Sunday, September 7, 2008

Regulations and Schlimmbesserung

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

Have you heard of the word schlimmbesserung? It means intended improvements that make things worse. As Robert Matthews states, “This is a word that should be in the lexicon of anyone trying to protect the environment. Federal agencies are often criticized for imposing ineffective, costly regulations on individuals and businesses that do little to improve public health and safety.” Give them the benefit of doubt that they are really trying to make things better but in some cases schlimmbesserung occurs.


Biofuels are a good example of schlimmbesserung. World food prices are being driven upwards largely because of the increasing use of biofuels. Nigel Lawson observes, “Biofuels, such as ethanol, have their own downsides. In the first place, as studies have shown, it is far from clear that ethanol produces significantly more energy than is used in its own production. In the second place, it requires a vast amount of land to produce a relatively small amount of ethanol. This not only antagonizes environmentalists, upset by the destruction of rainforests for this purpose, but also has led to a marked rise in food prices, in particular the price of grain. Indeed in June 2007, the Chinese government suspended its production of ethanol explicitly for this reason.”

The Guardian discusses a report by the World Food Bank which claims that biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75%--far more than previously estimated. This figure noticeably contradicts the US government’s claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food prices. The report also adds, “Rising food prices have pushed 100 million people below the poverty line, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt. Government ministers here have described higher food and fuel process as the first real economic crisis of globalization.” In Mexico City last February, some 75,000 people marched in protest at the dramatic rise in the price of tortillas, a corn-based staple of their diet that typically consumes one-third of a poor family’s income. Indonesia, Algeria, and Nigeria have also seen protests.

On another front, switching land use from food crops to biofuels could result in increased emissions of pollutants such as nitrous oxide and ozone and increased net carbon injection into the atmosphere. Research at Stanford University indicates that pollution from ethanol could end up creating a worse health hazard than gasoline, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Victims of the CFCs ban

The federal ban on ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), to conform with the Clean Air Act , is ironically affecting millions of people in the US who suffer from asthma. Emily Harrision reports, “In 1987 Congress signed on to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty requiring the phasing out of all nonessential uses of CFCs. At that time, medical inhalers were considered an essential use because no viable alternative propellant existed. In 1989, pharmaceutical companies banded together and eventually in 1996, reformulated albuterol with hydrofluoroalkane (HFA), an ozone-safe propellant. After more than one brand of HFA-albuterol became available, the US Food and Drug Administration declared in 2005 that CFC inhalers were no longer essential and must be completely off the shelves by the last day of this year.” Leslie Hendeles says, “In the United States, about 52 million prescriptions for albuterol are filled annually, making it the seventh most commonly prescribed medication in the country.” The ban will have an insignificant effect on ozone since albuterol inhalers contributed less than 0.1 percent of the CFCs released when the treaty was signed. However, the replacement alternatives can be three times as expensive, raising the cost to about $40 per inhaler. Harrison adds, “The issue is even more disconcerting considering that asthma disproportionately affects the poor and that, according to recent surveys, an estimated 20 percent of asthma patients are uninsured.”

Cleaner air and recovery of the ozone hole increase global warming?

Christian Ruckstuhl and his colleagues at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Switzerland recently reported that the rapid temperature increase of 1 degree C over mainland Europe since 1989 is considerably larger than the temperature rise expected from anthropogenic greenhouse gas increases. Their work led to the conclusion that direct aerosol effect has an approximately five time larger an impact on climate forcing than the indirect aerosol and other cloud effects, or in other words, as Robert Matthews notes, “the clean-up campaigns are another schlimmbesserung, with the airborne gunk actually having a powerful—and beneficial—impact on temperatures, by reflecting the sun’s heat back into space.”

The Montreal Protocol was mentioned earlier. After years of decline, the springtime concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere high over Antarctica have begun to increase, a sign that the ozone hole is recovering. Good news? Well, depends on your point of view. According to some recent research this could mean increasing temperatures in Antarctica. Until now, the interior of Antarctica has not been warming with the rest of the world. The lack of ozone in the lower stratosphere over Antarctica in the springtime caused less absorption of ultraviolet radiation and this leads to cooler temperatures than normal. Recent work postulates this will change as the ozone hole recovers. Seok-Woo San and his colleagues at Columbia University speculated in Science that a full recovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the coming years could significantly boost warming of the atmosphere over and around the icy continent. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, confirm these results, reporting that simulated atmospheric temperatures at altitudes between 10 and 20 kilometers would be as much as 9 degrees C warmer after the ozone hole has recovered than they are today. This certainly would mean in increase in warming at ground level in Antarctica.

Planting the wrong trees could also affect global warming

If you’re going to plant a tree to save the Earth, you better make sure to plant the right kind of tree. Trees affect the reflectivity of the Earth and its availability to bounce back some of the sun’s heat into space. Covering large swatches of light ground with dark trees could lead to more heat being absorbed, boosting temperature. Gregory Asner and his colleagues note that only trees planted in equatorial regions are likely to produce a net benefit. Those planted further away—especially in high latitudes where snow is common—are likely to lead to increased global warming. Also, non-native trees invading a rainforest can change its basic ecological structure, rendering it less hospitable to the myriad plant and animal species that depend on its resources.


Robert Matthews sums this up quite well. “The upshot of all this is clear: when it comes to the environment, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What isn’t at all clear is whether it will ever be possible to have sufficient knowledge to make big environmental policy decisions with any confidence.”

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