Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Why leaving the EU is a bit like building nuclear power stations

Britain's efforts to leave the EU are a bit like trying to build nuclear power stations, that is it takes a lot longer than you expect, you're not quite sure it will actually happen and it is very expensive.

Of course we have to decide what Brexit actually means. Whatever the status of the 'have our cake and eat it' notes may be as reported in The Times this morning, this will be viewed as fantasy by many except if you take the Daily Mail very seriously. Leaving the EU could actually be much like Norway or Switzerland's position in that we take all of the rules, including rules on free movement of people. We just won't have any say on them. That'll mean we can whinge all we like with the absolute assurance that we can't do anything except shout at the foreigners rather than speak their language. A perfect English sereotype!

However the notion that we can leave and have some sort of Canadian-plus style of free trade agreement with the EU any time soon (as implied in the Times story) is stretching things too far. Like Hinkley C, such a thing might be possible in theory in many years to come, but in the near-term it is not going to happen. In terms of the EU a Swiss-type agreement is much more likely.
That's because trade deals take an awful long time to negotiate, and as we have seen with the EU-Canada agreement, are fraught with the difficulties of getting every EU nation to agree with it. It's taken 7 years to negotiate this agreement, and it is not finished yet.

Sure, the UK could agree a quickie-ish exit from the EU, within or around 2 years as stipulated in the much-mentioned article 50. That would be covered by the Article 50 injunction that a leaving deal would be agreed by a qualified majority in the EU. But the subsequent agreeement detailing trading relationships would have to wait, leaving the UK having to face trade tariffs in the (could be very lengthy) meantime.  The Government has already given assurances to British industry that this will not happen of course (Nissan, CBI etc). So what's to give?
Well, not the EU, since it is sticking very hard to the principle of free movement in its negotiations with Switerland who seem to be accepting a face-saving compromise in order to stay in the Single Market. So, logic has it that the UK might get a more speedy deal if it simply accepts a Swiss type deal, since that appears to be much more a la carte than much else on offer. The Government would trumpet that it has got a concession that British employers could, if they wanted, give British people first peiority in job appointments, but that would be all they could do apart from reinstate the social security chnages that were agreed by David Cameron.

Even that of course maybe looking on the hopeful side because that will enable an optimistic reading of what is possible within two years.

Of course you might say, and UKIP et al seem to be saying this, why not just leave and take the tariffs. Well, we're back to the assurances given to Nissan etc, which rules that out, and anyway business will riot (not a pretty picture). So using the chess analogy, the Government is in check, and can't get out of check within several years unless it concedes staying in the Single Market. The effective choices of the UK Government become reduced either to staying in the EU as we are at the moment under some temporary basis, or doing a Swiss or Norweigian style deal. Given that the Government does not want to go into a General Election in 2020 without any imminent prospect of leaving, the UK Government is in a very weak negotiating position. It will have to accept what is offered. A Swiss deal is almost certainly the best it will get (although there's plenty of Remainers who will still say that full membership is still best!).

Those are the rules of the game, and the only plausible way out of it is if the game, that is the EU, collapses in the meantime. Much as Nigel Farage seems to want this, the collapse of the euro at least is not something that anyone who has money in a bank would wish for.

Below (underneath the link to the Times article) is a link to a UK Government discussion of leaving the EU. see page 14 in particular



Monday, 14 November 2016

Why Trump might not make much of a difference to action on climate change

The election of Donald Trump probably means that, one way or another, the USA will pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but this may make less difference to how much carbon the world would have emitted than what you might think.

For a start the Paris Agreement already has enough national states as signatures representing a high enough proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions to remain valid with a US withdrawal. The Agreement  requires there to be signatories representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions, and there's more than that left in the agreement without the USA.

Second, internally, such downwards pressure on carbon emissions as there is is mainly bound up with technological changes or policies that are likely to continue anyway. Coal consumption in the US has fallen by around a quarter since 2008, but. according to a recent paper published in The Electricity Journal this has very little to do with Obama, and almost all to do with the increased availability of cheap natural gas. The growth in production of shale gas has been the factor that has reduced the demand for coal and led to the closure of increasing numbers of ageing coal fired power plant. Another factor reducing coal use is the growth of renewable energy - mainly wind and solar. These technologies are promoted by a bi-partisan Congressional agreement on a policy of production tax credits (wind) and investment tax credit (solar). These will  decline in force and run out in 2020. However, many Republican Congressmen are relatively sympathetic towards renewable energy, and there are possibilities that some form of tax credit support could be renewed. The Republicans may not care much for the climate issue, but they are interested in helping people, including often the renewable energy industry, make money.

Certainly Trump is likely to want to short-circuit Obama's 'Clean Power Plan' which was being pursued through the aegis of the Environmental Protection Agency, although even here, many states will continue with their own clean power plans. Trump may order the reversal of the regulations restricting mercury and toxic emissions, compliance with which makes coal plant more expensive. However, as stated already, coal power plant are being retired without this measure anyway. In addition it is unlikely that the revision of standards to allow more mercury and toxic emissions will please many people given that the EPA estimates that otherwise between 4000 and 11000 people will die each year from poisoning by these toxics. Resistance to Republican initiatives to pare down environmental regulations may prove to be rather sturdier and more effective than the anti-environmentalists bargain for.

Third, there is the global impact of Trumps' protectionist trade strategies to consider. Trade restrictions on China, and quite possibly even the EU, may help relieve competitive pressure on some US industries, but they will, overall, make the world poorer. China's economy is less robust than it appears, with rising levels of bank debts and it is vulnerable to US pressures to increase the value of its currency. Indeed, my outlook is that there will be anything from a global slowdown in economic growth to a full-blown world economic meltdown. This of course, to a greater or lesser extent, will have a downward pressure on carbon emissions and probably more than offset the impact of Trumps's reversal of Obama's internal energy measures. On top of that of course, there are suggestions that the EU could impose a carbon tax on US imports to offset reductions in environmental performance by UK goods and services. This idea actually comes from Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some references: