Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The big green bogeyman

Why must the media undermine sensible carrot and stick eco-initiatives by turning them into inaccurate scare stories?

We always hear from newspapers that while people understand the environmental challenge, they are unwilling to stomach the solutions. The trouble is, we only ever hear about the solutions from the media, and for whatever reason, they are almost always caricatured beyond recognition. If there's no appetite for green, it's not surprising.

I remember opening a tabloid one day to find a photograph of myself next to the image of a giant pink vibrator and under the headline "Goldsmith wants to ban dildos" (because sex toys are apparently energy inefficient). No less than the paper's political editor demanded that my ideas be "dropped like a stone". Of course he knew I'd never said anything of the sort. I believe the story was prompted by a news release calling for greater standards to be imposed on electrical appliances.

Other newspapers are less direct, but no less tricky when it comes to green policy. A couple of years ago, a broadsheet was given an exclusive look at a green car policy being proposed by the Conservative party's Quality of Life review, which I was part of.

We were calling for measures to make new clean cars more affordable, and recommended a tax on new polluting cars to pay for it. The idea was that people would still have a choice, they wouldn't be punished for a decision they'd already made, it wouldn't represent a stealth tax, and we would have a cleaner car fleet within a matter of a few years. This idea already works well in Denmark, and is a no-brainer if we want to cut emissions and oil dependence.

A senior writer prepared an article in which he properly described the idea. He explained that the cost of polluting cars would go up, and the cost of clean cars would go down. He gave the idea a big thumbs-up.

But by the time it was published in that paper, all reference to clean cars becoming cheaper, and indeed all reference to this being imposed only on new cars, was removed. With common sense stripped from the idea, the paper was able to trash it, and it did. The journalist was rightly furious, and later cited this as his reason for resigning from that newspaper shortly after.

Green policy is about triggering a shift to a cleaner way of doing things. To be effective, it needs to incentivise the right behaviour, for example through tax breaks, and that needs to be paid for by disincentives on polluting behaviour. It should never be retrospective, it should be revenue neutral for governments, and it needs to be totally transparent.

There will be winners, just as there will be losers. Clever companies will spot the trend and deliver clean products that can last. Others will be left behind.

It's a basic good cop/bad cop approach, and it's not complicated. When opinion surveys have been conducted on specific green policy ideas, they are almost always met with overwhelming approval. But never when newspapers focus exclusively on the "bad cop".

This is a major problem. If you tell people, "that old banger of yours, we're going to tax the hell out of it," they'll rightly tell you to get lost. But if you tell people that when they next buy a car, the tax will be adjusted so that the cleanest ones will cost less and the polluting ones will cost more, most people would say "fair enough". Cars would cost less to run, we'd be less oil-dependent, and we'd see a cut in our emissions.

It is true that many of our newspapers now devote pages to the environment. Pictures of icebergs and Inuit appear virtually every week. That represents an improvement. But when it comes to actual policy, the thing that might help move us in the right direction, it is almost always portrayed in such a way that it can only be rejected by readers.

Only this week for instance, the Sunday Times has me calling for "a great big new tax" on polluting cars. The quote is 50% true, but the missing 50% (a great big tax cut on the cleanest cars) is absolutely key. Indeed its omission from the quote is an obvious deal-breaker. So why leave it out? I had a detailed conversation with the Sunday Times on this very issue.

Politicians usually get the blame for dragging their feet on environmental issues. And fair enough. Most of them do just that. But the blame isn't theirs alone. For politicians afraid of losing votes, a bristling media waiting to transform good green ideas into monsters is a colossal disincentive.

Article first published in The Guardian, 7th December 2009 :

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Here’s what’s wrong with politics in Britain

Have a look at the following paragraph. It’s a House of Commons Early Day Motion from March 2009, asserting:

“That this House welcomes the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 requiring the publication of local spending reports; believes that people have a right to know how their money is spent by public bodies; especially welcomes the assurances given by the Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, that the local spending reports will include all public agencies; further welcomes the Minister's assurance that the purpose is to achieve a report that identifies how much will be spent in each area by the authorities; is therefore very alarmed that the consultation now issued on the local spending reports proposes only to include local authorities, including fire authorities and police authorities, and primary care trusts, and to exclude all other public bodies despite the assurances of the Minister; believes it to be unacceptable that this document is now in blatant contravention of the expressed assurances of the Minister; and calls for proper local spending reports to be published, which give effect to those assurances.”

Then have a look at this House of Commons Early Day Motion from October 2009. It is virtually identical.

