Air pollution: the result of biomass use, or just too many vehicles ? ( No.2)

Filthy air caused half a million early deaths in Europe in 2014. “Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe,” says the European Environment Agency (EEA).  By far the biggest killer was PM2.5 pollution: tiny particles measuring 2.5 micrometres across or less. These caused 428,000 early deaths across the 41 European countries tracked in 2014. The main source, releasing 57 per cent of these emissions in 2015, was domestic wood burning.  Nitrogen dioxide, mostly from vehicle exhausts, cut short an estimated 78,000 lives across those countries. Ground-level ozone was the other major killer, taking 14,400 lives prematurely.

“Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution, and are responsible for 80 per cent of cases,” the EEA says. Air pollution also worsens respiratory diseases and cancer, and has non-lethal impacts on diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, pregnancy and brain development in children.

The main hotspots for PM2.5 pollution were Poland and northern Italy, where dozens of cities broke the European Union’s annual mean limit of 25 micrograms of particles per cubic metre of air. Poland and the Po valley have very bad pollution, the worst offender being Crakow, Poland. In all, 7 to 8 per cent of Europe’s urban population were exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU limit. But under the World Health Organization’s stricter limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, this rose to 82 to 85 per cent.

Emissions are slowly falling, and this could be sped up by limiting vehicle numbers, burning cleaner fuels and boosting pedestrianisation. Adapting roads and buildings to suit cycling is also recommended. The answer is electric vehicles, but then the power has to be generated to begin with. I walk everywhere I can, but there is little pleasure in walking the streets of any large town at the moment.

The EU is cheating on emissions

On the face of it, Europe is a leader in tackling climate change, on course to get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. But the biggest source of renewable energy in the European Union isn’t one of the ones everyone talks about – wind, solar or even hydro. Actually, the EU now gets more than 60 per cent of its renewable energy from waste wood, felled trees and from crops grown to make liquid biofuels. About a tenth of the energy that Europeans use for heating, transport and electricity will soon come from forests and farms. Many fear that this push for biomass will be disastrous for wildlife and drive up food prices. But what’s most shocking is that this push is based on flawed assumptions. The carbon balance sheets of developed countries hide a scam, one whose long-term effects could be very damaging indeed.

Overall, bioenergy may be reducing emissions compared with fossil fuels, but not by nearly as much as is claimed. That’s because UN and EU rules mean countries don’t have to count the significant carbon dioxide produced by burning biomass. The Europeans are to some extent claiming reductions that are not real. This accounting trick means biomass is sometimes being favoured over other renewables that could cut emissions more. Bioenergy is after all a very inefficient form of solar energy. It captures at best 0.3 per cent of the sun’s available energy, whereas solar panels capture more than 10 per cent. Worse still, in some cases, switching to biomass actually produces higher emissions than fossil fuels. In other words, EU taxpayers are funding projects that are speeding up global warming.

In the US, too, bioenergy is the single largest source of renewable energy. Forestry groups growing rich from selling wood to Europe want US lawmakers to introduce the same flawed accounting system. The big worry is that countries like Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will follow suit and start cutting down their trees to generate energy too. If you burn certain feedstocks – not all feedstocks – you are going to release more carbon than if you were burning coal,” says Nicklas Forsell at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria.

So why is it happening? When researchers first began totting up global carbon emissions, they decided to count those from cutting trees when they were felled. To avoid double counting, they ignored CO2 from burning. Biomass emissions are regarded as carbon neutral, so don’t count towards a country’s total. If a forest is felled for biofuel, it should be reported in the EU’s greenhouse gas inventory as emissions due to a change in land use. But developing countries don’t have to report land-use changes under the UN system, and there are so many loopholes that even developed countries seldom count emissions properly.

The assumption that burning biomass is carbon neutral underpins the EU’s 2020 renewables goal, which is driving a huge expansion of bioenergy backed by hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers’ money. oreover, if low-grade wood currently used to make paper is burned for energy instead, pulp producers have to source wood from elsewhere. That increases the pressure on forests. The bottom line is that wind and solar provide less than 20 per cent of the EU’s renewable energy, thus:

Wind 11.2
Solar 5.5%
Geothermal 3.2%
Hydropower 16%
Biomass and renewable waste 64%

(a heavily edited version of an article by Michael Le Page in the New Scientist)

What is the point of deliberstely cheating? We are talking about the future of the planet and of the human race. Moderation and just plain common sense tells us that we have to tackle the climate threat seriously or have a very serious problem down the line.

