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  • Technorati: graph / links

    When environmentalism clashes with the environment


    by Rumbold on 5th July, 2009 at 2:33 pm    

    Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line, argues that the proposed Severn Dam project, which could generate up to 5% of Britain’s energy needs, would be an environmental disaster:

    “It would cut greenhouse gas emissions at a massive cost to wildlife. The 85,000 overwintering birds that use the Severn mudflats to feed would have nowhere else to go. And the returning salmon, sea trout, lamprey, twaite shad and allis shad of the rivers Severn, Wye and Usk – also protected under European law – would be chopped up by the turbines.”

    This seemed a good article to me because debates about renewables usually centre on issues such as cost and effectiveness. It is rare to see a piece debating the impact on the environment. Mr. Clover, like our own Dave S, believes that we need to focus more on reducing our energy consumption, since renewable energy will simply encourage us to maintain our current levels:

    “The danger is that projects such as the Severn barrage are seen as easy wins by politicians terrified of the consequences to their comfortable lifestyles of telling their electorates what CO2 reduction targets actually mean: turning some lights off, flying less or buying a more efficient car. Without energy efficiency, there is a danger of having a barrage in every estuary, or onshore wind farms everywhere, so our energy use can grow unchecked.”

    I too would like to see more a focus on the energy reduction side. As I argued a while ago, if politicians were really serious about reducing climate change emissions, then they should shift the tax burden away from income to products that are environmentally-unfriendly (such as flying). This would penalise those who continued with their high carbon lifestyle, and benefit those who reduced their emissions. To ensure that those on low incomes didn’t lose out, the tax cuts would come in the form of raising the tax threshold (the point at which a person begins to pay tax), to £13,400, while remaining monies would be used to increase the basic state pension. Some people would lose out quite a lot if they didn’t change their behaviour, but then that is the point. Let’s price the externalities properly, rather than obsessing about renewables as a panacea.



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    21 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. MaidMarian — on 5th July, 2009 at 3:29 pm  

      ‘we need to focus more on reducing our energy consumption, since renewable energy will simply encourage us to maintain our current levels’

      How awful!

      So it is about saying that people are inherently wrong for wanting wealth, travel and the like and that we should all determine our lives according to the gospel of green orthodoxy? Anyone thinking otherwise is a pariah who can legitimately be taxed back to the stone age if need be.

      We could, of course, try to adapt our world - but then that doesn’t carry such an easy moral sneer does it? Now if you will excuse me, I’m just going to turn the lights on.

      Tell me Rumbold, aren’t you the person who once claimed that you were a libertarian?

    2. Rumbold — on 5th July, 2009 at 4:34 pm  

      MaidMarian:

      I am a libertarian. People from across the political spectrum accept the idea of pricing externalities fairly. Basically, an externality is something which affects a third person (i.e. one not involved in a transaction). A good example is a firm which dumps waste into a river. We have laws/fines/taxes to deal with situations like this, because the firm is affecting more than just itself/its customers.

      Since climate change is a problem, we need to work out how to reduce the problem- the best way to do this is to build into the tax system the real impact of environmentally-unfriendly activity. Renewables are good as well, but they are not the only solution.

    3. Rumbold — on 5th July, 2009 at 4:36 pm  

      If you want to fly everywhere, that is up to you (there should be no legal restrictions)- all that will happen is that your impact on the environment will be properly costed.

    4. MikeSC — on 5th July, 2009 at 4:37 pm  

      It seems that a lot of aspects of the modern day developed world lifestyle are unsustainable and leading to crisis within the next 50 years or so-

      We have a debt crisis, global warming, a developing third world (our lifestyles are going to take a massive hit once those millions of child workers doing our mining, growing and sewing decide to unionise rather than work 100 hours a week to subsidise this “information age” we’ve cooked up)- and an energy crisis.

      Things need to change fundamentally, the abuse of natural resources by private despots is a relic of feudalism, and it’s doing possibly irreperable harm that future generations will have to suffer through.

    5. Don — on 5th July, 2009 at 5:00 pm  

      Rumbold,

      Agreed. The proper cost of flying. We are effectively subsidising leisure flights, which is mad. And the way we celebrate key events by ostentatiously expending power in light shows and the like should one day be seen as being as irresponsible as celebrating by unloading an assault rifle into the air.

