Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Sustainable spin

In my previous post, I referred to the statement by Ieuan Wyn Jones on the transport grant settlement. Normal Mouth picks up on the same issue, although dealing more with the substance of the issue than the spin.

The idea put forward by Normal Mouth that the burden of reducing CO2 emissions should fall more heavily on the richest parts of the UK – even to the extent of off-setting any increases which are necessary to secure the development of the less well-off areas is an interesting one. It is, ultimately, a form of redistribution of wealth within the UK. It's an honest position to take, and a valid one, as long as the offsets actually occur.

And there’s the rub; with the UK and Welsh governments clearly well adrift from their targets for CO2 reductions, I simply don’t believe that the political will is likely to be forthcoming for the South East of England (which is the area that would ultimately have to pay the price) to take on the additional CO2 reductions which would be needed, or that they would hapen in the same timescales, such that there would be no overall net increase at any point in time. I find myself, therefore, closer to the position of FoE, which is that we have to seize every opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, and not shy away from the consequences of those decisions.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that rail can displace road, in a Welsh context, to the extent that FoE might wish – Normal Mouth makes some telling points on that issue. But fundamentally, the stance taken by FoE seems to me also to be an honest and valid one.

What is neither honest nor valid is to place the economic development needs higher than the environmental ones, with no attempt to negotiate corresponding additional CO2 cuts elsewhere, and then spin that as being something which it is not, i.e. an environmentally sound decision. Yet that is precisely what the Assembly government, and the deputy first minister in particular, have tried to do.

I said in my previous post that ‘green’ is a word with more than one meaning – so is ‘sustainable’. At its basest, politicians seem to interpret it as meaning nothing more than ‘whatever we can get away with’. As long as they believe that spin meets that definition, they will continue to use it.


Normal Mouth said...

Lee Waters on the Bevan Foundation blog has taken up the cudgels on the wider question of sustainability. His argument - and I do not paraphrase at all - is to bugger balance, i.e go for environmental protection over all else.

I think this (like the stance of FoE which you summarise) to be unrealistic and quite probably counter-productive. I am aware that we need to make very significant cuts right now, but we need make those cuts with a scalpel not a meat cleaver.

There is so much fat in everything we all do, like the vast amount of emissions that quite literally vanish through the roofs of power stations (answer: much more microgeneration) or the persistence of carbon-intensive energy production when low-carbon but politically difficult alternatives (i.e nuclear) exist.

Tim Flannery makes a very good point in his book The Weather Makers; our priority should be aiming to decarbonise energy production and from that point aim to power our transport from these clean sources. Simply telling people they shouldn't have adequate roads, mustn't fly and should cycle and walk more is worse than ineffective; it is likely to inure the wider populace to the importance of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

Lee argues that we cannot simply say "sort out poverty and then we can be green. Quite agree. Equally, however, we cannot also say "bugger prosperity, we need to save the planet". Sustainable solutions are those that ensure that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we deal with poverty. If not the pendulum will swing between the two, and if there is one thing both objectives need it is long-term consistency in approach.

So with all that in mind, I think you are being more than a little harsh on the DFM. It was certainly a mistake for his transport announcement to be packaged up as a green statement. It was perfectly reasonable for it to be presented as a sustainable one.

Lee Waters said...

I don't consider sustainability and economic development to be incompatible. Indeed in my entry I made the point that if Wales was ahead of the curve there would be economic advantages to leading the way as a low-carbon economy. My concern about those who advocate a 'balanced' approach is that too often this is code for business as usual - a genuflection in the direction of sustainability but no more. Given the severity of the challenges we face (not only climate change, but Peak oil) that won't do.

Normal Mouth said...

if Wales was ahead of the curve there would be economic advantages to leading the way as a low-carbon economy

But what are those?

Ceredig said...


Harsh? Moi? The problem is that we are not necessarily using the same definition of 'sustainable'; indeed, as I suggested in the post itself, there are as many different definitions of the word as there are people using it.

I tend towards a 'dark green' definition; I think you are using a 'lighter green' definition - and some others use what I referred to as a very base definition. For me, 'sustainability' means that human activity, for a given human population, uses the resources of the earth in a way which can continue indefinitely. Currently, we in the UK live at a level which, if repeated world wide, would need the resources of roughly three planets to sustain.

It does not therefore follow that "Sustainable solutions are those that ensure that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we deal with poverty". It's not necessarily untrue that both can happen in parallel either; it just doesn't follow automatically from my definition that such an approach is 'sustainable'.

Now, given teh current imbalance, it seems to me that there are three potential routes to achieving a 'balance'.

The first is to accept regional inequalities - rich world / poor world basically. Not only is that unacceptable to me on the basis of simple natural justice; but the 'poor' world would simply not stand for it. They expect, and aspire to, the same standard of living as the rich world.

The second is a significant reduction in population in exchange for a greater ratio of resources per head. It's the sort of idea which might look reasonable to a mathematician crunching the numbers, but it's unrealistic and unachievable in any sort of society in which I'd want to live.

