Monday, 16 May 2011

The Government Litmus Test

At today’s cabinet meeting, the UK government has an important decision to make over the carbon budget for the period 2013-2023. Which way this decision goes has significance beyond the particular issue; it will set the tone for the remaining term of the coalition government and either reinforce David Cameron’s intention expressed a year ago ‘to be the greenest government ever’ or show that the vision has been killed by realpolitik.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the independent body of experts to advise the UK Government on setting carbon budgets, has put forward its recommendations. Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary want the recommendations adopted. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary is opposed; worried at the impact on competiveness for UK industry if the UK adopted more ambitious targets than the rest of Europe.

The discussion today in 10 Downing Street is between the policy required to make progress towards a low-carbon Britain and protecting the current economy. This dilemma is right at the heart of sustainability. In a complex modern economy everything connects, every action has a consequence. Looking too closely at consequences leads to stalemate and inaction. There is always a good reason why something cannot be done.

The differences between the society we live in today and a sustainable society are huge. It is not just the need to change energy systems, to replace conventional power stations with renewable sources; it is also about demand reduction leading to different ways to design our cities and different ways to live. This is not a reversion to the past but a leap forward to a new age of prosperity measured by quality of life in place of crude economic measures.

The changes are revolutionary, and to get there requires a revolution, the Sustainable Revolution. Governments need to adhere to principle and face down the doubters and representatives of special interest groups. To agree a tight carbon budget at the meeting today, in line with the proposals from the CCC, mean that the revolution has a chance to proceed. Significant watering down or back-peddling will put progress on hold and mean that the difficulty and disruption in the long-term will be greater than necessary. The sooner we embrace the revolution the less disrupting it will be; delay because of the perceived difficulties makes acceptable solutions much harder to find.

This is the Litmus test for this government’s green credentials.

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