      MikeSC,

      True. Our excess comes at someone else’s cost, that is both wrong and unsustainable. Mostly wrong. Me, I’m tight-fisted. I go around switching of lights and lowering heating. I hate buying stuff when I could get by with what I have, fix what is broken, improvise or do without. It’s entirely meanness, but I can spin it as concern for the planet.

      Best way to reduce energy costs? Get your child to go to uni. Cut 35% off my bills straight away.

    6. asquith — on 5th July, 2009 at 6:00 pm  

      The Severn Barrage has not, & never has had, anything whatso-fucking ever to do with being green.

      Just like biofuels, it’s essentially a wheeze designed by government to show off about how it’s “doing something”. These people who talk about being “green” give the impression of never having been to the countryside in their lives, of never delighting in nature, landscapes, wildlife & wild places.

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/10/severn-barrage-environment

      Paul Kingsnorth is a top man & knows what he is talking about on this issue.

    7. asquith — on 5th July, 2009 at 6:00 pm  

      I personally think it should not be allowed to go ahead, nor should the third runway.

    8. MaidMarian — on 5th July, 2009 at 6:56 pm  

      Rumbold - No, I’m sorry, ordinarily I quite like your writing, but this got up my nose.

      ‘People from across the political spectrum accept the idea of pricing externalities fairly. Basically, an externality is something which affects a third person (i.e. one not involved in a transaction). A good example is a firm which dumps waste into a river. We have laws/fines/taxes to deal with situations like this, because the firm is affecting more than just itself/its customers.’

      Firstly, that looks suspiciously like an attempt to conflate a legal activity with criminality - I hope I am overreading. But the tax system is sure as hell not there to enforce laws on dumping waste. I would love to see US levels of enforcement on dumping of waste, but this is a side-track.

      Secondly, you seem to assume that your idea of charging for externalities will have some impact. I would suggest that this would get short-shrift in China and other places.

      Moreover, I have no problem with the idea of externality per se. That though was not the sentiment of the article - that sentiment was surely the moralist ramming of a green agenda down the collective throat. What you are more or less saying is that it is legitimate to target ways of life through act of government.

      You may well believe that - fair enough. I however believe that it not the role of government to do that.

      ‘Since climate change is a problem, we need to work out how to reduce the problem- the best way to do this is to build into the tax system the real impact of environmentally-unfriendly activity. Renew ables are good as well, but they are not the only solution.’

      NO NO NO! Taxes do not cut emissions, people cut emissions. Here’s radicalism - how about instead of demanding that government force people into a way of life you take this up with the public themselves? And while you are at it, go and explain to the developing world why they should not do things like drive?

      You may find they react better to being asked, rather than statutory hectoring.

      Sure, renewables are good as they are part of the adaptation that so many see as a threat and an affront to green orthodoxy.

      Out of interest Rumbold, what do you think about the generational aspect to this? What you are saying is that the 40-60 generation get to live high on the hog and burn carbon for fun unmolested, whilst the next cohort get to be taxed to the hilt and priced out of travel and the like - yes?

      You are no more a libertarian than I am Bjorn Lomborg.

    9. Rumbold — on 5th July, 2009 at 7:35 pm  

      MaidMarian:

      “Firstly, that looks suspiciously like an attempt to conflate a legal activity with criminality – I hope I am overreading.”

      I think that I explained myself poorly. I used the waste example as a way of trying to highlight what I meant by externality. I don’t think that the tax system should replace the legal system, but I see nothing wrong in using it to try and properly cost externalities.

      “That though was not the sentiment of the article – that sentiment was surely the moralist ramming of a green agenda down the collective throat. What you are more or less saying is that it is legitimate to target ways of life through act of government.”

      Or rather, it is legitimate to target ways of life that have a negative effect on others, but not always through legal means. For example, I cannot drop litter wherever I want to, because it has an impact on others.

      If action X is causing result Y, and result Y damages others, then it is legitimate to ask how action X can be reduced or even eliminated.

      “Secondly, you seem to assume that your idea of charging for externalities will have some impact. I would suggest that this would get short-shrift in China and other places.”

      I am focusing on Britain specifically. Yes, we need China and others to do this too, but I have never been a holder of the ‘after you’ view. Either something should be done or not. Moreover, it is the developed world that has contributed most to carbon emissions, so we should be the ones to take the lead.

      “NO NO NO! Taxes do not cut emissions, people cut emissions. Here’s radicalism – how about instead of demanding that government force people into a way of life you take this up with the public themselves?”

