28 May 2006
26 May 2006
So there is a conflict of ideals, and a dangerous lassitude in events as the debate drags on.
2.1 Can we change without Regulation?
For centuries it has been recognised that inventors and innovators need protection to give them time to profit from their investment of time, money and effort. Patents and the resulting monopolies are intended to give the people at the forefront of technology time to exploit their inventions.
Without it, someone with more ready cash and a better business sense could steal the invention and establish a pre-eminent position in the market. They do not have to pay the full costs of developing the product, so have a greater profit margin and can undercut the originator.
The same logic can be applied to alternative fuels versus fossil fuels. The market position of fossil fuels is a built-in advantage, and any innovation towards greater efficiency only prolongs that advantage.
It would be easier to persuade everyone to buy a car that ran on a new type of gasoline than to sell alcohol-burning cars, simply because the infrastructure for pumping, refining and delivering the fuel is already in place.
Regulation, it is argued, is necessary to overcome the market resistance to change.
2.2 Is the Market Really Free?
Fossil fuel users are not paying the full price of their energy source. The cost is artificially small. If you take into account environmental damage, and the potential impact that this will have, the real costs are many times greater than anyone is expected to pay.
While each tonne of CO2 added to the atmosphere has a comparatively miniscule impact, the cost of repairing the damage by extracting the CO2 (without exacerbating the issue by using still more energy derived from unsustainable sources) is not trivial. If this cost was added to every kilo or litre of fossil fuel, then sustainable sources would be more than competitive – they would be the only viable economical solution.
Under the principle of Polluter Pays, the cost of repairing the damage done by a polluter should be levied against that polluter. One can ignore the costs or potential costs of leaving the damage un-repaired. By simply acknowledging that it is damage, and working out a way to un-do it as cheaply as possible, one reaches a fair price for the pollution.
The problem is that our economies are predicated on the current cost calculations, which do not account for the cost of cleanup – only the cost of acquisition and delivery to market. As with the nuclear industry, the full cost is buried behind Victorian assumptions of limitless resource and environmental resilience.
Adjusting to an accurate costing will be painful, and is therefore anathema to most politicians. Those who contemplate doing so can only do so with gradual change, and incremental carbon taxation. This is sensible. No economy can withstand rapid changes of any kind, least of all increases in core costs.
2.3 Is Social Change Necessary?
Our profligate use of energy in the West is unprecedented. Our social structures are disintegrating as workforces become more mobile and the state increasingly adopts the responsibility for supporting those who cannot (or will not) support themselves.
This has happened, in part, as a consequence of first the nationalisation of the economies and now its globalisation. Growth, competition and cheap energy (at the expense of the environment) have dictated the changes to social expectations and behaviour. Where once leaving the town of your birth was an exception, it is now the norm. Where once holidaying abroad was for the rich, it is now cheap enough for even the unemployed to afford.
Many of our behaviours can be adjusted to reduce the impact of burning fossil fuels. We can conserve more and adopt alternatives even if they are more expensive. But this will only ever be a marginal solution. People are, fundamentally, concerned with their own comfort and security.
Persuading them to act against their own best interests in the immediate term, for a theoretical and disputed benefit in the very long term is next to impossible, and the numbers of people doing so voluntarily will not be enough to make enough of a difference.
Social change has a part to play. It can push events in the right direction and influence investment. Public opinion determines both political and economic directions. Expecting to solve the problems of climate change through a grass roots movement without any assistance from government or business is, at best, naïve, and at worst, counter-productive.
2.4 Can Technology Solve Everything?
It is a certain bet that technological advances in the future will allow us to do without fossil fuels altogether. Abundant renewable energy can produce hydrogen for a portable fuel, and those working on it have not forgot about the potential for fusion electricity generation, even if it is out of the news.
But the timing is not in our favour. Every day we burn fossil fuels we drive ourselves further down the slope, and it will take a larger, more determined effort to get back up. It may already be too late to prevent catastrophic global disruption and a breakdown of our civilisation. It will still be too late if an engineer finally perfects clean power the day before his home sinks beneath the encroaching coastline.