The white slave trade

To The Sunday Telegraph
I was interested in your article about the lost history of the Cornish people who were captured and sold as slaves by pirates from the Barbary Coast during the 17th and 18th centuries.
This subject is much better known about in Ireland, where the largest single raid took place. In 1631, pirates from Algiers stole almost all the villagers of Baltimore in Cork. In one night, more than 100 men, women and children were taken in a carefully planned raid. Only two ever made it back to Ireland.
The captain of the ship was actually a Flemish national who had raided for slaves as far as Iceland, where there is a large rock under which one woman managed to hide herself and avoid capture. (David Perry, Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire)

Without the Arabs in Africa the black slave trade would (possibly) never have taken off, and thus the history of the United States, not to mention Brazil and other countries, would have been very different. We are collectively grateful to the Arabs for preserving the ancient Greek and Roman scientific and other writings during the Dark Ages, but are we not due for a collective apology from the Arabs for their part in the transatlantic slave trade? Clearly, they (and their unscrupulous allies, in this case the Fleming) captured human beings where they could, regardless of geography and skin colour. The United States, particularly in universities, is constantly roiled in bad-tempered debates about the history of old institutions and their ownership of slaves. If this helps African Americans feel better about their lot, that’s fine, but be even-handed; you are more credible that way.

What has this to do with Epicureanism? Epicurus is reputed to have welcomed anyone, slave or free, into his garden to discuss philosophy. In those times slavery did not have the same connotations as it later had.

Should Epicureans go into business and finance?

In a modern capitalist economy such as our own, businesses and the finance sector are crucial to society’s success. We depend on businesses, banks and investment firms to safeguard our savings, help struggling companies, and in most cases, employ us. I’m generally averse to vehement anti-business and anti-finance sentiment. Many businessmen and bankers may be dislikable. But without their goods and services, we would all be worse off. If we seek to punish business or finance, either because we believe they make too much money or are inherently unethical, we only do ourselves harm.

Having said that, there are problems with pursuing a career in business or finance from an Epicurean perspective. The working hours are usually very long and often inflexible and unsociable. The work is stressful and demanding. Particularly in the better-paid finance jobs, you are under constant pressure to perform or lose your job. Your career can be to the detriment of your health and family life. Many of my friends and family members have sought careers in high paying but time-consuming sectors, only to give them up for something less lucrative but more enjoyable and relaxing.

The other problem with business and finance is that they can constrain your ability to act ethically. I’m not a Marxist, so I don’t believe businesses are inherently exploitative. But they certainly can be, whether its underpaying workers, insisting they work too long, or firing them for the slightest infraction. Businesses may also be dependent on unethical supply chains, such as poorly paid workers in developing countries, or high-polluting energy sources. The finance sector is even worse. Almost every major bank has been involved in various scandals, such as the LIBOR rigging scandal in London. Banks (albeit with poor government oversight) played a major role in the 2008 financial crisis, and haven’t fundamentally changed their practices since; they still lend money far too easily, which is why personal debt in Britain and America is shooting upwards. Banks aren’t alone in perpetuating an oversupply of credit. Car companies give out these ludicrously generous financing offers, often to customers unaware of the consequences of excessive mileage or how severe car depreciation can be.

I wouldn’t advise against going into business and finance at all. I would simply consider the effects of such a career on your personal wellbeing and the wider world to be more important than the potentially high salary. But if you believe you would enjoy working long hours, and the business or bank in question isn’t too morally compromised, then going into business and finance may be worth it. Especially if the money allows you to pursue something more meaningful later in life.

Raul – a poem about renaissance

On a beach by the tropical water stands a boat
Anonymous, un-named, derelict and un-remarked.
It was assembled in make-do fashion in metal.
Over the rivets tar has been used against the leaks,
Oozing through the holes under the baking sun,
And dis-figuring the side of the boat.
The old petrol engine, once painted green
Is now a mottled colour, specked with rust,
An ugly mass of metal, open to hurricanes and blazing summers.

What is its secret? What is its history?
Why is it here, where the tide laps and deposits the seaweed?
Despite its dereliction there is a hint of romance about it.

This is no vessel from a fancy shipyard,
Or playboat for the recreational fisherman;
Its shape betrays it.
Imagine an Arab dhow with mast and lateen sail,
And you begin to piece together the story of this sad, decayed craft –
The curve,the high prow, the low stern
All speak of Spain, of Andalusia, of Araby,
A design transported centuries ago to Cuba,
Which is but eighty miles away to the South
As the pelikan flies.

