Don’t Blame the Cows for Global Warming

It is okay, you can start eating again!

Every week it seems that some self-appointed climate fascists are instructing us that we need to stop eating and drinking in order to “save the planet”. As Global Warming has evolved into Climate Change then Extinction Rebellion, ever-more shrill instructions about how we should live our lives are issued, with the threat of dire consequences should we fail to accede to their demands. Is it only me that observes the same tone of dire-threats and moral righteousness that were so prevalent in the CND anti-nuclear armageddon protesters of a generation ago – or indeed the religious zealots of the previous millennia? Their chant was “do as we say, or you’ll burn for an eternity”, which, come to think of it, is pretty much what the anti-western-economies lot are telling us about temperature change.

Beef cattle enjoy the sunshine

Anyway, back to the topic. For a number of years, agriculture has been blamed for a very substantial proportion of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with as much as 25% of the total quoted as being sourced from farming. These numbers are grabbed by vegan enthusiasts to shriek that we all need to stop eating meat or we’ll burn in hell for all eternity. Okay, so maybe I paraphrased them a little, but the point remains.

However, the science they are using is duff. According to Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University Environmental Change Institute, quoted in the Sustainable Food Trust, the picture is much more nuanced. Back in February, we mentioned that the finger points at the methane released by cows. In the approach used by the International Panel on Climate Change, methane is treated as equivalent to carbon dioxide in its greenhouseness (like my new word?) The true picture is that carbon dioxide is chemically stable and stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, methane breaks down rather quickly, and so has a much smaller impact on the atmosphere. The case against cows has been extensively overstated.

Barry Gardiner, not the voice of reason

At a conference organised by the Country Land and Business Association, Labour spokesman Barry Gardiner suggested that British farming should be part of the solution to global warming by producing less food and planting trees instead. To put it mildly, this approach doesn’t pass even the most cursory scrutiny. (Ha that originally I typed “What a moronic idea!” before professionalism got the better of me). Does Mr Gardiner think that the UK population will eat less? All that his madcap scheme would achieve is more food imports. So the food production leads to the same emissions, just somewhere else in the world. Then the food is transported to the UK, with all the emissions entailed. Mr Gardiner’s scheme actually would increase global emissions. We do like the idea of more tree planting, but to claim that replacing UK food production with forests would reduce emissions is just wrong.

Summary

Agriculture is not the huge emitter of greenhouse gases that the hysterical brigade would have you think. Carry on eating healthy nutritious meat and dairy products, comfortable in the knowledge that locally sourced food has low airmiles and supports high-quality, high-welfare British farming.

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Why Are Brexit Tariffs So Bad?

It is accepted wisdom in the chattering classes that trade tariffs are necessarily a bad thing. But why is this so?

David Ricardo – economist

The Principle of Comparative Advantage was published in 1817 by an economist (yayyy), David Ricardo.  This postulates that in international trade, relative advantages in labour costs, productivity and other production factors will enable cheaper consumption – and hence higher living standards – for both the producing and importing nations, than the alternative of home production in each country.

An easy example of this effect, even within the UK, was the impact of the railways. Suddenly, there was no value in each small town having a maker of pots and pans. Such items could be made better and cheaper by a huge factory in Birmingham, and so pan-buyers (Pans-People as they might be termed by grey-haired fans of Top of the Pops) had a better standard of living, having devoted less of their income to obtaining better cooking utensils. The pan-workers presumably had marginally higher wages than elsewhere too.

However, it perhaps wasn’t so good for the country-town pan-makers, who were competed out of a job. And some of the inhabitants of such villages may have mourned the disappearance of their friendly local manufacturer – and all the workers in the previous supply chain. Special orders would be more difficult, with just a few standard designs. So the nett gains, including non-monetary items, weren’t always as large as perhaps thought at first glance.

It is the principle of comparative advantage that postulates that we are all richer as a result of international trade.  And tariffs dent international transfers of goods, hence at the margin impoverishing both exporting and importing nations.

Beef Cattle

A clear, and currently pertinent example is the UK beef industry. It is not cost effective for the custodian of 200 acres of Devon countryside, with hedges, copses and ancient barns to maintain, to compete with a mid-west American farmer with a 640 acre (square mile) of flat, fertile, but featureless maize land. The US beef farmer keeps all his animals in a feed-lot year round and transports in fodder from the prairie or the local grain silos. Cheaper feeding with no overheads – oh, and growth hormones. Does the UK consumer want cheaper beef, or enough profit in UK farming to retain our beautiful countryside? In surveys, they would select the countryside, but I suspect in Morrisons they would choose the cheaper steak! So the UK farming industry will need tariffs to raise food prices or, alternatively, subsidies to maintain the countryside.

Illinois Corn Fields

What do tariffs mean in terms of Brexit? In the case of a No-Deal Brexit, then the EU could choose to treat the UK as a third party country and apply tariffs. (It could drop tariffs on the basis that a withdrawal deal or trade agreement is imminent. It’ll be interesting to see if there is sufficient goodwill for that to happen). Given the 15% fall in sterling, the average 3% cost of tariffs across all goods won’t actually make much difference. However, in cases such as beef and lamb exports to EU, 40% tariffs will hurt. Here, sector support will be essential during any interim period, as the reaction of prices to these tariffs will be only partly a rise in prices in EU, with the rest of the slack taken up by a fall in export incomes received by British farmers.

The second impact of leaving the EU’s customs union will be an increase in paperwork. This is just sand in the machine, benefiting nobody (except perhaps paper-makers and form-fillers).

Work will be required on both sides of the channel to ensure delays don’t become excessive. We have seen figures suggesting that if the processing time per lorry increases from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, then the whole of southern England will somehow face gridlock. This view doesn’t seem credible to those without a pre-decided political position. Both sides of the channel have had plenty of notice about the forthcoming change, and already have capacity to cope with fluctuations in volumes. If each lorry needs three times as long to be processed, then is it not a case for having three times as many booths? Or maybe twice as many with a few changes to reduce the bottle-necks or critical time-paths of each customs inspection?

Finally, there is the Irish economy to consider. The vast majority of their goods travel across England to get to continental Europe. If tariffs are bad for the UK, they will be hugely worse for the Irish. Will they pay a tariff to get their goods into UK and another one to move them into France?  One has to hope that Brussels won’t dump the Irish economy as a side-effect of punishing the UK!

In the very long-term, one has to assume trade deals will be made with both EU and US. There is some prospect that we will have to choose whether to be in the trading orbit of the US or EU, as having one foot in both may be untenable.

Summary

  1. Tariffs (and paperwork) are bad, but not catastrophic.

  2. The already lower pound sterling, and future tax and export-subsidy payments will mitigate the worst impacts.

  3. Brexit is a political choice. Tariffs are a part of that decision, but should only be a small input, not the deciding factor.

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