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World saved . . . planet doomed

Green activists are seeing the global economic crisis as an opportunity, but the truth remains: high

You could call it the see-saw effect: it has long been an article of political faith that as worries about the economy go up, interest in the environment must go down. It stands to reason: people who are concerned today about their jobs have more immediate matters of alarm than whether or not there may be more storms in 2055. Environmental concerns are a luxury of the rich, something we can no longer afford once the economy turns sour and recession looms. “I’m nervous,” wrote Jonathon Porritt in June – after Northern Rock and Bear Stearns but be-fore Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and Iceland. “Climate change is still tough for politicians to sell. This all feels very much like one of those periodic crunch moments for the sustainability agenda.”

In that same month, as the financial crisis deepened, the Oxford economist Professor Dieter Helm worried that we seemed to be seeing a "shift back to the safe territory of concrete and jobs". Certainly, David Cameron - having established his reputation with the "Vote Blue, Go Green" pledge - seemed scarcely to mention climate change any more. Alarmed, major environmental groups wrote an open letter to party leaders warning them not to drop the environmental ball, as it were. And news on the high street seemed to confirm the worst fears: sales of organic produce began to slow as worried consumers tightened their belts, while supermarkets such as Tesco dropped their environmental messages and began to focus once again on price.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the gloom hasn't lasted. Even as the news has worsened - as stock markets crashed and the jobless figures began to rise - environmental issues have stayed resolutely at the top of the agenda. In Britain the passing of the Climate Change Bill, which cleared the Commons late last month, was a major triumph for the green lobby, committing the government to much stronger targets than originally envisaged, and with loopholes on aviation and shipping firmly closed. (The bill is due to receive Royal Assent by the end of this month.) Instead of slamming the door shut on environmental issues, the crisis of confidence in conventional economics seems to have led to a surge of interest in green measures to address the crisis.

If trillions of dollars can be spent on propping up the world's banks, why cannot a similar amount be spent on shifting the world on to a greener track? Neither is a charity case: banks will eventually repay their loans and environmental investments, too, will generate a substantial return. (Indeed, US lawmakers seemed to recognise this implicitly when they attached a proviso extending clean energy subsidies to October's $700bn bank bailout.)

The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can

In the past few weeks, green economists and campaigners have noticed the emergence of an unexpected credit-crunch dividend. As Cam eron Hepburn, senior research fellow at Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told me: "The economic crisis softens people up to the scale of the numbers - $700bn doesn't seem impossible any more. In fact, the incremental cost of completely greening the world's energy system is certainly less than that per annum."

Sarah Best, a climate-change policy adviser for Oxfam, is also strikingly optimistic: "The good news is that climate and economic solutions can support rather than compete with each other," she says. "Developing a green economy offers us a way out of the present crisis. Investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings and public transport will bring huge job-creation and enterprise opportunities."

Stressing that people in poorer countries affected by climate change should not be forgotten, Oxfam is asking for a proportion of carbon market cash to be allocated to financing climate adaptation in the developing world. The annual amount Oxfam estimates is needed for this from the UK is about £1.6bn annually. That would once have seemed like an inconceivably large bill. Now, in the present crisis, it seems small.

Even heads of state are beginning to repeat this hopeful message. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, joined the president of Indonesia and the prime ministers of Poland and Denmark this month to write a lead comment article in the International Herald Tribune which argued that "the answer" to the financial crisis and climate change "is the green economy". The authors described renewable energy as the "hottest growth industry in the world . . . where jobs of the future are already being created, and where much of the technological innovation is taking place that will usher in our next era of economic transformation".

The United Nations Environment Programme is capitalising on this sudden massing of political will by starting a Green Economy initiative, due to launch in Geneva on 1-2 December, which aims to help policymakers "recognise environmental investment's contributions to economic growth, decent jobs creation and poverty reduction", and reflect this in "their policy responses to the prevailing economic crisis".

Perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues has come with the election of Barack Obama, who made the word “hope” a central theme of his campaign. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can. According to an interview he gave to Time magazine just over a week before the election, Obama sees the “new energy economy” as potentially the main “new driver” of the economy as a whole. His language leaves no room for doubt. “That’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming obviously that we have done enough to stabilise the immediate economic situation.” Obama’s climate credentials are unequivocal: he supports a US target of 80 per cent carbon-emission reductions by 2050, with a European-style cap-and-trade system as the centrepiece of his plan. In fact, the president-elect’s proposals are even stronger than Europe’s: rather than give emissions permits to industry for free, as the EU at present does, Obama proposes a system of 100 per cent auctioning, with the revenue going to fund clean energy investments and to help low-income Americans adjust to higher fuel prices. He also promises to put $150bn towards renewables investments, with the aim of creating five million new “green-collar” jobs.

According to David Roberts, a writer for Grist.org, the US-based online environmental magazine, energy and climate will be one of the Obama presidency's "three biggies" (the others being getting out of Iraq and passing health-care reform). However, he warns not to expect headline-catching announcements: "The key is the long game. Obama worked carefully, diligently and adeptly to get elected on a clean energy agenda" and will aim to secure success with his green economy plan in a similar way. Obama's response to the crisis in the US car industry gives an inkling of his pragmatism as well as his commitment: instead of offering simply to throw money at Detroit to prop up the ailing giants Ford and General Motors (which between them made a staggering $7.2bn loss in the last quarter), the president-elect has made it clear that any government support will be pegged to the industry developing higher-mileage and electric cars. For GM, which has built its entire corporate strategy over the past five years around gas- guzzling sports utility vehicles, this represents the ultimate humiliation.

