While being green may not be easy...try being being 'greenest'
'The greenest Government ever': one year on
By Jonathon Porritt
May 10, 2011
When the [UK] Coalition Government decided to get rid of the Sustainable Development Commission, I found it difficult to contain my anger. It was, quite simply, an act of ideological vandalism.
Since then, I’ve been tracking the Government’s performance on all things relating to sustainable development – and even set some tests for Caroline Spelman and Chris Huhne as a measure of how well or how badly they were doing.
Late last year, I was asked by Friends of the Earth to do a more rigorous assessment of the Coalition Government’s performance – to ‘celebrate’ its first year in office. http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/greenest_gvt_ever.pdf
Writing this Report has been a disheartening process. In an ideal world, I would have wanted to demonstrate to Friends of the Earth the usual mixed balance sheet one might expect after just one year. But the 77 individual items pretty much speak for themselves: the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good. At this stage, the likelihood of the Coalition Government living up to its “Greenest Government Ever” pledge is vanishingly remote.
Looking back on it, the early signals weren’t encouraging. It wasn’t just the axing of the Sustainable Development Commission, idiotic though that was. Decisions by DCLG, Treasury and the Department for Education had the alarm bells ringing within the first few weeks. And the outright success stories have been few and far between since then.
So what’s gone wrong? The state of the economy has clearly played a big role here; understandably, that has been the overarching priority for the Government. But that’s a bit of a cop-out. When it suited him, George Osborne promptly conjured up £10 billion in the recent Budget to offset the reductions in revenues from the fuel duty. And a great deal more could have been done to promote the Green Economy as a central part of the Coalition Government’s growth agenda.
The Prime Minister’s personal ‘lack of visibility’ on green issues has not helped. Both Ministers and senior officials read signals of that kind very astutely: however sceptical they may be about the ‘Big Society’, they know that’s what floats Cameron’s boat. And there are some uncanny parallels here with Tony Blair’s Third Way.
The fact that David Cameron has no personal vision for the Green Economy provides all the permission that is required for piecemeal decisions across the rest of Whitehall working against any notion of becoming the Greenest Government Ever.
Allowances should of course be made for lack of knowledge (let alone experience) on the part of incoming Ministers. But it’s clear that several Departments have already learned how to play fast and loose with the language of sustainable development, sounding really committed and enthusiastic, whilst actually doing very little – or even doing the opposite. In DCLG, for instance, they clearly know just how important it is to get the definition of sustainable development properly tied down (as defined in the Local Growth White Paper as “growth that is environmentally sustainable and inter-generationally fair”), but have happily connived in George Osborne’s outrageous redefinition of sustainable development in the Budget as ‘just say yes’.
Listening to Osborne, Pickles and even Vince Cable, it is clear that that the ‘growth at all costs’ lobby has won out over the advocates of ‘sustainable economic development’ - particularly Chris Huhne. That in itself is discouraging, but is compounded by some much more problematic positioning on the part of the Coalition around more ideologically-charged issues like deregulation and “shrinking the size of the state”.
That positioning (anti-regulation, hostile to planning, favouring the private sector, shrinking the state, etc) makes it significantly harder to deliver on the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ pledge, let alone to put sustainable development anywhere near the heart of government.
And that’s a particularly worry for the Liberal Democrats who stand to lose at least as much from a continuing failure to deliver on this pledge as David Cameron does himself.
There is of course a long way still to go, assuming that the Coalition does not fall apart. The hope must be that the more progressive elements in the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will use this first year anniversary to take stock of why they have made so little progress to date – and what needs to happen now to retrieve the situation. Labour, and Ed Miliband in particular, must also work harder to bolster those lone voices in Parliament challenging the Government’s progress on green issues.
In the meantime, Friends of the Earth and all other NGOs have clearly got their work cut out helping Ministers raise their sights – and holding them more effectively to account if things don’t improve.
Improve they must. It is, I’m afraid, unavoidably depressing to see just how rapidly things have gone backwards since May 2010. Instead of having a really strong story to tell at the Rio + 20 Conference in a year’s time, having built up an internationally-recognised framework for sustainable development in the 10 years running up to last year’s General Election, our contribution in Rio – as things stand at the moment – will be humiliatingly insubstantial.
All in all, as close to a nightmare as one can imagine. Especially for the Lib Dems who must take their full share of responsibility for the dereliction that this Report reveals. Coming on top of the AV referendum and some disaster local election results, I sure as hell hope it’s going to stimulate a lot of new thinking.
Source: Forum for the future