Saturday, December 3, 2016

The best as the enemy of the good

I have just attended a conference on systems analysis applied to the environment.  Of the hundred or so delegates I reckon that over ninety were researchers and three were engaged in implementation; one from Defra, one from BEIS and me.  Whilst all the presentations included compelling evidence that the approaches to air quality, land use, energy and population needed to be based on systems analysis that was already showing some very serious and adverse environmental impacts, the conclusions seemed to be that more research would be needed before policy makers could be persuaded to take necessary if not sufficient action.

I am not the first to observe that the best can be the enemy of the good but this is in the context of rising levels of CO2 and other GHGs which could very soon make redundant proposals that could be effective if implemented today. There is a perverse incentive for researchers to advocate delay while more research is carried out.  There was no clear call for action the results of which could then be researched ie learning by doing. An exception was a suggestion that there should be attempts to encourage necessary and desirable land use changes through price signals (taxes and incentives) and then to address unintended or harmful consequences through regulation.  This approach  was preferred to the alternative of  simply using targeted legislation despite no proposals as to where and when the those responsible for tax systems night be educated to use their powers in this way.

One illustration of dithering  relates to the national speed limit.  in 2006 UKERC published a paper under "Quick Hits" which advocated the reduction of the enforced national speed limit to 60mph. This would achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of up to 29% amounting to about 2million tonnes.  Having rejected this measure (but not the supporting evidence) 20 million tonnes has been added to the atmosphere. When eventually the speed limit is reduced (see the VIBAT Study 2005) "quick" will have been redefined and the "hits" will have to be that much harder.  I am reminded of the report from the Oxford Martin School and its Commission for Future Generations titled "now for the Longer Term".  This was published in October 2013 and raised the  particular question of why we seemed incapable of doing what was already known to be necessary and desirable?  It seems that "now" has also acquired a new meaning and any delay will mean that impacts that were to be avoided in the longer term might now actually happen in the near term.

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