Uncharted Territory

February 6, 2008

Pathetic patio policy reporting

Filed under: Energy policy, Global warming, Media — Tim Joslin @ 4:05 pm

I realise that in my previous post I referred to a Guardian article “EU bid to freeze out patio heaters”.  I hadn’t intended to give the Guardian the honour or the Google benefit of my link, as I’d noticed the following meaning-free statement:

“…the Energy Saving Trust says patio heaters use as much energy as a gas stove hob does in six months.”

Is that as much energy in a week, a day or an hour as the hob uses in 6 months?  OK, maybe a few words got lost, but the fact that this sort of thing gets past the Guardian sub-editors so often suggests a culture of innumeracy.  And, indeed, if we look closer [so unreliable are numbers in Guardian articles that I often just blip over them], we see that just 2 paragraphs earlier we’re told that:

“Government figures put [annual] emissions from all domestic patio heaters at 22,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide – 0.002% of the total [annual] UK carbon dioxide emissions.”

I’ve had to add the “annual”s for clarity – this sort of vital detail is left out so often in the Guardian I barely notice it any more.

Anyway, I think to myself, that doesn’t sound quite right.  0.002 is 1/500th, and we’re talking percentages, so it’s 1/500th of 1/100th of the whole.  In other words, we need to multiply the 22,200 tonnes by 100 * 500, that is by 50,000, to get the “total [annual] UK carbon dioxide emissions”.  This comes to 1.11 billion tonnes of CO2, about  – in fact, suspiciously, almost exactly – twice the actual figure for UK annual emissions, according to DEFRA data.  So the true figure is that about 0.004% of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions are attributable to patio heaters.

I should say that the Guardian is not alone in this particular error.  The Independent has this to say on the topic:

“Government figures show that domestic patio heaters produce a total of 22,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is 0.002 per cent of the total UK carbon dioxide emissions, while televisions produce 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 each year.”

A startlingly similar paragraph to the one in the Guardian, I think you’ll agree!  I presume this error originated in a 3rd party source – perhaps a government statement, or maybe from someone with an interest in keeping the figure as low as possible – but the culture of  innumeracy in the media allows such errors to slip through time and time again.

*** Rant alert ***

As a sociologist and sometime class warrior, I observe this systematic journalistic innumeracy and ask myself, cui bono? – who benefits?  Well, since numeracy would be a desirable quality in a journalist, and the supply of journos far exceeds demand, why wouldn’t strict tests be used to select those permitted to enter the profession?  This is the case for many other professions – or does anyone think innumerate doctors would be a good idea?  Of course, a historical explanation is called for, but the result of this institutional characteristic is that meritocratic considerations are less important than – IMHO – they should be in controlling entry to the profession.  And perhaps, I suggest, privilege is more important.  Why do I say this?  Well, a privileged background is likely to supply contacts which always help when trying to enter a profession where there are limited opportunities.  Privilege also gives prospective journos the ability – and the confidence – to make financial sacrifices, which are necessary to gain a foothold in the profession.  In other words, we end up having our opinions disproportionately shaped by the comfortable middle-class.

*** Rant over ***

The story goes on.  “Eco soundings” in today’s Guardian notes that:

“No initiative from the European parliament has attracted quite so much attention as last week’s 592-26 vote in favour of phasing out patio heaters. The 26 opponents almost all came from the UK Independence Party… “

Incredible.  It crossed my mind to drop our middle-class friends a letter.  Surely, at least one of the 592 MEPs must have considered that this action might have unintended consequences?  Clearly the European institutions are now so delirious at the thought of having a project that justifies their existence, that rational thought is starting to desert them entirely.

I found it so hard to believe that virtually none of our MEPs is able to separate in their minds what will happen if their policy is adopted, from what they would like to happen, that I wondered if in fact it was me who was mistaken (it wouldn’t be the first time).  I started to wonder if Brussels was in fact thinking of banning (or trying to ban) outdoor heating rather than outdoor heaters.  Will the practice be banned, or just the products?  And of course, the numerous media reports by the BBC, the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph all fail to provide sufficient clarity.   I have to find what appears to be a definitive source, which clearly says:

“MEPs urged the Commission to establish timetables for the withdrawal from the market of all the least energy-efficient items of equipment, appliances and other energy-using products, such as patio heaters.

How can it be so difficult for our news sources to get this point across clearly?

*** Rant alert ***

Our MEPs are clearly quite happy for landlords to use less efficient means – such as  electric heaters – to heat their outdoor spaces, as long as it looks  like they’re doing something.  As usual, government measures to try to solve a problem risk being totally counter-productive.  Because, of course, it’s not really about solving problems at all – it’s all about maintaining or increasing their own authority.

*** Rant over ***

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