Why William Nordhaus was right and Nick Stern wrong

Given that coal fired power stations seem to be closing down left right and centre we might think this is a victory in the fight against climate change. Sadly though what we’re actually seeing is the result of people following the advice of thwe wrong economist. It was William Nordhaus who was correct, Nick Stern who was wrong.


The British electricity group SSE (ex Scottish and Southern Energy) is already adapting to the new mood. It will close its Ferrybridge coal-powered plant next year, citing the emerging political consensus that coal “has a limited role in the future”.

The IMF bases its analysis on the work Arthur Pigou, the early 20th Century economist who advocated taxes to stop investors keeping all the profit while dumping the costs on the rest of society.

Tony Lodge:

So why has the power station closed early, citing soaring running costs, when coal prices are at an eight-year low and when it was modernised to stay open until 2023?

The Carbon Price Floor is arguably one of the most hidden and unknown but ultimately damaging pieces of modern industrial taxation. To use a shorter and more descriptive title, this carbon tax is slowly forcing the premature closure of the backbone of our electricity generating base.

As we regularly say around here, if there is an externality, one which cannot be dealt with by market or private means, then yes Pigou and his tax can be the right solution.

However, there’s a difference possible in the way that it’s applied. Roughly speaking the UK government has followed Stern’s advice: here’s the amount the tax should be, impose it now. Which is why these plants are closing at such great expense in stranded assets.

What should have been done is the Nordhaus approach. Sure, we need the tax but it would be better to work with the capital and technological cycle than against it. Thus, have a low tax now rising into the future. In this manner we’ll still get the use of those capital assets that we’ve already built while also making sure that the next generation, to replace the current as they fall to bits, are non-emitting.

Don’t forget, we’re not imposing this tax to raise revenue: we’re imposing the tax to reduce future emissions. And we obviously want to do this in the cheapest manner possible. Which is, as above, to use the current installed base until it falls apart and then rebuild it differently. Not, as the Stern prescription makes us do, close down perfectly good plant right now.

We should, obviously, be at least somewhat grateful that the government did listen to economists on this. It’s just rather sad that they listened to the wrong one.

When a fossil fuel subsidy is not a subsidy

You may have seen an IMF report in the news last week claiming that fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of over five trillion dollars every year. This made good headlines, but only because the IMF chose to describe untaxed externalities as ‘post-tax subsidies’. This is unusual and misleading. I wrote about why in The Daily Telegraph:

The IMF’s idea of “subsidies” to fossil fuels refers to something completely different. They have taken the indirect costs to society of using energy – air pollution, traffic congestion, climate change – and, if governments haven’t imposed special taxes on one, called it a “subsidy”. The problem is, we already have a word for these things: externalities. And there is something rather Orwellian about describing a failure to tax something as a subsidy. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about: when my neighbours play loud music at night, it makes me worse off. I’d pay, maybe, £20 for them to shut up, if it wasn’t so awkward to go to the flat downstairs, knock on their door and start negotiating prices. Economists would say that they are imposing a £20 externality on me, and that in a perfectly efficient world, my building would charge residents around that much to play music, and give it to sleep-deprived neighbours like me. But, in the absence of that charge, nobody would say that those neighbours are being subsidised by me. It’s just not what the word means. Except, apparently, to the IMF.

That isn’t to say that externalities should never be taxed, if a private solution can’t be found. But we already have high fuel taxes in most of the developed world, and in the developing world these taxes will hold back growth. Since economic development has positive externalities, it’s not obvious that the negative externalities of fossil fuels outweigh the positives. You can read the whole piece here. 

An interesting and important question for Nick Stern

We’re willing to go along with the concept here but can we please have an actual number?

With oil prices currently at a low level, now would be the ideal time to introduce levies that remove the implicit subsidy for pollution from petrol and diesel. The revenue from these levies could more than compensate the poorer members of the community for the price increases, give a boost to research and innovation, and contribute to the cleaner and more attractive investments that we need.

We know, we’re rather keener on Pigou Taxes than many others are. But, following the IMF report on subsidies to the energy sector (please note, it wasn’t an IMF paper, it was a paper by people at the IMF. It’s not purely about fossil fuels, it’s about the energy system. And it does depend on the idea that the tax system should be hugely regressive in order to reach its totals about how much tax should be raised by consumption. For example, it argues that the lower rate of VAT for domestic fuel is a subsidy. And you can think of it that way if you like. But two points: that subsidy also applies to renewables and can you imagine the furore from the usual suspects if we argued that to save the planet we must charge 20% on domestic fuel?) we have the above from Lord Stern. And the obvious question is, well, how much?

