Friday, 17 July 2009

When is a budget not a budget?

On Thursday I bemoaned the government's idea of putting Windy Miller in charge of electricity generation, today I want to discuss another aspect of their exciting "low carbon" plan. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change announced that every government department now has a "carbon budget" as well as one dealing with pounds and pence. He said it was part of the scheme of "legally binding carbon budgets" announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier this year. The use of the term "budget" is a complete nonsense. What he means is that every government department will be set targets. That is not a budget any more than setting a target for the number of exam passes to be attained by schools is an "examination budget" or the number of arrests made by the police is an "arrest budget". But that is only the start of the absurdity.

Let's just stop for a moment and try to absorb the concept of government departments having "legally binding" targets of any kind. What are the consequences of the target not being met? It's easy to see what "legally binding" means in the real world, it means that the law requires you to do or refrain from doing something and will impose a penalty if you breach that requirement. We have things called courts which enforce legally binding obligations and administer penalties to those who fail in their legal duties. How can that apply to the failure of a government department to meet a target for reducing the production of carbon dioxide resulting from, say, the manufacture of giant windmills? What penalty can be imposed, and who will impose it? Will the department's funding be reduced next year if it fails to meet this year's target? Of course not. Will a fine be imposed or the minister and senior civil servants face prosecution and imprisonment? Of course not. These are just targets.

At the moment they seem to be only internal targets for government departments themselves. As such they are nothing but a massively expensive exercise in navel gazing. Some of it is already in place. NHS trusts and local councils have departments dedicated to reducing their employers' "carbon footprint". Lightbulbs that produce the amount of light everyone is accustomed to are replaced by fat curly lightbulbs that don't. The officially mandated guilt associated with the use of electricity and gas is assuaged by spending taxpayers' money on planting trees in Africa. Trees that would have been planted anyway at a fraction of the cost because they provide a crop. Instead we pay not just for the crop but also for the kick-backs to local "worthies". Lowly council employees are told they cannot have a parking space at work because driving is naughty, while the big wigs retain their chauffeurs. Advisors and consultants are made available to local businesses to tell them how they can reduce their emissions. Reams of paper are shuffled back and forth, miles are clocked-up and expenses incurred in order to meet current targets. None of it will make the slightest bit of difference to anything. Absolutely no difference at all.

Real businesses, businesses that make things and generate the wealth that is taxed to pay for the paper-pushers, don't employ "carbon footprint advisors" unless they think there is something in it for them. They know that there is only one measure that matters, pounds and pence. Employing symbolic greenies can be profitable if your business depends on custom from naive, tree-hugging tofu-knitters. But if you are making nuts, bolts and washers your customers are concerned with only price and quality. If you can make the same things at the same or a lower price by adopting a process that emits less carbon dioxide you might choose to follow that path. I defy you, however, to find a government-employed greenie advisor who has the expertise required to find a way for manufacturing businesses to do so. After all, what can these people know about the technical aspects of manufacturing industry? If they knew that stuff they wouldn't be employed as greenie advisors, they would have real jobs in their field of expertise.

None of this will stop some of them coming up with grandiose plans. And none of it will stop most of their "work" being fiddling at the edges to find utterly minuscule savings in carbon dioxide emissions at a cost far out of proportion to any benefit even the most ardent greenie could identify.

It's bad enough that money will be wasted on the fiddling at the edges, far more worrying is the thought of grandiose plans. Grandiose plans make good politics. For as long as it is thought there are votes in greenieness, governments will divert money from sensible stuff because nothing is a better use of our money than buying our votes.

Lying behind all this wibble is the ludicrous concept of measuring in "carbons dioxides". It is a meaningless measure because it cannot be compared to anything else and it has no utility as a measure in itself. The mile is a useful measure because it allows us to judge how long it will take to travel from A to B and, during our journey, it tells what proportion of the trip has expired. The pound is a useful measure because it allows us to judge whether a particular item of paid work is worth doing and whether it is worth buying a particular thing. Measuring carbon dioxide emissions is pointless because there is nothing to compare it to and of itself it means nothing to say "my new car emits 50 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre whereas my old one emitted 150". So what? What difference does that make to anything? No one can identify the difference it will make because it is so small as to be irrelevant to anything.

In fact it can be compared to itself. We can assess, but not measure, how much carbon dioxide we produce this year compared to last year. In doing so we will find that anything we do as individuals is very small because most emissions are unavoidable by individual activity - they come from industry (yes, that industry, the one that lights and heats our homes and provides us with employment). But even that comparison is pointless because the whole man-made global warming circus revolves around worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide, not just the 1.6% or so from this country.

So, what does a departmental "carbon budget" actually amount to? If anyone thinks it will result in substantial reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions, I fear they are deluded. The likelihood is that there will be a little trimming at the edges and it will cost a huge amount of money.

Just like the windmills. A futile and unaffordable farce.

1 comment:

delcatto said...

But the government of worthy people is seen to be doing something. All spin and no substance. A good post FB.