Sunday, January 22, 2006

The environment, the environment, the environment

... these are Ming's priorities. Chris will raise eco-taxes. Simon also has a good pedigree on support for the environment. No candidate is being very specific, and indeed policy is a matter for the whole party. But it would help me decide how to vote if I understood their thinking a little more clearly.

So, I will explain my thinking, and the candidate who agrees with me will get some credit for it. And in the process I might explain why the Green Party contributes little thinking of value to this area. (I hope to make the faults of the Green Party a recurring theme of this blog.)

The environment is not like other issues. "Successful sustainable development requires a comprehensive and coherent approach across all government departments, business and the public, altering the economic and social framework within which choices are made" (Meeting the Challenge) , we are told.

But is it? Do we want to shift the focus of teachers, doctors and police away from learning, healing and crime, when any environmental benefits of them doing so are likely to be extremely marginal?

The idea that the environment is so important that everybody should focus on it is an unfortunate consequence of the green lifestyle movement. If it actually happened it would do immense damage to every other aspect of public service. In practise of course it makes nobody responsible and so nothing much happens at all.

But the environment is like other policy areas. If we neglect it, people and other life forms may suffer and die. If we neglect healthcare people will suffer and die. Or crime. If we neglect education or strangle business, we will be poorer in the future and will therefore neglect healthcare, crime or the environment more than necessary then.

The "environment" covers a large range of issues. Even, according to some, the prudent use of infinitely renewable resources - which can lead to the thinking that all "resources" ought to be "conserved". Surely all "resources" ought to be used, at least a little, or they are no longer resources at all! If you are in favour of letting the yellow mellow, you are expected to be in favour of organic farming and vice versa, although there is little connection between these issues apart from the label.

Without starting to list them, I would like to suggest that while there are many sound issues under the environment label, there are also many of marginal value. One thing I would like to see from the candidates (and will never see from the Green Party) is an awareness which might be which - rather than simply asserting a degree of support for the whole shopping list.

One clearly important issue is that of energy, carbon emissions and global warming. One observation is that we should use energy less. And this is true. But it is true in the same sense as the idea that the state should be smaller. We want the state to be smaller, to spend less of our money, but we (all parties) find it very difficult to find things that the state does that we would be happy to do without. And the same applies to energy. Sure there are savings to be had, efficiencies to be found. But when energy is used, it is because it provides value to somebody. The Green Party tends to go down the somewhat dishonest path of derecognising the value that people get from travel, driving, appliances, industry, and other things that use energy. I hope we don't.

Personally, I find the idea of a runaway greenhouse effect rather far-fetched. But global warming will do significant harm that is largely unavoidable already. We should be seeking to put the brakes on, and the principal and best way to do that is to generate large amounts of renewable energy. We should in particular be going full tilt on marine and offshore wind, which could produce all our electricity needs (and a surplus to produce hydrogen for cars) if we were willing to put the investment in. If we did this, costs would come down, and we would have a product we could sell to the rest of the world. This last point is critical. It is not the UK's energy use that is going to make the difference between a few centimetres and a few metres of sea level rise. China and India have a right to develop, and will quite happily do it clean if we give them the option at a good price.

Having said this, I agree that changing behaviour is useful, and that Chris Huhne's focus on eco-taxes is probably a good one. The bullet of domestic fuel costs is overdue a bite. We drive standards in home fuel efficiency primarily by regulation, largely because the fuel isn't expensive enough to make inefficiency hurt.

However I don't expect higher fuel costs to change behaviour all that much. I think people will largely cough up and curse. The choice Huhne offers is between energy tax and income tax. Both distort economic choices, but one distorts them in favour of the environment, and the other distorts them against employment. I support fuel taxes because I like one distortion and dislike the other. But there are limits - there comes a point when fuel taxes are too grossly distorting and unfair. My hunch is that this limit comes before very significant changes in behaviour, so I would not like a policy of escalating the taxes until behaviour changes.

The last time there was such a policy, behaviour was changed to that of blockading the fuel depots.

1 comment:

Jock Coats said...