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Sustainability in austerity

We asked six leading experts to give their verdict on the events of 2011 in the key areas of public services, local economic development, civil society, poverty, sustainability and housing and suggest the way forward in 2012. Julian Dobson reflects on a year when aspirations to become ‘the greenest government ever’ were unceremoniously dumped

One of Copenhagen’s bike-friendly trains.

Earlier this year a major city explained why it was so proud of its green technology sector.

‘Investing in cycling lanes not only cuts CO2 emissions and improves citizens’ health and quality of life, but improves the bottom line of the city,’ it explained.

‘Investing in an integrated public transport system not only reduces traffic congestion, but saves billions… and keeps the city efficient and competitive. Homegrown energy not only produces electricity, but allows local businesses to become strong and competitive.’

London? Clearly not. Liverpool or Leeds? Don’t be absurd. The city was Copenhagen, and there are many European cities not far behind.

Green technology is Denmark’s best-performing business sector, outperforming the economy as a whole. The report, Copenhagen – Beyond Green, puts the success down to four factors.

First is a bold vision. Second is political support. Third is prolific innovation. Fourth is timing. Denmark, it says, invested in wind energy before it was profitable, supporting the industry with public investment. It is now the world leader.

The up and coming green industry is solar power. According to the Washington based Earth Policy Institute, world output of photovoltaic cells doubled between 2009 and 2010. The world’s leading producer was China, manufacturing nearly half the world’s solar cells. UK production was insignificant.

Germany now has more than 17,000 megawatts of installed solar electricity, enough to power 3.4 million homes. The UK, on the other hand, declared its intent by announcing cuts in the solar feed-in tariff, to be implemented before consultation on the changes finished. Carillion Energy Services subsequently put 4,500 staff on notice of redundancy.

Behind this is a rapid retreat from the aspiration of becoming the ‘greenest government ever’. Shortly before the Conservative Party conference, Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie declared green policies were ‘at best irrelevant to the task in hand, if not downright contradictory to it’. Opposing the third Heathrow runway, for example, was ‘fuzzy greenery’, he wrote in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies.

Another favoured think tank, Civitas, added fuel to the fire. In a pamphlet, A Strategy for Economic Growth, it argued that policies to counter climate change were ‘weakening the manufacturing sector, undermining our economic recovery and destroying jobs’.

George Osborne bought the line. At the party conference, he made it clear that the last thing Britain would do would be to lead. ‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,’ he declared. ‘So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.’

While our government takes the view that we can’t afford to invest in green technologies at significant scale, our competitors believe they can’t afford not to.

The consequences will be predictable, and uncomfortable for those who imagine we can build our way out of recession without rethinking what economic growth is for, why we want it and what the long-term costs might be.

So what are my predictions for 2012?

1. The phrase ‘greenest government ever’ will only be used ironically (with a possible exception for people living in Scotland).

2. Ministers will continue to shuffle awkwardly at the growing evidence of the impacts of climate change, ducking each new challenge with impressive agility.

3. The failure of national and international governance will spur local action. People will look to cities like Manchester to take the lead in developing smarter and greener local economies, and to towns like Todmorden to show how it can work at a community level.

4. Businesses will become readier for change even while the government claims to support business interests by delaying change – because they will be driven by financial realities, not political spin.

5. We will see more coherent and urgent lobbying for civic and political action as the protesters of the Occupy movement, those affected by public service cuts, and advocates of a sustainable economy start to realise they have common cause. That may be our best hope for the year ahead.

  • This is the second in a series of articles from leading thinkers. Read other articles in the series by Simon Parker on public sector shrinkage; Julia Unwin on poverty; Brendan Nevin on the crisis in housing; Neil McInroy on alternatives to economic growth and Toby Blume on civil society stepping up

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