“That this House welcomes the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 requiring the publication of local spending reports; believes that people have a right to know how their money is spent by public bodies; especially welcomes the assurances given by the then Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, that the local spending reports would include all public agencies; further welcomes the Minister’s assurance that the purpose was to achieve a report that identified how much would be spent in each area by the authorities; is therefore very concerned by the limited information available in the local spending reports produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government; believes them to be a contravention of the expressed assurances of the Minister; and calls for proper local spending reports to be published, which will give effect to those assurances.”

You would expect that whoever approved the first motion, would necessarily approve the second. Not so. Below is a list of Labour MPs who approved the first, and rejected the second.

It’s not a frivolous issue. In 2007, Nick Hurd introduced the Sustainable Communities Act, with cross-party support. It was designed to give local people the power to decide how their cash is spent in their area, and to demand a regular breakdown of spending by central government departments and quangos in new ‘Local Spending Reports’.

All of a sudden the government has gone cold on the idea and prefers not to include transparency in relation to quango spending. Given that quangos now spend an astonishing £90 billion a year – equivalent to £3,640 a year for every household, it’s a major omission.

So what was it that forced a change of heart among the MPs on this list? To my knowledge there were no great debates, apologies or explanations. The only possible answer is that the Labour Whip simply instructed these MPs on how to vote, and they meekly obeyed. To which we have to ask, what is the point in electing them? Surely a computer would do a much more efficient job, and at a fraction of the cost?

List of Labour MPs who voted for the first motion and against the second:

Abbott, Diane
Ainger, Nick
Anderson, David
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, John
Borrow, David S
Caborn, Richard
Campbell, Ronnie
Caton, Martin
Chaytor, David
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Katy
Clarke, Tom
Clelland, David
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Ann
Cummings, John
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, Frank
Drew, David
Farrelly, Paul
Field, Frank
Fisher, Mark
Flynn, Paul
George, Bruce
Godsiff, Roger
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, George
Hoyle, Lindsay
Humble, Joan
Iddon, Brian
James, Sian C
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Lynne
Jones, Martyn
Kilfoyle, Peter
Levitt, Tom
Linton, Martin
Mann, John
Marsden, Gordon
Marshall-Andrews, Robert
McCafferty, Chris
McDonnell, John
Meacher, Michael
Michael, Alun
Mitchell, Austin
Morgan, Julie
Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Denis
Naysmith, Doug
Owen, Albert
Plaskitt, James
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Gordon
Prosser, Gwyn
Reed, Andy
Riordan, Linda
Sarwar, Mohammad
Skinner, Dennis
Taylor, David
Touhig, Don
Truswell, Paul
Vis, Rudi
Walley, Joan
Wood, Mike

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


All rational people know that without a major shift, we are going to hit a wall, and yet, still, that terrifying truth has almost no bearing on actual policy decisions. Sooner or later, this is going to have to change and the Copenhagen Summit in December gives world leaders that chance. It is therefore hugely important.

I want to see the establishment of tough targets for emissions reductions, mechanisms for helping poorer countries adapt and shift, and crucially, a formula for putting real value on the services provided by forests so that they are worth more to forest nations standing, than destroyed.

Clearly it will be for individual countries to find their own ways to meet those targets, and each may choose a different course. It will be for citizens and national campaign groups to maintain huge domestic pressure to deliver. But for now, we need to focus on the international dimension. If leaders fail, the effect will be crushing.


It’s a worrying fact that around 400,000 British children are on behavioural drugs like Ritalin. Some no doubt need the treatment, but the sheer number of children taking these drugs suggests that in our society, childhood itself has come to be seen as a disease.

Children spend an average of 13.9 hours in front of their televisions, and 6 hours in front of their computers every week. It can’t be healthy. According to UNICEF, our children are the unhappiest in Europe, despite unprecedented material wealth.

There are many reasons for this, but one, surely, is the fact that children have become increasingly insulated from the natural world. We’ve all heard of the surveys revealing that young teenagers think cows lay eggs, and others where children can identify more brand logos than trees, by a staggering margin.

My view is that children will form a significant part of the green fight back. Children instinctively understand the value of the environment. Ask any 10-year old if Google – at its height – was really worth more than the Amazon rainforest, and they’d laugh.

But if the current crop of children is to emerge as a generation that cherishes the environment, they need to understand it, connect with it and love it. That goal must form part of the school experience. And if that’s not sufficient reason, schools collectively are huge energy consumers, huge producers of waste and consumers of resources.