Tag Archives: environment

Three Cheers for Tim Leunig!

Tim Leunig has written an excellent, one page article in the Green Lib Dems‘ Challenge magazine about why Lib Dem support for road user charging is thoroughly wrong headed. Sadly, you can’t read the article online as it is GLD policy not to do so in order to encourage you to join the organisation (for the record, I disagree with that policy, but it is what it is). But it comes recommended.

Let battle commence next Tuesday!

Who is worse news for Labour? Charles Clarke or Compass?

Gordon Brown has ruled out a handout to help people with winter fuel payments a few days after his office was insisting that he definitely wasn’t. Add those two together and you have the possibility of a windfall tax which will only be used to reduce the PSBR. Since this would almost certainly be total insanity, I think we can safely say that the windfall tax won’t be happening no matter how hard Labour backbenchers stamp their feet.

I agree with Nick Clegg: there shouldn’t be a windfall tax but utility companies need to do much more to help people insulate their homes and tackle fuel poverty. Slooshing the money in and out of government coffers would be pointless even if it wasn’t likely to end up getting held up to pay for something else.

What interests me about this story though is how upfront Compass have been about pressuring Brown and Darling on the specific issue of a windfall tax. Superficially I can see why it ticks all their boxes; Compass has gone a long way from its original founding statement (pdf). This was steeped in liberalism. Since then, they have literally leapt into bed with the Tribunite left (the very thing that Lawson et al were denouncing in the 90s) and shown that when it comes to liberty, they are very fair weather friends.

They are very good on coming up with ‘solutions’ while Progress and whingers like Charles Clarke are notably silent when it boils down to specifics. But that doesn’t mean they are the right answers. Worse, the demand for a windfall tax has left Brown in a no-win situation. Either he refuses their demands and faces a backbench rebellion or he capitulates and looks weaker than ever. Frankly, given the parlous situation he’s in, I’m amazed that Compass think that Brown will ever conclude that the latter is the lesser of two evils. If he were to give in, after giving earlier this year on income tax and raising duty on petrol, his authority would be shot to pieces.

It’s weird, because I didn’t see it coming, but Labour is now tearing itself apart in a remarkably similar way to how the Tories destroyed themselves in the mid-90s. At least with the Tories it was over fundamental points of principle; with Labour at the moment it is more steeped in tactical judgement. There certainly are differences of principle, but that debate isn’t really getting a chance to get going while this agonising dispute about tactics and process rages.

All Charles Clarke provides us with is another frustrated ex-minister. Nothing new there. Compass offer Labour something far worse: an alternative power base. In the longer term that may be in Labour’s interests: a bit of ideological purity might be the only thing that holds the party together in the upcoming wilderness years. But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves, it is helping to secure a Tory victory.

Clegg unveils super powers?

Have I ever mentioned how much I love BBC headlines? Their obsession to bring everything into a certain word and character limit to ensure it will always fit on a line leads them to end up coming up with some remarkable turns of phrase. Take this for instance:

Clegg unveils green energy vision

I’m sure I can figure out what that’s supposed to mean, but I can’t really be bothered. The thing in my head is much more entertaining:
Nick Clegg unveils green energy vision

OfCom, the Global Warming “Swindle” and Revolutionary Communism

The controversy surrounding last year’s Great Global Warming Swindle highlights a number of things for me.

First of all, the OfCom ruling today appears to have caused more heat than light. The report states that:

…In dealing with these complaints therefore Ofcom had to ascertain – not whether the programme was accurate – but whether it materially misled the audience with the result that harm and/or offence was likely to be caused.

There it is – in black and white. Why then does Brendan O’Neill at Spiked insist that “Ofcom rejected complaints that Durkin’s film was factually inaccurate on the basis that it did not ‘materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence.’” The Commissioning Editor at C4 Hamish Mykura was even more explicit in a BBC interview, stating at least twice that OfCom ruled they had not mislead the audience.

Yet that was not the test. By OfCom’s admission, the bar was set incredibly high, not to say almost impossibly so:

The accompanying Ofcom guidance to the Code explains that “Ofcom is required to guard against harmful or offensive material, and it is possible that actual or potential harm and/or offence may be the result of misleading material in relation to the representation of factual issues. This rule is therefore designed to deal with content which materially misleads the audience so as to cause harm or offence.” (Emphasis in original). Ofcom therefore only regulates misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence. As a consequence, the requirement that content must not materially mislead the audience is necessarily a high test.

