Westminster gives up ghost on climate change

Wales should make sustainable development its USP

I wrote the other day that the Welsh Government “was conflicted over climate change.” However, the way things are going it will soon be the only government within the British Isles that continues to be serious about the issue. Of course, it has been long on rhetoric on these matters, and much shorter on action. Nonetheless, an announcement that we can expect shortly from the Government in London, that it is winding up the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), should throw these questions into sharp relief.

The SDC was created by Tony Blair, in a move typical of his Janus-like ambivalence. He decided that he should simultaneously be on the side of the climate change challenge and the requirements of economic growth. In that spirit he appointed Jonathon Porritt as the first chair of the SDC in 2000. A charismatic figure and scion of the English establishment. A son of Lord Porritt, eleventh Governor General of New Zealand, and entitled to claim the baronetcy – he was a founder of the Ecology Party that morphed into today’s Green Party. Porritt decided that it was more effective for him to be campaigning inside the Whitehall machine rather than demonstrating on the steps of the temple outside.

All that has now come to naught. The new Conservative and (holding their nose) Liberal Democrat coalition have decided they can save both money and awkwardness by getting rid of the SDC. For them it is a body associated with the previous regime that is supposed to be an independent scrutineer of its efforts in promoting the exquisitely impractical, if not unattainable, goal of ‘sustainable development’.

There’s just one problem. This is because the SDC was set up not only to scrutinise and advise the Westminster Government, but the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments as well. Each of the three devolved administrations have responsibility for their own SDC offices and independent Commissioners – in our own case Peter Davies, who amongst his many other hats is a trustee of the IWA.

However, the Westminster Government is the main paymaster and so the SDC will go. But it will leave a residue in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast. So far as we’re concerned, the most likely outcome will be that the SDC’s Welsh office, located in the University of Wales registry in Cathays Park, will be combined with Cynnal Cymru: Sustain Wales, the Welsh Government’s own, promotional body, and the separate Sustainable Development Commission for Wales, which is currently being relaunched as an independent advisory organisation. It is a crowded field and the demise of the SDC provides an opportunity for some Welsh rationalisation.

However, it will also mean that the Welsh Government is likely to emerge as the sole Governmental voice within the British Isles still clinging, at least rhetorically, to the banner of sustainable development. The more it can turn rhetoric into action, the more it will have an opportunity of putting Wales to the forefront of climate change agenda and carve out a niche position in the process.

There is no doubt that, in the short decade of its life, the SDC’s single most important intervention was the publication in March last year of its report  Prosperity Without Growth? by economist Tim Jackson. This is how Jonathon Porritt, who was then still Chair of the SDC, described its appearance:

Prosperity Without Growth represents the culmination of five year’s work. Tim Jackson, our Economics Commissioner has produced an absolute ‘tour de force’. And there’s a lot riding on this for the SDC.

“Way back in the mists of time, through the 70s and into the early 80s, there was an extremely lively debate about the compatibility between economic growth and big-picture resource and sustainability issues. Heavyweight economists batted academic papers back and forth; party political conferences formally debated the pros and cons of economic growth. All this was nicely stoked up by the two Opec-induced oil shocks, and even the media were all over it. Then oil prices came plunging back down, Jimmy Carter got stuffed by Ronald Reagan, and free-market fundamentalists began their long march through the knackered ranks of superannuated Keynesians.

“The consequence of which has been hardly any serious discussion about economic growth and sustainability since then. Unbelievable, in retrospect, as even a fool could tell you that if you continue to grow both the number of human beings and the volume of goods and services consumed by each of those human beings, on a planet with limited resources and stressed-out life support systems, then you are heading inevitably for a bust. Sooner or later.

“Politicians of all persuasions have hugely enjoyed their 20-year leave of absence. But it’s an inexcusable dereliction of duty to go on avoiding this crunch point in the light of what’s been happening over the last few years – with oil going to $147 a barrel, food reserves at their lowest level for decades, chronic water shortages the world over, accelerating climate change and so on. Paradoxically, the collapse in the global economy gives us some breathing space – but not much. If it’s back to business-as-usual, growth-at-all-costs as the sole route to progress, then biophysical reality will not long be delayed.

“Politicians have got used to using one get-out clause in terms of avoiding any intellectual encounter with that crunch point: decoupling. Just decouple the benefits of economic growth from its costs (or externalities, as economists call them) through technology-driven resource efficiency, and all will be well.

“If only. One of the toughest messages in Prosperity Without Growth? comes in Tim Jackson’s clinical critique of “the myth of decoupling”. The reality is that even progress on relative decoupling (reduced environmental impact per unit of GDP) has been limited, whilst progress on absolute decoupling (reduced environmental impact, full stop – which is what we have to achieve) has been non-existent.

“That isn’t to deny the critical significance of decoupling. We desperately need far more of it than anything we’ve seen so far. Which means governments have got to do it, rather than just talk about it, even as they come to the inconvenient conclusion that it won’t be enough on its own anyway.

“Politicians may not want to hear these messages. But it’s our task to broadcast them much more loudly and much more clearly than we’ve done over the last 20 years. And Prosperity Without Growth? is what you need to make that happen.”

Is it too much to hope that our Welsh Government now, it seems, the sole Government in the British isles flying the flag for sustainable development, will take this message on board? If we could make it our Welsh Unique Selling Point that would certainly place Wales on the global climate change map.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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