One of government’s primary functions is to intervene when the expression of too much freedom of choice by individuals can be seen to be prejudicial to the public interest.
Nowhere is there a greater need for urgent action on this front than in the domain of fuel consumption for heating and transport owing to the effect that this is having on the world’s climate. Evidence of its consequences in the form of exceptional weather patterns is accumulating at an alarming rate and is apparent in the rising incidence of hot summers, the retreat of glaciers, the melting of the tundra in Siberia and so on. There are numerous measures that can be adopted to promote energy conservation practices to reduce consumption. However, whenever radical ones are proposed, it seems that our first instinct is to scrutinise them in order to establish what is wrong with them and, if any fault can be detected, to reject them.
Thus, the argument in favour of much higher petrol prices to discourage car use has been opposed on the grounds that it would hit the rural poor hardest as most of them have no realistic alternative way of travelling. Likewise, the case made for a major retailing outlet to levy a charge for parking at one of its new out-of-town centres in order to subsidise a delivery service to homes and thereby reduce traffic has been rejected: whilst acknowledging the logic of such a course of action, the reasonable claim has been made that custom would simply be transferred to competitors who did not make the charge. The proposition that the cost of heating the home be markedly increased by raising VAT on fuel prices has been met with the caveat that that would be inequitable. It is quite reasonably pointed out that again the poor would suffer most as they are the ones least able to afford the capital needed to insulate their homes and replace inefficient electrical and gas appliances – which the higher prices would be intended to promote in order to lower fuel consumption. And the suggestion that we must curtail the amount of travel we make by aircraft owing to their release of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is met with the retort that there is no other way to reach more distant destinations.
In all these four cases, there are obvious ways of countering the objections so that the critical goal of minimising the destabilisation of the world’s climate can be achieved.
- Drivers with a rural address (second home owners would be excluded) could be given a voucher on which is markedthe registration plate of a nominated vehicle. This would then be used to credit them with a reduction on the VAT they pay for their petrol.
- The government could introduce an obligation to charge for all off-street commercial parking so that no one retailer would be disadvantaged. All of them could then promote fuel saving by using the revenue from thissource to provide free deliveries to customers in car-owning and non-car-owning households alike.
- The costs of insulation and energy-efficient appliances in the homes of people on low incomes could be subsidised out of revenue raised by imposing a levy on fuel bills: the higher the levy, the more the wealthier households would be encouraged to invest in energy-saving practices and the more the public money there would be to subsidise such practices among the less well-off. A similarprinciple has been applied in recent years by adding a levy on electricity bills to build up a fund for decommissioning power plants in which electricity is generated by nuclear fuel and to support the development of renewable sources of energy.
- As for air travel, an appeal to logic should be sufficient as a response. Quite right – in most instances, there are no alternative methods of reaching distant destinations. But surely a higher priority should be attached to the future health of the planet and its populations than to the superficial pleasures of visiting Disneyland, seeing Thai temples, going on an African safari or, indeed, maintaining family or social relationships on other Continents.
Eminently sensible strategies required to protect the environment should not necessarily be discarded because imperfections in them can be identified. It is preferable to seek ways of making changes in light of any problem revealed rather than discarding the strategies in favour of the status quo. The consequences of climate change which this Musing attempts to address could be awesome if we go on deceiving ourselves that it can be ignored.
Originally published in World’s Best Ideas: A Global Ideas Bank Compendium (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.), 1998. (Concern about dismissing new solutions on grounds of imperfection in favour of the status quo.)