In other words, the Great Global Warming Swindle could have been full of the most blatant lies ever devised by man as far as OfCom was concerned, as long as they were white ones. It isn’t entirely surprising therefore that it found in Channel 4’s favour.

And to an extent, that is how it should be. The key test is whether the programme was presented as a documentary or an essay. Adam Curtice’s occasional forays on BBC2 are by turns brilliant and incredibly stoopid, but they are always presented as personal essays. It’s a good format. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is undeniably in the first person. What I’ve seen of Martin Durkin’s programme (I admit to not having watched the programme as I missed it when it was first broadcast and don’t see why I should enrich him by buying a copy), it looks very much like a documentary. This is a key point, and one which George Monbiot is right to quibble over:

This became a personal issue when the man who commissioned The Great Global Warming Swindle, Hamish Mykura, appeared on the Today programme to defend the film. It was, he said, part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, and was balanced by a film I had made, broadcast in the same week, for Dispatches. I was flabbergasted. Neither I, nor the audience, nor anyone on the production team had been told that my programme was part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, or that it would be linked to The Great Global Warming Swindle. Had I known this, I would have pulled out. When I asked Mykura for evidence — some memos or publicity material about this “season”, for example — he was unable to provide any.

My film was subjected to such a rigorous process of fact-checking that it was, in effect, edited by Channel 4’s lawyers. While this made it rather dull, it also meant that it was robust and unchallengeable: any claim which would not stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny was excluded. Despite this, it was billed as a controversial polemic and my own personal view (I was the onscreen presenter). Durkin’s film, by contrast, appears to have been exempted from such rigorous fact-checking and was not presented as his opinion. Why did such radically different standards apply? And in what sense did my film “balance” Durkin’s? Mine was about policies seeking to address climate change: I was not asked to demonstrate that man-made global warming was taking place. Even if that had been my aim, Channel 4 misunderstands its public service obligations if it believes it has to strike a balance between truth and falsehood. I was glad to see that Ofcom found that the other programmes in the channel’s schedule “were not sufficiently timely or linked” to the Swindle to balance it..

It strikes me that it is odd for OfCom to insist that this film was opinion when it has certainly never sought to present itself in that way. Indeed, the film’s power is in documentary’s ability to appear authoritative. It is one of those quirks of the modern age: write a book on climate change and it is taken for granted that it is opinion. Make a film and people wave it around as if it was the gospel truth. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard and seen climate change sceptics bang on about this film as if it demolishes the entire case for anthropocentric climate change.

Returning to Spiked and Brendan O’Neill, you could be forgiven that this partial upholding of a complaint was tantamount to being hanged, drawn and quartered:

Speak ill of a climate expert and you’re likely to be stuck in the stocks of the public media and branded as a fact-denying, truth-distorting threat to public morals.

Increasingly in the climate change debate, no dissent can be brooked. I mean none (my emphasis). That is why, from the thousands and thousands of hours of TV programming devoted to climate change issues last year – from news reports on the threat of global warming to the lifestyle makeover shows imploring us to Go Green – only one has been singled out for censure. The one that questioned whether climate change is occurring. The Great Global Warming Swindle by maverick filmmaker Martin Durkin.

But this is self-evident nonsense. Apart from the fact that climate change deniers took the unusual step of taking Al Gore’s film to court, a fact which that great defender of free speech Brendan O’Neill applauded at the time, there is absolutely nothing – zero – squat – to stop someone from making an official complaint to OfCom about a pro-green television programme if they feel it is factually wrong. But what is more, outside of O’Neill’s fevered nether world, OfCom haven’t actually demanded any action over this film other than insist that C4 summarise its report’s findings. Is it not therefore just a smidgen of an exaggeration to say that “say anything reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous about a climate change scientist and you will be punished. You won’t receive a literal lashing, but you will get a metaphorical one.”? Apparently a tongue lashing is too much to bear for LM, the poor dears.

