I Actually Agree With The Guardian (Mostly)

The Guardian’s George Monbiot opines that We can’t build our way out of the environmental crisis. I agree. The only solution to environmental sustainability is to reduce the world population. Let’s see what George has to say.

BC’s Site C dam project (artist rendering)

In the UK, Boris Johnson’s build back better programme will “unite and level up the country”, under the banner of “green growth”.

The fact that the program’s name is a World Economic Forum slogan tells you all you need to know. It will unite the country’s elite with their friends in the World Economic Forum. The oligarchs will be the ones levelling up.

Sure, we need some new infrastructure. If people are to drive less, we need new public transport links and safe cycling routes. We need better water treatment plants and recycling centres, new wind and solar plants, and the power lines required to connect them to the grid. But we can no more build our way out of the environmental crisis than we can consume our way out of it.

Without building renewable energy sources and transport and farming infrastructure to take advantage of them, we won’t be able to reduce CO2 emissions. I don’t believe reducing CO2 emissions alone will solve the “environmental crisis”. Only reducing the population load on the earth can do that in the long term. What are Monbiot’s issues with the government’s infrastructure programs?

The primary purpose of new infrastructure is to enrich the people who commission or build it. Even when a public authority plans a new scheme for sensible reasons, first it must pass through a filter: will this make money for existing businesses?

This is simply restating the adage that the purpose of government is to enrich the political class. That is why I advocate for small government. The government should only be responsible for maintaining the commons and preventing any one group from taking advantage of it at the expense of everyone else. As long as corporations are able to buy politicians, this will never be the case.

This is how, for example, plans to build a new hydrogen infrastructure in the UK appear to have been hijacked. In August, the head of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Chris Jackson, resigned in protest at the government’s plans to promote hydrogen made from fossil methane, rather than producing it only from renewable electricity. He explained that the government’s strategy locks the nation into fossil fuel use. It seems to have the gas industry’s fingerprints all over it.

Making hydrogen via electrolysis is prohibitively expensive. At least when hydrogen made from methane (using heat in a central facility) is burned, it’s only emission is water. As with heating, where natural gas has half the emissions of oil, hydrogen from natural gas has half the CO2 emission of gasoline. So Jackson quit because halving emissions wasn’t good enough to start with? What an idiot.

For the same reason, many of the beneficial projects in Biden’s infrastructure framework and American Jobs Plan have been cut down or stripped out by Congress, leaving behind a catalogue of pork-barrel pointlessness.

Yep. This is why government infrastructure spending should be small and on clear cut projects to benefit everyone, like rapid transit or clean power generation.

Much of the time, schemes are created and driven not by a well-intentioned public authority, but by the demands of industry. Their main purpose – making money – is fulfilled before anyone uses them. Only some projects have the secondary purpose of providing a public service.

In the case of transit, this is true in the sense that business centers (downtown areas) will typically get the best service because that’s where the most people need to get to. In the case of power generation, while many projects are driven by industry, cities need power. Power utilities are one of the few things that I lean toward publicly managing.

Worldwide, construction is the most corrupt of all industries, often dominated by local mafias and driven by massive kickbacks for politicians. If infrastructure is to create any public benefit, it needs to be tightly and transparently regulated. Boris Johnson’s plans to deregulate the planning system and to build a series of free ports, where businesses will be able to escape many labour, customs and environmental rules, will ensure that the link between new building and public need becomes even more tenuous.

Tight regulation makes it likely that little will get done. Transparency, on the other hand, is a good thing. However, the real problem is that government is not competent manage construction projects.

There’s an inherent bias towards selecting projects with the worst possible value for money. As the economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg points out, “the projects that are made to look best on paper are the projects that amass the highest cost overruns and benefit shortfalls in reality.” Decisions are routinely based on misinformation and “delusional optimism”. HS2, whose nominal costs have risen from £37.5bn in 2009 to somewhere between £72bn and £110bn today, while its alleged financial benefits have fallen, is not the exception: it’s the global rule. By contrast, for £3bn a year, all bus tickets in the UK could be issued without charge, a policy that would take more cars off the road and reduce emissions much faster than this gigantic white elephant.

Civil servants are not competent enough to know whether a project plan is bogus or not. Of course companies underbid. If they didn’t, they would look like they were charging too much. Fixed price contracts are equally problematic. Contractors are expert at working to the letter of the contract, then charging extra for things that weren’t nailed down in it. The issue is really that with incompetents writing the RFPs and vetting the proposals, there’s no way to effectively budget for the real cost or to know which proposal is actually the best one.

The environmental benefits of new schemes are routinely overstated while the costs are underplayed. HS2 is again emblematic: though it has been promoted as a greener way to travel, the government’s estimates suggest that it could, overall, release more carbon than it saves. Bypasses that were meant to relieve traffic jams merely shunt congestion to the next pinch point. Big hydroelectric dams routinely produce less electricity than promised while destroying entire ecosystems.

