What will it take to push the government in a greener direction?
In early June I attended the Westminster eForum Keynote Seminar on ‘Government Sustainability: Greener Buildings, Goods and Services’. I was surprised to find out how many people in government are dedicated to sustainability. There are Sustainability COOs, Heads and Directors. I don’t know why I was so taken aback. Stop and think about it: the government estate (as in buildings, goods and services) is a multimillion pound operation; these people are definitely needed. However, they all seemed a bit detached, talking about targets and how each department is faring in the struggle to meet them. Where was the vision?
Fortunately, Andrew Lee, the Sustainable Development Commission’s chief exec, is a man who has had his finger on the pulse for a long time. He knows where all the departments are at and what they need to do to move ahead. Step one: like any other major corporation, the government needs a business case to look at sustainability options. These options do not only include the ‘low-hanging fruit’, such as optimising space by moving more workers into existing offices, but also investment to effect real change. For example, the government’s own potential for renewable energy sources in the form of wind and photovoltaics is barely touched, with only 0.01 per cent of energy used by government coming from its own renewable sources.
Step two, leadership is crucial if these opportunities are to be realised. And what makes a good leader? A good start might be to read ‘Prosperity Without Growth?’ and to realise that terms such as ‘demand management’ must become commonplace at least until and if we get to grips with the present environmental crisis. Here may lie the real issue with government – that it cannot accept that growth is not currently a sustainable practice. We are used to growing: our economy, our families, our houses… but now we have to think differently, because the resources are just not there. In fact, we do not need more than we have. We can use existing resources in a smarter way and, at the same time, promote a more socially just distribution of wealth.
I asked one of the eForum’s chairs Lord Redesdale, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, who presided over the Climate Change Act 2008, if he thought we’d move ahead with individual carbon allowances. His response was a definite ‘no’ – it seems the public mood is incompatible with such Communist-style restrictions. He thinks the most viable option is to create a corporate carbon tax. So, the laissez-faire economy is still robustly protected.
Green entrepreneurs may yet get us out of this mess but, until they do, while small local companies are doing their best to become carbon zero, can’t the un-green wealthy be exposed for squanderous private jets, fuel-guzzling cars, multiple houses, boats, etc? Would it not be a little bit like exposing the untrustworthiness of certain MPs by publishing their bogus expense claims? If individual responsibility is a corollary of laissez-faire economics, I don’t see a problem with that.