Where’s the Green gone George ?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Where’s the Green gone George ?

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Last  Wednesday, Caroline Spelman, at the launch of the Government’s new Ecosystems Taskforce stated emphatically that the natural environment underpins global economic performance.  She had good reason to sound authoritative – she has the weight of evidence from some of the most monumental pieces of research ever compiled in recent times, to back her up.  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2004), the Stern Review (2006), The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2010) and the UK NEA (2011) all reach that same, ineluctable, conclusion.  

So, does the Coalition, with the ambition to be the greenest government ever, accept this?  Well, on the one hand, we can conclude it does.  David Cameron himself recognises that GDP is not an appropriate metric to gauge improvements in wellbeing and deserves great credit in commissioning research into developing a wellbeing indicator.  Defra, the Treasury and the Office of National Statistics also recognise the centrality of nature to economic welfare through the creation of Natural Capital Committee.  We could on that basis conclude the Government understand.

However, the Government’s growth strategy, the strategy that really determines nature’s fate, tells a completely different story.  The Plan for Growth is introducing a slate of anti- environmental measures which essentially imply that the Coalition believes that the environment can be sacrificed for the short term imperative of jobs and growth.  We see this with the ‘red tape challenge,’ cuts to solar subsidies and the travesty of the planning reforms.

One outstanding irony of this myopia comes from the Government’s recognition of the need to reduce the deficit. Financial liberalisation meant we could all live beyond our means, happily burdening future generations with the private and national debts we have incurred through excessive consumption.  This is clearly not fair and we applaud the Government for its attempts to rectify that.  But we have exactly the same problem with the natural environment.  All the evidence we have demonstrates how we are running down the natural capital which should rightfully be the inheritance of future generations, but the Government is neglecting to apply its own logic to this crucial area.   Instead of building up our natural capital – a fundamental component of the wealth of our children, the government justifies accelerating its depletion for the sake of its short term, unsustainable growth strategy.

I fully accept that jobs and sustainable growth should be the focus of Government intervention right now.  We believe there is a way to deliver sound, sensible stimuli to the UK economy through green economy thinking, through a Green Investment Bank with real borrowing powers and sensible levels of initial public capitalisation to effect the wrenching transition we need to set ourselves on a low carbon trajectory; through fiscal policy that stimulates growth and investment in green industries, such as the government’s Green Deal; though regulatory certainty for industry, through investing in the knowledge economy and in smart technology, for example, the Government’s renewable energy commitments, which DECC estimates will support £1.7 billion investment and 9,500 new jobs in 2011/12.

The reality is that the onslaught against planning, regulation and the environment in the name of growth is based on a fallacy. No economic textbook fingers environmental protection as a key hindrance to economic productivity.  On the other hand, the economics literature is replete with evidence on the importance of environmental protection to our wellbeing and economic performance. These facts have broad recognition from across the political spectrum.  The coterie of advisers around the Chancellor are in danger of becoming the environmental equivalents of the climate sceptics.  Unlike them though, they are not shouting from the sidelines, they have within their power the capacity to undermine prosperity for generations to come.   

So we shall wait with interest to see which Green Government gets represented in the Chancellor’s autumn statement.  Will it be the pro green Dr Jekyll, with smart growth prescriptions or will it still be an anti-green Mr Hyde introducing further deregulatory, anti environmental measures?

We'll see what tomorrow brings.

  • Never understand this argument of picking on one company such as Shell as they are all doing more or less similar type of damage and indeed all of us are just as guilty as they are unless we go back to cave dwelling.There is absolutely no chance of sensibly doing these climate targets as the difference this country can make as I think the figure of pollution we are guilty of is 2% so if we make a colossal effort and cut that by 25% we will hardly make any difference while major polluters like the 4 main polluters increase their pollution not seeming to care while we spend billions on minute cuts.

    What always seems strange to me reading things like this is that lots of people seem to think they are innocent but we are all as guilty as Shell of destroying the earths resourses as without us buying things the earths resources would not get destroyed.

  • Yes Peter, we do have a corporate clearance process. And no, we will not be seeking funds from any fossil fuel company.

  • I agree with most of this Martin and the comments of Hatbirder re tar sand extraction; this is the line that can not be crossed if we are to stand any hope of staying within 2C climate target. My own ambivalence to Shell goes back to the Biafran War; Nigeria where I was born and the loss of two of our "household" "disapeared" to that war; Amnesty has called for a billion pound reparation for the Niger Delta. I agree.

    I trust that no "green" groups will deal with any company that has any dealings with tar shale extraction.

    I note that BTO maintains an "impartiality" in this matter and has past dealings with Shell and has no intention of "updating" its regrettable stance. I say this with great sadness having supported BTO for 30 years and resigned on this issue having once met members of the Saro-Wiwa family and my loss of servant/friends does not pale with time.

    I trust that RSPB has clear ethical standards in its dealings with business to suppport its admirable stance above ?

  • Really well said Martin, thanks, and hopefully somebody in government is paying attention!

    You could also add to the list of anti-green measures covert support for Canada's tar sand oil extraction as covered in the Guardian yesterday: www.guardian.co.uk/.../canada-oil-sands-uk-backing

    Presumably this is in the name of supporting UK business in BP and Shell, but betrays a somewhat contradictory approach on climate change, to put it mildly.