In the current climate of political optimism, it seems that just about everyone is thinking imaginatively. Al Gore is proposing that the entire US electricity sector be decarbonised in the next ten years, and has been running post-election TV ads titled "Now what?" (answer: "Repower America"). Even Google has a plan - "Clean Energy 2030" - and has begun to shift its own investment towards renewable technologies. In the EU, fears that a group of countries that rely heavily on coal for power generation - including Italy, Poland and Latvia - could intervene to thwart climate targets have lessened, thanks to skilful diplomacy by President Nicolas Sarkozy. And the prospect of the credit crunch derailing this year's UN climate-change talks in the Polish city of Poznan also seems to have been averted; on 14 November, Australia's top climate diplomat, Howard Bamsey, reassured journalists: "I haven't detected any change in approach as a result of the financial crisis."

But how much of this is merely rhetoric? The financial storm has already inflicted grave damage on the clean energy sector; shares in wind and solar power companies have tumbled in the last quarter, some by as much as 75 per cent, as credit funding for capital projects dries up and power companies cut back on their investment plans. “If you can’t borrow money, you can’t develop renewables,” says Kevin Book, a senior vice-president at the investment firm FBR Capital Markets.

The swingeing cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable

Demand for energy has slowed because of the economic crisis, pushing down the price of oil. This in turn has made solar and wind projects that looked profitable when oil was trading at $140 a barrel appear decidedly less attractive with the price of crude back down below $60. T Boone Pickens, the famous US oilman-turned-wind enthusiast, has quietly postponed his plan to build the world's biggest windfarm on the Texas panhandle, due in part to the falling price of oil. Tesla Motors, the California-based auto manufacturer whose all-electric sports car made headlines across the world in the spring, has been forced to cut jobs.

Gas prices have also fallen on international markets. "Natural gas at $6 [per thousand cubic feet] makes wind look like a questionable idea and solar power unfathomably expensive," says Kevin Book from FBR Capital Markets. Falling prices on the EU's carbon market - from ?30 in July to ?20 in November - have also made clean energy projects less competitive. (Despite this short-term blip, most analysts expect the long-term trend in oil prices to be up - the Inter national Energy Agency's executive director, Nobuo Tanaka, warned on 12 November that oil depletion rates seemed to be increasing, and that "while market imbalances will feed volatility, the era of cheap oil is over".)

Perhaps an economic collapse can save us by reducing emissions? After all, the reason the oil price is falling is that people are consuming less fossil energy. But according to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of Manchester University's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the collapse would have to be profound indeed to be sufficient on its own to bring about the emissions decline the planet needs. They estimate that in order to have even a 50-50 chance of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2° higher than pre-industrial levels (the stated aim of EU policy, among many others), the world must see energy-related carbon emissions peak by 2015 and decline thereafter by between 6 and 8 per cent per year. Anderson and Bows remind us that while "the collapse of the former Soviet Union's economy brought about annual emissions reductions of over 5 per cent for a decade", that still isn't quite enough. The suggestion is not that we should aim for a Soviet-style economic implosion, but that the dramatic cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable.

"Green growth" can offer a positive way forward in the short term, but the impossibility of reconciling an endlessly growing economy with the limitations of a finite planet cannot be avoided. Even though, in Cameron Hepburn's words, a "dematerialisation of the economy is feasible in a thermodynamic sense", this hasn't happened so far anywhere - rising GDP is pegged to rising material consumption, and thereby to a rising impact on the environment.

The ecological economist Herman Daly says humanity should aim for "qualitative development", not "quantitative growth". He concludes drily: "Economists have focused too much on the economy's circulatory system and have neglected . . . its digestive tract." The financial crisis is certainly a circulatory ailment, but once it is solved the bigger challenge will remain - that the biosphere has limited sources for our products, and limited sinks for our waste. And that is the ultimate question politicians, environmentalists and economists will have to focus on answering if our ecological crisis is ever to give way to true long-term sustainability in the century ahead.

Mark Lynas's latest book is "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet" (HarperPerennial, £8.99 paperback)

The green economy: ten global facts

The London Array, planned for the Thames Estuary, could become the world's largest offshore windfarm.

A proposed tidal barrage over the River Severn could provide 5 per cent of the UK's electricity. It would cost £15bn and cut carbon emissions by 16 billion tonnes a year.

Barack Obama will invest $150bn in renewables, in the hope of creating five million new jobs in the US.

Abu Dhabi's Masdar Initiative, launched in 2006, will invest $15bn in global green energy. It will take eight years and cost $22bn to build Masdar City (model right), which will rely entirely upon renewable energy.

Qatar is investing $150m in developing green technology in the UK.

There is one large-scale commercial tidal power station in the world - in Brittany, France. It has operated for 30 years without mechanical breakdown and has recovered the initial capital costs.

Consumer goods in Japan will soon be labelled with their carbon footprints. Producing a packet of crisps emits 75 grams of CO2.

Nine out of ten new cars in Brazil use ethanol-based biofuels. Flex-fuel vehicles make up 26 per cent of the country's light vehicle fleet.

Since 2006, disposable chopsticks in China have been taxed at 5 per cent, safeguarding 1.3 million cubic metres of timber every year. Green venture capital accounts for 19 per cent of China's investments.

The Australian government has invested $10.4bn in making 1.1 million homes more energy-efficient, creating 160,000 jobs.

Samira Shackle

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt