Not much thinking going on at the CIS “think tank”

The Center for Independent Studies bills itself as the “leading independent public policy ‘think tank’ within Australasia”.

It may be unfair to generalize from a sample size of one blog post, but this classic from Andrew Baker is evidence of thinking that shouldn’t pass muster in a year 9 school debate, let alone an organization billing itself as Australia’s leading think tank.

Baker is up in arms that the ACT government has banned wood fires in some suburbs, and the Greens party spokesperson on the environment urged the government to do more. He can’t understand why governments should impose “bans on normal and otherwise benign activities”.

I’ll save Andrew the trouble of a moment’s Googling. Burning wood in a built-up area is not in any way a benign activity. Burning wood in a stove emits particulates. Smoke, in other words. Lots of the stuff. As the article notes, wood stoves, despite the fact they are used by only a minority of homes, are the biggest single source of particulates in Canberra. It’s true in the Sydney Basin as well, as discussed in this NSW parliamentary report from 2006.

Unlike some public health measures libertarians like to rant about, you can’t choose to avoid particulates. It’s not like eating fatty food, or smoking cigarettes. You’ve got essentially no choice whether you cop your neighbour’s wood stove or not.

And what are the consequences of breathing in particulates? For infants, even in low concentrations, lethal. As I quoted a year ago from a California study looking at the relationship between particulate levels and infant mortality:

In our preferred specification, a one-unit decrease in PM10 (around 13% of a standard deviation) saves roughly 18 lives per 100,000 births. This represents a decrease in the mortality rate of around 6%. This is consistent with the findings of prior research on ambient particulate matter,and suggests that even at todays lower levels are substantial health gains to be made by reducing both ambient pollution and traffic congestion.

Yes, that’s right. To put it very simply, wood fires in built-up areas kill babies. And people with asthma, and cause heart disease, cancer, and any number of other deaths, causing a human and economic toll far in excess of the worth of the heat emitted.

But Baker has chosen to ignore well-documented science and make cracks about carbon-taxed gas stoves because it sounds cute and appeals to his audience’s prejudices about Greens.

That might be enough for Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones. You’d hope that a self-proclaimed “think-tank” would have higher standards. Sadly, it appears not.

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8 Responses to Not much thinking going on at the CIS “think tank”

  1. Matthew Newton says:

    Classic tragedy of the commons.

    Particulates are an under-discussed issue. I had previously thought that cars or factories would be the cause, not wood fires!

    • Yes, it is a tragedy of the commons.

      Vehicles – particularly diesels – are indeed another major source of particulates. From what I’ve read, it seems that the diesel engine is in trouble, at least for light vehicles, because cleaning up the particulate emissions reduces the efficiency to no better than petrol.

      • As you know I am instinctively inclined to solutions that don’t involve huge, lumbering bureaucracies but the whole reason global warming exists is due to a lack of environmental controls on part of Governments.

        Electric cars should go a huge way to fixing this.

  2. Iain Hall says:

    Sounds like a typical Greens over reaction to me.

  3. wilful says:

    This is an easy shot at the CIS – not because you’re wrong, but because they’re a joke. They have in recent years come out as science deniers.

    This issue was on the Conversation quite recently. Affects me personally as someone (living in the country) who both uses wood for heating and suffers from neighbours poor practice. There can be a lot of differences in emissions between a recent model Australian Standard slow combustion and an older pot-belly or open fire. The worst thing is when the fires are damped down and smoulder. When burning hot there are few additional particulates, and the distance between fires (in country areas) means that the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere can accept most of the load – it gets washed out and dispersed.

    Embarrassingly, our slow combustion is quite old and smoky. But I intend to replace it this year with a latest model low emissions box, including with a wet-back to provide hot water. I believe that then we will have one of the cleaner (carbon neutral) and cheapest heat sources around.

    Re diesel, we need to acknowledge the role of the Australian Democrats in increasing Australia’s diesel fuel standards. We wouldn’t have all those latest model european cars on our roads unless they’d negotiated cleaner fuels as part of the GST package.

  4. Helen says:

    Yes, it’s a problem. I have a great love of the smell of redgum burning, but due to its deleterious effects on people not as fortunate as me in the lungs they’ve been dealt, and the forests it’s cut from, I would rather think of it as an occasional treat rather than an everyday thing.
    In my suburb we have numerous combustion stoves burning briquettes rather than wood. It’s truly disgusting when I walk the dogs in the early morning. I don’t know if they’re worse than red gum particulate but they certainly have a terrible smell.

    • wilful says:

      Helen what I found far worse in Footscray were the occasions when a freight train was slowly getting up to speed coming out of Dynon Rd and it would belch out a load of incredibly disgusting and noxious smoke right across the Footscray CAD. Almost unbreathable. I couldn’t believe that was legal – but I’ve never followed it up with the EPA.

      • Helen says:

        Yes, I know what you’re talking about and it is truly awful. I also fear for the lungs of the cyclists using the Footscray Road bike path, with its trucks and B Doubles.

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