If environmental red tape is the source of so many economic woes, why is the evidence of the harm they cause so sketchy?
Serious question: Can anyone think of an environmental regulation that has crippled an economy? I don't mean shaved a few per cent off a polluting company's share price or forced the lucrative fly-tipping trade out of business. I mean properly knocked a handful of points off GDP and fatally eroded the competitiveness of a former economic power.
There are no doubt examples of poor environmental regulations. Laws that applied the precautionary principle with a bit too much, y'know, precaution. Legislation that blocks activities that would provide an economic boost without causing too much damage to the environment (supporters of GM and fracking would no doubt argue the current regulatory frameworks for these technologies fall firmly into this category). But are there any environmental regulations that unequivocally damaged the economy to such an extent that the rules were eventually axed?
I know, I know. You can't prove a negative. You can no more conclude that introducing an environmental regulation dealt a three per cent blow to a country's GDP than you can 100 per cent conclusively prove what would have happened if we had managed to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the 1980s instead of waiting until the 2030s (hopefully). But still, is there a single piece of environmental regulation where you can construct a credible argument to show the economy is a lot worse off because of its existence? Because, I can't think of one.
The reason I ask is because this week the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the latest move in President Obama's green policy push, unveiling plans to tighten smog standards under the Clean Air Act. The result was a wearingly familiar skirmish between the EPA and green groups on one side and the Republicans and industrial groups on the other. The greens welcomed the regulations as a welcome step that still did not go far enough in tackling a serious environmental problem, and the industrial groups warned it would push up costs and harm the economy.
So far, so predictable. Except this time the industry warnings comprised of a particularly acute form of panicked hyperbole. "This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers," thundered Jay Timmons, chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers. A tightening of smog rules would potentially represent "the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public", warned Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute (API).
I'm sorry, but what? In the nation of prohibition and Jim Crow regulations, tightening ground level ozone standards from the current level of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to within a range of 65 to 70 ppb could be the "most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public"? The recent recovery in US manufacturing driven by Silicon Valley innovation and relatively low cost natural gas and renewables is apparently so fragile that businesses can't cope with the cost of deploying proven technologies for tackling smog and keeping their workers and communities healthy? The EPA's extensive modelling showing that improving air quality will deliver net economic benefits counts for nothing, because some bought and paid for lobbyists say so? I'm not sure how US industry groups can expect anyone to buy such exaggerated claims. And then you look at the utter credulity of the modern Republican Party on environmental issues and understand fully who is buying this fatuous analysis.
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic a similar battle is playing itself out. BusinessEurope has this week continued its tribute act to a pin-striped 1990s industry lobbyist, attacking everything from maternity rights to circular economy proposals and air quality standards, with warnings that the Commission's attempts to enhance resource security and deliver clean air will cause significant harm to the economy. In the UK, the steady drumbeat of criticism aimed at the Climate Change Act from UKIP and the Tory backbenches similarly implies the UK's position as an economic powerhouse would be assured if we just ditched our long term carbon targets.
The problem with each and everyone of these campaigns is not in their opposition to environmental regulation per se. The counter argument to green legislation put forward by responsible industry groups is extremely valuable. Some environmental regulations don't work perfectly and impose more economic cost than is necessary. When it comes to introducing and reforming policy measures, the Hegelian dialectic (there's one for all the philosophy graduates) created by those for and against a new regulation is critical. It is in constantly justifying themselves that green regulations become ever more effective.
No, the problem with these various anti-regulation campaigns is that they are so exaggerated, so lacking in nuance, that they quickly lose credibility, ensuring that what should be a productive debate descends into a slanging match. (Yes, I am aware some of the more alarmist green groups are guilty of this hyperbole too).
Is there any independent observer who really thinks a tightening of US smog regulations that, remember, will be phased in between 2020 and 2037, represents the most expensive regulation in history? Is there anyone outside the climate sceptic cabal who looks at the performance of the UK economy over the last five years and thinks, 'forget global economic crisis, an economy overly reliant on finance, and woeful productivity, the real cause of our problems is that our power costs fractionally more than some of our European neighbours'? Is there anyone who looks at the recent economic recovery and re-shoring of some manufacturing operations and thinks our GDP growth would be three per cent higher again if we didn't have legislators demanding we deal with the toxic air pollution in our cities? It takes a pretty special leap of ideologically-moulded imagination to suggest the UK economy would be basking in sunlit uplands if we simply gave up on decarbonisation, but that is essentially what some pretty respected commentators appear happy to suggest.
In a speech last year, Obama offered the perfect assessment of how tired these depressingly predictable arguments are becoming, skewering each and every complaint that would be levelled at his climate change regulations. "What you'll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it," he predicted, with unerring accuracy. "And the reason I know you'll hear those things is because that's what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children's health. And every time, they've been wrong."
It is worth quoting Obama's riposte at length:
"For example, in 1970, when we decided through the Clean Air Act to do something about the smog that was choking our cities... some of the same doomsayers were saying new pollution standards will decimate the auto industry. Guess what - it didn't happen. Our air got cleaner. In 1990, when we decided to do something about acid rain, they said our electricity bills would go up, the lights would go off, businesses around the country would suffer - I quote - "a quiet death". None of it happened, except we cut acid rain dramatically.
"See, the problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can't or they won't do it. They'll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that's not true. Look at our history.
"When we restricted cancer-causing chemicals in plastics and leaded fuel in our cars, it didn't end the plastics industry or the oil industry. American chemists came up with better substitutes. When we phased out CFCs - the gases that were depleting the ozone layer - it didn't kill off refrigerators or air-conditioners or deodorant. American workers and businesses figured out how to do it better without harming the environment as much."
The recent Grantham Institute report detailing how "green tape" has consistently boosted economic growth by triggering innovation and technology deployment offers a more in-depth analysis of the phenomenon Obama so effectively elucidated.
There are legitimate reasons for challenging environmental regulations and lobbying to ensure they are as effective as possible. But apocalyptic warnings suggesting cleaning up our air and water or stabilising our climate will bring economic collapse and eye-watering costs aren't just inaccurate scaremongering, they are staggeringly defeatist as well.
If a government ever tried to ban fossil fuels overnight or block all cars from entering a smog-choked city then, yes, the short term damage on the economy would be immense. But that is not how environmental regulations work. They tend to be measured, phased in over time, based on the best available science, and designed to keep short term costs to a minimum while maximising long term benefits. That is not to say policymakers always get it right, but crying wolf all the time about excessive economic impacts that never materialise helps no one, least of all those polluting businesses who have to adapt to changing environmental realities.
So, I ask again: Can anyone think of an environmental regulation that has crippled an economy? Because I can't.
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