      Tax affects behaviour. I believe that people are essentially good and caring, but it doesn’t mean that there is never a role for the law/tax system. I encourage others to reduce energy use, but that will only go so far.

      “Out of interest Rumbold, what do you think about the generational aspect to this? What you are saying is that the 40-60 generation get to live high on the hog and burn carbon for fun unmolested, whilst the next cohort get to be taxed to the hilt and priced out of travel and the like – yes?”

      I am not sure I see the point about generations. It is future generations that will have to bear the brunt of climate change anyway. It would have been nice if governments had always priced externalities properly, but that is not the case.

      People would not be priced out of flying. Nor would most be ‘taxed to the hilt’. The proposal would be tax neutral over all initially, and as a bonus for libertarian-minded people, the overall tax take would fall over time as people stopped using so much energy.

      “You are no more a libertarian than I am Bjorn Lomborg.”

      I presumed you were Benny.

    10. fug — on 5th July, 2009 at 9:22 pm  

      greenpeace have suggested design modifications to protect the birdy habitats.

      any ‘renewables’ entering the national energy mix are to be welcomed, as support to future technology, instant carbon reduction and as a useful public good (which energy is).

      the issue of not being energy pigs is slightly seperate. every council across the country is running programmes to this end, but all that work is destroyed the m inute the central government continues to piddle about with coal.

      i dont thing the uk is going to be a ‘green leader’ untill the next labour-type government, which will be another decade or so away. tory greening is to plant hedgrows and trees now and again, and probably subsidise hybrid engined sports cars.

      liberalism is not enough to restrain our carbon gluttony.

    11. MaidMarian — on 5th July, 2009 at 9:27 pm  

      Rumbold - ‘If action X is causing result Y, and result Y damages others, then it is legitimate to ask how action X can be reduced or even eliminated.’

      Yes, but how far you take that is the key issue here. That and how far social control outweighs other things such as adaptation.

      Put another way, you can probably quite easily convince the public that littering is bad (and having just emerged victorious from a fight to the death with the council about some fly-tipping, I certainly know!) but you are applying it here to aspirations to travel and the like.

      The two are very different and I have always found it quite surprising that many in the green movement just seem unable to see the shades of grey here. It is an inability that leaves me suspecting that the agenda is as much about disapproval of others as it is about saving the world.

      ‘Either something should be done or not’ Regardless of whether that something will actually have any real effect? That’s lip service isn’t it?

      Rumbold - honestly, I respect much of what you have to say, but (and you may find this an odd thing to say) you are massively underreacting to climate change. Fiddling with taxes and hectoring the public in one small country IS lip service. A global programme of adaptation and R&D is what is needed, but I would hazard a guess that the green movement would treat anything other than drops in standards of living as heresy. It is as if the vision rather than the impact matters.

    12. jb21uk — on 6th July, 2009 at 12:56 am  

      If I can jump in (I’ll take that as a yes)

      Put another way, you can probably quite easily convince the public that littering is bad (and having just emerged victorious from a fight to the death with the council about some fly-tipping, I certainly know!) but you are applying it here to aspirations to travel and the like.

      I’d be interested to know your attitude towards more conventional pollutants, such as NO2 and Carbon Monoxide. There are large areas of the country where levels of these gases, which are toxic and associated with a wide range of respiratory problems, especially in children, exceed guideline figures. The people driving through do not wish to emit, in the same way that a flytipper wants to dump rubbish. They simply want to get to work, or take their children to school, or whatever. How is a solution to be found? Are the residents expected to beg the people traveling through to travel less?

      Release of these gases is not something to be banned completely, like littering, but something which just needs to be moderated, for the health of the population at large. A solution still needs to be found, but the justice system is too rigid for the purpose. So what better way than through the taxation system, by including the cost of the healthcare (publicly incurred) into the price of the vehicle or the fuel? This same principle applies to GHG emission.

      Rumbold – honestly, I respect much of what you have to say, but (and you may find this an odd thing to say) you are massively underreacting to climate change. Fiddling with taxes and hectoring the public in one small country IS lip service. A global programme of adaptation and R&D is what is needed, but I would hazard a guess that the green movement would treat anything other than drops in standards of living as heresy. It is as if the vision rather than the impact matters.