We have the technology today to replace most fossil fuel use. The fact that this technology is not replacing it rapidly enough is purely down to the inequity in costs. We should be introducing existing technology as rapidly as possible. The potential to improve these things will be realised when competition and economies of scale are driving their development. Investing in research without supporting the industry it is supposed to serve is, in effect, a delaying tactic.
19 May 2006
Once you accept that climate change is going to exact a heavy price on civilisation in the near future, the next question is always ‘What can we do about it?’ Answers, and the passionate and committed people that promote them, can be categorised into four broad camps.
Reverlutionaries want to change the way people live at a fundamental level to use less energy and consume less. To a greater or lesser degree they advocate reversing a hundred years or more of environmental exploitation.
While it is sensible to use fewer resources to achieve the same aims, I find the suggestion that we should aim to achieve less of great concern. It is not simply naïve; it is dangerous. If we move away from the technologies and industries that sustain us, our capacity to apply economic solutions, or to come up with technological solutions, is drastically impaired.
Say we stop emitting CO2 completely tomorrow (clearly impossible, but that is the most any reverlutionary can hope for). The level of CO2 in the atmosphere today is enough to melt the icecaps and trigger significant climate change. It may be enough to trigger accelerant effects such as melting permafrost, the burning of the Amazon or melting of methyl hydrates on the seabed.
And if that happens, we will need every gigadollar of GDP and intellectual firepower we can get to survive.
Neoliberals are devoted to the power of the market. They feel that market forces will counter every problem and push the human race forwards and onwards and upwards. Insurance companies will assess the risks of climate change as we gain more knowledge and drive premiums up so high that their clients will adapt and adjust accordingly.
Except that the clients who are paying the premiums are not the people doing the damage, and the people who need to change their ways are not the people who are at most risk from the results. As Chomsky says, "the free market is socialism for the rich - markets for the poor and state protection for the rich."
Polluting technologies receive a massive subsidy from the environment, skewing the 'free' market in their favour. A Neoliberal who accepts this fact should be eager to ensure that all costs are laid at the doors of the polluter. But most Neoliberals behave irrationally (or at the very least, hypocritically) and defend the subsidies and protectionism that works in their favour while attacking any attempt to introduce balancing charges that work against them, such as carbon taxes.
Technophiles believe every problem can be fixed once the technology exists to fix it, and that we will have the time and money and know-how to develop the technology we need, so long as we invest in research and (to a lesser degree) development.
They support future technologies such as clean coal and hydrogen cars, while overlooking the poor uptake of existing technologies such as wind and biofuel. They believe staunchly in the miracle cure – that when the right technology is developed it will automatically transform the world.
But it took acts of parliament to underwrite the development of the railways and supplant the established canals, and it took over fifty years for the car to supplant the horse as the primary mode of transport in most of the world.
Technology alone cannot solve a problem rapidly. It must be nurtured and coddled until it is robust enough to compete with more mature industries. Leaving it up to technology alone will impede the change away from fossil fuels. A good idea is not enough.
Regulators want to pass laws forbidding or restricting the use of technologies that use fossil fuels, and subsidising and promoting their replacements. It is the natural tendency of the politician. However they can also foresee only disaster in following that instinct.
Laws, alone, could change a nation’s behaviour, but to do so that nation would have to handicap itself in the international marketplace. It directly opposes the free market approach of the Neoliberals, and threatens economic disaster. To have any significant impact, as Kyoto has demonstrated by its failure, a regulatory approach must be global in scope and imposition. All nations must be subject to the restrictions at the same time. Some allowance for contraction and convergence is necessary to counteract the natural misgivings of poorer nations, but all must accept a level playing field in the end.
This goes against the grain with some countries with a substantial economic lead over the rest of the world. They see such plans, accurately, as inhibition of their existing position and advantages in the market, and reject the necessity to voluntarily abandon that position.
Other countries, that have a rapidly growing but fragile economy, see the roadblock ahead and push for longer delays before they have to start adopting the restrictions.
Between them, these countries block and hinder the regulators at every turn.
* Reverlutionary – one who tries to turn the wheel of political or social progress in reverse.