Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Now’s a good time to sort out green governance

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 408, P58), in January 2009.

There has been much media speculation over whether – along with jobs, mortgages and over-inflated bonuses – the economic crisis has also killed green. However, there was no sign of this in the outrage over the government’s decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow. The economic stimulus package proposed by US president Barack Obama is distinctly green in colour. In the UK, the rather pale green tint to Gordon Brown’s stimulus package has been outbid by David Cameron’s much greener energy strategy.

But it is really only climate change that is getting any attention. The rest of the green agenda is nowhere. No one is paying attention to biodiversity loss. Sales of organic food have tanked. Recycling is collapsing. Air and water pollution are falling as the economy slows, undermining the drive for tougher limits. Meanwhile, the government is clearing the way with its deregulation drive and new planning laws for a sustained assault on the environment when economic recovery begins.

Of course, the reality is more prosaic. Politicians and the media alike are indeed distracted by the recession’s surprising severity. The headlong rush to develop, fuelled by the economics of the madhouse, has slowed. This will temporarily reduce the rate at which pollution and resource consumption pressures on the environment grow. Some of the green changes in consumer preferences and business priorities will persist. More importantly, we will not quickly forget the extent to which careless growth can damage the environmental foundations of prosperity and security.

But when and if there is a sustained recovery, the rampant environmental pressures that drove the rise in environmental awareness will come roaring back. Both government and business would do well to take advantage of a spell out of the headlines to think hard about how to best manage the environment in what will be a rather different world.

Two of those differences will be particularly important. The second decade of the 21st century will be a lot more risk-averse than the first. Public moods are rarely finely focused. Although financial risk will be uppermost in the mind, there will also be a more general mood of caution about any proposition, including those that might harm the environment or health.

Furthermore, the public purse will be empty and the pressure to restore the health of the public finances acute. We have yet to see the full financial cost of repairing the damage done by the world’s bankers but it will constrain other priorities, including the environment, for years to come. The recent call by Digby Jones to cut the civil service in half may be daft but such calls will carry more weight when we are cutting core public services to the bone.

Recovery will thus be accompanied by two powerful forces working in opposite directions. Pushing one way will be pressure to contain the environmental damage of a growing economy. Pushing the other way will be pressure to dramatically reduce the cost of managing the environment properly.

As with all dilemmas, the mistake would be to choose a horn to be impaled on. An even bigger mistake would be trying to find some point of balance midway between the horns. This normally results in being impaled by both. Dilemmas can really only be successfully dealt with by using innovation to resolve them.

It is a sad truth that 12 years of Labour government have left the country with weaker institutions to manage the environment than it inherited. This is not by design. Indeed, Labour entered government with a strong set of good intentions set out in In trust for tomorrow. Delivering against those intentions, however, required a more sophisticated administration of the machinery of government than Labour has been able to achieve.

This is partly because of the nature of environmental problems. Government works most smoothly when problems can be dealt with inside departmental silos where the resources and tools are managed by the same minister. It works least well when problems require a high degree of horizontal coordination between departments run by several and often competing ministers.

In the past this problem was tackled, not always successfully, by the creation of a neutral but powerful Cabinet machinery charged with the task of developing inter-departmental agreement on the options to be put to ministers. Labour effectively abolished this device and replaced it with the now famous sofa, which seems to have become smaller as time has gone on.

Effective environmental policy requires just the horizontal coordination government finds most difficult. Nothing reveals this more clearly than the absurd contradiction of trying to deal with climate change by driving the price of carbon up at the same time as trying to make the economy more competitive by driving the price of energy down.

As the tally of the government’s environmental failures has grown faster than its successes, its response over the past decade has been to indulge in ad hoc and often abrupt changes in the machinery of governing. This has led to more fragmentation of environmental policy responsibilities into different departments.

There is no more logic in physical planning, which plays a central part in determining the economy’s carbon intensity, being in a different department from the one that manages the new carbon budgets than there is in both being separate from the department overseeing the UK’s adaptation to climate change. Yet this is where the Energy and Climate Change, Communities, and Environment Departments find themselves.

As the pressures generated by the recovery kick in, this inchoate mess will not be able to cope. It is time we took a more considered look at environmental governance in Britain. That will be the subject of next month’s column.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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