We're at a turning point that we can't ignore
21 August 2009
As he steps down from his role as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon Porritt tells Alison Thomas why the decision to return to his campaigning roots has come at such a crucial moment
He has been called the government's chief tree-hugger. But it may be more accurate to describe environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt as a thorn in the side of ministers.
And he intends to continue calling government to account, despite stepping down as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission after nine years.
Porritt leaves with a mixture of praise for a government that is finally getting the foundations in place to tackle climate change and create a more sustainable future – and of exasperation that it has taken an inordinate length of time for ministers to get their act together.
Government policy, says Porritt, has been characterised by muddle, vacillation and a piecemeal, scattergun approach.
"There hasn't been any sense of central guidance, or of a firm hand on the sustainable development tiller," he says. "The government has now got a fantastic foundation in place; it has one of the best strategies in the world; it has put in place all sorts of things about how to do this theoretically, and it has got some good areas of policy development.
"But there has been too much delay in bringing these things forward. So, as an example we have a new Energy White Paper with a lot of very important initiatives in it, all of which could and should have been announced and started to be put in place at least four or five years ago. The government has got a lot of this stuff right in terms of structuring things properly, but the follow-up and the implementation has on the whole been very disappointing."
The same is true in local government. Porritt welcomes the new framework of local area agreements, strategic partnerships and comprehensive area assessments, which he says add up to a "really good set of drivers" for sustainable development and understanding of public value at the local level. But this was preceded by ministers "stumbling around with one new initiative after another" for a decade, without giving local government a sense of direction. In fact, local council sustain - ability successes have often been achieved despite Whitehall, he argues.
"All the examples people find most inspirational have been brought forward by strong local government leadership, very often in the past against the grain of central government guidance, not because of it."
A major cause of this incoherence has been the failure of government to grasp the importance of sustainability as a mechanism for achieving its other objectives – most notably modernising public services and making efficiency savings, he says.
"For reasons I don't quite understand they have often seen sustainable development as a cost centre rather than a really significant driver to increased efficiency."
But improving energy efficiency and estate management is one of the simplest, quickest win-wins for saving money and meeting carbon reduction targets – and seemingly overlooked by the Treasury, Porritt says.
"It's extraordinary to me that they never thought this was part of their responsibility to deliver value for money," he says. "I remember imploring Sir Peter Gershon's efficiency review to put efficiency around estate management at the heart of it, because you can save hundreds of millions of pounds simply by doing the basics on energy efficiency. But the Gershon review barely mentioned it; there were a couple of tokenistic paragraphs."
One result is that government departments are struggling to meet "unambitious" targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 12.5 per cent by 2012.
"Too many years went by with people just sitting on their hands and saying 'it must be somebody else's job, it's nothing to do with us', and not realising that being super-efficient with energy had got anything to do with achieving value for money for taxpayers. At the commission we just couldn't believe year after year how the same excuses would come round – 'these are old buildings, we couldn't make investments in new technology or insulation schemes' and so on.
"And I felt unbelievably sorry for the incredible group of sustainability champions that you can find throughout the public sector, who found a lot of their work not valued properly, a lot of indifference to this and a completely unprofessional approach to doing even the simplest thing. Energy efficiency is the starting point: you don't get simpler than that."
But Porritt pays tribute to Gordon Brown for banging heads together over this "wretched" underperformance when he became Prime Minister, and to Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell for then ensuring that sustainability targets were written into the contracts of permanent secretaries.
"In the private sector anybody charged with a responsibility who failed to deliver year after year would be sacked. It isn't until you change the understanding of the significance of something, put it into a performance contract, that you get that sort of buy-in. Again, it's ludicrous that we had to wait years for that to happen, but eventually it did and it is making a difference. So things are coming good, I just wish they had come good a bit earlier."
Transport policy has also been a saga of missed opportunities, Porritt argues. In fact, he says that when he is feeling particularly mean he asks the Department for Transport (DfT) how delivery of its 10-year transport strategy is going.
"I can't say I was the greatest champion of John Prescott, but I have to be fair – the integrated transport strategy that he came up with 10 years ago was by far the best combination of ideas on transport this government has had. Prescott absolutely understood that to deliver a low-carbon, equitable society you had to put transport at the heart of it. That's why he wanted to do so much more around integration of public transport services, prioritisation of walking and cycling and all the rest of it – the bits that the rest of Europe takes for granted."
So Porritt is both amused and appalled that it has, apparently, taken a recent trip to the Netherlands for the latest Transport Secretary Lord Adonis to discover the merits of cycling.
"Half of me wants to say 'yes, wonderful – at last!' The other half just wants to cry."
But there are also grounds for cautious optimism thanks to a new dynamism being displayed by ministers such as Energy Secretary Ed Miliband – "the best thing to happen to this government on the sustainability and climate change front for a long time".
"He is seriously intent on putting in place policies that will deliver, rather than yet more targets and rhetoric," Porritt says.
He also welcomes the government's recent moves on carbon capture and storage (CCS), arguing that, whatever the UK does, countries such as China and India will carry on burning coal.
"We can't get to the kind of reductions in CO2 we need without CCS, that's my own judgement," he says. "I'm pretty certain that, in terms of big-picture generation, the world will have to choose between nuclear on the one hand or coal plus CCS on the other. I don't like either technology, I think they are both ludicrously expensive and not the right way to go, but I would much rather have CCS and coal than nuclear."
And the UK's leading role in keeping climate change at the top of the international agenda is also worth celebrating.
"This is the area where I feel the most enthusiastic for what our government has done. First Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have kept the momentum going throughout all those lean years with Bush in the White House when the UK was the key player in the international debate."
With a change of government, the US now has some lessons to offer on how to effect change.
"Obama is being very canny about this. He didn't talk very much about climate change; he talked about jobs, new industrial technologies, energy security for the US and reducing dependence on imports. You can't sell the whole package of measures that will reduce emissions on the back of the argument about climate change. So politicians are going to have to get smarter about this. To begin with, there is no downside whatsoever to reducing emissions, there is no financial penalty, no loss of competitiveness, no diminution of people's standard of living nor quality of life. You can make quite dramatic reductions without any profound impact on the economy or people's aspirations.
"We haven't been as effective as we should have been in driving the upside, the improvements in quality of life, in wealth creation, in technology. We have to keep saying that loud and clear because most people think that dealing with climate change somehow can only come at a massive cost and a threat to our way of life, and that's just rubbish."
Porritt says the world is at a turning point. The decisions made in the next few years will be critical to tackling the climate change threat and creating a more sustainable and equitable future. Hence his decision to step down from the SDC and get back to grassroots campaigning, contributing to what he sees as a resurgence in community activism, and working to enthuse and engage young people – "the people whose prospects we have made such a mess of".
"I feel very strongly that this moment is crucial, so I want to return to some of my campaigning roots. There is a ton of stuff to be done. Let's get on and do it."