The new consensus – only green growth will work

This post is by Will Andrews Tipper, Green Alliance’s head of sustainable business. It first appeared on BusinessGreen.com

A month ago, I returned from a consultancy career in Brussels to take up a new role as Head of Sustainable Business at the environmental think tank, Green Alliance. As I got off the Eurostar I read with interest the posters informing me about their efforts to drive down carbon emissions and incentivise more sustainable travel. Green makes good business sense, was the very clear message.

This came back to me earlier this month when I read a letter to the Daily Telegraph from a group of think tanks and prominent bloggers, whose “strategy for sustained higher long-term economic performance” entailed rolling-back limits on carbon emissions, investing heavily in high-carbon transportation and energy systems and – shoehorned onto the end – vetoing the EU budget.

Businesses already get it
The idea that a deregulatory race to the bottom could be seen as a recipe for growth is massively out of sync with business thinking. In my experience, most global business leaders have accepted that “business as usual” is no longer an option. High, volatile resource prices, the disruptive impacts of climate change and the fall-out from the financial crisis have seen to that. Where differences creep in is over how far and how fast we need to go in dealing with these issues. This is illustrated by the reaction to the Treasury’s fight over DECC’s decarbonisation plan. Investors are left bewildered as to why HMT would want to risk such a key source of growth.

Evidence is growing
Despite the politics, the business case for green has only become stronger in recent weeks. First came BIS’s figures on the low carbon and environmental goods and services sector, which showed that while the rest of the economy groaned and sagged the green sector continued to expand, with annual growth of just under five per cent. It is a sector which employs just under a million people and in which the UK exports far more than it imports – putting an end to the myth that the green economy is all about importing wind turbines.

Then came the government’s very welcome decision to implement mandatory carbon reporting for listed companies. While this will not of itself ensure that carbon emissions from business fall, the private sector’s ability to make a virtue of necessity means we will soon be seeing companies competing over reductions to their CO2 footprint.

Green growth is a political necessity
And it is a false to think Conservatives don’t get this issue. At the end of June, there was a high-quality debate in Parliament dedicated to green growth. Organised by Laura Sandys MP, the discussion showed consensus from all sides of Parliament that green was vital for our economy. The only real argument was centred on which party was best placed to deliver it – exactly where the political debate should be. As Laura said: “Critics presume ‘going green’ is a philosophical approach to achieving a hair shirt and sandals economy. But transitioning to a greener economy will be the cheaper option when fossil fuels rocket and will protect businesses from volatility, while creating jobs. Greening the economy is not a ‘nice to have’ but a total necessity.”

Next came the UK’s largest trade association, the CBI, who gave a loud and unambiguous call to arms for a green recovery. In a not too subtle dig at Treasury, the CBI Director General let fire at the mixed signals green businesses have been receiving from government over the last year while making clear the economic importance of this sector. It is rare for the CBI to be so forthright in its criticism of the government. They had good reason too – despite a lack of central strategy, their figures showed the green sector having contributed a third of all UK growth in the last year. The message was clear – stop playing politics and get behind one of the UK’s most important economic forces.

The choice – green growth or recession?
In just a month we’ve seen the story change – the only sensible narrative now is that we either embrace the green economy or resign ourselves to a longer and nastier recession. Now is the time for progressive businesses, government departments, and big thinkers to push home the message to the laggards that the only recovery worthy of the name is a green one.

With all this in mind, where next for the UK economy? My own organisation, Green Alliance, is taking a leading role in mapping-out how things will evolve. Our Circular Economy Task Force, launched at the end of June, is bringing together global businesses, trade associations and the government to develop policy solutions to the economic and ecological threats posed by rising resource consumption. The conclusions, due in 12 months, will tell us a great deal about the shape of things to come.

2 comments

  • Great article Will – thanks, and welcome to Green Alliance! WRAP are one of the members of the Circular Economy Task Force, and I look forward to working with you on this agenda.

  • Andy transition

    I couldn’t agree more, green growth is essential and growing the green economy a valiant aim. But this is not a long term solution. We need a paradigm shift on a far more fundamental level. As long as free market capitalism remains the raison d’etre of our governemtn and society then green growth will only every facilitate a speedier recovery to growth in all sectors and therefore a faster exhaustion of our finite resources… Yes to green growth, but in the tandem with addressing the greater challenge of revaluing, rebalancing, redistributing and localisating to facilitate the Great Transition that the New Economics Foundation and others are currently propounding…. Lets plese not get distracted from this path to find ourselves tinkering on the edges of a failed system, but keep championing efforts on all fronts…

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