Friday, February 03, 2006

Eco-taxes and ashes

So Chris Huhne's manifesto is out. I was waiting for this point to look at the issue of eco taxes in more detail and contrast Chris with Ming. I don't mean to suggest that policy is the main factor when choosing a leader - it isn't - so it is a little self-indulgent of me to focus on policy. On the other hand if there are signs of an ability to construct a compelling narrative that would be a big factor.

Unfortunately there isn't much detail that we haven't already seen. Chris argues that "the money raised should go back to those most in need, including the rural communities that rely on cars." This is very much the correct sentiment in my view, but there is a conflict here with the commitment to revenue-neutrality. For eco taxes to be revenue neutral, they must be matched by tax cuts not spent on compensation packages. How many of the "most in need" will be taxpayers? Which taxes, exactly, should be cut only in rural areas?

That this is only one part of a bigger manifesto, relatively unexpanded, suggests that Chris may realise that he has over egged this one. I think he has.

Chris said on Question Time yesterday that we can't tackle global warming without reducing our energy use. Well this isn't strictly true. We could generate as much carbon-free energy as we want, if we were willing to pay for it. If fossil fuel prices rise further and stay high we will probably do this anyway. But the likelihood is that they will not rise fast or far enough to make the economic case for investment in renewables and nuclear not just competitive, but compelling.

Chris's preferred argument against nuclear is the economic one. It is a good argument, but where is the joined up thinking? If we make fossils more expensive to combat global warming, that will change the economics of nuclear. What then?

So how about Ming? I largely agree with James Graham's analysis, although I would defend Ming on road user charging. Contrary to what James says, lack of public transport options is a serious urban problem in much of the country. Bus fares in Sheffield's private monopoly are out of control to the point that if there are 3 of you, take a taxi. "All road user charging does is make roads more economically efficient." All!?!?! That's a great thing. And it will improve urban air quality, which has an immediate impact on health and morbidity. Civil liberties are a concern with nationwide road user charging by satellite, but they will probably have all the speed cameras wired up to do the same job by then anyway so it won't make any difference. But "a case to consider the expansion" is not "charge for every inch of road with satellite monitoring".

On the other hand I don't agree with James and Ming on carbon accounts. There isn't a fixed amount of carbon to go round, and if there were rationing still wouldn't be efficient. What there is, is a relatively fixed environmental cost to emitting it. A simple tariff would correct this and save us the bureaucrat's wet dream of individual carbon accounts.

Anyway. Neither man is entirely convincing on the policy detail. (Meaning neither entirely agrees with me.) But more importantly, what is the story? Chris's story is the old doom 'n' gloom: talking about the Gulf stream and so on. This goes in the 'about fear' category. The fears may be justified, but I would prefer to be positive. Ming doesn't have a story to his environment policy. He rather sits on the fence. He equivocates, or recognises the nuances, depending on your perspective. The story is that Ming's story is about something else.

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