Biggest UK solar plant approved

The government last week approved the building of the UK’s largest solar plant on the Kent coast. The plant is likely to provide a number of economic benefits, including low-cost, renewable energy and jobs to the local community. However, some residents are concerned about the safety risks associated with the storage system.

Renewable energy helps to reduce negative production externalities associated with non-renewable energy that is both unsustainable and a heavy pollutant; consider the toxic effects of burning coal to produce electricity. Externalities are third party effects which are ignored by the market mechanism so anything that that helps to reduce the negative effects is seen as a good thing helping to correct market failure and achieve allocative efficiency.

There are, however, some issues related to renewable energy; firstly, whilst the production of energy produces very little in the way of emissions, the production of equipment; solar panels, wind turbines, etc, is not emission-free. Secondly, some local communities are concerned about the impact on their quality of life and house prices. It is one reason why so many wind farms are built offshore. In this particular case, local Kent residents are concerned about the risks of exploding energy storage batteries, required given that the sun does not always shine. These costs may include higher insurance premiums and lower house prices, even if the batteries do prove to be safe. Having said that, living next door to an oil field is unlikely to be on many homebuyers wish list, unless, of course, one has drilling rights.

One positive note for the government is that the project is being paid for by the private sector and requires no government subsidy. Welcome relief given last month’s record budget deficit of £62bn. Subsidies for the solar industry were cut some years ago as a result of the mass production of panels in China and their, subsequent, fall in price.

Read the orignial BBC News article.

Government proposes energy drinks ban for children – BBC News

High levels of sugar and caffeine have been linked to obesity and other health issues.

Source: Government proposes energy drinks ban for children – BBC News

Energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and sugar. A can of Monster, for example, includes 160mg of caffeine and 55g of sugar. Such high levels can create physical and mental health problems for consumers, these are known as ‘private costs’. However, excessive levels can also create spillover costs for third parties, for example, lower productivity at work or increased pressure on the NHS. These costs are known as external costs or ‘negative externalities’. The problem is that the market tends to ignore these costs resulting in an inefficient allocation of resources. In order to reduce consumption, the government has a series of options. Recently we have seen the introduction of a sugar tax, which should increases firms costs and lead to higher prices. However, the government has decided they need to take more direct action on energy drinks by using an alternative means of intervention, regulation. Approximately 68% of buyers of energy drinks in the EU are aged 10-18, so the UK ban is likely to have a significant effect on firms revenues and profits. One issue for the government is that, unlike a tax, which raises revenue, regulation needs enforcement, which creates administrative costs. There is also an alternative view, that consumers should be free to make their own choices. However, that, in my view, is a difficult case to make when you think about the relentless efforts of the marketing departments at Red Bull et al and the fact that so many of the buyers are children.

Pesticide found to harm bees faces ban across EU

The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) has concluded that neonicotinoids harm bees to the extent that an outright ban could be imposed. Clearly, we can conclude that the external costs of production, neonicotinoid is an insecticide used in farming, are so high that the socially optimal level of output is zero. Bees are important “as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops”. In recent years their numbers have plummeted and studies suggest that neonicotinoids are a significant cause. Expect any regulation or ban to increase costs to EU farmers. It will be interesting to see if the UK will adopt such measures, post-Brexit. If not, it could mean that British farmers see tariffs levied on any exports to the EU. I suspect, under current Environment Minister, Michael Gove, the UK will look to follow Efsa guidance.

Read the original Guardian article here.

Pub smoking ban: 10 charts that show the impact – BBC News

It’s 10 years since smoking in enclosed public spaces was banned in England. What has the impact been?

Source: Pub smoking ban: 10 charts that show the impact – BBC News

This is an excellent article, written by an old uni friend of mine, exploring the impact of restrictions on where people can smoke. Cigarettes are considered by economists as a demerit good, one that generates negative externalities through consumption. These externalities, costs to a third party, can occur in many ways, for example, the adverse effects on the health of bar workers. The ban has helped to reduce the number of people smoking in the UK, although it still remains predominantly a habit of the poor. However, it is important to note that changes to packaging legislation and increased duties may have helped to reduce the number too. A reduction in the number of smokers helps to reduce the pressure on the NHS of treating tobacco-related illness, although, of course, if people live longer then other, perhaps more expensive treamtents, need to be paid for. An unintended consequence has been the impact on pubs, a number are closing creating unemployment in the process. Again, however, other factors, such as a general reduction in alcohol consumption and cheaper substitutes, i.e. buying beer from a supermarket, will have had an effect.

