Why government has trouble dealing with big environment issues

Planetary_Boundaries_2015.svgThis post is by Martin Nesbit, head of the Climate and Environmental Governance Programme at IEEP and former director for EU and International Issues at Defra.

A longer version of this piece appears in the latest edition of Green Alliance’s journal, Inside Track, which looks at how the UK should respond to the Great Acceleration.

Why do governments have difficulty dealing with planetary constraints? I have my own ideas, based on my own experience of, well, failing to think about planetary constraints when I was working in government.

Two major constraints
There are two major barriers to policy making that takes account of planetary boundaries. One is the intergenerational nature of the costs and benefits: action now is needed to protect the interests of future generations. And another is the global nature of many of the problems. As Will Steffen points out, in the latest edition of Inside Track, the realisation that the Earth operates as a single, interconnected system is an essential first step.

Let’s look first at the intergenerational problem. There were many stark messages in the 2006 Stern review, which shone new light on the societal choices available in the face of climate change, and created the space for positive institutional change in the UK. One of the messages which received comparatively little attention, however, was its implication that it was not in the narrow interests of current populations to take decisive action; the numbers only add up when you factor in the interests of future generations. But all of our systems are set up for managing conflicts of interest between the current participants in our economy. And democracy, fairly obviously, only grants votes to those who exist now.

Some form of global level governance is needed; for example, to allocate the costs and benefits of a shift to a more sustainable system. This not only runs against the grain of the localism that underpins much environmental thinking, but also looks increasingly challenging in the light of the rise of anti-EU parties across Europe.

Looking for answers
Governments like getting rid of problems. You can do that the hard way, by solving them, or the easier way, by redefining them, or changing their ownership so that they become Someone Else’s Problem.

From a ministerial seat, the decision making landscape is dominated by issues which will cause people to blame you; occasionally (on a good day, or with a good minister) there will be a limited number of clear opportunities to make things better in the longer term. The ideal policy solution in terms of practical politics is one where you achieve the positives without angering people; or, at least, without their anger being directed at you.

But thinking in terms of planetary boundaries means we have to start actively claiming problems, and finding big enough solutions. This runs counter to habits ingrained in the civil service. Bureaucrats like technocratic answers; for example, that we need to calculate and apply a value to the diminishing space for nature, or for the cost of greenhouse gas emissions. But pricing becomes increasingly difficult as we move away from analysis based on incremental change, to analysis which demands that we imagine step change catastrophes and start trying to value their risks.

Emissions trading is a great example. I used to be a true believer in its potential for tackling climate change. I still think it’s a necessary and a good answer; but it’s an incomplete one. Carbon pricing can optimise the use of current infrastructure, but is unlikely ever to be strong enough to drive society level infrastructure changes. In the meantime, it gives policy makers a warm feeling that they have found the technocratic answer to the problem, and made it go away.

Without a serious societal reflection on the balance between growth and sustainability, environmental ambitions will depend on making the most of a failed model, and trying to limit its impacts.

The power of soft power
I was initially sceptical, working on climate change in Defra, at the idea of a Climate Change Act. I didn’t believe it would do what its advocates expected, and force government to manage sectoral emissions year by year to fit within an emissions limit; nor has it. What I missed was its potential to frame objectives in the longer term, through the 2050 target; and that the institutions to police those objectives could, indeed, have an impact on decision making now. The Committee on Climate Change wields impressive levels of soft power, pointing out that energy system decarbonisation demands radical choices, and will not be delivered by price signals alone.

There are other moves to set long term and global boundaries in the form of specific targets, and to create an institutional system that backs up those choices. Wales’s new Well-Being of Future Generations Act, for example, which may be imperfect in some of its elements, but defines the problem in big and inspirational terms. The EU is often criticised for setting environmental objectives before it has the means to meet them; maybe we need to start recognising that this approach has some strengths.

Wherever we can secure public buy-in to the objectives – as was possible on climate change – we should seize the opportunity to nail them in place and give governments the structures they need to facilitate better long term choices. It isn’t a substitute for a wider public debate, and it doesn’t deal with global equity problems, but it’s a start, and makes it more likely that answers to wider challenges can emerge.

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