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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Woodchip, Wheat and Diesel: A Trinity of Evils?

Drax, the huge sold-fuel power station in Yorkshire, was partially converted to burn woodchip in place of coal some years ago; when it was an acceptable argument with the lobbyists against fossil fuels to claim that it was 'green' to burn wood, because trees could be planted to replace those that went up in smoke. This week it has been announced that the company that owns Drax has bought a bankrupt American wood-chipping company to ensure future supplies. Yet some months ago there was a major news item to the effect that the atmospheric toxins produced by wood-burning were thoroughly bad for accelerating global warning and for their detrimental effect on human health. Against this accumulation of evidence that the place should be shut down at once, is stacked the fact that the non-planning of Britain's energy supplies means that the output from Drax must be assumed to continue for several years, at least: presumably to the continuing [or possibly, even the accelerating] detriment of people and of the planet.

Meanwhile, the government is considering altogether banning the continuing use of wheat as biofuel. As with woodchip, wheat used to be seen as 'renewable' because there could be a crop every year, while trees took decades to replace. Hence some farmers whose land and climatic endowment made their wheat unsuitable for milling to modern standards could still get EU subsidies for growing low-quality wheat which could then be sold profitably to the power industry. Now, with the possibility that the government will not afford subsidies to farmers after 2020, the economic case for biomass is vanishing: and meanwhile the evidence against burning the stuff is mounting, on the same grounds as with wood. Burning biomass was never obviously ecological sense for the planet, and recently the evidence of human detriment from the atmospheric toxins is incontrovertible.

So up pops the Mayor of London, the universal poser S Khan, with his announcement that older vehicles with diesel engines will be surcharged up to £24 per day within the central London congestion-charge area [which will inexorably be extended in area]. This is in accordance with all the best advice as to the catastrophic impact on human health and longevity of the substances released into the atmosphere by diesel burning engines. How different is this scene from a few years ago, when tax and other benefits were given to people who opted to buy diesel-engined vehicles because they were seen as more ecologically acceptable than straight petrol vehicles. Mrs May has speedily been on the case, 'suggesting' [or 'hinting'] that some way may be found of compensating individuals and small businesses whose obedience to the request to buy diesel now puts them at a disadvantage. Not many small businesses, faced by rising living wages and crippling council tax demands, can afford to change their vehicles more quickly than they had expected: so the impact of a daily charge of even £10 would be potentially ruinous.

It is clear that the stagnant economy can not support a whole series of corrections for bad policy decisions made in the recent past; on top of the calamitous underestimation of the needs of the health service and the education system. The moment of crisis is brought closer by every new manifestation of the problem: second-rate science informing incompetent policy making in an environment of economic austerity is bringing disaster closer by the day.

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