On 11th January we were delighted to welcome the distinguished economist Sir Dieter Helm CBE as speaker at our first (virtual) Winter Talk of 2022: Creating a Sustainable Economy.
Sir Dieter is Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford and a Fellow in Economics at New College, Oxford; he has served as policy advisor to UK and European governments and is the author of several books – most recently Net Zero (2020), which lays out the steps required to decarbonise the economy by 2050.
For Sir Dieter, our objective, in straightforward economic terms, is ‘to leave a set of environmental assets at least as good as we’ve inherited.’ Crucial among these are ‘abundant biodiversity and a climate that is relatively stable’, as well as energy, water, transport, and digital systems that are fit for purpose. Since we will need all these assets in perpetuity, he explained, it makes sense, right now, to work towards ‘the capital maintenance necessary to maintain those assets intact for the next generation’. This in turn requires a radically transformed state of public finances, and a transition away from a ‘spend for current expenditure’ model towards ‘borrowing for investment, not borrowing for consumption.’ Sir Dieter believes any sustainable consumption policy must involve polluters ‘paying the cost of pollution’ – polluters, he stressed, include both corporations and citizens. He also called for politicians to be more honest about the cost of decarbonizing a ‘carbon-soaked’ economy in 29 years: ‘Telling people that’s cheap creates this enormous reaction of public opinion when you discover it’s anything but cheap.’
The event was chaired by Alexander Hoare, and Rennie Hoare moderated a fascinating post-talk Q&A, where topics ranged from the causes of the UK gas crisis to the future of democracy in an age of AI, a new agricultural revolution, and further, far-reaching technological changes on the horizon. Current levels of inequality are ‘completely unsustainable… if we are to carry through the possibilities for humankind that these technologies offer’, Sir Dieter concluded. The task of governments now is ‘to provide basic assets to citizens in pursuit of a sustainable society’, and a society ‘that makes sure all citizens are participants within it.’