United Nations should not deny benefits of economic growth – John McLellan

Members of the fossil fuel industry appear to have a hunted look about them
Members of the fossil fuel industry appear to have a hunted look about them
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The benefits of human development, like lifting people out of poverty, are clear and ignoring them in the name of climate change helps no one, writes John McLellan.

In these days of Climate Emergency, Extinction Rebellion and Attenborough Apoplexy, the members of the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers must have an idea of what it was like to be a Catholic priest in Cromwell’s England. Ineos chief Jim Ratcliffe is the Anti-Christ and Grangemouth his Rome.

Safety being in numbers, the FPS (slogan “Driving Oil Distribution Forward”) meets in Liverpool next Wednesday for its annual Expo, an event billed as the UK and Ireland’s “leading event for the liquid fuels distribution industry” and which attracts 150 exhibitors and hundreds of overseas delegates.

As the tide of liberal public opinion turns against fossil fuels, politicians are falling over themselves to take up arms in the war against carbon, with UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove lavishing praise on the Swedish teenage campaigner Greta Thunberg while Ruth Davidson highlighted the potential for Scotland to pioneer commercial hydrogen fuel extraction from water in her speech at the Scottish Conservative conference last weekend.

From the SNP’s enthusiasm for oil underpinning an independent Scotland’s economy – no country ever got poor by having oil, said Alex Salmond in the 2014 referendum campaign – in the space of a fortnight the Scottish Government has reversed its attitude towards fossil fuel by abandoning a promised reduction in Air Passenger Duty and putting its support for a third Heathrow runway under review.

As Edinburgh moves to join other cities by introducing a low emission zone with a proposal to be discussed at next week’s transport and environment committee, together with some city council colleagues, I met FPS representatives this week to get their take on the practical challenges of moving away from oil.

READ MORE: ‘We are last generation who can stop dangerous climate change’

It would be unfair to say they had a hunted look about them, but there was a clear feeling that a sector which literally keeps the economy going is being unfairly demonised without a thorough assessment of the implications. As one of several trade associations representing the fuel industry, they cover “bunkered fuel” used by construction, agriculture and domestic heating, areas which get less attention than vehicle petrol and diesel but which powers building site generators and lights up Edinburgh’s Christmas Market.

Without diesel they have a problem, so they point to the potential of plant-based biofuels which are in turn criticised for diverting production from food and accelerating deforestation through intensive cultivation. Unfortunately for the FPS, this week’s United Nations’ biodiversity and ecosystems report punched another hole in the biofuel tank by condemning the industrialisation of farming as the root cause (as it were) of the threat to around a million plant and animal species.

The work of 455 authors reviewing 15,000 scientific and government sources over three years, the report claimed three-quarters of land had been “significantly altered” by humans, with a third of the Earth’s surface turned over to farming and crop production value, increasing 300 per cent in 50 years. The amount of renewable and non-renewable resources extracted has doubled in 40 years to 60 billion tonnes a year, it said, and natural habitats are being destroyed in the process.

READ MORE: Greta Thunberg: Expansion of North Sea oil fields is beyond absurd

Like everything with the United Nations imprimatur, the report’s finding could very soon become part of the political mainstream and indeed the Extinction Rebellion people are ahead of the game by making both halting climate change and biodiversity loss as their twin aims.

Connecting the two turns the environmental movement into an entirely different beast. Eradicating greenhouse gasses should be possible with technology and human ingenuity, like Britain slashing emissions to 50 per cent of what they would have been had nothing been done, but if industry, agriculture and urbanisation are regarded as the problem then there is nowhere to go.

What is being touted as a threat to all life as we know it is also what has brought millions of people out of extreme poverty, with the World Bank reporting last year that global extreme poverty had fallen from 36 to ten per cent since 1990, from 1.9 billion people to around 650 million. Although progress has slowed, by 2030 it is expected to fall below 500m, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Removing people from subsistence farming through urbanisation has largely been responsible for this transformation, yet this is what the UN report blames for the threat to the planet. Only those areas managed by “indigenous peoples and local communities” have escaped the worst, it says.

The UN also believes the world’s population will continue to grow, a view based on experience of poor countries with high fertility rates and poor life expectancy, presumably including those places not “scarred” by humans, as they put it. However, they discount the effect of urbanisation which has resulted in falling fertility rates primarily because women living in cities become more autonomous and are freed from the demand to produce children for labour.

A growing number of population experts now believe the global population will peak at about 8bn in the middle of this century and then decline. Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, for example, estimates the country will fall from today’s 127m people to 51m by 2115 and India’s continued expansion to over 1.3bn was recently linked to low contraception use.

By blaming human development and economic growth for threats to the natural world while denying the benefits and changing analysis, the UN serves no-one. Not the campaign against climate change or those African women condemned to a short lifetime of miserable survival.

Toxic Corbynistas

I will spare readers partisan crowing at the Haddington & Lammermuir by-election result and a rural council seat can’t be regarded as a full measurement of the national political picture, but the pattern of a collapsing Labour support was as evident as it was in Leith Walk. One the densest urban ward in Scotland, the other rolling countryside, but the outcome for Labour was the same – double digit falls of 15 and 12 per cent.

The Conservative candidate Craig Hoy wore out a lot of shoe leather and was rewarded with a six per cent increase in first preferences, a remarkable result given the turmoil in Westminster, but strong indication that opposition to the SNP and independence means, unlike their English counterparts, most Scottish Conservative supporters will tolerate whatever Brexit throws up.

For Labour, the likes of Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray know the combination of Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard is beyond toxic. And that’s just the way the SNP likes it.