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The problem with environmental issues

It's hard to find anyone who says we should trash the environment. But there is a real problem underlying many environmental issues that both individuals and environmental pressure groups seem to miss: there is often a trade-off involved. 

It's not enough to say 'we will do this because it's good for the environment' in a blanket way, because many actions taken for environmental reasons will benefit one aspect of the environment but will be a negative for another. The only honest environmentalism is one where you acknowledge both the positives and negatives - and are prepared to say that one environmental goal is more important than another.

For me, there is a very clear priority: climate change. It trumps all other environmental concerns. This doesn't mean we can't be nice to whales or whatever - often actions can be totally positive. But where something is beneficial in terms of reducing climate change, it may need to be adopted even if it raises some negatives elsewhere.

The most glaring divisive factor is nuclear power. Until we get fusion power stations, there is no doubt that nuclear power is not environmentally ideal via fission reactors. But such power stations provide a source of energy that does not contribute to climate change, and, unlike wind and solar, they are not weather dependent. Nuclear is essential to fill in the gaps. We have to have more nuclear power, and it's time that green pressure groups (and Green political parties internationally) recognised this.

Another example is the war on plastics. Everyone agrees we shouldn't have plastic getting into the sea or otherwise causing a mess. Yet plastic packaging is better for climate change than biodegradable packaging, because it locks carbon away, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Arguably, we should stick with plastic packaging but manage the waste better.

And then there's biofuels - fine in principle because much (though not all) of the greenhouse gasses released when they are used came out of the atmosphere. But they are a very inefficient way of turning solar energy into transport energy. And it's arguable that any land used for biofuels would be better employed for either planting trees or growing edible crops. 

Finally, there's the blanket move from 30 mph speed limits to 20 by the Welsh government. This may well reduce the impact of a few road accidents. But cars aren't geared to run efficiently at 20, and use more fuel for the same distance. What's more, they will be pumping out greenhouse gases for half as long again on these stretches. It isn't posited as an environmental measure, but it would remiss to ignore the environmental impact. And there are many other examples where more thought is required to be sure we are truly doing the best for the environment.

Don't think for a moment that this is a call to ignore environmental issues. It's entirely the reverse. But all too often climate protestors, supposed green organisations and others engage in knee-jerk reactions without actually thinking about what they are trying to do and how best to achieve it. The climate deserves more logic.

This has been a Green Heretic production. See all my Green Heretic articles here.

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