Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lobbyists: If they are always wrong, why are they so influential?

The Property Council of Australia (PCA) is one of those lobby groups with a blatant disregard of the facts and a history of political influence – the kind we love to hate.

Just yesterday the PCA made a submission to the Queensland government outlining how planning laws that promote densification are likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions compared to planning for more urban sprawl. This is not a joke.

They cite a 2007 Australian Conservation Foundation study to give their position merit, but what the study actually says is that environmental benefits from increased density are wiped away by the wealth and consumption effect. Essentially, the data shows living in smaller dwellings closer to conveniences reduces households’ greenhouse gas emissions, but generally, these households are wealthier, and thus have higher greenhouse gas emissions overall. No surprises really.

But when the PCA get wind of this, they conveniently neglect to mention that fact, and commission a report that produces a number of pretty tables and graphs to show how urban sprawl has positive environmental benefits. They then use this report to lobby the Queensland government to change their Climate Change Management Plan, and no doubt it will be added to the arsenal of biased reports used to influence the development of the SEQ Regional Plan, and planning documents in other states.

I may as well start by stating the obvious. The group commissioned to produce the report are called Wendell Cox Consultancy – I assume it is the same Wendell Cox who wrote the book, War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. Surely we are to expect a thorough independent analysis of the data from someone who is known as an itinerant anti-public transportation gun-for-hire – surely the outcome of the research was not predetermined! My god!

Second, the report quite simply misrepresents the data. Plotting one variable at a time against per capita or household greenhouse gas emissions (as shown below) neglects all the other variables that have an impact. This type of analysis suffers from omitted variable bias – that is, the key variable that explains the greenhouse gas emissions is left out (that variable in this case is income, by the way).

When we do some actual statistical analysis on the same data we find that income is the main determinant of personal or household greenhouse emissions (when emissions are measured using life-cycle analysis techniques).

After controlling for age, persons per household, State, degree of urbanity (capital city or other), we find that dwelling type (a proxy for sprawl, proximity to CBD etc) is significantly correlated with total household greenhouse gas emissions from consumption – ceteris paribus, the smaller or more dense the housing type, the lower the household greenhouse gas emissions. The table below summarises the potential greenhouse gas benefits of densification when using this type of analysis (where separate house is the baseline).

Clearly, the arguments of the Property Council are based on a misrepresentation of the data by a seasoned pro-urban sprawl, pro-car, gun for hire.

I want to finish with a question. Do our elected officials and senior public servants actually give submissions from lobby groups any credit at all, or are they simply pawns in a much larger strategic game?

No comments:

Post a Comment