The green economy's assault on our natural landscape

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The basic assumptions of the Obama administration, as well as many other G20 countries, that a possible non-nuclear, renewable energy contribution of 20% by 2020 has been dismantled by a new study. Published by the venerable environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, “Energy Sprawl of Energy Efficiency" focuses on the impact of climate policy in the US on the natural habitat.

The foremost concern is the amount of land required for the switch to renewable energy. They make it very clear that nuclear renewables are the least land consuming. It requires just one square mile for the generation of one million megawatt-hours – the electricity needed for 90,000 homes. How much land will be consumed for other energy sources?

  • Geothermal (natural heat of the earth): 3sq. miles;
  • Coal (mining and extraction): 4 sq. miles;
  • Solar (thermal heating fluids): 6 sq. miles;
  • Natural gas and petroleum: 18 sq. miles;
  • Wind farms: 30 sq. miles;
  • Biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel): 500 sq. miles.

This does not even include tens of thousands of new miles of high voltage transmission lines. These types of problems are rarely discussed in the renewable debate. Here is another nuisance detail:

Solar collectors must be washed down once a month or they collect too much dirt to be effective. They also need to be cooled by water. Where amid the desert and scrub land will we find all that water?

No wonder even green activists are starting to oppose solar projects in the western United States – the most suitable sites for solar panel fields. Finally some environmentalists are beginning to understand unintended consequences and externalities.

Alexander S. Ulrich joins the ASI

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I am doing an internship at the Adam Smith Institute from October 2009 until January 2010. During my internship I will be working on a project about highly skilled workers and the importance of attracting a productive workforce. I hold a B.Sc. in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen and am currently a M.Sc. in Political Science, also from the University of Copenhagen. During my studies I have been focusing on economic theories about actor behaviour, wealth increasing policies and the effects of education. Throughout my studies I have worked in numerous jobs, from tennis coach to student assistant at the Confederation of Danish Industries.

In my free time I enjoy running, playing tennis and basketball. Of more quiet hobbies, I like to play strategy games on the computer, photography and reading the newspaper while drinking a good cup of coffee.

Dr Butler's letter in the Guardian

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Baroness Scotland should not lose her job for the mere technicality of failing to take a photocopy of her cleaner's identity documents. But she should lose her job for pushing this law through parliament. Plainly, it is a law with regulations so complicated that even the UK's top law officer cannot follow them. And a law which empowers a quango – the UK Border Agency – to issue large fines that could ruin unsuspecting, struggling small businesses.

Dr Eamonn Butler Director, Adam Smith Institute

Published in The Guardian here.

Is there a future for free-to-air commercial TV?

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In recent months, several household names have seen their share prices plunge to hitherto unseen levels. They include British Telecom, British Airways and ITV. Following the market rally, their shares have recovered somewhat but all three companies face massive challenges – from their competitors. Furthermore, all are running heavy pension fund deficits.

In ITV’s case, many developments within media-land have conspired to operate against its interests. Following its formation from Granada and Carlton in 2003, the new company was obliged to sign up to the highly complex Contract Rights Renewal (CRR) agreement, under which advertisers were given substantial financial protection to offset ITV’s market dominance. Following persistent pressure from ITV, the Competition Commission has - at long last - accepted the case to reform the CRR.

In its recent half-year results, ITV confirmed that its UK TV advertising revenues fell by a shocking 15%: many commentators wonder whether ITV’s advertising income will ever recover. After all, with the advent of digital broadcasting, there are now many more advertising outlets. For years, commercial television prospered on the back of legendary programmes such as Coronation Street, watched by massive audiences. Whilst recently ITV has sought to improve its content with such programmes as Britain’s Got Talent, this is not obviously reflected in its dire figures.

Net debt has now reached £730 million and a major rights issue is expected once the new Chief Executive - expected to be Tony Ball - has settled in. Ball would also have to consider whether ITV’s free-to-air commercial model is viable, especially since his former employer, BSkyB, is prospering on the back of its Pay-TV model - and its diet of sport and film.

Is Scottish TV’s Roy Thompson, who famously said that commercial television was ‘a licence to print money’, now turning in his grave?

Broadband tax

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Stephen Timms, the treasury minister in charge of implementing the Digital Britain plan, is pushing ahead with the broadband tax of 50 pence a month for everyone with a fixed line telephone. Utter lunacy.

Firstly it is bad form to pass a controversial finance bill so close to the general election, especially with the opposition coming out against the plans. Although this is not my greatest concern, it is suggestive of political motivations well apart from any concern for the public good. If this is all set up only for the next government just to rip out, this will be more government waste to add to the ever-increasing piles. That is if the next government has the gumption to actually cut the stealth tax.

They should. The tax is being instituted to raise money to encourage more people to have access to broadband. Economics 101: if you want people to do more of something, don’t tax it. Timms is working off the recommendations that came out of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report. Despite its length – 238 pages – there is no plan on exactly how the £150m to £175m a year will be used to increase access to broadband. There are very real personal protestations and engineering difficulties that have not been properly investigated and given the growth of mobile broadband and dongles, many of the perceived problems are surmountable without government interference.

