Academic Freedom #6 : Policy Levers

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Many scientists express that their aim in their work is to offer a good foundation for Government decision-making. Our gathering and processing of data and evidence is to be offered to the lawmakers to enable them to choose a way forward, and design a strategy to get there. This is a noble ambition – to be a useful servant of the facts (or at least a disciple of statistics with plus and minus margins of error).

However, science is not the only force at work in influencing Government decisions. For a start, Governments change through elections in democracies, and all debate about public policy passes through a narrow ideological gate – where people decide on a very small range of questions that concern them at the time. Election issues are almost always centred around tax and welfare, and elections are often called for the favourite politicians of the moment.

And then there’s the question of which organisations influence elected governments on a day-to-day basis – who has the ear of leaders and their senior staff ? The public relations budget lines of large companies and corporations can be kept trim and tidy – politicians are easy to get access to if you have a lot of capital to invest (or make out that you do).

Then of course, there is the token nod to public opinion, but in this day and age, social movements are becoming increasingly ignored, and their access to governments is becoming patchy. The only tools in the social campaigner box are wearing thin – demonstration, marches, signature gathering for petitions, writing letters to democratic representatives. And it’s too easy to change the peoples’ minds using the mass media, so why would a government respond to a campaign ? (Example : on the day of the recent UK Budget, on two separate TV channels hosting analysis, people announced a message to the effect of “it’s true that the South East of England does need more airport capacity…” – completely unchallenged).

Added to all these forces is the inertia of existing civil services – the invisible governance of a country – the organisations that continue the work of handling the budgets and welfare, implementing previous decisions, integrating policies, cooperating with other countries and international bodies and seats of governance, such as the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations, the European Union, OECD…Political election mandates have often washed ashore on the shoals of back room administration.

So the United Kingdom has signed the Climate Change Act (2008) into law. How will it get implemented ? And the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wants to approach a global treaty on carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Beyond the question of how to build an undisputed treaty text, how could the treaty be implemented ?

It is rather pointless for the UK Government to say that carbon dioxide emissions are capped and will be reduced when they have virtually no levers on the economy to make this happen. It is at best a token gesture of intent to publicly state that action on climate change is a national obligation.

What are the solutions to climate change ? Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing de-forestation (including protecting soils) and adapting to climate change with public works. It’s called “mitigation and adaptation”, but not everybody can agree precisely on when something is “mitigation” and when it’s “adaptation”.

But who should take part in these activities ? Who has the capability, resources and mandate to do so ? Citizens and business will quite naturally resist punitive measures such as carbon pricing or taxation. Since we are dependent on fossil fuel energy, there is little wiggle room – most people don’t have the choice of which energy they use. The poor and vulnerable will suffer the knock-on, trickle-down, pricing effects of charging or fining energy companies for pollution. Companies will lose their profit margins and stop providing employment. Energy production companies will shift the burden of carbon pricing on to their customers to avoid having to reduce their dividends to their shareholders. Most companies can see the logic and sense in reducing their energy use for maximum profits, particularly when background energy costs are rising, but a carbon price will not make this happen faster. Carbon pricing will not significantly stimulate a change in the types of energy that are produced, because it costs a lot of capital to invest in new energy technology, and a price for emissions could never be set high enough to enable that kind of investment decision.

Energy production businesses will resist every form of cap on their rights to emit greenhouse gases, unless there are enforced laws. It is not clear how greenhouse gas reduction laws can be enforced. The European Union attempted to set a cap on emissions, but the cap was too loose, and now that there are moves to tighten it, the energy industry is reacting – to bust the cap.

Governments are powerless to implement energy policy. The reason for this is that energy is a privatised industry. And representatives of this privately-owned industry are called upon as experts in making energy policy. Government people are frequently not educated in science or engineering, so need professional advice. So the energy production companies run rings around them, angling for special treatment, promising false solutions in exchange for support for their particular energy technology. It is of no consequence for a government to claim it is “technology-blind” – it will plump for the technology menu offered by the existing energy companies with the largest public relations budget and the most access to the decision-makers.

People do not listen to austerity messaging. Urging voluntary energy conservation is a road to nowhere. It is not the duty of citizens to solve climate change by altering their energy use behaviour. We, the citizens, are not responsible for the embedded carbon in the energy we rightly want to use. Those genuinely responsible for our high carbon society are those who produce the energy.

A United Nations treaty can never be implemented unless energy producer corporations and energy producer countries are obliged to alter the resources they use. This is because individual governments would find it an impossible task to implement a United Nations treaty given the pressures they face from the energy industry. Unless the correct actors are called upon to make change, there will be no movement.

In the United Kingdom, for example, it has been accepted that the citizens will solve climate change if they can be encouraged to reduce their high carbon energy usage. Educating the population about climate change has resulted in much hand-wringing and guilt, but not much action.

Many companies who have done their risk assessments on the future cost of energy, who are net energy consumers have made adaptations in their corporate behaviour and are now operating efficiently – but this has not reduced the overall national energy demand.

Efforts to tighten the European Union laws on greenhouse gas emissions from point sources – coal-fired power plants, for example – is having an impact. It is likely that only gas-fired power plants will be built in the near future.

Moves to firm up the capped quota of emissions using the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme will be grudgingly implemented – but loopholes will continue to exist.

So, are there any effective policy levers that governments can use to cap and reduce global warming pollution ? Who would they fine or charge to bring the full social cost of emissions into the economy ? That is not clear, and is disputed in any case.

It seems to me that there are only three things that can create leverage :-

1. Explaining the end of the fossil fuel story to energy producers

The education that should be taking place is that energy producers should be engaged in a dialogue about the results of research into falling worldwide fossil fuel resources. They should be encouraged to offer answers to “Peak Oil” – they should explain to governments, and the United Nations, how their businesses are going to compensate for fossil fuel depletion – in order to keep societies stable.

Governments are rightly concerned about rising energy prices, and rising energy prices are being caused by problems in the fossil fuel industry – some of which are being caused by fossil fuel depletion, some by climate change, some by economic collapse.

Companies should be invited into discussion to offer their cooperation in keeping energy prices relatively affordable for consumers.

2. Making it clear that public money will be used to subsidise clean energy and energy services

The energy industry is intelligent – they realise which side of the bread is buttered. If they see real efforts by governments to subsidise and invest in the deployment of renewable energy, they will accept the inevitable – that they too should invest in renewable energy.

All new technology needs public finance support (or the backing of military budgets) – the history books are full of examples.

It’s a question of “follow the money” – if society chooses to invest in clean energy – other investor money will follow suit.

Citizens have been shown time and again to approve of clean energy and energy services to reduce the use of fossil fuel energy. It’s easier to get accord with a positive ambition than a punitive regime.

Insulation breeds conservation. It takes away the profits of companies that sell energy, so they need to adapt to selling insulation instead of energy.

3. Enabling private capital to invest in renewable energy assets

Every means should be made available to promote investment in renewable energy technology – building the fuel-free assets of the future energy system.

There should be special rules for green energy investment – preferential treatment by financial institutions.

Private capital of all kinds can be leveraged to deploy renewable energy, but it must be given advantages over other forms of energy.

There should be an understanding that only low carbon energy infrastructure and plant can be consented.

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