The third is to adjust living standards and lifestyles to fit the available resources - and that is something for which the rich parts of the world have to take a significantly disproportionate responsibility. It's politically difficult, and it's always easy for politicians to find good reasons for doing what the electors want rather than what they know to be necessary. Isn't that, ultimately, why all efforts to meet CO2 targets have failed?


I'd tend to echo NM's question on this. The economic advantages of being a low-carbon economy are oft-touted, but I'm not convinced. It sounds a bit like an attempt to put sugar on the pill - but I think we just need to brace ourselves and swallow the pill.

People talk about exporting 'low-carbon' technology to places such as India or China, but is that really realistic? Given the size of their populations, they can probably (and I think it was from Morgan Parry that I first heard this argument, so I make no claim for originality) put more people onto working on these technologies than the entire population of Wales.

Shouldn't we be doing it because it is necessary rather than because of some supposed economic advantage?

Lee Waters said...

I agree with your analysis Caerdig. And I certainly don't think technological fixes on their own offer a way forward. We need a massive change in behaviour too - which is easier and quicker to achieve: witness the lengths we now go to recycle.

My point about economic advantage is that harnessing the market to move to a low-carbon economy will produce a new field of economic activity. I don't know precisely what form this will take (it will be new!), but past experience shows us that new challenges produce new solutions. Jonathan Porritt was making a similar point at the Cardiff Business club recently, I'm told.

But my chief point is that a massive economic slump s heading our way. Stern told us that we face a 5% drop in GDP unless we take action within the next decade to avoid catastrophic climate change. Coupled with the impossibility of sustaining current standards of living (particularly for the poorest) with the onset of peak oil. There is therefore an economic opportunity from shifting to a low carbon economy.

An economic shock is coming, we can either be forced into slowdown by the effects of global warming and peak oil, or take pre-emptive action by travelling less far, less often and more actively - hand-in-hand with a move to a more localised economy.

Not a sexy message I grant you. But neither is a climate change induced 5% drop in GDP.

Normal Mouth said...

I regard myself as a fairly environmentally conscious short of chap. I recycle more than half of our household waste and compost nearly all the rest. I holiday in the UK. I cycle to work and use public transport. I know my carbon footprint, and it is a fair bit smaller than the average.

A say all this not to get a pat on the back, but to defend myself against accusations that I'm complacent about climate change. I'm all in favour of Wales cutting back on its emissions by a very significant amount, but I think the idea that the Welsh economy can be built on this any time soone is deluded - and we really didn't ought to be deluding ourselves about this.

It's too easy to say "it will be new" and therefore out of the range of prediction and planning. Wales is unlikely to become a global leader in climate change abatement technologies; the market is too mature for such great leaps forward and others such as Germany have been at it for a while already. Nor is she likely to be able to export a volume of surplus low carbon energy (either via renewables or nuclear) sufficient to make an appreciable difference to the (notional) balance sheet.

None of this means that Wales shouldn't adopt renewables and/or nuclear for her own needs. She should also try harder to stimulate the short of hi-tech industries that include the development of climate change abatement technologies. But these are likely to be only small parts of a wider and more diverse range of economic activities - some of which may be relatively carbon intensive. They cannot be the foundations of a new Welsh economy on their own.

I appreciate that Lee is horizon scanning more fundamentally than this - to a point where localised economies start to generate all kinds of spin-off activity that we can't even imagine at present. But I think we need a dose of reality. If there is one thing we need to encourage many people in the Valleys to do it's travel more than they do already for work, not less. If we want localised economies we cannot simply render Wales's physical communications inoperable and hope that will make people live differently.

Actually, I take that back; it will make them live differently - and perhaps even less carbon intensively - but that will be because they will be even poorer than today.

Until we get to the point where people in places like the Valleys can get work, shop and live well locally they need to be able to get to places where they can. And for the time being that means better roads.

Ceredig said...


Without wishing to sound like a climate-change denier, I find it interesting that you (but not just you, of course!) predict that a ‘good’ result (moving to a low carbon economy) will produce ‘new solutions’ and be economically beneficial, but a ‘bad’ result (climate change) will produce a significant drop in GDP. Being provocative for a moment, could one not argue that climate change is as likely as the move to a low carbon economy to ‘produce a new field of economic activity’ (if only from sheer necessity)?

Now I know, of course, that the estimate of a 5% drop in GDP as a result of climate change has the backing of the Stern report, but the point that is often missed is that that is, like everything else connected with the climate change scenario, ultimately no more than a best guess. It might be the best guess of the most inspirted minds in the relevant fields, but that doesn’t turn it from a guess into certainty.

It’s like the whole field of climate change itself; all the predictions are, in the end, nothing more than intelligent guesses made by eminent people with great expertise in their fields. And none of them can really distinguish between that element of climate change which is man-made (and therefore, potentially controllable), and that part which is based on the cycles of the sun, orbit of the earth etc. (and therefore highly likely to be completely uncontrollable).

What we know for certain is that human activity is having an effect on the earth, not least in terms of the composition of the gases in the atmosphere, and that the earth's capacity to deal with that impact is limited (although precise limits are, again, subject to an element of guesswork).

