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Beware the allure of green policies

At face value, green politics is the way to go.  With evidence of a changing climate mounting all around us – bush fires in Australia and California, flooding in Venice and Yorkshire, etc. – and in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests, there is growing concern about the environment.  As Benjamin Kentish at the Independent reports:

“Voters are more concerned about the environment ahead of this election than at any time in the past, according to a poll, ranking it above the economy, education and immigration…

“When asked to list what they think are the biggest issues facing Britain, more than one in five voters (21 per cent) mention the environment and pollution unprompted – up from just 2 per cent in 2012.”

Kenneth Rapoza at Forbes detects a similar change in attitudes causing politicians to give greater weight to environmental issues:

“Here is why politicians can’t get enough global warming.

“They love it because it is well on its way to becoming an overpowering get-out-the-vote issue. It’s bigger than jobs and the economy for Europeans, according to the recent Eurobarometer Survey. It’s now gaining on immigration, the biggest wedge issue in the EU and arguably the leading issue behind Brexit…

“At this rate, the climate issue is the best way for European politicians, especially those who have been lambasted for their weak immigration policies, to get the electorate back on their side.

“From a macro perspective, the immigration debate divides Europe. But the climate debate might unify them…”

There is a huge temptation for political parties to play to this apparently receptive audience by setting out policies and programmes aimed at decarbonising economies and switching away from fossil fuels.  Certainly the main political parties in Britain’s current election have been keen to display their supposedly green credentials; with the British Labour Party in particular pursuing a package of policies not dissimilar to those embraced by its Australian namesake.

Since the party manifestos have yet to be published, we cannot know for sure what environmental policies will be included.  However, from the announcements so far, Labour appear to want to implement some form of “green new deal” aimed at creating employment while deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies on a massive scale.  In addition, they have suggested rolling out a national scheme to make buildings more energy efficient than is currently the case.  The programme itself is to be funded via some kind of government issued “green bond.”

There are, of course, many problems with this – not least that the UK needs the rest of the world’s economies to continue burning fossil fuels if it is to have any chance of success.  As I have pointed out many times, there are simply not enough recoverable resources on Earth to allow a global green new deal.  As such, a British or western green new deal would be a final act of imperialism; removing the last resources from the developing world in order to provide the UK with at least some energy in a post-fossil fuel world.  If – as is far more likely – all of the western economies embark on some version of a green new deal, then competition for the last of the resources will drive prices high enough to stop all in their tracks.

Nor is there necessarily enough financial capital available on international money markets to fund a British green new deal without causing serious economic problems.  As an importing economy, the UK has only been able to avoid import inflation since 2010 by privatising what remains of its public infrastructure while using swinging austerity cuts to public services to reassure investors that the state will defend the value of the pound.  Long gone are the days (1980-2005) when the UK could depend upon the revenue from the North Sea oil and gas fields to underwrite its borrowing.  Nor can it turn to a competitive industrial base (most of which died out in the 1970s) to provide the export income required to fund a massive importation of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies from China.  In short, spending on the scale proposed ultimately risks either or both import inflation and economy-crushing interest rate rises (although, of course, there will be a time lag boom period between government spending the borrowed currency and investors realising that it will never be repaid).

Also, so-called “green energy” s not necessarily the most electorally popular “solution” to our environmental woes. In the UK, renewable energy is given a massive boost by the simple rule that it must be used first.  That is, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, the operators of the fossil fuel plants around which the grid was built, are told to switch off.  This eats into the profits of these operators despite their continued existence being essential as renewable energy rises close to two-thirds of the UK’s electricity generation on days when conditions are favourable.  This is why several of the UK’s large coal plants have been shut down well ahead of the 2025 closure date; since further maintenance makes little sense even though the back-up capacity is still needed when conditions are poor – such as happened during the 2018 “beast from the east” event.

The problem here is simply that none of the four alternatives to fossil fuel back-up is viable in an economy as unequal as Britain:

  • There are insufficient locations for pumped hydro back-up; which would in any case cost billions of pounds and take decades to develop
  • Batteries are even more expensive and currently cannot be deployed in anything like the quantity needed to provide more than temporary (hour-to-hour) back-up
  • Deploying far more capacity than is required might allow sufficient electricity 24/7/365; but would be extremely expensive
  • Importing Russian gas-, German and Polish coal- and French nuclear-powered electricity is cheaper (but hardly green) and would leave the UK with serious energy security concerns.

Add to this that despite political assurances to the contrary, most of the new jobs created will be in Bolivian lithium refineries, Congolese cobalt mines, Mongolian rare metal plants and Chinese factories.  Meanwhile, the fossil fuel jobs which will be lost will be domestic.  The result is that concerns about job-losses combine with expected price and/or tax increases to make actual green policy proposals far less politically attractive than generalised concerns about the environment suggest.

This was one lesson to be drawn from the nationwide protest which erupted in France when Macron attempted to raise environmental taxes on diesel fuel.  It was also present, however, in the 2018 US mid-term elections; when supposedly popular environmental proposals were resoundingly defeated by those expected to endorse them.  As Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic explained in the aftermath:

“The results were pretty good for the climate-concerned. Democrats swept into the House of Representatives, winning nearly 40 seats in the chamber. For the first time since 2010, the chair of the House Science Committee will affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

“It was a fine Tuesday, in other words, for the day-to-day climate advocacy of the Democratic Party…

“Yet last week, one of the most progressive and outdoorsy states in the country defeated a ballot question that would have established America’s first carbon tax…  Statewide, Democrats trounced in last week’s elections: Almost 59 percent of voters reelected the Democrat Maria Cantwell to the U.S. Senate. Yet nearly the same number, 56 percent, rejected the carbon-tax measure.”

Even more damning than this electoral rejection, though, was the annihilation of the Australian Labor Party in the general election last May.  As Matt McDonald at ABC News reflects:

“It was supposed to be the big issue of the 2019 Australian federal election: climate change. A range of polls and surveys had left many analysts, myself included, with the sense that this would be a crucial issue at the ballot box.

“The annual Lowy Institute Poll demonstrated stronger support for climate change action in Australia in 2019 than in any previous survey since 2006…

“Crucially, those identifying it as the most important issue had risen from 9 per cent in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2019. Advocacy groups and even media outlets also encouraged the view that 2019 was, and should be, Australia’s climate election.”

Instead, a Liberal/National Coalition which played on fears about rising energy prices and job losses in extractive industries, was returned to office in what was regarded as a “miracle result:”

“Exit polls had suggested a narrow Labor win for the first time in six years.

“The final result of the election may not be known for some hours, but with more than 70% of votes counted the Coalition has won, or is ahead in, 74 seats in its quest for a 76-seat majority, with Labor on just 66 seats.”

There is a lesson here for would-be green politicians – one which has dogged Green Parties for decades.  That is that nobody gets elected by spelling out the true costs of tackling climate change.  It is no accident that Green politicians have focused on growth, jobs and public services with a veneer of greenwash rather than any true exposition of the efforts and costs required to wean an economy off fossil fuels.

In 2017, the British Labour Party manifesto included environment and energy policies far more radical than had been expected.  The 2019 manifesto looks set to be at least as radical.  But if recent trends on environmental voting are anything to go by, Labour would do well to announce the policies early and then focus attention on economic and public service issues for the remainder of the campaign.  Because while an increasingly hard-up British public wants “something to be done,” they still don’t want (and in many cases cannot afford) to pay for it!

As you made it to the end…

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