The Economist is hosting an online debate on the motion, “This house believes that subsidising renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.” Matthew Fripp of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University has presented the affirmative case for the motion, Robert Bradley, Jr., of the Institute for Energy Research has argued the negative.
In closing arguments, Fripp makes what seems to be the best possible case for a combination of directed renewable energy subsidy (either renewable portfolio standards or feed-in tariffs) and gradually increasing carbon tax. While actual policy is unlikely to be as gradual, certain, and efficient as Fripp suggests, it seems desirable for policymakers to at least try, right?
That is, it seems desirable for policymakers to aim for gradual, certain, and efficient policy support for renewable energy assuming we accept the goal of weaning the world off fossil fuels. Bradley doesn’t.
Against a proposition that is formally about the means to an end, Bradley closes by arguing against the end. He argues cheap energy is good energy:
Good public-policy intentions are not enough …. Higher-quality, less-expensive energy enhances living …. This fossil-fuel dividend, if you will, enables a variety of lifestyle enhancements, including those for better health. Wealth is health, and human health should be at the core of environmentalism.
To me Fripp’s polished policy scenario is unappealing in part because of how appealing he makes it seem. (!) I’m not at all ready to turn the energy industry over to a central planning bureau, even Fripp’s ideal which would limit its interventions to minimally intrusive ways of promoting renewable power while a carbon tax was phased in and then disappear. Government attempts to manage the economy tend to destroy economic value; Fripp hasn’t convinced me government has overcome the knowledge problems and coordination problems inherent in economics action.
When renewable energy sources earn a place at the “high-quality, less-expensive” table, we’ll all be wealthier and healthier for it. In the meantime, in a world with significant problems of poverty and disease, wasting resources to install inefficient technology on large scale is destructive of wealth and health.
NOTE: At the moment I’m posting, the reader voting shows 49% in agreement with the motion and 51% opposed. Today, November 17, 2011, is the last day for reader voting. My recommendation: if you like government planning for the energy economy, vote Yes; if you prefer wealth and health, vote No.