June 30, 2005

Michael Portillo on idealism and Kyoto

Michael Portillo writes a good piece in the weekend edition of The Times about the lack of idealism amongst the public/political parties and the increased emphasis placed on pragmatism. The article later considers climate change and proposed Kyoto protocol. Michael Portillo defends the Bushís decision not to jump on board.

Our best hope of postponing climate change rests on two things. First, use more nuclear energy. Second, find new technologies. We need to re-inject carbon into the earth rather than releasing it to the atmosphere and we need to develop batteries that can power cars. The innovation for those advances is likely to be provided mainly by the United States…The USís key role in saving the planet will be disappointing to those who enjoy using poverty and global warming as sticks with which to beat the American Satan.

Read the full article here.

Over time, economic growth and increasing wealth, fuelled by relatively lax business regulation, have allowed countries to overcome great environmental and technological constraints. The Kyoto protocol and the anti-growth policies embodied within it may halt climate change, but will curb technological progress at the same time. The protocolís advocates often wrongly imply that reduction of emissions is costless; the only barrier being the greed of nations. Greed and self-interest no doubt play a role, but thereís also genuine thought behind decisions not to participate.


- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Agree completely.
    Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will stifle growth, which will in turn reduce money spent on technological innovation. And it is only by technological innovation that clean energy will go into mainstream use.

    Unfortunately the moral superiorists don't seem to get this.

    30 Jun 2005, 15:20

  2. Chris May

    I think you (Kunal) miss an important point. The reason that companies are investing in the kind of technological innovation that you mention is not because they're acting altruistically; the weight of public and political opinion is forcing them to find ways of operating more cleanly and efficiently.

    The force that shapes that public/political opinion is exactly the sort of group (scientific researchers, environmental lobbyists, pressure groups, and so on) that I think you're referring to as 'moral superiorists' [sic] . If it weren't for all of those opinion–formers, do you think Lexus would be investing millions in a hybrid SUV? Or BP investing [m|b]illions in carbon–injection? Do you think that, left to their own devices, power stations would have spent hundreds of millions developing and installing sulphur removal technology in the '80s to reduce acid rain?

    Of course not. Why should they? A company's job is to maximise profits to it's shareholders, not to do what's right for the environment. That's why it's vital that we continue to have people who's job it is to bang on about the externalities that are otherwise so easy to dismiss or dispute.

    Cutting greenhouse gasses may or may not stifle growth, but if there were no pressure for them to be cut, then companies will invest in the other things that their customers and regulators ask for. It's naive to expect that somehow if we stop asking for something, companies will deliver it anyway.

    30 Jun 2005, 20:43

  3. I disagree.

    The reason there is so much interest in renewable energy is because fossil fuels are running out, not pressure groups. It is in the commercial interests to ensure a future source of revenue. Technological innovation has always occurred when there was an economic need for it, not because people pressured it. No one gives a rats ass what Greenpeace thinks, even if they do chain themselves to car production lines.

    There was a huge outcry about acid rain because areas in Scandinavia and Germany were being destroyed because of our pollution. It was politically useful to try and minimise sulphur emission.

    While pressure groups do have their part to play, it isn't a huge part. Economic forces are far more influential.

    Secondly, gone are the days when companies could pursue profit at all costs, ignoring the ethical consequences of their actions. If they do, they won't attract the best staff, or have a good image, both of which are economically damaging.

    With reference to the subject of the post, putting constraints on greenhouse gas emissions of the world's biggest economy, will stifle its growth, and ours. And this in turn will lead to finding the cheapest source of energy > fossil fuels. Only by creating wealth can we spend money on finding cleaner sources of energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions for good. It's all about money, and Kyoto just doesn't make sense for some.

    01 Jul 2005, 12:21

  4. Chris May

    Economic forces are far more influential. Secondly, gone are the days when companies could pursue profit at all costs, ignoring the ethical consequences of their actions. If they do, they won't attract the best staff, or have a good image, both of which are economically damaging.

    Erm, that's my point. The reason that they won't attract the best staff, or have a good image, or need to be percieved as 'ethical', is because the pressure groups have shaped public and political opinion. 25 years ago there was no pressure on companies to be 'ethical', (though, as an aside, there was considerably greater pressure to make long-term investments in employees), but a quarter–century of lobbying and publicity has changed the demands of consumers and employees, and consequently changed way that companies have to operate.

    'Economic forces' are not some kind of force of nature, they are simply a reflection of what people want. And what people want is informed and guided by pressure groups.

    01 Jul 2005, 12:32


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