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December 05, 2006

Does George Monbiot Actually Read The Reports He Praises?

A rather worrying development in the thinking of George Monbiot today.

There was one proposal in Sir Rod Eddington's report to the Treasury with which, when I first read it, I wholeheartedly agreed. He insists that "the transport sector, including aviation, should meet its full environmental costs". Quite right too: every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.

Reading on, I realised that this is not exactly what he had in mind. Instead, he meant that airports can keep expanding and the capacity of roads can be increased, as long as people pay more money for their pollution. He has even been so kind as to put a price on other people's lives: £70 per tonne of carbon. This, we discover, is the "social cost" of global warming, derived by the British government's department for the environment, and unquestioningly accepted by Eddington, who was charged by Gordon Brown with keeping the country moving.

But what the heck does it mean? Does the government believe we can put a price on Bangladesh? On the people threatened by drought in the Horn of Africa? On coral reefs, rainforests and tundra? On the security of global food supplies? When the Stern review was published, some of us warned that people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing would interpret it as a licence to reduce the argument to a dispute about financial costs. This is what Eddington has now done. As long as the books are balanced, the problem is deemed to have been solved.

One thing is that the £70 per tonne C used here really isn't all that different from the $85 per tonne CO2 used in the Stern Review. So Eddington, while he may or may not be correct about that actual number (others think that very high), is certainly in the right ball park as concerns that other report, the Stern one, that George praised so highly.

But the much more major point is that George has completely misunderstood what the Stern Review was saying about the taxation of carbon. Pigouvian taxation is advocated. And yes, this does mean that we are putting a price upon Bangladesh, coral reefs, and the Horn of Africa. What it does mean is that we are putting a price upon our own actions as well.

It's been (quite rightly so) one of the mantras of the environmental movement for decades that we should all be paying the true costs of our actions. In more economic jargon, that the externalities should be internalised into the prices we pay. Thus, if CO2 emissions cost $85 per tonne (Stern) or £70 per tonne C, then whatever we do that emits should contain a tax that includes that cost. Just as a rough number, that's about £10 on one leg of a short haul flight in Europe.

Teddy Goldsmith was shouting for this back in Blueprint for Survival. OK, it's taken the political classes some time to get there but now we are there. But the point about such taxation is that it doesn't actually matter what the money is spent on so much as that we are actually paying the tax. By doing so we are paying the 'true cost' of our actions and thus we get the socially optimal amount of whatever activity is going on.

Now, you can reject all of that for a number of reasons. You could, of course, simply say Bugger Bangladesh. Or want to insist that the tax should be spent on remediation. Or demand vastly higher taxes so as to curb the activity, rather than to simply make it pay its costs. But if you do so, you have to also reject the entire philosophical structure upon which the Stern Review is based.

Which isn't something I think George really wants to do. Rather more worrying is that I don't think he realises that point.

The rest of his column is about an amazing idea to radically change the way coaches work in the UK. It might even be a sensible one too, who knows? Essentially, move all of the coach stations out of the towns and onto the motorway (or trunk road) network.

What would we actually need to do to make this a reality? Well, National Express is currently valued at £1.6 billion or so. Add a bid premium and call it £2 billion shall we? That's £ 41 per adult. I'm feeling generous this morning so I'll put fifty quid into the pot.

All George has to do is bid for the company, take it over and change the way it works. As he says, it should be self financing anyway as the city centre coach stations are sold off.

What's stopping him?

December 5, 2006 in Climate Change | Permalink


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The Stern Report has kicked off some of the most immature tit for tat I have ever come across.  Monckton vs. Monbiot, Lomborg vs. Stern etc., etc.  Its like watching a playground tiff - fascinating to watch grown men getting their knickers in... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 5, 2006 9:48:48 AM


"the Stern one, that George praised so highly."

Does Tim Worstall actually read the articles he criticises? When the Stern Review came out Monbiot said it was 'useful' but added "I hope it doesn't mean that the debate will now concentrate on money", and went on to argue that explicitly capping carbon emissions was better than green taxes because it provided more powerful incentives to demand low-carbon technologies.

Because that's what you either don't understand or are hoping nobody else understands about a simple tax on carbon - it could easily not have a big enough effect on emissions to prevent catastrophic global warming. If we want certainty about emissions, a carbon tax is not the way to go.

Posted by: Jim | Dec 5, 2006 8:55:08 AM

"Actualçly"? Is that the Portuguese spelling, Tim?

Tim adds: Could be, but with me it was just a typo.

Posted by: Peter Briffa | Dec 5, 2006 9:28:26 AM

If it was that catastrophic, the price of carbon dioxide would be higher and so a carbon tax would have more of an effect.

Posted by: Josh | Dec 5, 2006 9:58:38 AM

Josh, it'll be pretty catastrophic for the huge number of farmers in Third World countries who will lose their livelihoods. Which is the point Monbiot keeps making and which keeps flying over the heads of quite a few people.

Posted by: Jim | Dec 5, 2006 11:24:10 AM

"Which is the point Monbiot keeps making and which keeps flying over the heads of quite a few people."

As does travellin' George himself, when off round the world promoting his new book......

Posted by: JuliaM | Dec 5, 2006 2:09:36 PM

What's stopping him?

The same thing that stops every person with a "perfect" solution -- the high probability that his fantasy life will collide with reality and not work very well.

Is Monbiot well-rested his flights to, from, and within Canada to promote his anti-flying book? And since he believes "every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned," does he believe that he himself should be dragged out of his office and drowned?

Oh, right. George's standards don't apply to his own actions. He's the messiah and he's saving the world. The ends justify the means. Some are more equal than others.

Posted by: darren mcgoo | Dec 5, 2006 8:29:47 PM