ScienceWise - Winter 2012

Little green lies

New book to promote careful thought on environmental issues

An economist might not seem a very probable champion for better environmental practice, but Professor Jeff Bennet of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy is just that. However, his love of the environment is far from blind. It’s science accompanied by a hard edge of economic realism.

Whether we like it or not, the world works on economics. In effect it’s the way we distribute and share resources all over the planet. As a result, Professor Bennet believes  you can’t simply ignore the cost when implementing environmental policy. 

“You might imagine that each thing we do to help the environment is automatically a good thing,” Professor Bennet says, “But with every action comes a cost not only in money but in human and environmental resources. There are often very significant opportunity costs that are simply ignored.”

What’s an opportunity cost? Imagine that you’ve been left $1000 in the will of a distant relative. You stuff it in the mattress where it’s safe and there it sits. But you could have put in a term deposit and earned $50 a year.  That lost $50 a year is what economists call an opportunity cost. Essentially it’s what else you could have done with the money.

So for example if you subsidise biofuel production with a billion tax dollars that’s a billion dollars that you didn’t spend say on solar or wind energy. Professor Bennet’s argument is not that we shouldn’t spend the money, but that we should thoroughly examine all ways to do so and all the consequences of each of those ways.

Professor Bennet has assembled twelve of what he sees as the most significant examples of narrow environmental thinking into a book Little Green Lies, published by Connor Court Publishing.

“Current environmental debate is too narrow. It focuses on very specific issues seen in isolation. The goal of this book is to encourage people to take the blinkers off and think about the broader consequences.” Professor Bennet says.

One area of particular interest is biofuels. Whilst it’s definitely good to burn less fossil fuel, government subsidies have created a huge increase in crops grown for ethanol production. This in turn has changed land use, increased food prices and even in places allowed such crops to expand into areas that were previously environmental reserves. “The question here is not so much ‘is it good to reduce fossil fuel use’ as ‘is this the best way to channel those resources,” Professor Bennet explains. “Could those same subsidy dollars be more effective if applied to perhaps wind power, hybrid cars or public transport?”

Another interesting issue is population. Clearly there has to be a limit on human population, but what’s the best way to achieve that? Countries like China have tried to solve the problem with a one child policy but that has created its own problems such as gender based infanticide. “If you look at developed countries, even those which are predominantly Catholic such as Italy, you see very low birth rates,” Professor Bennet says, “Yet in the developing world they’re off the scale. The data suggests that if you take a dollar spent on enforcing child limitation policies and instead spend it on education and opportunity for girls, you’ll get just the result you want with far less problems.”

These are just a couple of examples of issues that turn out to be far more complex than they first appear and that are discussed at length in Little Green Lies.

However Professor Bennet didn’t undertake this project simply as an academic exercise. “It’s actually very important that we fully understand the facts before we begin setting up policies on environmental issues,” he says, “The danger I see is myths, that sound good and sensible on the surface of it, becoming the basis for government policy. Because the consequences of this are far from harmless. Every dollar, person hour and resource we devote to a flawed policy, is one that can’t be used elsewhere to do real good in the environment.”  

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