Thursday, 19 December 2013

Yay For Big Cities!

Not exactly big hitters here, but a couple of amusing things caught my eye today - both to do with Green politics. Firstly, this social commentator in Australia causing a stir with his above placard.

This fellow makes no sense in his provocative placard-graph. If the distance from the black line to the red line is supposed to represent tax revenue (the vertical line segment that descends from B), and the longer vertical line segment extending to the red line is supposed to represent financial restitution paid by the government - then all the placard is conveying is that if you pay x in carbon taxes and return x + y from the government you'll be better off.

Well, no kidding Sherlock - this guy's a genius at stating the obvious. What he doesn't state - the thing which actually is supposed to be an argument for higher carbon taxes - is why that makes increased carbon taxes a good thing.  Swap 'carbon taxes' with anything - food, alcohol, cigarettes, petrol, cosmetics - and the same still applies - if you pay x in food, alcohol, cigarettes, petrol or cosmetics taxes and return x + y from the government then that tax is deemed to be good for the consumer.
This fails to account for the fact that what's good for the consumer has to be offset by a cost to the provider - but we'll overlook that. The real trouble is, as anyone who has even a basic understanding of GCSE maths can tell you, such a working system requires us to suspend the laws of arithmetic in order to make it fly, because the government cannot create wealth, it can only transfer resources from one place to another.

The other vital thing he overlooks is that carbon is, quite obviously, a source of many benefits (they're called 'positive externalities'). All grounds for sensible taxation are based on negative externalities (which are vastly overstated - as I explain here in this Blog), but since neither positive nor negative externalities appear on his placard, and not the hint of a net cost-benefit analysis, the best I can say about it is that it makes no coherent arguments for increased carbon taxation.
It's the kind of graph that would only be a good case for increased carbon taxes if it replaced reality with fantasy and had completely different information mapped onto it. Which is like saying that if you interpret 'Natalie Bennett' to mean 'Clint Eastwood' and 'Russian ballet dancer' to mean 'Hollywood actor' then Natalie Bennett is a Russian ballet dancer.

The other issue today that I've seen is one raised by a couple of MEPs bemoaning big cities, and how they are the main causes of over-pollution. Their focal point is along the lines of "per square mile big cities are the most environmentally damaging areas in the world". That's true, but to use that as a criticism of cities is about as ill-conceived as criticising big hospitals over smaller ones because they have more ill people in them. It is pointless trying to measure environmental efficiency on a square mile bases - it has to be measured on a 'per person' basis.

When this is done you'll find that on a 'per person' basis, big cities are, in fact, much more environmentally efficient than rural areas. Cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and so on are more densely populated; they have more people walking or cycling; more people living closer to work, the shops, and restaurants; more people using public transport, a more environmentally friendly infrastructure, and more compact accommodation (which means on average they own fewer items).

A simple thought experiment will prove the point; count the exact population of London and find the equivalent number of people in rural areas, and see if you can fit all the rural people's property, land and possessions into an area as small as the area in London that houses its inhabitants (you won't be able to). And while you're onto it, compare the average weekly petrol, gas, coal and wood consumption of a family in rural Suffolk with a family who live in Westminster or Manhattan (you know which one will be highest on average).

Far from being the environmentally damaging leviathans that is too often claimed, cities are the most environmentally efficient habitats on earth. And that's to say nothing of the other numerous benefits to cities - benefits that make millions of people want to live in them, and benefits that make the price of property in them skyrocket.

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