So, all of us debating on this thread accept that there's a problem and that we need to do something about it. You certainly articulate that need well; the political challenge is that whilst the electors at large certainly say that they want action, that wish won't necessarily flow through to electoral support for the politicians who actually do something. In addition, politicians know that they need to try and spread economic prosperity around Wales (or the UK, or any other relevant unit), and that there may well be carbon costs associated with that – a point which NM articulates well. The result is that politicians try to say that they are acting firmly when they know, and I know, that they are really only tinkering around the edges at best.

Can the circle be squared? There are two things which I can think of which might start to convince me that governments were serious about this. The first would be to stop trying to present decisions as something which they are not, and be honest about the environmental implications of the decisions that they take (and that was where my original post started). The second would be to see some serious attempt to implement what I took to be Stern’s prime recommendation – the investment of a specified proportion of GDP in real measures to reduce carbon emissions.

Ceredig said...


In an ideal world, the decisions we take today on ‘development vs environment’ would be those which succeeded in precisely negating any man-made impact on climate change, and having met that constraint then maximised the economic prosperity of humankind. The problem is that, with so much of the climate change predictions based, at bottom, on estimates and guesses, we do not know how to take the decisions with the necessary degree of precision. We are therefore far more likely to get it wrong than to get it right.

If we get it wrong by being overly cautious, then we leave people today, and in the future, at a lower level of economic prosperity than is sustainably achievable. If we get it wrong by being reckless, then we leave our descendants with, potentially, some of the very worst scenarios for the results of man-made climate change. (In neither case, of course, do we offer them any real protection from natural climate change, some of which will happen anyway).

There is an Afghan proverb which says, as I recall, that we do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children. I won’t be around in 200 or 300 years to explain to our descendants why we took the decisions that we are taking today, which, as I said above, we are far more likely to get wrong than to get right. But if I were to be forced to return and account for what we do today, I think I would find it much easier to justify an over-cautious approach than an over-reckless one – and that, at heart, is why I tend to the view that we must take maximal rather than minimal action today (even after I discount some of the wilder scares).

In doing so, I have no choice but to accept that the consequence of supporting that position is that economic growth must, to an extent, be sacrificed, and that overall prosperity will be lower than it might otherwise be. To argue otherwise would be dishonest.

In what I hope is an example of joined-up thinking, this takes me back to the debate we had a week or two ago about the elimination of poverty. From my perspective, if we accept the above, then poverty cannot be eliminated by simply growing the size of the cake – we have to get to grips with the ‘redistribution’ issue.
And here’s the real political challenge which I suspect that, as a society, we’re likely to flunk.

As you yourself pointed out in our previous debate, meaningful redistribution doesn’t just mean hitting the very rich; it will impact primarily on the people ‘in the middle’. Similarly, meaningful action on reduction of carbon footprint doesn’t primarily affect either the richest or the poorest – it will impact mostly on those ‘in the middle’.

This is a real double whammy for the section of the electorate which a) is loudest in calling for action, and b) is the target electorate for most of our politicians. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think that politicians pretend to be 'acting green' but in reality are terrified of doing anything very meaningful - and why I fear that we will, ultimately, flunk the issue.

Normal Mouth said...


I'm not sure there is any disagreement about the need to reduce the overall level of emissions, nor even that we should go for the biggest possible cuts so as to compensate for shortfalls, errors etc.

The key question to my mind is where those cuts fall. I say they should fall harder in the most developed part of the UK as well as the most developed part of the world.

What this means in practice is that parts of Wales might have an opportunity to do some things that would help their prosperity but would would be impossible with the same sort of emissions reductions targets as the richer parts of the UK.

This, then, is very much a redistribution from the middle (and upper) to the lower socio-economic echelons.

Valleys Mam said...

Ok so explain to me about methane.pigs ,cows etc
I am told by Scandanavian friends that they are much more of a threat than us

Ceredig said...


I think we're almost in agreement, at a level of principle anyway. What we cannot do, however, is take decisions which increase our emissions on the basis of an assumption that someone else is going to make a corresponding cut, which is what I thought you were saying at one stage. Unless that compensating cut is agreed in advance and implemented in parallel, the net result is an increase. And I remain sceptical, based on the record of governments at all levels, as to whether cuts will really be achieved.


Cows, in particular, are indeed a major source of methane, and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But agriculture is a human activity, and cows are more numerous as a result of agriculture trying to feed a large human population than they would be in nature. In that sense, the fact that the methane is 'vented' by cows rather than humans doesn't mean that it's any less a part of 'man-made' emissions, and therefore contributing to man-made climate change. Keeping so many cows is just one more way in which we are contributing to imbalance.

But since it is, as far as I am aware, impossible to stop cows producing methane, and very difficult to collect and re-use it for energy (a whole new meaning to 'natural gas'), it just means that we need to work harder at reducing other man-made emissions.

Anonymous said...

are you still with Ceredig, you are missed

Ceredig said...


I am still here, but temporarily committed to a tight deadline away from home. Normal (irregular) service to be resumed shortly.