Last chance for the 'greenest government'

7th May 2014


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Sunil Sithamparam

The Aldersgate Group argues that it is not too late for the self-styled 'greenest government' to shift the UK to a more sustainable economy

The Guardian’s green-o-meter, established to keep track of whether the coalition is the “greenest government ever”, malingers deep in the red, one notch above “worse than Bush” – a reference to the less-than-whole-hearted support given by former US president George W Bush to the environment agenda. By this measure, the coalition government has everything to play for.

It may be that David Cameron is keeping a handful of quick wins up its sleeve. There are announcements in the pipeline that could help tip the scale if the government were to, for example, confirm the fourth carbon budget, bestow borrowing powers on the green investment bank (GIB) and push the EU to agree ambitious climate change targets to 2030.

Earlier this year, the prime minister and the chancellor confirmed within the same week that they understood anthropogenic climate change was happening. The cynical view would be that the Conservative party, ever wary of the “nasty” tag, is repeating the process that (nearly) got it elected last time and is promoting policies that seem friendlier. “It’s all about values,” Cameron said recently. Meanwhile phrases such as “natural capital”, “wellbeing” and “affordable energy” are re-emerging.

These are helpful themes, but at the moment their use represents a missed opportunity for the environment. They should be developed by the government into a clear vision; one where being committed to delivering a better future requires a wider casting of the traditional view of the economy, with greenness inherently (not artificially) at its core. This is about more than the desire to win the prime minister’s “global race” to green growth; it is about the need to create a compelling strategy for the future.

The Aldersgate Group – an alliance of businesses, including Asda, BT and Sky, and environment organisations, such as IEMA, the Green Alliance and WWF – is trying to help realise this ambition by describing the characteristics of “an economy that works” and to prod politicians to grasp the policy levers that will create it. To become a truly sustainable economy, the UK must harness the full skills set of the whole population. It must drive innovation, strengthen communities and seek to embed long-termism in decision making.

These four factors will facilitate a shift to an economy that has high employment and equal opportunity for all, with wellbeing becoming the government’s central policy objective and measure of success. These social gains will underpin and reinforce environmental goals – an economy that works will be low-carbon, zero-waste and will enhance nature.

Green innovation

These characteristics are mutually reinforcing and need multiple actions. The first would be for the government to provide the framework for the transition to an economy that works. This will require support for green innovation and the use of green technologies, smart regulation, infrastructure to support circularity of resources and clear policy signals to give business certainty in the direction of travel.

Treasury secretary Danny Alexander recently highlighted the importance of innovation, saying: “We must have green and growth together if our recovery is to be truly sustainable.” The business department has published 11 sector strategies, from aerospace to professional services, that should be used to drive green innovation.

We recommend they be actioned with a particular focus on policy credibility and consistency, and with the presumption of environmental sustainability embedded into all targets. There must also be an awareness of future sustainability “megatrends”, such as resource security and climate change, viewed over sensible investment horizons – for example, three decades. The horizon-scanning programme across the government, which is now being led by the Cabinet Office, can provide the starting point for this work.

Correctly deployed, the government’s industrial strategies could help make businesses and the economy more resilient, enhancing UK competitiveness in the expanding market for green solutions. The government’s role as environmental regulator goes hand-in-hand with that of convener, supporting the creation of partnerships between industry, finance and scientists to drive innovation. EU environment commissioner Janez Potonik recently noted that it was no accident that the biggest clean-tech sectors happen to be in the areas where Europe leads the world on environmental standards.

The framework for an economy that works for the future must include the decoupling of economic growth from resource use. To effect the transition, we must adopt a circular economy framework, and innovation in product design, recovery and reuse is essential. Shifting to a circular economy would insulate businesses from security of supply issues and commodity price shocks. A European circular economy could yield cost savings of up to €456 billion a year by 2025.

In developing the framework for such an economy, more straightforward measures will also play a role. One would be to enhance the role of the GIB. Its ability to meet its original purpose remains severely constrained without the capacity to borrow. Former energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne once noted that: “Ducks quack: banks borrow and lend.” By this description, the GIB remains a fund.

The government should ensure that policies provide long-term certainty in the UK’s low-carbon future and avoid unnecessary delays, such as the failure to confirm the fourth carbon budget in the first quarter of 2014, as had been promised originally.

Lastly, mandatory carbon reporting, a policy that has brought significant business benefits and is supported by 70% of businesses, is due to be reviewed in 2015. A commitment to extending mandatory reporting to a broader range of businesses should be included in all political manifestos.

Wellbeing at the core

A second action would be to embed wellbeing at the heart of government policymaking. Sir Ian Cheshire, chief executive at Kingfisher, argues: “We should be thinking of maximum wellbeing for minimal planetary input.” This means a premium must be placed on the outcomes that society wants: health, education, a healthy environment and leisure time, for example – most of which are not dependent on financial wealth.

Research shows that the relationship between income and wellbeing follows a classic bell curve: wellbeing increases as income grows to a certain point, beyond which wellbeing starts to decrease. A similar correlation exists between working hours and wellbeing. The office for national statistics has undertaken invaluable work on the measurement of wellbeing over the past four years, which will provide policymakers with the toolkit to measure the success of future policies.

A third course of action would be to shift public discourse about the environment. In spite of huge scientific consensus, climate scepticism remains an acceptable intellectual position among some of our elected officials and mainstream media outlets. Press freedom is sacrosanct, but the government does have a role in promoting science-based arguments. Recent statements from the prime minister and the chancellor acknowledging climate change science are welcome, but they need to be backed by concrete action.

One such measure would be to embed sustainability in the national curriculum. Education secretary Michael Gove has argued that we are obliged to pass on a safe and secure environment to future generations, along with “a love of nature and an awareness of how human behaviour affects the world around us”.

This is a welcome suggestion, but as a result of his department’s revision of the curriculum in 2013, children will not be taught about climate change until age 11–14. Even then, the new curriculum is far less comprehensive than the version it replaced, which included sustainable development, social fairness and conservation of resources, alongside the tension between economic and environmental prosperity. None of these topics remain.

Also, universities and business schools need to be encouraged to integrate environmental considerations into higher education. If we do this well, we will develop the knowledge and skills required to be truly competitive in a low-carbon and resource constrained world. If we fail, we will be playing catch-up with competitors around the world.

There are 12 months before the general election, and the message to the government is not to adopt empty, quick-fix methods, hoping to take the green-o-meter swinging back towards environmental approval. We ask all political parties to build a positive vision of the UK that they would like to create, one which takes the lead in a resource constrained world, answering the economic, social and environmental needs of its citizens and setting the course towards an economy that works.

Oliver Dudok van Heel is director and Victoria Fleming-Williams is policy manager at the Aldersgate Group, IEMA is a member of the group.


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