Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.
The British press swooned over the visit of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni to the U.K. late last month. We’re suckers for the idea of French romance, particularly mixed with wealth, sophistication, and the sort of impetuosity we "rosbifs" can seldom muster. Apparently, Bruni saw Sarkozy on TV and said to a friend, “I want to have a man with nuclear power.” And what Bruni wants, Bruni gets.
It’s unclear whether Sarkozy knew it was his big machinery that attracted Bruni, but a man who is willing to wear high heels to appear as tall as his glamorous spouse clearly has security issues high on his agenda. As it happens, the new entente cordiale between Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is based, amongst other things, on a shared passion for the atom.
Together, Britain and France will supply the world with nuclear technology, simultaneously saving the industry, creating thousands of jobs, and sorting our energy security issues. I’ve already explored why these arguments don’t really stack up. The Labor Party’s newfound zeal for nuclear power — and Business Secretary John Hutton’s recent speech in which he said expanded nuclear power could be akin to North Sea oil for the British economy — make these interesting times to ask what the legacy of New Labor will be for the environment. It still seems as if, at some fundamental level, they just don’t get it.
This is the administration that, 11 years ago, promised to put the environment at the heart of government. In the decade that followed, Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made no more than a handful of speeches on the environment. His early plans to shift the burden of taxation onto environmentally damaging consumption found an early grave with the fuel protests of 2001. Plans to tackle the number of cars on the roads were gradually rolled back in favor of road building. And his department, the Treasury, has become known as the part of government most resistant to any measure that might boost environmental ambitions at the expense of short-term economic ones.
Two recent events cast further perspective on Labor’s claims to care about the planet. The National Audit Office — scrutineer of central government performance — published a report questioning Labor’s claims to have reduced CO2 emissions in the last decade, saying that if the calculation properly included aviation and shipping, emissions have, in fact, increased. It now looks as if emissions reductions will have to be of the order of 80 to 90 percent if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.
So in early March, when Alistair Darling, Brown’s replacement at the Treasury, delivered his first budget, expectations were high, especially given the government’s own trailing of the budget as a milestone in the greening of the economy. And sure, there were some nice green touches. A one-off showroom tax on the most polluting vehicles, a hike on vehicle fuel duty (delayed because of other energy cost increases), and a promised rejig of Air Passenger Duty to encourage full planes — are all welcome. But commentators soon spotted that Darling’s measures to boost the economy tend to come in with immediate effect, whilst anything for the environment gets put off to a future date. Even the chancellor’s fashionable announcement to get tough on plastic bags (a talismanic environmental issue here in the U.K.) is a threat of legislation in 2009 if voluntary schemes don’t deliver. The delays cast doubt on the true intention. Putting off the fuel-duty hike until it is affordable is difficult to present as demand management, and with the government hell-bent on expansion of airports and new runways, the expected increase in receipts from aviation — 10 percent by 2010 — also looks more like milking the cow than going vegetarian. Not much of a step forward, was the collective verdict.
A few days later, the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission published its annual assessment of the progress government had made on its own sustainability targets. Poor, is the short version, with two-thirds of government departments not on track to hit their CO2 reduction targets, and not much progress over similar dismal showings in previous years. Commission Chair Jonathon Porritt declared the assessment “so depressing I hate having to comment on it,” and another case of the government’s “systemic hypocrisy,” aka, “criticizing everyone else but barely lifting a finger oneself.”
This last remark now sounds prophetic given the latest ruse, in which Britain is lobbying the E.U. to change the rules governing renewable energy targets to make it easier for the U.K. to fulfill its commitment. We’re so far behind, it seems, that we want investments made overseas in renewables to count towards our targets. Impressive stuff.
All a bit embarrassing, you might think. But even a track record as uninspiring as this can be reinterpreted as a platform for future greatness if you have enough self-belief. Along with his ambition to become E.U. president, Tony Blair is now easing himself into a role as the world’s climate change envoy, a move which has attracted some skepticism in the U.K. Blair, remember, is the man who said last year that he wouldn’t be cutting down on his long-haul flying and thought it was “a bit impractical” for the public to do it, either.
Any real leadership on climate change is to be welcomed, but the question is whether a leader so steeped in the idea of material consumption as the path to progress is a credible candidate to take us back from the brink. New Labor has always seen the environmental degradation that comes with affluence as an irritating side effect of a basically sound approach, and waits for a technical fix rather than considering the possibility that it might be a fundamental commentary on the way we live. Let’s hope that Blair can find a formula that gives him a more compelling legacy on climate change.
For now, Darling’s budget shows that, for this government, once again, tackling the greatest challenge facing humanity will just have to wait until it’s more convenient — or too late.