Cities, regulation and coal

Sometimes, those who reject the serious potential threats from CO2 emissions driving global warming accuse those who highlight the possible impacts of climate change of wanting to return to a simple agrarian life. That the motivation is a wish to regulate out of existence modern technological society and entrepreneurial capitalism. The opposite is true. Regulation is a necessary feature of civilisation, required to make the urban environment and the manufacture of products possible.



Cities are the physical embodiment of the biggest advance humankind made in its ~100,000 year existence.
For about 90,000 years humans were hunter-gathers, living in close relationship with the natural ecology.
Then, around the beginning of the Holocene as the big melt and last glacial maximum receded agriculture and pastoralist arose. People started settling in small clan communities and modified the ecology to their own ends with domestication of crops and animals.

Large scale projects were possible for such tribal groups, religion, of some sort motivated the building of massive earthworks and the stone circles that dot the UK.

But large scale projects really don’t become a consistent feature of human society until the habit of building and living in cities arose. This was an outcome of the intensification of agriculture. A small tribe or family group can farm a small area, but if a large scale irrigation project is organised that improves the water supply to a larger area benefiting many farmers and improving yields, then the organisational system to enable that sort of large scale irrigation project needs a hierarchical authority. the increased agricultural production can feed builders and administrators and villages become towns, and towns become cities.

That triggered the development of other facets of large societies.
Religion, written language and slavery all emerge from this new and radical type of human organisation.

While the finding of Irish copper, Cornish tin and Asian gemstones throughout Europe and the Middle East before cities arose indicates some Neolithic and early Bronze Age trade, the big increase in trade comes with the emergence of cities as the extra agricultural production from a smaller percentage of the population enables other trades and resources to be developed.

Trade routes become established and human society in cities has to develop ways of living in some sort of harmony with people who speak a different language and have different Gods. The Bronze Age cities of the Fertile Crescent were the first to struggle with the problems of a multicultural society. It is clear many had ethnic areas, parts of the city where traders from outside the cultural group resided, the first ghettos perhaps.

One key characteristic of city life is civic governance and regulation. This grew out of the logistical need for water management. Something that turns out to be even more important to running a city than it is in practising intensive agriculture. Roman cities had strict rules about the amount and quality of water the a city required. It is no accident that the common archeological evidence of Roman towns and cities apart from a centrally planned grid street system, is aqueducts to bring water into the city and sewer drainage to take waste water away.

That was something that had to be re-invented as cities got bigger in Europe after the fall of Rome. By Tudor times in Britain cities were again growing past the ten thousand mark and the problems of large scale city life were having to be solved all over again.

Most advanced civilised societies discovered that throwing out the trash was something that needs to be regulated by a central authority. Much to the horror of Libertarians it is impossible to effectively manage waste by individual action. Communal collective systems of sewage disposal and waste management are not only much more efficient, but necessary to make city life viable.
Elizabethan London in the 1540s demonstrates this with its large and well paid force of gong-farmers. Then there were the hundreds of rules and regulations related to the various trades and businesses of the period. Butchers and leather workers were particularly heavily regulated because of the extremely noxious and damaging pollution their businesses produced as a byproduct of their trade.

Bazalgette is the famous name in Victorian London. Building the Thames embankment to create a waste water system to deal with a problem of city pollution that was making the place uninhabitable.
But that was a pattern repeated elsewhere. Chicago had the railroad engineers who jacked up a lot of buildings in the city to gain the needed headroom to install a waste water sewage system. Keeping that separate from the ‘clean water’ intake from Lake Michigan proved rather more difficult.

The major industries in medieval Britain were wool and leather production. Both created problems with the ingredients used to clean, tan and dye the products. Stale urine is not something most residential areas want contaminating the local environment. As industrial development continued, new problems arose with the effluent from new production processes. The regulation of damaging chemicals within cities became a regional and global issue as industrial activity became global. There have now been several major problems with industrial pollutants that have required central regulation and coordinated international action to control and mitigate these problems. Lead, asbestos, sulphur aerosols, glyco-phosphate pesticides and CFCs are some of the more obvious examples.
Sulphur compounds from fossil fuel burning, especially coal, became a significant problem in the 1950s onwards. The cooling effect from man-made SOx compounds was recognised as having the same effect as a major volcanic eruption, and for a brief period in the 1970s there was a fear that continued and increasing emissions would risk causing rapid and dangerous global cooling.

However it was soon established that the effects of SOx was overestimated in the early work. The need to control SOx emissions because of the health effects, the London smogs killed tens of thousands, meant that government regulation of SOx emissions became mandatory. Nixon, and later Reagan were the main architects of this control in the US, but almost all nations found it necessary to impose similar controls.

CFCs also showed that even quite small amounts of certain industrial products could have profound effects on the terrestrial climate system. Global international agreement to eliminate as far as possible the further emissions of CFCs was required, and eventually imposed. But like all other discovered negative externalities of industry such regulation was first rejected as being necessary, then diluted and evaded by business until the need for regulation became so overwhelming that even the most recalcitrant and cavalier of industrial enterprises had to accept the need for regulation.

The implications, and applicability of this history of the unavoidable need for central regulation of damaging substances released from industrial activity to the problem of CO2 emissions should be obvious.

But how this required regulation might be imposed in practise is far more problematic. Burning fossil fuels is the key energy generation method we have. It is deeply embedded in our economies and infra-structure, difficult to replace and with strong special interests in defending the status quo. However there is some evidence, a whisper on the breeze, a straw in the wind, that such constraints on fossil fuel burning is beginning to be incorporated into the mainstream. A recent article in the UK Telegraph

discussed the wisdom of avoiding coal investment. It did not go as far as recommending active disinvestment in coal, but certainly made a financial case for regarding any future or further investment as unwise. Some responses to the article complained about the environmentalists and greens using the ‘hoax’ of global warming to attack coal. Others pointed out that the article was not written by the environmental or science writers, but by a stockbroker, financial advisor. His advice was not driven by any scientific or green agenda, but a unbiased assessment of the financial opportunities and risks.

The Bank of England has also announced plans to asses the financial risks of stranded assets in the fossil fuel industries. It is also possible to find various financial and stockbroker business advisors now warning of the future risks of heavy investment in the fossil fuel and specifically coal markets.

All this is a possible indication of a growing general awareness that the issue is no longer one of IF coal is a stranded asset, but when it becomes one.




One response to “Cities, regulation and coal

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