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A green land may not turn out to be so pleasant and will cost us all

By Charles Moore
(Filed: 13/11/2004)

Recently, our dustmen delivered a green plastic box. Instead of throwing out all our rubbish together, we must put our old newspapers in the box so that they can be recycled. EU targets, you know. There are two minor problems. The first is that the newspapers are separately collected. We live off the public road, and the dustmen drive up to the house for the rubbish. For some reason, the people who collect the newspapers will not do this, so we have to drag the box, heavy because newspapers are my trade, to the road.

The second problem is that the box is collected only once a fortnight, while the dustmen come once a week. This means that the pile of newspapers is enormous, and also that it is harder to remember to put the box out, since the human mind works in weekly cycles.

These trivial difficulties might be argued to be a small price to pay for Saving the Planet, but they do give me pause. The price is definite we have more work and inconvenience. How definite is the gain?

Before trying to answer that question, let's look at a bigger example. About 20 miles away from us, there is a proposal to build 26 wind turbines on Romney Marsh. These will produce clean energy. Again, though, there are problems. The turbines will be nearly two and a half times the size of existing pylons, crowding what is at present an empty, open landscape. They will be sited very close to a 150-acre nature reserve, which averages 34,000 wintering birds a year. These birds are frightened off by the noise of wind farms, and can be killed by the 160mph rotation of their sails. The construction of the turbines will require the use of an enormous amount of concrete, whose production involves very high carbon dioxide emissions.

And the energy produced by these giants, which will get enough wind to produce electricity less than a quarter of the time, will be small, less than one per cent of that produced by nearby Dungeness nuclear power station. The Government's target is that 10 per cent of our electricity should come from "renewable" resources by 2010. This would require about 25,000-30,000 wind turbines across the country. At present there are 1,100, the great majority of them highly unpopular with residents. So, in the name of the environment, we are building industrial skyscrapers in the wildest and most beautiful bits of Britain. If these were office blocks, no one would think of it for a moment. Again, who gains?

The answer is government, and those businesses that it pays to serve its purposes. There is no direct subsidy for wind farms, but there is something even better for them, a profit guaranteed by government. The system of Renewable Obligations Certificates means that electricity suppliers can trade these bits of paper in order to escape fines for not reaching the renewables quota. It makes huge financial sense for big energy concerns to do this. The firm trying to raise the wind on Romney Marsh is a subsidiary of a German nuclear power company. The added cost of going renewable is paid, of course, by the electricity user, by you and me. It is rising fast.

In the past, governments tried to enlist people's public spirit to help planned industrial production. During the war, Lord Beaverbrook asked everyone to "give me your pots and pans" to make more aeroplanes. In their zeal, people handed over vast piles. Railings in front of houses and round trees in parks were torn up. The project made people feel good, but it didn't work. The cost was too high, much of the material unsuitable for conversion.

In China, Chairman Mao did something rather more dramatic. He decided, on a tyrant's whim, that China should exceed British steel production. He made every village create "basic steel mills". People had to hand over all cutlery and kitchen implements to be melted down in this cause. Eating at home in villages was banned and replaced by communal eating. This "Great Leap Forward", which also included a failed attempt to produce a twice-yearly rice harvest, achieved its effect, in that the amount of steel did overtake that of Britain. The quality, however, made it unusable. And in the process, rural China experienced a famine in which probably more than 30 million people died.

State industrial planning doesn't work, but we seem to ignore this lesson when it comes to the environment. We are in a world of "targets", just as self-defeating as old Soviet five-year plans. The assumption, highly debatable, is that the Earth is being destroyed by climate change. The solution, highly improbable, is that the Kyoto treaty will make a difference to this threat. The effect, absolutely certain, is that voters will be made to pay.

At present, many voters seem to like this idea, particularly in northern European countries, where the legacy of Protestantism is that what causes you discomfort must be good. But I wonder how much longer this will last, as people start to feel the effects in their own lives. Already people are getting frustrated by new rules about rubbish. Beautiful rural sites the remoter the better, because they are less observed are becoming rubbish dumps where people hurl old fridges and the like to avoid the fast-growing expense and complication of getting the council to take them.

The revolt against wind farms shows people gradually realising that what's green can also be nasty. A dam can take water out of a river, a barrage can muck up the habitat of an estuary, wind turbines can ruin a landscape. Even the word "organic", though still talismanic for many, has come for others to be synonymous with "expensive", and by no means a panacea. The Irish potato famine was organic.

The quest for what is clean and good for us and for the world is a noble one, but it needs to be looked at with regard to real cost and to real effect, rather than gesture. Here are examples of questions that might be asked:

How much energy is wasted recycling paper (huge amounts of water have to be churned round), and in other forms of recycling? Is there really a shortage of landfill sites? Does it make sense to send thousands of metric tonnes of green bottles not wanted here all the way to Argentina in the name of recycling? Doesn't the hated packaging of modern goods do much to extend their life and therefore ensure that less food is thrown away uneaten? Doesn't consumption often protect the environment by guaranteeing its usefulness? Now that more and more wine is bottled with plastic tops, for example, who will pay to keep the forests of cork oaks?

As I watch piles of apples rotting in our garden, I am struck by the fact that waste is part of nature, the greatest overproducer of them all. The problem is not waste, but actual harm. So often now the harm is asserted by governments, not proved. I'm not sure I want to be made to pay for the Green Leap Forward.