A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 26 March 2010

We need new green economics

Whatever connects the controversy about how fast the glaciers are melting with the results of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, it certainly isn't the latest Tory campaign poster "We can't go on like this" that links all three in confusion and insecurity. The British public have - rightly - become far more accepting of homosexuality and co-habitation rather than marriage. Caricatures that once presented these as a threat to the very fabric of society have largely melted away. We are beginning to see that what undermines society and relationships is a more complex set of social and economic forces. At the same time, however, more people in Britain identify themselves today as Conservative supporters rather than Labour. It is the first time this has happened in 20 years. Many Labour supporters will say that this is always where new Labour was going to take us - that by constantly putting itself close to Tory policy positions new Labour created the conditions in which the public would eventually feel safer identifying themselves with "the real thing." It is a tempting, but insufficient explanation. The greatest damage over the last 20 years is to be found in the destruction of our sense of common security.

Labour's great social transformations, post-1945, came out of the life and death interdependencies of wartime. The NHS, state pensions, universal education and the national insurance system all arose from this sense of social - and intergenerational - solidarity. The last 20 years have been obsessed with the individual and the immediate. Throw this into the middle of an economic crisis and no wonder we are confused. Society has lost faith in the notion that we can rely on each other or that the collective safety nets, constructed over decades, remain in place and are strong enough. If workers' pensions can be stolen, the state pension eroded, the NHS handed over to private finance and essential utilities delivering gas, electricity and water security all privatised, no wonder a "you're on your own" belief predominates. An obsession with means-tested welfare only accentuates this. New Labour's assertion that it was comfortable with the filthy rich sent damaging messages through the whole political system. Taxing the filthy rich has become taboo. As a result, middle England sees itself as carrying the costs of the welfare state. Britain now has a wider gap between rich and poor than at any time over the past 40 years.

It is the middle class that sees itself as taking the strain. This is what comes across in the Social Attitudes Survey. How does this connect to the glaciers? The answer is in a fear of the future and a predictable retreat into individual bunker mentalities. Those of us who campaign about the urgency of facing up to climate change should welcome the IPCC controversy. It is a really good example of the scientific community working as it should. Data was checked. Sources were chased up. An error of some magnitude was identified and the data corrected. It is how science should work. The comments by the head of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri were, of course, unfortunate. But then we all have the ability to look daft on occasions. The key point is that the recalculation of figures changes nothing of the central IPCC case. Climate sceptics can never subject their claims to the same scrutiny, because the claims fall apart. This is a triumph of critical thinking, not a failure. So how do we apply this to what we do now? As Britain stumbles over questions about whether it is finally coming out of recession - and how anyone would know - the most significant piece of analysis has been quietly pushed to one side.

It is to be found in the New Economics Foundation report Growth Isn't Possible: Why Rich Nations Need A New Economic Direction. NEF discreetly points out that Britain and other industrial nations cannot come out of the current crisis chasing the same "growth" economics that took us into it. This has nothing to do with the world having been turned into a financial casino. Instead it takes climate stability as the central determinant of our survival. It is the point at which we have to treat the public as grown-ups. If the science is right, and climate stability can only be secured within a 2°C increase in global temperatures, tomorrow's economics cannot simply shop its way out of a crisis. We have to find an economics that is rooted in low-carbon living. This isn't a hair-shirt existence but one that combines better living with treading more lightly on the planet. Some of the most radical changes just come from thinking differently. When Britain used to be choked up with smog we introduced the Clean Air Acts. No-one talked of "tradable breathing permits" or a market price for soot. We simply gave industry notice that it had to meet new air quality standards. Some screamed that it would be the end of British industry - but it never was; these new rules simply took us into another era.

Such a change of thought today might mean keeping the car scrappage scheme but allowing it to be used only to acquire ultra-low-carbon vehicles. It would turn the boiler scrappage scheme into one that made CHP (combined heat and power) boilers the replacement of choice. We have to skip the generation of "what we already have in stock" in favour of where we want to be next. Cities in Germany are now considering alternatives to new power stations. One is a plan to install 100,000 CHP boilers in houses, offices, schools and factories in Hamburg and having them linked to a central control unit. This could deliver up to 2GW of electricity - enough to replace two power stations. The Germans describe this as an energy "swarm." As well as meeting individual energy needs, it would deliver energy security to the city as a whole. It is "power to the parlour," but on a collective rather than individual basis. Moreover, the city in question is looking to run the show on bio-methane, derived from processing its own domestic waste. It is an economics that joins up the dots of living holistically. People in Germany are no better than we are in understanding what a ton of carbon looks like. They just understand that you need a different set of ground rules if the market is to make less of a mess. Demand reduction will have to become the new economics of growth. We need markets that will sell non-consumption and job creation at the same time.

The obvious example is in how we could end fuel poverty. Half of Britain's current carbon emissions come from existing buildings. Over five million households live in fuel poverty. If we were to raise the energy efficiency of these properties, Britain could cut the carbon emission by 60 per cent in a period of six or seven years. It would, of course, create huge numbers of jobs in the process. This is the new mindset Britain needs to take us out of the era of insecurity and into one of low-carbon living. In doing so, it would reverse the rightward drift in social attitudes, re-instating a belief that common security rather than social fragmentation holds the key to our future. Grasp this and we may discover we can save something of the glaciers as well as ourselves.

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