BBC BLOGS - Ethical Man blog

Archives for January 2010

The problem with hidden agendas

Justin Rowlatt | 19:18 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

I'm used to my reports and blogs causing a stir but the Analysis programme I made this week for Radio 4 seems to have been even more incendiary than most.


It asks an admittedly deliberately provocative question - whether the green movement is bad for the environment.

But the actual programme is, I thought, more balanced and nuanced. It discusses whether some of the ideological baggage of the green movement can be a problem when campaigning on the climate issue.

Yet it led one contributor to the programme to describe me as dangerous. I've been called all sorts of things in my life, but that's a new one on me.

I've also had a clutch of critical e-mails. One described the programme as "an attempt to catch a currently fashionable vogue for smearing environmentalists".

Then there is the usual slew of angry posts on my blog.

This time even the producer has come in for flack. There have been pointed attacks on her article on the use of religious imagery by environmentalists. (But it has been posted up by Al Gore.)

So why is the programme causing such controversy?

A number of people thought it was plain biased.

"It's good old fashioned journo trick", reads a comment on one blog.

"Set up the straw man, conflate lots of ideas and different people's work behind it and deliver your own value laden conclusions as if you were taking the only rational position possible."

Is that fair? Judge for yourself, listen to it now.

Alternatively, you can read a full transcript here.

The more patient among you can wait until Sunday 31st, then you will be able to do it the old fashioned way and listen to the programme on the wireless. Radio 4 at 9.30pm. (You may it find a useful sleep aid).

But I will cut to the chase. I argue in the programme that green campaigners should be very wary of using the urgency of the climate issue as cover to push forward other, agendas - poverty or equality, for example.

Here's the conclusion: "I don't have a problem with people campaigning for those other agendas for their vision of a better society. For me the problem comes if the
fear of the consequences of climate change is used as cover to smuggle in other objectives for social and political change. That's because many people already
have a sense that there's something suspicious about the campaign to tackle global warming; they instinctively distrust the science and if they feel that the solutions people are proposing are less to do with carbon than pushing through a hidden agenda that will only serve to confirm their scepticism."

Now that's not that controversial is it?

Is the green movement bad for the environment?

Justin Rowlatt | 19:32 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

Is the green movement bad for the environment?

It is a bombastic question - deliberately so. I set out to answer it for Radio 4's Analysis programme.

We explore how climate change challenges some of the the attidudes and ideology of the green movement and whether some green campaigning actually undermines the attempt to tackle the problem.

Tune into Radio 4 tonight at 8.30pm or on Sunday night at 9.30pm or just click here and listen to the programme right now .

The producer Helen Grady has written a fascinating article about it here here.

Do please tell me what you think and, as always, feel free to be absolutely frank!

Have I discovered the world's most carbon efficient form of transport?

Justin Rowlatt | 18:22 UK time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

OK, I think we've cracked it. I've spent huge effort on this blog trying to work out whether any forms of transport are truly low carbon.

It is an important issue - almost a quarter of world greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.


I have explored the relative carbon cost of almost every type of transport you can imagine.

I have even analysed the environmental impact of walking - and found that on one reckoning walking is actually more polluting than driving!

The fact is there are no straightforward answers.

Flying isn't as bad as you might think - pretty much the same carbon footprint as driving (except of course you are likely to go a lot further on a plane) - meanwhile public transport might actually be less carbon efficient than just hopping in your car .

But now I reckon I've got the definitive answer. I have found the world's most ethical form of transport.

Here's how it happened:

My blog on why cars might be greener than public transport caught the eye of the FT's devilishly clever "undercover economist" Tim Harford, who moonlights here at the BBC as the presenter of the Radio 4 programme More or Less .

Average occupancy

The programme had snuffled out some statistics from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which confirmed my claim.

The figures show that the average occupancy of a British bus is just nine people. Even in London a typical bus has just 13 passengers.


Two people in a car produce lower emissions per person than nine people in a bus.

Indeed, the figures show that buses are only 20% more efficient than taking the car based on average vehicle type and occupancy.

But that's not what had snagged Tim's interest. He was intrigued by a claim I made at the end of the blog.

I argued that it is always more carbon efficient to take the public transport option because "it will be going anyway".

'Perfect excuse'

He wanted to know whether the same argument applies to flying. If the reason you catch the bus is that it will be going anyway then surely that's also true of your holiday flight to Malaga - it will fly with or without you.

In short, it is the perfect excuse for us all to continue flying around the world.

But will the buses and planes be going anyway? That's what Tim wanted to know and he invited me and the Independent newspaper's travel correspondent, Simon Calder to discuss the question with him.

Simon Calder is known as "the man who pays his own way" and is quite possibly the most travelled man in Britain.

He is also, it transpires, a mathematician. In short the ideal person to discuss this tricky issue.

You can listen to the programme here:

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

As our discussion demonstrates, the question is not as straightforward as it might first appear.

Are you actually responsible (at least in part) for persuading the bus, train or airline company to put on additional services?