      Both approaches need to be taken. There are huge projects and fundamental research which must be publicly financed, but equally the power of markets to find solutions is undeniable. If you make an opportunity available then private money will pour in, dwarf public capital, and bypass politics. Just look at the amount of venture capital that has poured into the industrialization of solar panels. It is not to under-react to make use of more than one approach.

      I would hazard a guess that the green movement would treat anything other than drops in standards of living as heresy

      There is an element of truth that some people are tied to environmentalism as a proxy for other political beliefs, but that does not reduce the level of the threat. Reality should be above politics.

    13. MaidMarian — on 6th July, 2009 at 11:33 am  

      jb21uk - I don’t disagree with much of what you have to say - it’s just this,

      ‘Release of these gases is not something to be banned completely, like littering, but something which just needs to be moderated, for the health of the population at large.’

      What a lovely euphemism, ‘moderated,’ is! Who gets moderated? What is the penalty for breaching the ration? Does car use in the third world get moderated in the same way? Do I get to factor the healthcare costs into car fuel use overseas? Does the tax change you talk about also include a compensation for any loss of economic activity caused by moderation?

      A better solution, to my mind would be to make non-polluting vehicles and make them cheap (at public expense if necessary) rather than tell people that they can not drive. I do not have a driving license incidentally - do you?

      You mention solar panels. On a recent visit to Eastern Europe I was impressed at quite how many hoseses had them, and they were subsidised - in a relatively poor country! But the panels I saw would not survive a brush with the NIMBYs and the planning system here. These are the battles that need to be waged, not hitting people in the pockets because you happen to dislike how they live.

      Again, I do not argue with big parts of what you say, but, like Rumbold, you want the world to be as you want it to be rather than as it is. My view is that working with people, rather than demanding lifestyle changes is the way to go. I am really not convinced by chavscum’s pro-death policy idea.

      I, of course, respect your differing view.

    14. MaidMarian — on 6th July, 2009 at 11:45 am  

      ‘how many hoseses had them’

      Obviously meant to say, ‘houses.’ Any chance of getting the correction facility fixed?

    15. sonia — on 6th July, 2009 at 3:45 pm  

      Well this is the problem with many people not really understanding the LONG term environmental goals - which are really long-term social goals. People jump on the environment bandwagon and so many are short-termist thinkers.

      In the end, how are we going to “reduce” energy usage if we do not change our SOCIAL situation? No one seems to think about this one - and this is really and truly where the ‘environment’ meets long-term social and economic sustainability.

      If we are not changing how our economy works -i.e. everyone RUNNING around to increase our profit margins every year by x % and expect exponential growth, well then, all the “mitigation” strategies - are just that - short term mitigation strategies.

      People have overall forgotten that the original point of the environmental agenda was to say, if we carry on living this way, we cannot support it, because of the side-effects and pollution that is resulting.

      Now we are considering very piece-meal approaches to reducing pollution instead of considering WHY there is so much pollution in the first place.

    16. sonia — on 6th July, 2009 at 3:48 pm  

      If politicians (or anyone else) were really serious about climate change, they’d look at investing into sustainable transport for example. No point ‘penalising’ people when you aren’t giving them any alternatives. Governments are leaving ‘climate change’ to fluffy behaviour change third sector initiatives which while all very well and good in themselves, are not going to do much at all if they are not contributing to serious infrastructure development.

    17. sonia — on 6th July, 2009 at 3:52 pm  

      The focus is all about ‘convincing’ the public. This is greenwashing actually - The public will be ‘convinced’ if there is something to actually convince them of. Again, behaviour change campaigns to get people to recycle etc. - well that’s the sort of thing that we needed about 15-20 years ago. Now, we need a lot more than just convincing individual members of society to change. We need systems to offer up to these people -what are we actually offering apart from low-energy lightbulbs, a bit of insulation here and there? Nothing substantial, nothing at all. And all the climate campaigning around air travel is frankly absolutely useless without real alternatives. Given the exorbitant prices of rail travel both within England and Europe, really - what have we got to offer people? Nothing.

    18. jb21uk — on 6th July, 2009 at 4:32 pm  

      What a lovely euphemism, ‘moderated,’ is! Who gets moderated? What is the penalty for breaching the ration? Does car use in the third world get moderated in the same way? Do I get to factor the healthcare costs into car fuel use overseas? Does the tax change you talk about also include a compensation for any loss of economic activity caused by moderation?