More tax for wasteful government policies is not exactly what is needed given the state of public finances. As Cameron rightly pointed out on Tuesday, even Thatcher failed to curb the growth of the state. However, his “more consensual" approach does not inspire hope in his ability to get a grip on it. In truth the only time politicians have been able to get us back in the black is when the economy has grown at a quicker rate than they are able to think up ways to tax and waste it. Sadly, as we are now all too aware, this growth is often on the back of government induced bubbles.

Liberals and the nanny state

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On Tuesday night I spoke at a fringe event at the Liberal Democrat conference, which was co-hosted by FOREST and the excellent Liberal Vision. The subject was "Politics & Prohibition – how can liberals fight back against the nanny state?"

One point I stressed – and which I felt sure would endear me to a Lib Dem audience – was that we can't rely on a Conservative government doing much to fight the nanny state. On the contrary, what we're promised is an army of local directors of public health, dedicated public health budgets, a bigger, stronger chief medical officer's department, a "holistic strategy to focus public health across departments", "a clear marketing plan to promote healthy living", and a brand spanking new QUANGO – the Public Health Commission – to oversee it all.

There was even talk a while back about an 'NHS Health Miles Card', where people would get 'reward points' for losing weight, which they could then redeem against fresh vegetables, subsidized gym membership or even priority within other public services. That last idea – government systematically discriminating between citizens based on their lifestyle choices – strikes me as particularly disturbing, but it does seem to be the direction in which we are travelling.

All of this despite the fact that there's scant evidence that public health campaigns – especially those targeted at broad lifestyle issues like diet and exercise – work. Even the government's Wanless Review admitted as much, saying that public health campaigns have a ‘very poor information base’, that they exhibit a ‘lack of conclusive evidence for action’.

The trouble for the Lib Dems – and I made this point too – is that they are offering pretty much exactly the same thing as the Tories. And that's a real shame, because surely their role should be to stand outside the mainstream consensus, to offer something different and genuinely liberal.

Of course, the really irritating thing is that these so-called 'public health issues' are not actually public health issues at all. Public health is about securing health benefits that are by their nature public, like clean water and sanitation. It is not about what people freely choose to put into their own bodies. But since calling something 'public' legitimates having a public bureaucracy to deal with it, that's what politicians do. For me, this unopposed redefinition and erosion of privacy is the most worrying aspect of the debate.

Gordon Brown: Statesman of the year?

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The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown picked up the World Statesman of the Year award at a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York today, in recognition of his handling of the global economic crisis as it unfolded a year ago. I'd have thought the fact that he might have been disqualified by the fact that he (along with the American authorities) caused the crisis in the first place, by engineering a protracted boom on the basis of low interest rates and lots of government borrowing. And that his 'handling' of the crisis amounted to throwing even more money at the problem. In that sense, he has simply bought this honour...with our money!

Baroness Scotland: The facts

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It can only be a matter of time before Baroness Scotland is reshuffled into oblivion. The most interesting point – Red Rag made this point clearly yesterday – is that if the cleaner was in the UK illegally, she would not have had the right documents as specified in the Home Office regulations. So Baroness Scotland could not have 'seen the documents but neglected to copy them'. She could not have seen them at all, because they did not exist.

Failing to copy a document that you have seen and satisfied yourself is one thing. We can accept it as a 'technical' breach of the law (though a law that the Attorney General introduced, and a law that the country's leading law officer ought to understand – which might be grounds enough for her to resign). But failing to demand the right documentation in the right place is more serious.

The political class have closed ranks on this because they wonder how many of their own home helps have overstayed their student visas. But now, stories are coming out of small businesses that – for quite minor, unintended, and first-time oversights – have been raided by body-armoured UK Border Agency heavies and whacked with business-busting £10,000 fines. Give bureaucrats the power to bully us, and they will do so. The Baroness got off lightly.

If businesspeople – or baronesses for that matter – unwittingly break over-complicated rules, they should get a warning, not a visit from the Border Gestapo. If ministers invent rules that are so complicated they can't even follow them themselves, they should resign.

And these absurd rules affect all of us. For example, it's almost impossible now for a UK think-tank to hire interns from other countries thanks to Baroness Scotland's regulations. So much for cultural exchange.

The future of pensions

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The Royal Society of Arts, run by Tony Blair's old adviser Matthew Taylor, has come out with a plan to rejuvenate the UK pension system. It builds on the government's new pension initiative, whereby employees will be automatically signed up for a no-frills workplace pension in an individual account, which they can take with them as they move between jobs. But the RSA report's author, David Pitt-Watson of Hermes Equity, says that people should be able to put in as much money as they like, not just the £3,600 annual limit proposed by the government which, says Pitt-Watson, makes the government proposal unviable and unsound.

The RSA report also says that these personal accounts have to be invested in safe assets, so that people can be reasonably sure that their savings will be secure for when they retire. And with that in mind, there should be only a limited number of providers, who can guarantee such exacting standards.

Personal and portable pensions with simple rules and no complications? It sounds like a great idea. And it is. That is why Chile did it thirty years ago, and why it has already spread to dozens of countries round the globe. And it's why we did a report, The Future of Pensions on it as long ago as 1983.

It takes time for ideas to get through the sausage-machine of politics. But perhaps this is one that is just about to make it.

Now, if only we could get personal and portable health savings accounts too...