Do you agree with Tim's argument that average marginal cost applies to buses and planes equally - or are you on my side?

(I should probably come clean here. I was very briefly an extremely junior economist at the Department of Transport. But don't let that affect your judgement.)

Impact of walking

You'll have heard from the programme that I suggest that for short journeys walking or cycling is preferable to even public transport, but my analysis of walking shows that it is actually pretty energy intensive - and the energy in our food tends to be pretty carbon intensive .

So what is the truly low carbon travel alternative? It was Simon Calder who suggested hitchhiking.

He says that his own personal offsetting scheme is to hitchhike wherever possible, arguing that hitchhikers do not generate additional traffic.


I think there a strong case for that. After all, the driver who picks you up at a service station on the M62 or on the verge of the A43 is extremely unlikely to have decided to hop in his car with the intention of picking up a hitchhiker (if he has I venture to suggest you are in real trouble).

What's more the additional carbon cost of you travelling with him will be very low.

I asked Simon why I hadn't seen him standing sodden in the rain at the end of the M1 and he said that's because now he's finally got rid of the German army greatcoat he wore as a teenager drivers readily pick him up.

But does anyone else hitchhike these days? You certainly see very few hitchhikers on the roads.

Festival flashback

I haven't hitchhiked for years but I can certainly remember my hitching days, and my best journey. That was heading to the Glastonbury festival back in the summer of 1986.

My friend Tim and I turned up at the end of the M4 and there were already 20 to 30 shaggy festival goers there already. Hitchhiking etiquette required that we join the end of the queue.

At this rate we wouldn't be at the festival until after Level 42 had played their set on the famous pyramid stage on the Sunday. (That's right, Level 42 were a headline band at Glastonbury - and people made a fuss about Jay-Z!).

But minutes later a lorry pulled up and said he'd take us all. We bundled into the back and sat on our sleeping bag rolls and rucksacks passing round the cider all the way to Somerset and were there in time to see The Cure (not to mention Lloyd Cole and The Pogues).

Not bad eh?

Do you have a better hitching story?

Should Indians drive cars? Part 2

Justin Rowlatt | 06:03 UK time, Sunday, 3 January 2010

The climate conference in Copenhagen was a car crash - virtually everyone, including President Obama, seems agreed on that.

So the question for the New Year is how to ensure that the deal is improved on in Mexico - or wherever the next conference will be. Nothing ambitious, then.

First, though, we need to understand why Copenhagen led to such a disappointing agreement.

The answer is perhaps pretty simple. Indeed, the root problem seemed clear when the Ethical Man team went to India two and a half years ago.

I gave our report the rather provocative title Should Indians drive cars?. Our objective was to create an Indian Ethical Man. You can see below whether we succeeded.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

The reason Copenhagen foundered was because most countries refused to set aside their narrow national interests for the long-term future well-being of the entire planet.

Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, economic development and hence national wealth has been based on the use of fossil fuels. And fossil fuels are still by far the cheapest and easiest form of energy.

What happened at Copenhagen was that most countries chose to try and protect their rights to go on using them.

The conference degenerated into the equivalent of a land-grab - not for territory on Earth, but for atmospheric space and the right to pollute it.

The environmentalist George Monbiot described it as "a scramble for the atmosphere comparable in style and intent to the scramble for Africa". He wrote from Copenhagen:

"Most rich and rapidly developing states have sought through these talks to seize as great a chunk of the atmosphere for themselves as they can - to grab bigger rights to pollute than their competitors. The process couldn't have been better designed to produce the wrong results."

But actually this was always the most likely outcome. This was, after all, a conference of nation states, and nation states exist to promote national interests.

Indeed, the conference was a graphic demonstration of the fact that what is in the best interests of a country is not necessarily in the best interests of the people who live in it.

So how can countries be persuaded to put the world first?

Gordon Brown says the process of negotiation needs to be reformed: "Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to pull down these talks," he said in the wake of the conference. "Never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries."

It's a theme that has been taken up by the UN itself. Just before Christmas, Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that there were problems with the process and said he would consider how it could be streamlined.

The danger is that reforming the negotiating process is likely to lead to criticisms that powerful nations are trying use their influence to determine the outcome of the deal.

In the meantime, though, the diplomatic focus is on trying to persuade countries to increase the emissions cuts they have signed up to. Targets on cuts were not included in the Copenhagen accord and must by submitted by the end of this month.

That's when the real scope of the deal in Copenhagen will become clear.

But it is hard to be optimistic. It is rare that nation states put aside national interests for the greater good of the world. Can you think of any examples of when they have? Let's see how long (or short) a list we can come up with in the comments.

I'll chuck in the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone to get things started - undoubtedly a success, but nothing like the scale of what was being attempted at Copenhagen. A prize to anyone who can come up with an international agreement that involved anything like the sacrifice represented by cutting fossil fuel use. BBC guidelines may preclude that prize being a bottle of champagne - if so, I'll award an Ethical Man Award.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.