Select Committee on Economic Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-422)

Professor Paul Ekins

22 MARCH 2005

  Q420Lord Lawson of Blaby: We had a heated debate very recently in this place of which that was one of the elements. I would be interested in your analysis. Adaptation is a very important matter which has been raised and you agree that it is an important issue. Perhaps I can illustrate best by an example. You have talked about whether you are going to have a barrier against a three foot or two foot rise in sea water levels or a five foot one. You said if you do a two foot barrier, it is going to be no use if there is a five foot rise but this thing is happening over a considerable period of time. It is not happening overnight. You would have time to build a bigger barrier if events showed that it was needed. If you knew that was going to happen, you would do the big one straight away but equally it might be argued that it is not sensible to build a barrier against a five foot sea condition when you only need a two foot one. Has there been any study? Can you give us a summary of what economists think as between these two courses of action?

  Professor Ekins: You have set out the issues very well. Each of these decisions has in a sense to be taken on its own merits on the basis of the best available knowledge at the time. I do not happen to know whether people have evaluated the relative costs, likelihoods and whatever about two foot as against five foot barriers, but that is a very important thing to be thinking about. I guess there will be literature on it. It is something that I am not familiar with.

  Q421Lord Lawson of Blaby: That is an example but it is true with adaptation right across the board.

  Professor Ekins: Indeed.

  Q422Lord Lawson of Blaby: It is true with the development of technologies. If you wait, it might cost you more but you might get it right.

  Professor Ekins: Of course. One of the great difficulties in this particular area is that, if we thought there was a likelihood that these changes would be incremental and gradual, adaptation would be a much easier business. The fear is that these changes may not be incremental and gradual. The fear is that something may happen which we are not even thinking is possible now because the climate system is complicated and we do not necessarily understand it very well. Under those circumstances, this makes a rational, marginal calculus of which economists, including me, are beloved rather less relevant because we are not in a marginal situation under those circumstances; we are in a situation of major changes and shifts and it is under those circumstances that worst case scenarios, precautionary principles or whatever the class of policy approach is become more relevant.

Chairman: You have been answering questions for a considerable time and we are very grateful to you. You have given us some forthright answers on a whole range of issues. May I say, on behalf of the Committee, thank you very much indeed for coming, for sparing us all the time you have and for answering questions in the way you have.

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