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Newsletter 20th October 2006

- Environmental issues - Benefits of fish "outweigh risks" - Environmental impact of the hydrogen economy - Carbon offsetting

Environmental issues
Readers of the last few editions of this newsletter could be forgiven for thinking that the Scientific Alliance was a single issue organisation, dealing only with climate change science and policy. This is actually far from the truth, but this has been the issue hitting the headlines, and we feel we have a legitimate contribution to make to the debate. So, no apologies for focussing on this recently, but we should set the record straight.
The Alliance actually covers a wide range of issues which might broadly be classified as “environmental”, including (but not limited to):

    * Rural land use – appropriate systems of farming and countryside management to meet the needs of society.
    * Energy policy – how to balance the need for energy security with economic and geo-political issues, efficiency measures etc.
    * Transport – new and improved solutions to personal mobility problems.
    * Risk perception and management – how to identify and minimise real risks.

Our website – – is still in the process of being updated, but has plenty of examples of our contributions on a range of issues. We welcome information and comments from all our readers on these and other relevant topics.
Benefits of fish “outweigh risks”
So says a headline on the BBC website. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the evidence from many years’ research and published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their conclusion was that fish consumption reduced the risk of death from heart disease by 36%, and reduced overall mortality by 17%. What is more, this very significant benefit arises from consuming just three ounces (less than 100 grams) of farmed salmon a week., or about double that amount of mackerel.
The point the researchers make is that the benefits of regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (of which oily fish are the main source) vastly outweigh the purported dangers from the very low levels of mercury and PCBs found in such fish. But, unfortunately, it’s the tiny theoretical risks we run from these pollutants which have often been in the headlines, and probably contributes to the relatively low fish consumption we see today. So, the message is: it’s wise to avoid real risks where possible, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to take this approach to the extreme of missing out on real, demonstrable health benefits.
But (and, alas, there is always a “but”), looking at the wider picture, salmon farming is not really a long-term answer to the provision of oily fish in our diet. Yes, it enables more people to enjoy salmon, and takes pressure off wild stocks. Since fish is the only basic foodstuff which is generally hunted rather than cultivated, this should be a step forward. However, the other side of the coin is that salmon are carnivorous and so to feed them we have to…catch other fish.
The moral of this little tale? Look beyond the obvious, and see things in a broader context. And don’t believe everything you read in the papers.
Environmental impact of the hydrogen economy
An interesting snippet came to our attention via DG Environment’s “Science for Environment Policy” newsletter (for more details about this service, follow the link). The latest edition carries a piece summarising the results of recently published work by a UK research group (Derwent, R. et al. (2006), Global environmental impacts of the hydrogen economy , Int. J. Nuclear Hydrogen Production and Application 1(1): 57-67). Their point is that leakage of hydrogen could contribute, in a minor way, to the greenhouse effect, by reacting with tropospheric hydroxyl radicals to form both methane and ozone. Although a much smaller effect than derived from the fossil fuels which hydrogen would replace (a 10% leakage is estimated to result in 6% of the GHG effect from the fossil fuel equivalent), it is still interesting to see that any new technology can have unwanted side-effects.
Another which occurs to us, and we would be interested in learning more about, is the effect of additional water vapour emitted by all the fuel cells which would be used. Would we see more localised fog, or even more regional cloudiness? Is there the potential to increase precipitation in some areas? Could there even be an effect on average temperatures?
Carbon offsetting
Finally, a somewhat surprising occurrence: we agree with something written by George Monbiot (well, up to a point…). On 18th, in an article entitled Paying for our Sins, he quite rightly criticised the fashionable practice of paying for carbon offsetting projects when booking air travel. If the recent warming trend is indeed driven primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, far more would need to be done to achieve anything. Beyond that point, I think we may not see exactly eye-to-eye with George. Anyway, the Guardian printed our response on 19th:
George Monbiot hits the nail on the head in his column (“Paying for our sins”. 18th October). Offsetting carbon emissions will simply not achieve the targets which the IPCC and many politicians seem to think are necessary if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, even though it may temporarily assuage the guilt felt by the chattering classes. Much tougher action would be needed. However, despite the received wisdom we hear daily, we simply don’t know enough about the complexities of global climate to know that what we do will have any significant effect. Recently published work suggests strongly that cosmic ray fluctuations, via their influence on cloud formation, may have a much greater influence than is currently acknowledged. Given this, surely it makes more sense to enable poorer countries to adapt to whatever climate extremes there may be, rather than focus limited resources on the single target of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, which may or may not have a significant effect.
Martin Livermore
Scientific Alliance