This is why government should be minimal. While its true that hydroelectric dams come at the cost of the land flooded for their reservoirs, they are very tried and true green power systems that unlike solar and wind are very predictable power sources.

One reason for the environmental costs of new infrastructure is the massive footprint of concrete, whose carbon emissions may never be recouped. Another is the way new building creates new demand. This is an explicit aim of the government’s national infrastructure strategy and its “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution”. But you don’t solve a problem by making it bigger.

You can absolutely solve a problem by making it bigger. Building infrastructure has a (mostly) one time cost in emissions. If that infrastructure (transit, say) then offers a recurring saving in emissions, over time, the savings will surpass the cost.

In countries with high biodiversity, infrastructure is the major driver of habitat destruction. As a paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution shows, new infrastructure and the deforestation it causes is highly “spatially contagious”. In other words, one scheme leads to another and then another, expanding the frontier inexorably into crucial habitats. There is an almost perfect relationship between the proximity to a road and the number of forest fires. Roads, above all other factors, are tearing apart the forests of the Amazon, the Congo basin and south-east Asia.

While this is true if roads are being built into new areas, it hardly applies to all infrastructure. Aside from access roads and the land flooded by hydro projects, they do little damage to the surrounding habitat. Transit is usually run along existing commuter corridors and only in largely urban areas. Highways being built for long haul transport of goods are presumably what this paper is discussing.

Massive infrastructure schemes disproportionately affect territories belonging to indigenous people: for centuries their land has been treated as other people’s frontiers. Indigenous groups fought long and hard to establish the principle of “free, prior and informed consent”, which is recognised by the UN and in international law but ignored almost everywhere. This rule applies to all kinds of infrastructure, even those we see as benign. A report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre shows how renewable energy schemes have often driven a coach and horses through indigenous people’s rights.

Tiny native populations claim massive swaths of land as their traditional hunting territories. Traditional hunting territories are not owned in most cases, though in BC, we have a few treaties that do give natives title to their historical hunting ranges. There needs to be a balance between native rights and the rights of the majority. What was done in the past is done. In Canada, the government has limited rights to expropriate land for the common good. Like all things governmental, these should be used minimally.

Greener infrastructure will produce a greener outcome only if it’s accompanied by the deliberate retirement of existing infrastructure. In addressing the climate and ecological emergencies, the key issue is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing. But while the UK government has plans to fund new rail links, bus services and cycle lanes, it has no plans to retire any road or runway. On the contrary, it boasts about its “record investment in strategic roads” (£27bn). Every major airport in the UK has plans for expansion. Last week, for example, Gatwick airport announced a consultation to raise its passenger numbers from 46 million to 75 million a year.

This is not true. If renewable energy systems aren’t built, traditional fossil fuel burning systems will be. This is because no matter what we do, our population will increase for a while until the baby boom and boom echo (millennial) generations die off. Clearly building renewable energy instead of fossil fuel will produce greener results. Since the renewable plants are newer, they will presumably continue to run for decades, whereas old fossil fuel burning plants will eventually be shuttered. Hopefully, telecommuting will reduce the number of vehicles using the roads. There’s no need to retire roads themselves, and some new roads will actually shorten routes, reducing emissions. It seems crazy that airports are currently contemplating expansions, since right now, relatively few people are flying. Seems like “Airfield of Dreams” thinking: if you build it, they will come.

Rich nations tend to be oversupplied with some types of infrastructure. One of the simplest, cheapest and most effective green policies is to set aside existing motorway lanes for buses, to create a fast, efficient inter-city service. But where’s the money for construction companies in that?

HOV/transit lanes are great, but if they come at the expense of making traffic much worse for those who aren’t able to use them, they won’t be popular. Adding HOV lanes to existing roads that have become congested works well, assuming you have the space for them. In Vancouver, much of our rapid transit is elevated and runs down existing traffic corridors. Elevated trains are far less expensive to build than subways.

Environmental change cannot be delivered only by infrastructure. To be effective, it needs to be accompanied by social change: travelling less as well as travelling better, for example. We need to develop not only new railways and tramlines and wind farms and power lines, but a new way of life.

Telecommuting is a perfect example of a practical way to make this work. Companies can save costs on expensive downtown office space, employees don’t have to waste hours commuting, and the environment benefits from reduced traffic.

But while governments and construction companies are happy to give us more of everything, the one thing we cannot have is less. The overarching rule is this: if you want a greener world, resist the rising tide of concrete.

We will see if people are willing to return to the downtown commute five days a week. My company seems very committed to supporting a hybrid approach where people can work from home part time, and those who choose to work from home the majority of the time are not allocated permanent office space, instead “hotelling” in shared space when they come in to the office. Maybe the new way of life is already here, at least for some of us.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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