Ah yes, LM. I’ve taken a mild interest in the goings on of the group formally known as the Revolutionary Communist Party ever since university when along with most other Manchester University students I was regularly accosted by people in the street demanding that I take out direct debits to their magazine in order to “prove” that I support freedom of speech. The freedom of speech they were seeking to defend was their right to claim that ITN had faked footage about a Bosnian concentration camp. Is there an LM network, as has been suggested by certain environmentalists? What is undeniable is that there is a hardcore who tend to club together. After 20 years, you would expect the members of most political organisations to be quite disperse. Yet, here they all are, regularly swapping between Spiked and the Institute of Ideas.

There is nothing wrong with old comrades sticking together. What I have more of a problem with is their tendency to establish a “party” line on pretty much everything. For a think tank and magazine advocating freedom of speech, they never seem to encourage people to argue back with them. You won’t ever find an article on Spiked about climate change, or criticising China, for example. For all their claims as supporters of freedom of expression, debate appears to be the last thing they want (no comments on their website for you or I); merely the right to push their own agenda. And again, that’s fair enough – I often even find myself agreeing with them – but it would be nice if they were honest about it once in a while.

I just wish the polemic wasn’t quite so out there. There isn’t a single cordial disagreement which Brendan O’Neill can’t exacerbate into a climactic clash of civilisations. The tone on Spiked is unremittingly apocalyptic. A friend of mine attended their Battle of Ideas conference last year. He isn’t a Lib Dem but as part of his professional life he has got to know Steve Webb and took exception to it when a Spiked representative started denouncing Webb’s efforts with Facebook from the platform. My friend queried this, only to find himself being denounced as well. At the end of the debate, he sought to engage with his assaillant only to watch the man literally run out of the room.

A grand conspiracy on behalf of the surviving remnants of the Revolutionary Communist Party? Almost certainly not. But does it betray some rather distasteful cultish tendencies? Absolutely. Perhaps if they turned the polemic a notch down from 11 every once in a while they might actually influence people rather than piss them off. But I’m sure that would be a lot less satisfying.

Liberalism and technocracy don’t mix

Oh dear. The cheerleaders for road user charging in the Lib Dems have decided to step up a gear. We will, no doubt, have another row about this at party conference in the autumn and Clegg will no doubt turn it into a vote of confidence issue and win (people who diss Labour MPs for meekly falling into line over their government on 42 days would do well to remember that our own party has a tendency to put the same party interests over principle). That doesn’t make him right though.

Can it really be more than 2 1/2 years since I last blogged about this subject? I don’t have too much to add. To an extent the privacy/civil liberties argument is a red herring, albeit an understandable one, in that it is entirely possible to develop a system and regulatory framework which would respect privacy and penalise infringers severely. The most obvious step would be to not store all the data in one place and not allow people to exchange it without permission from the user. There are pragmatic objections to this – the police and civil service would allow a system which genuinely respects privacy to go ahead over the mound of their collective dead bodies – but not especial principled ones.

My main objections are threefold: it would take bloody ages to introduce, it is an IT disaster waiting to happen and it falls foul of the unintended consequences law.

The first point is that we need to be taking action over climate change now. Looking towards theoretically perfect systems in the future is in this respect a waste of time. It is designed to take pressure of politicians in the short term on the basis there will be jam (or rather in this case a lack of jams) tomorrow. Don’t expect our message to be “punitive fuel taxes now” expect it to be “nice cuddly road charging tomorrow”. That in itself should be dismissed as political cowardice.

As an aside, I can but wonder why it is that we leap on proposals such as this, which will take the best part of a decade to introduce, yet the constant objection to having any specific policy on land value taxation at all is that it will take 1-2 parliamentary terms to introduce.

Secondly, governments don’t do IT systems awfully well. To be fair, old Ken Livingstone seemed to manage both the C-Charge and Oyster competently enough, which is why I gave him my second preference vote (pretty much the only reason why I gave him my second preference vote, for all the good it did either of us), but this system would be of a vastly bigger order of magnitude. We’re talking about a system in which either every single car in the country has to have GPS installed or where every single road in the country has to have CC-TV introduced. No halfway measures will do. How is this going to work? How is it going to be policed? How are we going to stop unregistered cars from driving around unhindered? We don’t seem to have any answers to these questions. On “rat running” the best we can come up with is “the technology chosen must allow for penalties to be enforced on drivers who ‘rat run’ in order to avoid payment,” which is another way of saying “we don’t have a bleedin’ clue how to solve this problem, but don’t pester us with details!”

