Regulating knowledge monopolies

I have a post on VoxEU (backed up by a paper) on the regulation of knowledge monopolies in general and the IPCC in particular.

Other countries have carefully prepared their positions for next week’s meeting in Busan. The Netherlands will call for substantial reform of the IPCC along the lines of the IAC and PBL reports. The United Kingdom will not call for Pachauri’s resignation as cordial relationships with India are deemed more important than effective leadership of the IPCC. I was met with a stunned silence when I recently asked two senior civil servants about the Busan position of Ireland, the Country That Leads The World in the Fight Against Climate Change.

We are used to thinking about market structures for goods and services, and there is a considerable body of theoretical and empirical work on how to keep market power in check. Policy advice is a service too, and relying on a single source of knowledge can have detrimental effects. The IPCC is one example, but there are examples closer to home too.

Meanwhile, Brian Lenihan wishes there was a single source of advice, and again. Cosy groupthink was one of the things that got the Irish economy into the current mess.

Environmental regulation and enforcement

Two weeks ago, the Irish Times reported that MoneyPoint regularly breached its IPPC license but failed to inform the EPA. I was waiting for a follow-up article, like “Plant Closed, Chief Engineer Jailed, Company Fined”, but then I realized that I’m in Ireland still.

If a coal-fired boiler runs in steady state, it emits little more than water vapour (white smoke) and carbon dioxide (invisible). However, if it is starting up or winding down, combustion is incomplete and smoke turns black. Black smoke contains a mix of chemicals which not only twist your tongue but also cause respiratory problems, cancer, degenerative diseases, and other mayhem. Such emissions are therefore strictly regulated, and rightly so.

The report and the lack of follow-up is disconcerting for a number of reasons. First, the ESB knew but did not tell the EPA. Second, the EPA got into action after complaints by locals. This does not help against nightly emissions or invisible ones. Third, there were two more incidents after the ESB was audited (and presumably warned) by the EPA. Fourth, there is no sign of remedial or punitive action.

(There is a side issue. Power plants should not do this. The boilers are either in much worse condition than their age suggests, or the engineers in charge are not doing their job as they should.)

Regulation is only as strong as its enforcement. For a plant the size of MoneyPoint, the EPA (and the public) should be able to monitor emissions in real time. We should not rely on voluntary disclosure or complaints. The EPA should have the right to intervene in the running of the plant, and shut it down if necessary. The owners and operators of the plant do not have the right incentives.

IPPC licenses were put in place to please Brussels, but they in fact protect our health and environment.

Should Ireland declare itself GM-free in food production?

One of the pledges in the October 2009 Revised Programme for Government is to declare Ireland a GM-free zone. The Programme promises to “declare the Republic of Ireland a GM-Free Zone, free from the cultivation of all GM plants”, and states “To optimise Ireland’s competitive advantage as a GM-Free country, we will introduce a voluntary GM-Free logo for use in all relevant product labelling and advertising, similar to a scheme recently introduced in Germany.” This followed the commitment in the 2007 Programme for Government that “the Government will seek to negotiate the establishment of an all-Ireland GMO-free [crop] zone.”

The issue has become topical because of a proposed change in EU legislation which would allow individual Member States to permit the cultivation of  GM crops or not. The idea is to combine a European Union authorisation system for GMOs, based on science, with freedom for Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory. Any such prohibitions or restrictions would have to be based on grounds other than those covered by the environmental and health risk assessment under the EU authorisation system. It is expected that the new legislation will enter into force by the end of this year.

Yesterday’s Irish Times reported that the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association has called on the government to immediately implement the Programme for Government pledge. Would it make sense to do so?