In my imagination this boat without a name
(we will call it “Raul”, for want of better)
Belonged to a poor Cuban fisherman,
Ekeing out a living on Cuba’s northern coast.
The owner could not afford a marine engine
And made do with a motor from an early Model T Ford.
The only concession to style was the Moorish bow;
The rest of the work, that of a rum-drinking local blacksmith.
No arduous ocean adventure was expected; none taken.

Raul puttered in the shallows, stopping while nets were raised
And fish hauled in, wriggling in the oily water of the bilge.
Short trips, safe, avoiding storms, with catches sufficient
To feed a growing family. “Raul”, the loyal and faithful guarantee of

And then – migration! The lure of a better life.
The children grown, the Cuban future uncertain.
Was this the decison of a moment, or was it a family decision
Talked over for months in whispered voices? We will never know.
Come what may, they embarked, old and young, as the sun set,
Steering hopefully into the night, trusting to “Raul” and fortune.

The wind came up in the early hours, and with it rain.
It came from the East, to the starboard side,
Whipping the blue Carib waters into froth.
The humans, sick and fearful, huddled from the wind,
While the old engine coughed and spluttered
And the skipper struggled with the beam-on waves.
Would they reach the Florida Keys alive, or perish like others?

For two whole days they tossed upon the water.
Fearful of foundering, the bow was turned into the wind
To face the oncoming waves. And there they sat,
Carried by wind and current, wet to the skin,
“Raul” struggling, half submerged, until the wind abated.

Early in the dawn light “Raul”, battered and drenched,
Brought his family to the reef off Islamorada.
In the shallow water the young men disembarked unseen.
They hauled “Raul” over the sandbank to the beach.
He had brought the family safely across the water.
Faithful servant! Good old friend! Great!
“Thank you and goodbye”. In an instant they were gone!
Vanished! Disappeared! No one knows what became of them.

Disconsolate, “Raul” sat on the sandy beach, only one of the Cuban many.
Feeling lonely and betrayed, and in a foreign land, depression soon set in.
His rivets began to rust, the transmission seize up,
The wooden gunwhales rot in wind and rain. A sad picture, barely noticed.

But then fate stepped in, as if to admit the raw deal dealt out.
“Raul” found a new career. Yes!
Unseaworthy though he is, he is now a prop for mass-market catalog photo-shoots;
For mood views of the latest fashions for magazines from
New York, London, Milan and Paris.
Beautiful girls in swimsuits drape themselves upon him
Or suggestively, against a nearby palm tree, with “Raul” as backdrop.
“Raul” is now world-famous, featured in movies and photos,
Drooled over by those dreaming of the good life and the South Pacific
(which is the illusion intended).
He no longer has to brave the shoals and rocks, even less rough seas and
Actual daily work.
No. He simply sits on the beach by the tropical water and the white sand
and coconut palms, surrounded by Directors, Assistant Directors, cameramen,
Property and Costume assistants – and those beautiful girls,
No longer anonymous, not longer unremarkable.

Robert Hanrott. (Raul sits now on the beautiful, palm-fringed beach in Islamorada, FL
and its photograph annually graces the pages of numerous fashion magazines. If you ever read such magazines you will probably have seen Raul, re-invented.

Mormanism in decline

It once had a claim to be the fastest-growing religious sect in American history, but the prospects don’t look so rosy for the Mormon Church these days. The sense of confidence and momentum is absent in the current Church, which is registering only 1.59% annual growth – its “slowest pace since 1937”. That’s still a respectable figure in these secular times, but hardly impressive for a sect that maintains “a massive force of more than 70,000 full-time proselytising missionaries worldwide”. Part of the problem is that the structure of the Mormon Church prevents it moving with the times and softening its stance on issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage and female priests. Its presidents are regarded as prophets whose words have the authority of scripture. As a result, new Church leaders must “constantly contend with the words of previous prophets”, which they dare not gainsay. “This model worked very well for an emerging religion in the 19th century.” But it’s not so well-suited to the modern age. (Eric Armstrong, The New Republic)

I remember being visited by young Morman missionaries years ago. The lads were courteous, well dressed, articulate and confident about their beliefs, touchingly so. But what struck me was that, pause for a few minutes from the religious advocacy, and they knew nothing. They were from Salt Lake City and were operating in England. They seemed to know nothing about England except their temporary addresses, nor about any other topic I brought up. The words “brainwashed” popped into my mind. They seemed ill-prepared for the modern world. Among their tribe I am sure they will have thrived, but outside the protective arms of the Mormon system, they came across poorly. I felt sorry for them. But that is what blind faith alone can do for you. Epicureanism is, on the contrary, a pragmatic, humanistic set of principles, open to debate and to new ideas. Or it ought to be!