Thirdly, unintended consequences. It is a fact, uncontestable, that this policy calls for a tax shift away from pollution and onto congestion. The unambiguous winners of this system will be people in rural areas who do a lot of driving on largely deserted roads. These people will be given every incentive to continue their polluting ways. Their tax burden will be taken up by urban motorists. This in itself seems remarkably unfair, but then I’m not a 60-something retiree living the life of Riley out in the sticks and driving a Mercedes, who this policy is surely targeted at.

The solution to congestion is not necessarily fewer cars on the road, but less bunching. This system, combined with increasingly sophisticated satnav systems, will certainly do that, but making it quicker and easier to get about by car is not going to discourage car use, but promote it. People are addicted to cars enough as it is – this will just make it harder to wean them off.

Fundamentally, what would road user charging achieve that a combination of fuel taxes, satnav and simpler (and thus harder to game) congestion charges in strategic areas won’t do more quickly, with less investment in infrastructure and without the civil liberty implications? Thus far I have yet to hear an answer to that.

The other, related policy measure is personal carbon credits which was doing the rounds last week. In this case I at least accept that the economics makes more sense and the civil liberty implications are less because it would actually be simpler to let the private sector manage the scheme. Once again however, it is hard to see why you need a big, complex technical solution when having companies buy the credits directly, passing the cost onto customers and having the government pass the revenue onto the population in the form of a citizens’ income would amount to about the same thing.

There is also the growing realisation that the global carbon trading scheme isn’t working as it should. That isn’t to say the system is doomed to failure, but until the current gaping loopholes have been filled and there has been a significant culture shift, talking about making the system personal is pie in the sky.

Generally speaking, if vastly complex IT systems are the solution, you are asking the wrong questions. Such systems are attractive to politicians because they know they sound green by talking about them in the full knowledge that they won’t be around if and when they are actually implemented. We don’t have enough time to put up with such vanity.

Economics and oil

I didn’t watch all of Question Time this week but one thing that Eric Pickles said flew out at me (in what was otherwise an incoherent mess once Dimblebum had punctured his well rehearsed soundbite): before tax, the UK has the lowest priced diesel in Europe.

It sounds like a startling, killer fact, but it actually demonstrates what a pointless debate we are having in the UK at the moment about taxing fuel. We have understood since Adam Smith that price is determined by demand and supply. Tax petrol 2p and it doesn’t automatically go up 2p because competition will hold it down. Of course, because demand for petrol is inelastic, petrol stations have a bit of leeway and so can afford to pass the increase onto consumers. But sadly they retain the same advantage if you lower tax as well: if we cut the tax on petrol by 2p, you can guarantee that most of that saving will simply be eaten up as profit by oil companies which they can safely blame on global market forces. They won’t even be lying.

All this is sub-GCSE stuff, so how come I haven’t heard a single politician point this fact out?

Nuclear policy: where subsidies aren’t subsidies and safety is dangerous

Two stories to chew over for the nuclear debate:

First is the revelation that the government not only accepts that the nuclear industry should not be required to clean up any nuclear accident, but was surreptitiously planning to change the law to specifically exempt the industry from paying any costs.

But of course, we have nothing to worry about because nuclear is safe, right? In Canada the head of their safety commission has been sacked for doing her job too well. Her insistence that a power plant should remain closed threatened the supply of medical isotopes and the government now plans to change the law to ensure the continued production of such isotopes is part of the Commission’s remit. Never mind the fact that the plant in question doesn’t have two backup cooling pumps that it is required to have in case of an emergency.

So subsidies aren’t subsidies and insisting on safety is dangerous? Such Kafka-esque doublethink hardly helps us have an honest and open debate on the subject.

Will the nuclear boom harm global warming?

So the government is to give the green light to nuclear. No surprises there then.

Part of me would like to be an optimist, denounce the green lobby for being apocalyptic, line up with Jim Lovelock and David King and comfort myself that nuclear is a better alternative to coal and gas. I certainly am fairly dismissive about the “danger” argument (although moving a hundredfold more uranium and nuclear waste around the world, which appears to be where we’re headed, does strike me as a significant security threat).