For there’s a very important point about Pigou Taxes. The entire logical case for them, the justification, is that there is one just and righteous rate at which that tax should be levied. Add up the costs of all of the externalities and that is that tax rate. You cannot, not if you are being intellectually consistent, march around shouting “more”. You must, in each circumstance, calculate what the rate is.

So, some 80% of the cost of petrol these days is tax. Is that enough? For example, Stern’s $80 per tonne translates into a righteous carbon tax of 11 p on a litre of petrol. Ken Clarke introduced the fuel duty escalator to “meet our Rio committments”. Which we take to be a synonym for a carbon tax. That escalator has added 23p or so to a litre of petrol. So, purely on the carbon emissions basis we are already paying too much in the UK.

This newer calculation tells us that there’s more. Air pollution and so on. OK, that’s fine, so, what’s the number? What’s the righteous Pigou Tax for that? They also say that a significant portion of the costs of petrol is congestion, accident damage etc. That’s not something that can be attributed to the fuel: if we were all driving electric cars those things would still be there. That’s a cost attributable to the transport system, not the fuel. And by far the largest part of the costs they attribute to this sector is the idea that consumer purchases should be taxed in order to raise revenue. And that if the tax is less than the amount they declare is correct, then that’s a subsidy. But no one can say that UK petrol isn’t paying tax. So that’s out too.

So, in our calculation of what the correct petrol tax is in the UK we’ve got those two things. Carbon emissions, which are already being overpaid for, then pollution costs. So, what’s the number, what should be the tax? And as above, “more” isn’t a serious answer.

We have a very strong suspicion here. The reason we’re not told what the number is is because that correct, just and righteous, number is actually lower than we’re all being charged currently. Which is why Stern, the IMF and everyone else doesn’t actually calculate it. Of course, we’re willing to change our minds if they would calculate it and also let us see their workings….

The perils of fake Fairtrade products

It’s just so difficult to be a properly concerned middle class social justice warrior these days, isn’t it?

Well-meaning shoppers may be wasting money on groceries bearing fake Fairtrade or organic logos, after police in Europe identified counterfeit food labels as one of the fastest growing frauds.

Fairtrade or organic bananas, vegetables, tea and other items are bought by millions of people concerned about the provenance of the food on their plates.

But the certification logos on packaging can be “easily replicated and affixed” by experienced counterfeiters, the Europol law enforcement agency said.

Its experts warn that organised crime groups have “joined forces” to run counterfeiting operations inside the EU.

They are forging quality labels on “everyday products” that can then be sold at a premium, as opposed to the traditional fake handbags and medicines.

As it happens we don’t think this is a particular problem. Fairtrade makes virtually no difference at all to those poor, third world, producers. It has a marginal value as a form of indoor relief for the dimmer scions of the upper middle class. But the real value gained from it is the near holy righteousness that a certain type of shopper feels as they proudly display their status by showing off the correct, socially approved, labels of “organic”, “Fairtrade” and so on. Given that this, the main effect of the system, still applies to fake labels it seems to be a most efficient way of achieving that main effect.

Greenpeace should be allowed to say it even if they’re wrong

We find ourselves a little bit conflicted here. That Greenpeace has been spouting lies making incorrect statements does not surprise. But we are rather absolutist on this free speech thing. Absent incitement to violence and libel we’re pretty sure that anyone should be allowed to say whatever they wish. And we’re most certainly not happy with some organ of the State deciding what it is that people may or may not say. Thus the conflict:

A Greenpeace advert opposing fracking has been banned for claiming experts agreed that the process would not cut energy bills.

The national press ad said: “Fracking threatens our climate, our countryside and our water. Yet experts agree – it won’t cut our energy bills.”

The Labour peer Lord Lipsey, who said he understood there was a range of views on the subject, complained that the ad was misleading for claiming experts were in agreement.

Greenpeace said the claim was made in the context of a public debate on Government policy, and cited quotes from David Cameron, who has repeatedly backed fracking and claimed that it could bring down energy bills.

The organisation provided quotes from 22 people, groups or organisations supporting the view that fracking would not reduce energy prices.

That Greenpeace are wrong is something we’ve proven here and elsewhere before. However, there is that free speech issue. And as we say, we don’t think that such speech should be banned.

Quite apart from anything else if people are banned from spouting obvious lies then how can we spot them when they’re being a bit more disingenuous and spouting non-obvious lies?