23 February 2008

If you make a mess, you gotta clean it up

By Rupert Read

In these days of wider environmental understanding, even economists virtually all agree that market 'externalities' should be paid for, to 'internalise' the costs. Translated from Economese into English, that means: that a company which pollutes should have to pay the community, to 'compensate' for the pollution. (Sensibly enough, this principle is called: the polluter pays…).

So, for instance: both the nuclear industry and the fossil fuel industry should be forced – wherever, whenever, and however feasible - to pay the full (including the future) costs of the safe disposal of their wastes.

The implications of this simple and obvious statement are colossal. Let's start with nuclear power. So: In the case of the nuclear industry, there is good reason to believe that taking this principle seriously would finish the industry off. For, with uranium supplies fast-depleting, there is now a real question as to whether there is even enough usable nuclear energy left in the world to clean up the mess of the nuclear industry, past, present and future (for back-up for this claim, see http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/). The British government is at least pretending that in future the nuclear industry will have to include the cost of dealing with its waste within its business model. If there ever is a Sizewell C, it would therefore have the enormous financial responsibility of dealing with its own nuclear waste. Stuff that is dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. That's a pretty long-term mortgage!

Now let's take fossil fuels. And the funny thing is: in the case of gas, oil and coal there is still not even any such pretence of covering their waste-disposal costs (fashionable blather about 'clean coal' notwithstanding).

It simply strikes one as obvious that the nuclear industry should clean up its waste: why has the obvious parallel with the fossil fuel industries never been seriously explored?

Let's explore it a little further. In the case of the companies that mine fossil-fuels, there should be a very substantial (and retrospective) windfall tax to generate a 'superfund' to cover the vast adaptation and mitigation costs of manmade climate change. Because the key waste – the key pollutant - that is given off by burning fossil fuels is, of course, massive quantities of carbon dioxide.

This windfall tax proposal would not only be just; it would also play the vital role of hugely incentivising the development of renewable energy - a point to which I will return momentarily.

Now, it might be objected that applying this tax retrospectively would not be just, in that fossil fuel companies / suppliers have not always known about the polluting effect of their product. 'Unfortunately', however, ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law.

Nor of course is it a defence that some fossil-fuel companies have been wilfully funding climate-change-sceptical thinktanks, in order to try to make it appear as though maybe they are not responsible for polluting (with CO2) our ecosystem to the dangerous point now reached… The windfall tax that I am envisaging should be backdated at the very least to the time when a strong scientific consensus was reached on fossil fuels' guiltiness in the case of Carbon Dioxide versus Humankind: say 1990, to give a very conservative estimate which can therefore hardly be disputed.

What renewables desperately need is fair costing of their rivals. Forcing the fossil fuel industries to pay for the vast greenhouse-gas pollution that they have caused might just bring about the green energy revolution that we desperately need, if our civilisation is to survive and flourish. Especially if the tax revenues concerned were put into research and development, subsidies for tidal, wave, solar, etc. Which, it so happens, are renewable energy sources that East Anglia is particularly rich in. So if my idea in this column were put into practice, it could be particularly good news for our part of the country!

It is astonishing really that the simplicity of the idea that motivates this column has never before, as far as my researches have shown, been applied directly to the most pressing case of all. If you make a mess, you should clean up after yourself – every child knows that.

Our greenhouse-gas-full atmosphere is simply the biggest and most dangerous mess that corporations have ever made.

Wouldn't it be sweet, if the windfall profits of the Earth's biggest polluters could be put to work in order to prevent the very climate catastrophe that their extraction and burning of fossil fuels has come close to bringing about?