Where do good and evil come from?

Philosophers have long wrestled with the nature of good and evil. Are they an inseparable duality? Are some things inherently good or evil? These questions seem too abstract to be answered by science. But by asking questions such as “why are animals altruistic?” and “why do chimps sometimes violently kill one another?”, biologists have arrived at an explanation that applies equally well to humans. They suggest that underlying good and evil is the neutral hand of natural selection.

Scientists think that both ‘evil’ and ‘moral’ behaviour have two evolutionary roots.  One relates to the genes you share with close relatives, which are passed on to offspring and which influence you to, for instance, help with the rearing of children and do things for the extended family. Even though you are not raising your own brood, the shared genes benefit. What appears at first to be a selfless act is selfish at the genetic level.

The second influence is best explained by long-term benefits to the do-gooder. For example, blood donation is often cited as a selfless act, but one study found that it is more likely to be an act of self-interest. People who believe in the potential personal benefit of blood banks are more likely to donate than people who think mainly of their benefit to society.  “Good” behaviour, in other words, is often influenced by personal gain. “Evil” behaviour might be the other side of the equation.  Take infanticidal chimps. Subsequent observations suggest that when chimps kill the young they do so at times when competition for food and other resources is high, so killing the competition represents an advantage for the killer.

Josephine Head, a biologist who witnessed horrific chimp violence in Loango National Park in Gabon, says the behaviour of our closest living relative gives us a window onto the roots of some human violence. “The tendency for group violence between males, and the strong ‘us and them’ mentality we attach to everything, can be traced back to this adaptive behaviour in apes,” she says.

But there are also factors that are not rooted in evolution. Many people who commit horrific acts grew up in abusive or violent environments, which can have neurological, psychological and genetic consequences. And some behaviours are down to random mutations. “Crazy mass killers are likely just that – insane.

So those who study these things think that good and evil don’t exist in any real sense. But they do agree that the evolutionary pressures that can make humans violent can also make us extremely peaceful. Our sense of morality can eliminate – or at least minimise – evil in society. (A precis of an article by Rowan Hooper, New Scientist)

My personal opinion is that we are blessed with some measure of common sense and self-interest. If one treats people in thoughtful, kindly ways, ask them about themseves, offer little kindnesses and take an interest in them and what they think, then you will be rewarded accordingly. Put it another way: behave in a rude, uncaring, humourless way and you will soon have no friends. It isn’t rocket science.

Brexit, a field day for crooks. Bye, bye ataraxia!

Mobsters have always exploited world events for their own gain, says The Economist. But “for organised criminals, Brexit is perhaps the most promising rearrangement of the European scene since the fall of communism”. Clearly, much will depend on the outcome of exit negotiations. But if, for instance, Britain achieves its aim of maintaining an open border in Ireland while leaving the EU customs union, we can expect “an increase in the already substantial traffic in contraband” across the border, as well as “new opportunities through British ports and quiet coastal spots”. The expected “parliamentary logjam” as Westminster replaces EU laws may also bolster crooks if it means that current loopholes in anti-money-laundering regulations remain unclosed. But “Brexit’s biggest bonus for the underworld” is likely to be “weaker police oversight” following our presumed withdrawal from Europol and mechanisms such as the European arrest Warrant. Thanks in part to the EAW, Spain’s “Costa del Crime” has lately become less attractive to British crooks hoping “to enjoy (and reinvest) other people’s money”. “More sangria, lads? (The Economist, 3 February 2018)

Some will dismiss the above as “politics”. I look at it differntly. I think what is happening all over the world, and Brexit is an example, is the disintegration of life as we have known it since 1945, partly caused by idiot politicians, partly the huge threat to peace and security posed by climate change and bogus “news”. All this would have been as troubling to Epicurus as it is to us. To see the casual abandonment of a way of life painfully built over decades, the divisiveness, the foul language – all this makes life less pleasurable and increases anxiety. One can try to hide away from it and pretend it isn‘t happening, but regrettably it will affect us all, if not now in the very near future.