Keeping the faith: interview with Jonathon Porritt

31st August 2018

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Edward Maxwell

Leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt is outraged by the government’s 25-year environment plan – but despite his bitterness at environment secretary Michael Gove, and his fears for a post-Brexit UK, he still has hope for the future, he tells Huw Morris.

For more than 40 years, Jonathon Porritt has been in the vanguard of environmental campaigning, both within the UK and internationally. What does he think of the prospects for the next 25 years, heralded under the government’s environment plan? Will it deliver Theresa May and Michael Gove’s bold promise to leave the environment “in a better state than we found it” for the next generation?

This is a case of ask the question, retire a safe distance, hear the rumblings, then feel the blast.

Porritt admits that, after reading the 25-year environment plan, it was “impossible to feel anything other than the deepest contempt”. A particular bugbear was the much-publicised pledge for zero unavoidable plastic waste by 2042. “Theresa May and Gove will probably be dead by then,” he says. “So will I. The further away the target date is, the less reason there is to believe politicians will meet it. It’s classic NIMTO – Not In My Term of Office.”

He doubts whether the UK government is “genuinely focused on living up to the white paper’s rhetoric”, pointing to England’s National Planning Policy Framework and its pro-growth agenda. This agenda, he has argued for several years now, is incompatible with sustainable development.

“They promise we are going to be able to do the right thing over the long term for future generations, when today we have planning laws with a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This is not sustainable development, but an imperative to build – particularly housing. An imperative to build offers no incentive to rebalance long-term generational issues.”

Porritt dismisses the plan’s emphasis on natural capital, a concept that has been worked on for more than decade by Forum for the Future, the sustainable development charity he co-founded in 1996 and still spearheads. The charity included the concept within its Five Capitals Model, alongside human, social, manufactured and financial capitals. Crucially, the model aimed to create a framework for understanding sustainability, to help leaders across all sectors make better decisions.

Under the government’s plan, however, the concept has become a principle of “net environmental gain” when building housing and infrastructure. This has more strings attached than a philharmonic orchestra and is accompanied by various caveats and get-out clauses in the 25-year plan. There is little detail on how it will work during the next 25 years.

“If you cared for nature, you wouldn’t call it natural capital,” says Porritt. “You can’t play fast and loose with such a powerful idea and put it out there with rhetoric, without real improvements in decision-making. The government’s approach is that if you talk about it enough we will all agree with it. That is not enough.”

He admits that some of his antipathy is personal. When Gove became education secretary in the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, one of his first decisions was to scrap the Sustainable Schools initiatives. Porritt, as chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, the previous government’s “critical friend” on environmental policy, had spent much of the previous six years crafting the initiatives. Gove’s decision, he says, was taken without reading the brief given by civil servants on why they were crucial. He barely conceals his contempt.

“Some of my anger is because of past experiences of government and of Gove’s whole approach,” he says. “I had ceased to be chair of the commission, but I was still lobbying to shore up these initiatives as they were an important part of sustainability. It’s hard breaking down the silos of government departments, and the commission made a pretty good attempt.

“I still feel very bitter. I always assumed a new government would change a few things, but not completely undo the whole sustainability agenda across all government departments. I have the dispiriting feeling that anything to do with the environment and sustainable development is nowhere near a priority, notwithstanding Gove’s attempt to bring it back.”

Post-Brexit threats

Another source of rancour is the reaction of fellow environmentalists to the plan. “There was a kind of deal among non-governmental organisations (NGOs), under which a common position emerged to give Gove more breathing space to see if he had genuine intentions to make things happen – ‘he is talking the right talk and we have not seen this for some time’,” Porritt says. Now he points to government proposals for a post-Brexit green watchdog, suggested in the plan, which would lack any powers to take the government to court. Green campaigners have since expressed outrage that the new watchdog would only issue advisory notices to ministers.

Porritt believes his fellow campaigners should have seen this coming.

“This is a deregulatory-minded government and it is ideologically hostile to regulations and statutes to improve and protect the natural world,” he argues.

He also points to recent research by the Green Alliance, which highlighted that UK carbon emissions will significantly exceed legally binding targets for the years 2023 to 2032. To date, government climate policy has focused on emissions from vehicles, and heating and powering buildings. How products are made and consumed has a huge impact on their embodied emissions, a factor he claims the government has ignored.

“It really flags up the importance of resource efficiency and the degree to which the government’s scandalous disregard for this whole dimension is now impacting on many other aspects of the climate and environment agenda,” he says.

The plan should have been a first step in protecting the environment in the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU – a decision Porritt is now coming to terms with. “Many people voted for Brexit because of their anger and despair at what happened to their country during the politics of the past 30 years, which has left them behind.

“If we now have a process that pushes all these concerns away, the anger and sense of betrayal will be huge. We already have a serious lack of trust in politicians. We have to be mindful of the millions of people who voted for Brexit.”

Nevertheless, major problems lie ahead. Porritt cites a recent risk analysis by Friends of the Earth on UK environmental policy post-Brexit. This found that the Norwegian model poses the least risk to current levels of environmental protection. The ‘no deal’ model poses the highest risk, invariably offering a lower level of protection, with enforcement mechanisms that are either non-existent or weaker than those provided by the EU.

Friends of the Earth’s analysis, while welcoming the 25-year environment plan as indicating an “encouraging direction of travel”, criticised it for failing to offer enough details. What details have been provided indicate a lower level of ambition than what is currently provided under EU law. Porritt agrees.

“I am very worried about what will happen once Brexit has taken place. Even the softest of the Brexit scenarios will leave the environment more precarious, less protected and at risk of attrition. All of the environmental problems we face now will just get worse in a Brexit UK.”

Fears for the future

Porritt first became involved in environmental issues in 1974 while teaching English at a west London comprehensive. A decade later, after heavy involvement in the Green Party, he became director of Friends of the Earth, leaving just before 1992’s landmark Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which he describes as a “life-changing experience”. He says most, if not all, of the issues highlighted by environmentalists at that summit are getting worse.

On the broader international battle against climate change, Porritt admits he is “struck by the numbers of people who believe it’s too late because they are on the frontline”. He cites the work of Peter Wadhams, a world authority on sea ice, who has visited polar zones more than 50 times. In 2016, he published A Farewell to Ice, which warned of the catastrophic implications of permafrost melting. The resulting release of methane, a substance 23 times more damaging in raising global temperatures than carbon dioxide, could lead to potentially apocalyptic floods, storms, fires and droughts. Wadhams concludes that there is still time for action – but it will have to be dramatic.

“If someone like Peter says it’s not too late then we have to listen,” says Porritt. “But it worries me that more and more frontline scientists think we may have missed our moment.”

Yet Porritt retains a sense of optimism. His 2013 book, The World We Made, looked ahead to key lifestyle changes and technological breakthroughs that could happen in the next three decades.

“It expressed the hope that we can marshall the political will to make solutions come alive,” he says. “I still subscribe to the notion that we can rescue ourselves from the deep hole of thoughtless economic growth.

“I am full of hope. I do still have strong faith in humankind when it gets its act together – but I am not a conventional optimist. If you are too much of an optimist, you are not looking hard enough.”

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

Image credit: Peter Searle

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