people of the emerging economies. In northern China, for example, life expectancy has been reduced by more than 5 years by air pollution. India has the worst air pollution in the world and two-thirds of the 20 worst polluted cities. Meanwhile, in Europe, the environmental groups have focused on the rapid adoption of renewable energy generation. They have willed the means, rather than the ends. Rather than relying on carbon prices and regulation driving private sector solutions to reduce carbon, the environmentalists have insisted on European law mandating renewable energy in short order. This flies in the face of how markets respond. Governments have been put in a weak position – as market takers they are trapped into buying today’s very high cost, very ineffective renewable solutions. In the UK, this focuses on rushing into very expensive off-shore wind, signing up to long-term contracts which cost 2 or 3 times as much as gas power. But more worryingly, the energy produced is unpredictable and often not available. For example, in the middle of November in 2012, Germany found that its combined wind and sun renewables (which are meant to cover different weather) only produced 4.8% of the energy of which they are supposedly capable. So as well as the expensive renewables we will have to build a parallel energy industry (based largely on carbon) to produce reliable energy. In the rush to renewables, the green groups encouraged the burning of timber. In the UK, the Drax power station has been converted to annually burn more than the UK’s entire output of timber. Meanwhile, in Germany, a third of renewable energy comes from burning timber and it looks like 20% of German land will be used by 2020 to grow biofuels. In the US, 40% of the corn crop is used for fuel. Late in the day, the environmental groups have seen the devastating effect of biofuels production on forests and food-growing farmland. They have also conceded that the carbon neutrality of burning trees (e.g Drax burns 165 square miles of trees each year) is only true over hundreds of years. In terms of the climate change crisis in the next few decades, burning trees for energy is making things worse. Against this domestic introspection, little has been done to urgently endow the world’s poorest with the energy deserve. The people of sub-Saharan Africa currently use only 1% of the energy per head as the west – each day, their total use of energy is equivalent to lighting a single bulb for 4 hours a day. In parallel, the environmental campaigners have iPhones whose mobile computing etc uses the same power per year as a refrigerator. We clearly need a new type of international treaty on energy – one which urgently reduces the burning of coal by India and China (replaced by ample supplies of gas, which uses half the carbon of coal); one which stops wasting hundreds of billions on today’s weak renewables and instead channels those massive resources into R&D to push forward with new technologies that can really solve the problem, e.g. nuclear fusion; one which acknowledges and accelerates different solutions in different countries – e.g. solar for Africa and the Middle East, nuclear for high income countries, gas for the US; etc. But this will require the environmental groups to acknowledge that: the world has an ample source of energy resources; that we should promote more energy use in the world to improve the lives of the poorest; and that the legacy we want to leave future generations should focus less on the depletion of resources and more on the new technologies we invent to power the world, sustainably.

3) Use of land
The Council for the Protection of Rural England is currently campaigning against the potential use of greenfield land for new homes. It opposes greenfield development. It believes that any new housing should be inside existing city boundaries. It has spent a huge amount of time looking at the actual and emerging Local Plans for local authorities across England and believes that up to 500,000 new homes might be built on greenfield land over the next 20 years. The majority of these greenfield homes are not yet approved. But the CPRE’s screaming headline is that this could consume 150 square kilometres. But England has 130,393 square km – so that it is just 0.1% at risk. Even if all the new homes were put in the South East (which they won’t be) it would be a lot less than 1% of the South East. Even if all of England’s new greenfield housing went into Wiltshire it would only use 4% of the county! It is true that England has one of the highest population densities in Europe. It is also true that with a growing population and immigration people are feeling that the country is full. But the truth is completely the opposite. Let’s look at England first, then the UK more generally. Nearly 11% of England is now urban. That means that 89% is not developed. But even this exaggerates the concreting over of England. 80% of urban areas are not built upon. Just over half of all urban areas is green space ( parks, sports, etc), a fifth is gardens and 7% is waterways. So the percentage of England which is built upon is just over 2%! If we look at the wider UK, less than 1% of land is built upon. Indeed, even if we look at the percentage of the UK which is urbanised in any way (including parks or rivers in towns) it is just 7%, compared to 13% which is now woodland. (Woodland is now at the highest percentage since records began 90 years ago.) The numbers matter. The UK has a full blown housing crisis.  Home ownership rates are plummeting; 3.3m young adults (20-34) live with their parents; we have the smallest new homes in Europe; demand for housing has been double supply for decades; rents consume half of many people’s incomes. Worse is to come – the number of English households will rise 20% in the next 20 years.  The solution is simple – build more houses. More houses means giving up greenfield land. Clearly we have plenty to sacrifice. And a very little sacrifice would have a dramatic impact. If the CPRE’s figures are correct, then, pro-rata,  a 1% sacrifice of greenfield land would allow 5m new homes in England, which is more than enough for the next 2 to 3 decades. The uncomfortable truth is that the CPRE and others of their ilk are hoarding the countryside for themselves – keeping their house prices artificially high, excluding others from enjoying their natural environment and avoiding the UK’s social diversity. As well as the millions of people who are denied the chance to have a home of their own in the areas they would like to live, the political effectiveness of the environmental groups has a detrimental impact on those who live in urban areas. The insistence on turning all urban brownfield sites into hyper-intensive development means that cities and towns are unable to convert these sites into green areas (e.g. new parks, new wooded areas) to improve the quality of life of the rapidly growing urban populations. The hysterical opposition to greenbelt development means that low grade land around cities is protected, whilst commuters are forced much further away from the city to the other side of the greenbelt taking higher quality landscape to meet their housing needs and then creating commuter congestion as they drive back into the city. Our two most promising small cities for economic growth, Oxford and Cambridge, and the prospects of young people in those cities are hobbled by this environmental policy. Clearly, the development of greenfield land needs to be very carefully managed. I am not calling for a free-for-all. But just think how our most beautiful landscapes are enhanced by the sympathetic towns in them – imagine how our environment would be degraded without the built beauty of Bath, Canterbury or Durham. Indeed, the most apparently natural landscapes in the UK are anything but – e.g. the Lake District is a deforested area, subject to intensive over-grazing which has eroded the whole area of its natural state. And its full of villages and small towns. But, my, it’s stunning. Giving up 1 or 2 percent of England’s greenfield is the right price to pay for transforming the lives of millions of people. 
Having looked at just 3 areas where environmental policy is working against the best interests of humanity, it is clear that a prima facie prosecution case can be constructed. I say this as someone deeply concerned about the world environment (e.g. I gave up eating meat 30 years ago because it is about the worst thing for the planet). To reform the environmental movement, the first step is to ensure that we spot and call-out the environmental lobby’s grinding of other axes – be it anti-capitalism or self-interested house price protection. But the second step is challenging those who put preserving the natural world before the needs of people. Some of the environmental agenda verges on pantheism, creating a guilt that any conversion of nature to human use is a desecration of something which is worth much more than human need. But with 9 billion soon to be on the planet, we have to focus on how the natural world has to meet our needs as humans. (We can’t avoid having 9 billion people, it’s now inevitable). We should switch our focus onto how to get the most out of the natural world, in the most equitable, imaginative and sustainable way. That means moving to a debate which is more rounded (how we best develop the world, not just how to protect nature), more optimistic (using and accelerating our science and technology breakthroughs) and fairer (ensuring that the richest people and countries give the poorest the best chance to attain what they already have, be it food, energy or homes). Any sentence for crimes against humanity should be suspended to allow for future good behaviour.

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