Running Green Alliance often feels like bare back horse riding. It requires a constant appetite for danger, good balance and lots of trust. You don’t have the padding of a large public membership to keep you stable, but if you channel the support and ideas of the sector you get an exhilarating ride. My journey at Green Alliance started a couple of weeks after the Cameron and Clegg nuptials in the rose garden at No10, and ends a few months after the bomb shell of the Brexit vote. It’s been a long six years for environmental policy and politics so, in my last week as director, I thought I’d try and capture some of the things I’ve learnt:
The value of British conservatism not being climate sceptic
I felt frustrated many times by David Cameron’s unwillingness to translate his private enthusiasm for climate action into public leadership, and there are many reasons to be critical of the government’s performance on the low carbon economy. But I always remind myself that these disappointments have been nothing to the headache we would have had if the UK had developed a left-right split on climate change like the rest of the Anglophone world.
In summer 2014, Tony Abbott, then Australian PM, stood alongside the Canadian PM and invited the UK to join a centre-right coalition to limit climate action. His plan was to isolate Obama, and block any chances of an agreement in Paris. It was a moment to savour when No10 rebuffed the offer, but imagine the damage that would have done if the British Conservative party had been in the same place as its sister parties in North America, where denying climate science is still a virility test for its leaders.
We should still be vigilant to the risk of British conservatism’s position unravelling, but it’s not by chance that the idea of UK diplomatic leadership on climate has been normalised in successive British governments. It has taken behind the scenes leadership by many individual conservative politicians, acts of magnanimity by the opposition (hat tip to Ed Miliband), and many years of education by scientists and advocates from the business and NGO sector. I’m really proud of the role Green Alliance has played in this collective effort, culminating in securing the 2015 pre-election climate pledge from the party leaders. It locked in a commitment to carbon budgets and UK coal phase out, and it has reverberated around the world.
Recession is our greatest enemy
Why is it that many leading businesses go big on green, whilst most leading politicians don’t? The reason is that being green is perceived by the public as a marker for higher quality but also for higher cost. So, if you are a retail company seeking to differentiate yourself on the quality of your product, green is good (Unilever, M&S, B&Q); but, if you are a politician seeking to show you care about voters’ falling standard of living, you either speak quietly on green issues (Cameron only went public on climate action when abroad) or you attack it (Osborne and Farage).
What we learnt from the last recession is that declining GDP squeezes the life out of the quality agenda, because the debate is entirely about the quantity of growth. The fact that zero carbon buildings are better to live and work in held no sway when the government was seeking to boost economic activity, and so higher standards were dropped in pursuit of a short sugary hit for the construction sector.
Given this dynamic it’s not surprising that we lost some of the policies that drive a greener economy, but it’s also encouraging that we’ve managed to grow investment in some sub-sectors.
My first foray into renewables was when I was at Greenpeace, bobbing in front of an oil rig holding a small banner saying ‘wind not oil’. After that limp start, we went on to help get the first offshore wind farm built in the UK. So I’m delighted that some recent deep thinking between Green Alliance and the industry persuaded the government to open the door to further growth in the sector over the coming years. I fully expect wind energy to be powering my retirement mobility scooter and, if we can avoid another deep recession, it may also be powering the majority of UK homes well before that.
We haven’t won the greener economy argument yet, but might succeed through Brexit
On the face of it the Brexit vote endorses political values that are the antithesis of a sustainable, inclusive economy, but it also creates an existential crisis for the UK where choices about our economic future have to be much more explicit. That normally only happens after a deep recession (the 1930s) or a big war (the 1950s) so it really is a once in a generation moment, even if the exit negotiations themselves will be grim.
One of the reasons we‘ve made slow progress in getting carbon, resources and healthy natural systems higher on the political agenda is because the economic orthodoxy was so strong it was not even debated. If you saw the Brexit vote as a rejection of the status quo, because too few people feel they are benefiting, then we are now the lab rat in an experiment that appears to be playing out across the world. Politicians everywhere are finding it harder and harder to sell globalisation as the answer to all our problems, and what emerges from the Brexit experiment will tell us a lot about where capitalism goes next. It’s hard to see how a race to the bottom (weaker standards, lower taxation, lower public expenditure) will address the needs of those feeling left behind, however much some Brexit campaign leaders would wish it to be otherwise. It’s also hard to imagine that the usual British strategy of muddling through will be effective, given that we will have to be much clearer about the UK’s offer to attract or keep investors. Which is why we should be cautiously optimistic that a ‘going for gold’ strategy might just work.
We beat the Chinese and the Australians at the Olympics, not because of any innate advantage from being British, but because we developed competitive advantage based on long term investment in elite sport from the lottery and government, and a more disciplined approach to winning. In this context, high environment and labour standards, and a competitive strategy that is robust against long term carbon and resource trends, is a basic requirement for success. Whether this is called a greener economy or not doesn’t matter, but going ‘high’ or ‘low’ determines the future of pretty much everything we care about, whether it is education, manufacturing or the countryside.
The middle-distance matters most
The environment sector has a higher proportion of adrenaline junkies than most, age having only slightly tempered my own addiction but, as a result, we spend too much time reacting to events and fighting fires. We don’t invest enough in the threats and opportunities which take a few years to address. We should start addressing our hopes and fears for the next government now.
Green Alliance’s work with green Conservatives came good when we got their active support for our climate pledge four years after we started working with them, but it was worth the wait. My biggest fear for the next election is that the Conservatives, under renewed threat from the populist right, won’t feel confident defending high environmental standards as part of any post Brexit settlement; this will be the challenge in finding a new agricultural support scheme to replace CAP, and replacing European environmental law. The deregulation impulse runs deep in the Conservative party, and even conservative allies struggle to explain the difference between red tape and green standards.
I’m confident that the new advocacy coalition that Green Alliance has pulled together to address Brexit will reduce this risk, but there is also an intellectual and practical challenge. We should invest now in helping politicians to identify what better environmental standards could look like after we leave the EU, build trust in smart regulation between business and NGOs, and offer Whitehall practical support for a bold British approach to standard setting.
Unless we address economic inequality we will struggle to protect what we love
I don’t share Naomi Klein’s view that climate change changes everything. It changes a few things a fair bit, but it doesn’t require the biggest economic injustices to be addressed. They deserve to be tackled in their own right because they constrain human freedoms and diminish society. Substituting fossil fuels for renewables can be done by a relatively small number of energy and technology providers and, despite what both the hard left and the hard right think, the low carbon transition is compatible with most variants of capitalism across the world.
However, protecting our wild places, water and soil resources is very much harder to tackle in the current system because the growth of inequality within countries is reducing the political space for ambitious new conservation action. We’ve lost a lot of the Amazon since I first visited it 25 years ago, and the decline will continue unless indigenous communities have their land rights protected, and new economic opportunities are made available to the rural poor. This is one of the reasons why I’m excited to be moving to Oxfam, which is campaigning in over 35 countries for greater economic rights for the poorest, and it’s also why I won’t stop being an environmental advocate.
I’m going to be sad to leave the wonderful, effervescent collective brain which is Green Alliance and its network of partners, but I’ll enjoy watching it in its next phase. Thanks for your support. It’s been a great ride.