‘What does it take to get green policies implemented in government?’ was the question I posed three years ago on this blog, shortly after my departure as special adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. One of my abiding memories of my government experience was the inordinate amount of time I’d had to spend arguing with special advisers in other departments over green policy. It wasn’t that we always lost the arguments – far from it, thanks to my boss Chris Huhne – it was that there was no overall mechanism to require anyone else in government to aim to be ‘the greenest government ever’.
Now, thanks to WWF-UK, I’ve been able to suggest some answers to the question; my pamphlet, Greening the machinery of government: mainstreaming environmental objectives, was published on 24 March.
Generally speaking, governments don’t come to power determined to trash the environment. Yet governments of all political complexions have routinely ignored or downplayed environmental factors and outcomes compared to economic or political priorities.
Three big problems with government on the environment
I argue that this is due to three underlying problems. First, the role that natural capital plays in sustaining the economy and human well-being is systematically undervalued in government decision making, as argued in the three excellent reports from the Natural Capital Committee. Second, British government decision making is notoriously prone to short termism, whereas many environmental impacts only become evident over a long period.
And third, since environmental costs and benefits are generally underrated, because natural assets are undervalued and environmental challenges not seen as urgent, the departments which promote environmental policy – in the current set-up, DECC and Defra – are generally small and of low political status; yet environmental policy cannot be realised by environment departments on their own.
For the past twenty years, successive British governments have tried various models in an attempt to tackle the problem, including the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Commission, the Environmental Audit Committee, and much else. They’ve had some effect, but they haven’t solved the problem. I want to suggest a more comprehensive set of solutions.
Force long term thinking
Frameworks for long term thinking need to be imposed on government decision makers. The 2008 Climate Change Act and the carbon budgets recommended by the Committee on Climate Change already achieve this for greenhouse gas emissions; this model should be mirrored by creating a statutory independent Natural Capital Committee, overseeing progress towards long term aims, set out in legislation, and interim ‘budgets’ or targets for natural capital, including natural resources, biodiversity, habitats, air and water.
Put environment onto the security agenda
The UK’s National Security Strategy should be extended to include a comprehensive analysis of the risks to UK society and economy from environmental factors, and these should be discussed regularly by the National Security Council – a way of forcing the issue onto the agenda of the prime minister, who chairs it.
Borrowing an approach used in the US, all public bodies should be required to report on the extent to which the risks identified by the analysis pose a threat to their ability to fulfil their responsibilities, and to produce a resilience plan to deal with the likely threats.
Strengthen the environmental voice in government
The current weakness of the environmental voice in government needs to be rectified. Tempting though I found it to recommend breaking up the Treasury – a consistent barrier to progress – I concluded this was likely to be too disruptive, and it would be better to try and get the Treasury on side. The Treasury should be given a new, top level priority to ensure that the economy is sustainable, resource efficient and low carbon, delivering the greatest overall welfare benefit for society. A cabinet level chief secretary for sustainability should be created in the Treasury, responsible for co-ordinating government wide actions towards this aim.
Improve cross-government working
Given the wide range of departments whose actions affect environmental outcomes, joint units and activities should be encouraged; possibilities include an Office for Local Air Quality and an Office for Resource Management, to co-ordinate government action to improve resource efficiency and to promote ‘circular economy’ models.
So many activities of government are relevant to environmental outcomes that better procedures are needed to require all departments to consider environmental costs and benefits when taking decisions and spending money. This includes reforming the systems for monitoring and challenging departmental business plans, systems for impact and regulatory assessment and investment appraisal, Treasury modelling tools and the system of regulatory appraisal.
Most importantly, a new Office of Environmental Responsibility – modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility – should be created to work with departments to help them draw up business plans and sustainable development strategies, scrutinise and query departments’ key decisions and activities and undertake independent analysis of the government’s environmental performance.
These are just the headline proposals I make in Greening the machinery of government; there’s more detail in the document.
The government can do it if it wants to
It’s worth remembering, however, that there is no substitute for political will. If a government is elected which does not want to pursue ambitious environmental policies, there is no institutional set up which can make it do so. But, if the coming election produces political leadership which is determined to make a difference on the green agenda, there’s plenty that can be done to make it less difficult.