The problem is, I’m simply not convinced by the economics of it all.

A thought has struck me this week: if these plants are really to be built without a penny of government subsidy, with the industry even paying for the clean up costs, it seems to be based on a model that the cost of gas and oil will remain high. John Hutton seems to confirm this:

Analysis of future gas and carbon prices showed nuclear was “affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions”.

If that’s the case then it suggests that things like oil shale are likely to remain extremely commercial indeed. Indeed, it suggests an economy in which coal becomes affordable as well (we’re already seeing this happen). In other words it appears to be based on a model where a killing will be made exploiting the most dirty sources of energy imaginable, many of which will counteract the carbon savings by going nuclear. And they won’t take until around 2020 to come on stream.

On the plus side, it also makes numerous renewable sources more viable. But the government is still resisting opening the door for micro-generation through a German-style import tariff, so progress on that will not be driven by thee and me as it is in other countries. And the government also seems reluctant to invest in R&D comparative to even the US which not only will make development take longer but denies us opportunities in terms of jobs and enterprise.

Overall, it is hard to shake the impression that we are pursuing this goal due to a chronic lack of imagination more than anything else. While I normally am the first to defend scientists, I do wish we heard a little less of them in this debate and a little more from the economists.

Going nuclear?

One developing story I didn’t get around to blogging about over the past couple of weeks is nuclear policy. There have been several stories in the papers recently on this. Most recently, the Nuclear Consultation Working Group issued a damning condemnation of the government’s second consultation on nuclear energy. This is bad news for them as they’ve already had one consultation thrown out in court.

The most bemusing line I’ve read about this was on the front page of the Guardian yesterday was this:

The government is expected to insist it has a mandate. In meetings in the autumn, more than 1,000 people were asked their view of nuclear power after seeing videos and taking part in discussion: 44% said power firms should have the option to build nuclear; 36% said no.

I accept that the first sentence is a journalist’s embellishment. Nonetheless, if the government is claiming a “mandate” it has another thing coming. Nuclear energy, along with Trident and a basket of other important issues, was one of the topics Labour would not mention during the general election, either on the stump or even in the small print of their manifesto. And if they are basing their consultation on the balance of responses received, this would be a government first. Normally, government departments are the first to point out that to do so would be to cede policy to the views of a vocal minority and that they are not statistically signifcant. It would seem to me that it would be unwise to set a precedent on this.

The second nuclear theme is rather more tricky. David King, the Royal Society and the European Commission have come out urging the government to consider reprocessing and using the UK’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. This is a different argument to the standard go nuclear one: we already have tons of the stuff – enough to provide 60% of the UK’s electricity needs until 2060 – and there are serious safety and security implications in just stockpiling the stuff.

Personally speaking, my main objections to going nuclear are geo-political. I simply cannot see any merit in exchanging an oil economy for a uranium one. Most supporters of nuclear seem to think the UK exists in a bubble, that we alone are facing this decision and that there are no economic or security implications for increasing the global demand for uranium by a factor of ten or even one hundred. The prospect of us waging our first “uranium war” or propping up some corrupt African regime simply to ensure security of supply doesn’t exactly entice me (note – I accept the argument that we only have 30 years of supply based on current levels of consumption is bogus; demand creates its own supply. But the truth is we simply do not know how much uranium there is out there or how much it might cost to extract it – the counterargument that you should base future supply of uranium on an oil-based model is, if anything, even more bogus). And the cost appears comparable to investing in renewables to the point where they would become economical. With solar now threatening to, erm, go nuclear, I’m not convinced by the TINA argument that fission is the future. Introduce a UK feed-in tariff before lecturing me about what is or is not possible.

Most of these arguments however do not apply to reprocessing. This is about making the most of our past mistakes, not making new ones. It would be potentially cheaper, and I’m prepared to buy the argument that nuclear buys us time for renewables to develop (so long as investment in renewables goes hand in hand with it).

If this was what the government was pushing, rather than its bleak vision of making the UK economy entirely dependent on a non-renewable substance we don’t produce and have no guarantee of supply over, I’d be more sympathetic.