Merely fuelling our addiction

Today's decision to delay the expected fuel duty escalator will, contrary to popular expectation, make things worse for motorists, not better. Although there might be some reduction in the immediate pain felt byfast-rising fuel costs, in the medium and longer term, perpetuating our society's addiction to oil can only lead to ever greater vulnerability and worse shocks in future. The decision to shelve the fuel duty increase is in the same mindset that comes with our prime minister's repeated calls on Opec to pump more oil: both are disastrously short-term. Taking a slighter longer view reveals two very good reasons to send a strong above-inflation price signal to encourage a rapid departure from the age of oil.

Reason number one is that there simply is not sufficient increasing supply to keep pace with increasing demand. A quick glance at expected demand in 2025 (getting on for 50% greater than now) and a comparison of that against the rate of new oil discovery (the last major find being in the North Sea in the 1970s), combined with the inevitable reality of oil field decline (which is taking place very fast in some areas that have produced oil for decades), should be like a bucket of cold water poured over a slumbering drunk: that is, a rather shocking wake up. Reason number two is that the most recent climate science tells us that we need to be putting in place now the means to achieve a cut in carbon emissions of at least 80% by 2050. Both reasons for getting away from oil require similar responses – different vehicles, different travel modes, different farming and different consumption patterns.

Seeking to deny this reality by changing the price signal put in place to decrease our dependence in the first place is disastrously short-term. Certainly there are difficult politics around this, but surely the job of ministers is to put our security before Daily Express headlines, and to make the case for why we need to get on to a different track. The high oil price is having a quite dramatic effect on driving behaviour, and if we respond as we should to peak oil and climate change then going with original plan will save us a great deal of grief down the line.

Breaking our addiction with oil, like severing any dependence, will be difficult. But it is a dependence we need to break if we are to protect our comfort and security into the future. To do this it is leadership and not backtracking that is needed. So what could that look like? First, ministers need to talk about the real reasons for the oil supply crunch and the need to cut greenhouse emissions as the core of their policy reasoning. Second, they should explicitly link fuel duty to spending on alternatives (such as rail upgrades and cycling facilities). Third, there should be a wider context in tax policy and to protect people on low incomes and in rural areas where cars are essential, they should cut other taxes.

This does not require a lot of imagination, but it does rely on ministers facing reality and telling it like it is.

Originally published by The Guardian.