Time to rethink environmental policy

Allister Heath
IN an age of austerity, it is vital we think outside of the box. This ought to be especially true of environmental issues, an area in which Britain remains wedded to old thinking. We desperately need a pro-growth, pro-jobs strategy to help the private sector get us out of our present mess – yet the unthinking, uncosted green consensus that all three major UK political parties have accepted wholesale is fast becoming one of the major barriers to a proper recovery.

Britain’s manufacturing sector has bounced back over the past year but it remains smaller that at the previous peak. It will be hard for it to grow much more unless the government’s policies towards carbon emissions are loosened. The rules – and the pledge to slash emissions – are supported by many well-meaning people but unfortunately make no sense: an imported good that used up a lot of carbon during its production is not deemed a problem – but a good that is produced in the UK is penalised if it is carbon-intensive. What this means is that we don’t want to pollute directly, even if that means shutting down what is left of our industry – but we don’t care whether others pollute even more to produce the goods we eventually consume. That way we can buy them (at least those of us not out of work can do so) while retaining a clear conscience. It’s the usual hypocrisy – but one we can no longer afford.

There are cheaper, more adaptive ways of combating any climate change. Here is a simple one which Boris Johnson should investigate. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched the NYC CoolRoofs initiative. The idea seems stupid but is in fact brilliant: painting roofs with light, reflective surfaces helps reduce cooling costs, cuts energy usage and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. President Barack Obama’s administration has endorsed the policy, with a cool roofs policy announced for the Department of Energy and other federal institutions.

Light coloured surfaces reflect more sunlight than dark ones do, turning less of the sun’s energy into heat. Increasing the reflectiveness of buildings and paved surfaces—whether through white surfaces or reflective coloured surfaces—can reduce the temperature of buildings, cities, and even the entire planet.

Hashem Akbari, a Montreal-based academic, has teamed up with other scientists to found the White Roofs Alliance. It already has the backing of New York, Taipei and even Athens. Akbari has calculated that temperatures could be cut by 2.8 degrees in localities that judiciously paint their roofs white, turn roads a concrete colour and plant trees. In a paper in the Climatic Change journal, he estimates that one ton of carbon dioxide can be offset for every 9.3 square meters of black rooftop that is painted white. Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a professor at Copenhagen Business School, calculates that for an initial expenditure of $1bn, a sufficient number of streets and rooftops in Los Angeles could be painted to reduce temperatures in the region by more than global warming would increase them over the next 90 years. A similar strategy could be applied to parts of Britain, allowing us to preserve more of our manufacturing base. Crazy? Americans clearly don’t think so – and what is really crazy is to cripple UK Plc with unaffordable costs that will drive business to China while doing nothing to help the planet.