26 May 2006

Call for Unity, part 2 - Justifications

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.

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