Climate change is biggest and most urgent challenge facing humanity. Scientists say we need global emissions to peak within the decade and decline rapidly thereafter to have an earthly chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
The world we want will require much more enlightened green governance.
When you think about it, without some measure of governance in any field, we get the law of the jungle – the powerful dominate, the weak get squeezed, bad things happen, and there is no redress.
So what should good green governance mean?
- It means, above all, governments not just recognizing but taking responsibility for the state of the planet – including the cause and consequences of climate change.
- It means governments having a clear vision or ambition for where they want their country and the world to get to, and clear milestones to get there.
- It means being crystal clear about the things we need more of, and the things that must stop, to reach that vision
- And it means putting in place the rules, incentives and penalties to accelerate the good and put a brake on the bad. So, for example, investing in and promoting the most helpful technologies and behaviours and weaning us off fossil fuel – taking the right decisions today to safeguard tomorrow.
- And it means monitoring progress carefully so we know whether or not we are on track.
So, let’s have a look at how the coalition government is doing on green governance. How is it doing on setting a clear vision for change, promoting the good, stopping the bad?
When David Cameron said on his second day in his new job that he wanted to lead the Greenest Government Ever, we welcomed it – cautiously, knowing that its actions not words that will count.
To mark the first anniversary of the coalition we published a report – written by one of my predecessors, Jonathan Porritt – weighing up how the Government had acted so far.
And I’m afraid it made for pretty grim reading. “The bad and the ugly,” he said, “outweigh the good”. Jonathan looked at 77 ‘green’ promises of the Government. What did he find? Mostly little or no progress.
- The Government promised to create tens of thousands of new green jobs. They haven’t arrived. The money is going elsewhere. We’re a much less attractive place for green investment than we were this time last year.
- The Department for Energy and Climate Change – which we know is so often trying to do the right thing – has to fight battle after battle because the rest of Whitehall doesn’t take climate change seriously.
- Some decisions being taken – on areas like planning and funding for local government – are actively working in the wrong direction. For example, the government have ended the use of NI 186 as a performance measure for local councils.
- And at the heart of Government, the Treasury has been actively hostile. In opposition George Osborne promised that under his watch, the Treasury would no longer be the cuckoo in the nest when it came to Green policy. Sad to say, not only are they still the cuckoos, but they’re jackdaws too: swooping down on glittering green policies and whisking them away.
Even the Prime Minister, so proud a champion of green action in opposition, barely stuck his head above the parapet in the government’s first year – although he did at least reverse the hair-brained plan to sell off our forests.
Since we brought out that report two months ago, then there have been three big environmental announcements from the Government.
First, the good news. After a ruckus, the Government finally accepted the advice of the Committee on Climate Change for the fourth carbon budget. It committed the UK to 50% cuts by 2025 – leading the world in legally binding emissions cuts. So, they have set good milestones towards the already agreed UK’s vision of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050.
David Cameron had to step in to make that happen, so credit where it’s due on that one.
But while the Government unveiled more details of the Green Investment Bank, the Treasury prevented the bank borrowing money for at least 5 years, until the deficit is down. So, its squeezing the flow of badly needed investment.
Then the Government delivered a slap in the face to the renewables industry by slashing the solar feed-in-tariff that’s used by schools, community groups, and hospitals. Bizarrely, reducing an incentive that was working effectively.
So what can we make of the coalition’s green governance after that?
Well they are signed up to a vision and have credible milestones. Some – like DECC – are trying hard to meet them. But the government lacks the shared sense of urgency and real coherence of action. In fact, its actions are breathtakingly contradictory.
For example, the Government says it hasn’t got any money. But earlier this year George Osborne was able to rustle up ten billion pounds he didn’t know he had by taxing offshore oil and gas producers. But he then used every last penny of it in a short-term fix to cut fuel duty, thus increasing the UK’s dependence on fossil fuel.
Ironically, the thing that’s done the most to cut emissions in the last decade is the recession. Putting the recession aside, the underlying trend is that the UK is not cutting emissions anywhere near fast enough
In practice we have a government pulling in different directions, with only intermittent leadership from the top. The man at the wheel seems to have long memory lapses when he forgets where we’re meant to be going, and he’s tolerating constant wrangling from the gang in the back of the van, allowing the Treasury to bully the rest and trip up their efforts.
This is not only poor governance, it’s frankly dangerous and irresponsible. The world desperately needs a few old, rich industrial and populous countries like Britain, which led the industrial revolution, to put our money where our mouth is and lead the new green industrial revolution.
So – we need much bolder and more coherent action from the government – cutting the bad, promoting the good. And we – trade unions, campaigning charities, ordinary people who are concerned, along with enlightened business – are going to have to nudge, or more like shove, the government into doing this.