      Moderated is simply in reference to toxicity. In the same way that one has to moderate personal salt or alcohol intake. That is merely a description of reality, if you don’t believe in harming other members of society, which is a basic tenet of our society.

      The argument is not what the problem is, but the correct solution. You suggest subsidizing the purchase of electric cars. The problem is that does not most efficiently allocate resources. The person driving a lot is the person we all want to use the electric car, so why not reward him proportionately. And this is as much about reward as punishment- a green tax would be revenue neutral, which gives those people willing to make more-or-less irrelevant changes (lifestyle wise) to electric cars, CF lightbulbs or decent insulation get back what otherwise would have gone straight to the government on income tax.

      The third world argument is relevant in industry, but not in car use. I am here, next to the motorway, someone else is in the car, or the reverse (I don’t drive, but I am a regular passenger). We both live in the same society. The driver’s commute cannot be subcontracted to the third world, and someone driving in the third world is not causing respiratory problem here.

      You mention solar panels. On a recent visit to Eastern Europe I was impressed at quite how many houses had them, and they were subsidised – in a relatively poor country! But the panels I saw would not survive a brush with the NIMBYs and the planning system here. These are the battles that need to be waged, not hitting people in the pockets because you happen to dislike how they live.

      Firstly solar panels, photovoltaic and hot water, don’t require planning permission in the UK, except in conservation areas, which do not cover much of the country. The problem is cost, and not NIMBYism.

      Then photovoltaic panels are a good example of short-term misallocation of resources. Long-term they are an interesting source of energy, but join me in a calculation: This pdf gives approximate figures for a photovoltaic installation. A 1KwPk system would be expected to generate 700-750 KWh per year, and cost £4000-9000. In contrast, replacing 5 100w incandescent light-bulbs with CFLs (80w reduction each), each running for 5 hours a day for a year, saves 730 KWh, and costs about £40. That is a perfect example of why the market should be used to find energy efficiencies, and not government agencies.

    19. Rumbold — on 6th July, 2009 at 4:45 pm  

      MaidMarian:

      I like a lot of what you say too, but I think that you are wrong on this.

      “Fiddling with taxes and hectoring the public in one small country IS lip service. A global programme of adaptation and R&D is what is needed, but I would hazard a guess that the green movement would treat anything other than drops in standards of living as heresy. It is as if the vision rather than the impact matters.”

      I agree that despite what Gordon Brown would have us believe, he can’t save the world on its own. But we can make a start, and give a lead. If other countries see that our system is working, then they might be persuaded to follow suit.

      “Put another way, you can probably quite easily convince the public that littering is bad (and having just emerged victorious from a fight to the death with the council about some fly-tipping, I certainly know!) but you are applying it here to aspirations to travel and the like.

      The two are very different and I have always found it quite surprising that many in the green movement just seem unable to see the shades of grey here. It is an inability that leaves me suspecting that the agenda is as much about disapproval of others as it is about saving the world.”

      But my point is about when one person’s right collides with another person’s right. So having the right to travel is fine, but it does mean that if travelling has an impact beyond the seller and buyer, we should look at the impact. I agree that there are shades of grey, and we shouldn’t demonise, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything.

    20. jb21uk — on 6th July, 2009 at 7:16 pm  

      One interesting question on green taxes is how to avoid driving industry elsewhere. It seems like the best way to go in domestic situations on the one hand, but on the other, you can see how very energy intensive industries (production of Aluminium is the most clear-cut example) would simply move to the cheapest place for electricity. That might be positive environmentally (moving production of Aluminium close to renewable sources) or not. But there’s the same issue here with normal taxation- you might see the setup of energy tax havens, and the loss of business elsewhere. If you were to set-up exemptions for certain industries, I don’t know at what point you’d draw the line.

    21. soru — on 6th July, 2009 at 9:33 pm  

      renewable energy will simply encourage us to maintain our current levels

      Screw that. In the future, people can, should and will be richer, i.e. have access to more energy. The status quo is clearly unacceptable to anyone other than a few percent of the population of the planet.

      That means we need _both_ green energy _and_ carbon taxes or similar, with the one financing the other. If a small fraction of the upper fringe of the few comfortable percent want to go off and indulge themselves with a low-energy lifestyle, that is fine as long as it is understood it is a fad of the same type as feng shui; nothing to do with actual environmentalism.



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