This is a nice example of how a number of government interventions can be used to correct the market failure associated with a demerit good.

Nimble entrepreneurs seek solutions to air quality crisis | The Guardian

With 55% of Chinese consumers looking to reduce pollution exposure and a London mayor focused on clean air policies, the market is growing

Source: Nimble entrepreneurs seek solutions to air quality crisis | Guardian Small Business Network | The Guardian

A standard market failure essay question would ask you to consider whether government intervention is required to correct a market failure or would it be best left to market forces. This article explores the role of the latter in the context of air pollution and the growth in the number of firms producing goods to both monitor and reduce the impact of air pollution.

China and the UK

There has been much attention given over to China in recent weeks, following the visit of President XI and the signing of many deals between China and the UK, not least in the energy sector where China (and France) will be financing and largely building a generation of nuclear power plants in the UK. The Times commented that it will not be long before a Midlands UK businessman or woman could breakfast on Chinese cereal (Weetabix), travel to London on a partly Chinese-financed railway (HS2) for a meeting in a Chinese office development (China has invested heavily in UK property), then make a call home on a Chinese mobile phone and arrange to take the family out to a Chinese owned pizza chain (PizzaExpress) to discuss the possible purchase of a Sunseeker Yacht, a company acquired by China in June 2013. It is also worth noting that Chinese tourists to the UK have doubled between 2009 and 2014 to 185,000 and there were 10,468 Chinese pupils and 87,895 students at UK  independent schools and  universities respectively in 2014. By 2030 the World Bank estimates that 30% of global investment will come from China, the year it is estimated that it will become the world’s largest economy.

Currently China provides 9% of our imports of goods but we are only their 7th biggest source of their imports and our 22nd largest export market for goods so there is considerable potential for growth there. Given the UK Government’s intention to move to a budget surplus and not to borrow even to invest, China provides a valuable source of finance for infrastructure investment.

However all is not well at home with recent Chinese growth figures falling to 6.9% in the third quarter, slightly below the target rate of 7%. There has been some doubt expressed about the validity of this figure and some economists suggest that a true figure would be significantly lower, not least because nominal growth was only 6.2% implying a 0.7% deflation in China over the period which some commentators suggest is inaccurate. An alternative measure looks at statistics for electricity, bank lending and rail cargo which suggests growth of between 3% – 4%. Such discrepancies put the UK’s recent fall in GDP growth to 0.5% into perspective.

CMA to investigate 2500% price hike by pharmaceutical firms

Pfizer and Flynn Pharma are in trouble with the Competition and Markets Authority after hiking the price of a drug they sell to NHS by a percentage that wouldn’t look out of place at the end of a payday loan advert.

A few things here. Drug firms spend a lot of money and time (about 17 years) researching and developing drugs, some of which go on to succeed in the market, whilst others fail. Pfizer may argue that the price increase is a result of a business pricing strategy of selling cheap upon entry to the market and then increasing the price as brand loyalty builds. In addition, they may argue that the profits made by Phenytoin Sodium will be used to fund the R&D of new drugs that NHS patients will benefit from in years to come.

You may ask why doesn’t the NHS shop around? Well, they can’t, because the drug is patented. A patent acts as a barrier to entry as it stops other firms from copying a new drug that a firm has spent years and, potentially, billions of pounds developing. After all, who would spend all that time and money if the day after launch a series of copycat firms come and along and copy all your hard (and costly) work? Firms wouldn’t develop new drugs, and new drugs are good, so patents are good?! The problem is that patents prevent competition, for the 25 year life span of the patent at least, and so firms can exploit their monopoly power by charging extortionate prices. It’s a question of balance, and it appears that the CMA believe the scales are weighted too much in favour of the producer in this instance.

A Greek tragedy

Greece’s schools are ranked as lowly as any in the EU, yet employ four times more teachers per pupil than the highest ranked, Finland. Its state-owned railway has annual revenues of €100 million against annual wages of €400 million and €300 million in running costs. The average employee of Greece’s railway is still earning €65,000 a year.