07 December 2016

Fossilised science is no basis for policy

How do we weight different environmental impacts? Take diesel, lauded at one stage as a way of cutting back greenhouse gas emissions, but known to have lethal effects through emissions of particulates and other pollutants:
Volkswagen’s rigging of emissions tests for diesel cars comes after nearly 20 years of the technology being incentivised in Europe in the knowledge that its adoption would reduce global warming emissions but lead to thousands of extra deaths from increased levels of toxic gases. increased levels of toxic gases. The rise of diesel in Europe, John Vidal, 'The Guardian', 22 September 2015
Or, take organic food. An organic field will certainly host more wildlife and biodiversity, and decrease or eliminate air and water pollutants. But the same field will most probably yield less than conventional farming. More land would then have to be devoted to supply the same volume of food. And it's likely too that organic food production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming. There are also questions about whether GM crops (foods genetically modified by modern techniques) are better for the environment because they could, for example, require less fertiliser, less land, less water and be more tolerant of salt.

What should policymakers do here? The difficulties of weighing environmental impacts are compounded by our imperfect, but ever-growing knowledge of, say, the effects of pollutants, and more and more research into how to reduce emissions from transport or agriculture. Fossilised science is no basis for sound policy, and getting it wrong, as did those who incentivised European diesel engines, can have disastrous effects.

This is where the Social Policy Bond idea could help. Instead of trying to work out whether, say, less petrol and more diesel is a good idea, or whether organic agriculture is better than conventional, we could instead target social and environmental outcomes, and let a motivated coalition of interested decide how best to achieve them.

How would this work? We first need clarity over what we are trying to achieve. Mostly, we'll be concerned about impacts on plant, animal and human health. Focusing just on human health, we would have broad, national, targets for an array of indicators, such as longevity, infant mortality, quality adjusted life years and others. These would be determined by government, articulating as it does society's goals. But the ways of achieving these goals, and who would achieve them, would be the function of a market in Health Bonds. It would be up to holders of these bonds to decide, on a continuing basis and in response to all new scientific knowledge, what will be the most efficient ways of achieving these goals. The most efficient ways will be those that maximise returns to the bondholders but also to society as a whole. Bondholders' interests will be exactly congruent with those of society, and they will remain so until the bonds are redeemed - which could be decades hence. 

Health Bonds would make it unnecessary for decision makers to try to anticipate new scientific knowledge, or to make decisions on trade-offs that can be, and have been, disastrous. They would stimulate the exploration and implementation of diverse, adaptive ways of improving the nation's health. It's unfortunate that we have very few people or institutions devoted to the healh of an entire country. We have instead organizations like Ministries of Agriculture, Transport, the Environment, and plenty of organizations advocating for solutions to specific health problems: cancer, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and so on. These organizations undoubtedly do good work and are staffed by well meaning, hard working individuals. But they cannot, in good conscience, make the trade-offs between, say carbon dioxide emissions and lung problems in ways that maximise the total health of an entire population. Sadly, that necessary policy perspective falls outside their remit and could even threaten their income and status.

For more about Health Bonds see here. For more about Social Policy Bonds, see here.

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