Memo to Policy reviewers: Economic policy is energy and environmental policy too
The recently released Adonis Review, a key plank of Labour’s emerging policy platform tries to present a comprehensive strategy for national economic renewal without any apparent thought to how this strategy chimes with the other unavoidable story of our time; decarbonisation. Some may have barely noticed this oversight, or think they are completely separate things, but if you are motivated by dealing with climate change as the Labour party still claims to be, this disconnect is little short of embarrasing.
The critique that follows is not directly about The Labour party. Indeed, I felt John Cruddas’s speech at the RSA yesterday was outstanding, even Obamaesque, though again the story of decarbonisation was conspicuous by its absence, as it was, more or less, in IPPR’s condition of Britain report. (What’s going on here?…)
I’m sure the Adonis Review was the product of diligent research and careful political judgment, but I reach for the word ‘embarassing’ because the review is a particularly striking example of policy blindness that should no longer be considered permissable; it is simply not sane to continue presenting economic policy as if it was not also energy and environmental policy.
There are some timely ideas about economic decentralisation in the report, many of which echo the emphasis in RSA’s City Growth Commission about spreading the skills and infrastructure required for economic development beyond London.
It’s an ethical and intellectual derliction of duty to present economic and industrial policy without even paying lip service to the idea of ecological constraints and the need for a transition away from fossil fuels.
But here’s what is missing (I am grateful to an RSA fellow for this list:)
In short, for those with even the slightest inkling of the connection between the economy and the world’s ecological constraints, there is no analysis or vision to believe in. In 2014, you really shouldn’t be able to get away with that! It’s an ethical and intellectual derliction of duty to present economic and industrial policy without even paying lip service to the idea of ecological constraints and the need for a transition away from fossil fuels.
Perhaps the people behind the policy review would say they deal with environmental and energy issues elsewhere, which, to my mind, makes things even worse. I look forward to seeing how they do that, and how it connects to industrial strategy, but already it’s a huge conceptual mistake to seperate these things out – it suggests a fundamental misreading of how to join up prospective government policy, avoid unintendended consequences, and plan for a viable future.
The saddest part of this story is that Lord Adonis ends his introduction to the report in a way that might have been inspiring:
“Governments can no longer spend their way out of difficulty. My overriding aim is to promote a smarter, not a more expensive, state. We need to build on the best of Britain – the spirit of the industrial revolution – and be optimistic that the best is yet to come.”
That sounds like a good technocratic charm offensive at first blush, but then it hit me: the ‘spirit’ of the industrial revolution would not have achieved much without the coal of the industrial revolution. You can’t blame eighteenth and ninteenth century industrialists for making the most of the available fossil fuels, which no doubt kept their spirits up as the money kept rolling in.
But six years after the 2008 Climate Change Act which commits the UK to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 relative to 1990, which was expressly designed to decarbonise the economy and which was brought into law by then Secretary of State Ed Miliband(!) one would have hoped – in a Labour Party policy review document – for at least a passing reference to the connection between industrial strategy and the need to decarbonise the economy.
The tragedy is that herein lies the missed opportunity for the Labour party and the country as a whole. There is a Social Democratic tradition of community energy that should be part of the story, and there is obviously an R&D investment story in renewable infrasructure to be told.
So by all means celebrate the spirit of industrial development, but if there is going to be another industrial revolution in the 21st century, as Jeremy Rifkind and many other have argued is necessary, it has to be qualitatively different kind of story.
What is called for is not a revolution that is utterly and unselfconsciously dependent upon a particular kind of energy that we now know to be toxic to planetary systems, but rather a revolution driven and shaped by the urgeny of a transition away from that, informed by our shared need for an economy powered – as soon as possible- by renewable energy. If we can work towards that, we might genuinely keep ‘the spirit of the industrial revolution’ alive.