Why have Tory MEPs rejected a free market solution to climate change?

By sabotaging reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, Conservative MEPs have shown that they can't be relied upon to champion British interests in Europe.

It may surprise some on the centre left but there is nothing innate to conservatism that makes it less able to take pragmatic decisions in favour of sensible environmental policy. It has had a refreshing ability to acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and stewardship even if it has become more conflicted about the means to deliver these outcomes. It is a broad church that spans from the one nation Heseltines to the radical free marketeers like John Redwood. But if there is one thing that unites them, it’s the belief that markets offer most of the answers. Which is why it is so baffling that Conservative MEPs voted down a measure that might have kept the European Emissions Trading Scheme alive. Trading is not the only way of tackling emissions but it’s the poster child of free market thinkers because it promises an economically efficient, non-regulatory solution to a giant supranational problem.

The back story is that, on Tuesday, the EU parliament voted against a minor technocratic fix that would have rescued the floundering European carbon market, which is struggling under the weight of too many pollution permits in the system. The fix would have involved 'backloading' the sale of some excess carbon allowances to 2019, so the number of allowances in the system would be reduced, increasing the price which has dropped as low as €3 per tonne of carbon in recent months. While more profound reform is required, it would have been a first step to putting the mechanism back on track. The vote failed by 19 votes. Twenty Conservative MEPs voted against it. In doing so, they failed their constituents and UK business.

A strong carbon price across Europe is directly in the UK’s interest. Its main benefit is to provide financial incentives for switching from coal to gas, with the costs being born by coal heavy countries like Poland and Germany and rewards flowing to those that have already made the switch, like the UK. One of  Thatcher’s less controversial legacies is an energy system which has less and less coal and a relatively high proportion of gas, so UK generators and fuel suppliers stood to gain significantly from the EU carbon market fix. By voting against it, Conservative MEPs have rewarded coal at the expense of gas and Germany at the expense of the UK. This will be the first of many negative consequences arising from the failure of EU emissions trading. At our Chancellor’s insistence, the government has also introduced a carbon price floor, which means we are paying higher carbon prices than our neighbours. It creates an attractive revenue stream for the Treasury but many British businesses will now feel aggrieved that it could now be at least a decade before there is a single carbon price across Europe.

This is part of a pattern of conflicting behaviour from different parts of the Conservative Party that should worry its leaders. There is no evidence that the British public sees climate or environment as a partisan issue. It is a 'valence' issue, like national security, in which voters expect any party of government to be competent.

Emissions trading may be too obscure for the public to notice but experts in business, NGOs and academia do and,  for many, this will be another worrying sign that the Conservatives are struggling to govern coherently on one of the big issues of our age. We’ve already seen this confusion with the Energy Bill, where the Chancellor agreed to spend £7.6bn a year on new low carbon energy (mostly renewables) but then opposed a decarbonisation objective for 2030 which would have ensured that much of the equipment required would have been built in new UK turbine factories.

The debate now moves on to what 2030 climate package the EU should adopt. The UK should be at the heart of the debate, fighting for an ambitious carbon goal that matches our own. But the prime minister has yet to get his ministers to agree a common position. Whether or not the British government takes a lead, the EU will adopt a new climate package at some point in the next 18 months under pressure from France and Germany. Yesterday’s action by Conservative MEPs has made it more likely that it will be focused on fiscal and regulatory measures, and less on trading. That may turn out to be a good thing, but Conservative MEPs have just shot themselves in the foot by making market trading solutions less attractive. They have also made it considerably more difficult for David Cameron to demonstrate that his party has championed British interests in energy and climate change effectively.

Matthew Spencer is director of Green Alliance

Exhaust rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power station at Bergheim near Aachen, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?