Saturday, 25 April 2009

April 2009 - The Green contradictions in the Red briefcase

The straight-to-camera monologue routine being broadcast across the nation on 22nd April 2009 could only mean one thing: Budget day. And, although the government’s renewed support for Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) was hailed by some as evidence of Britain’s commitment to climate change, Alistair Darling’s red briefcase contained many green contradictions.

Despite pledging financial support for CCS in the budget, the government’s subsequent announcement that new coal-fired power stations would only be approved once they could demonstrate substantial capture and storage of their carbon emissions confirmed only one thing – that there will be new coal-fired power stations. And, with emissions reductions targets contingent on a technology that is yet to be demonstrated on an industrial scale, the potential torrent of investment promised by a Green New Deal seems to have been reduced to a techno-fix trickle.

Alistair Darling’s take home message was that economic growth would return in 2010, but there is no bigger contradiction than the message that we can consume more, regain economic growth AND use fewer natural resources. The myth that economic growth and energy use can be decoupled is compelling, pervasive and utterly false. The government’s controversial plans to extend the capacity of Heathrow are based on an economic argument that the UK will ‘lose out’ if the mile-high custom goes elsewhere. But we will certainly lose out if we cannot reign in our burgeoning emissions. Even dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers like Nicholas Stern recognise that failing to tackle climate change now will cost us more in the long term.

But the myth of low-carbon growth runs through government policy like the lettering embedded in sticks of Brighton rock. We are exhorted to exercise personal restraint, to minimise our carbon footprint, yet every signal we receive tells us to carry on exactly as we are. Heathrow is just the most obvious example of a policy that flatly contradicts the UK’s emissions targets.

And, unsurprisingly, these contradictions are mirrored in people’s individual behaviours. We carefully select local fruit and vegetables and then drive them home in our car. We turn our televisions off standby but leave our laptops on overnight. You might imagine that whether someone ‘acts green’ in one situation would be a good indicator of whether they will act similarly across the board. But research by the social psychologist John Thogersen has shown that the ‘spillover’ of one environmental behaviour to another is notoriously unreliable.

One of the factors that influences whether one green behaviour will predict another is how similar the behaviours are. So, someone who recycles is also likely to compost their food waste, whereas someone who cycles to work may not pay any attention to the heating of their home. One of the most significant challenges of tackling environmental behaviours is that they are so dauntingly diverse. The cues and triggers that we use to judge our behaviour in one situation will be completely absent in another.

But Thogersen’s research also identified another factor that determines spillover – whether seemingly green actions are taken for the same underlying reason. Someone who insulates their home only to save money will be unlikely to pay more for a train ride instead of a plane – because although their home insulation produced significant carbon savings, their motives were financial. According to Thogersen, significant spillover in environmental behaviours will only be achieved if a clear and consistent environmental message is used to motivate change. The contradictory messages emanating from the government are ensuring that this spillover will not be achieved.

As long as the myth of decoupling growth and resource use continues, even the most well-intentioned message will fall on deaf ears. Our sacred economic growth has been predicated on an almost limitless supply of cheap energy – a supply that is rapidly dwindling. While increasing financial wealth is a necessity for the world’s poor, the rich countries chase further prosperity even while the fossil-fuelled engine of the growth economy starts to splutter out. Darling’s sums may have balanced the financial books for another year. But the ecological debt can’t be dealt with by consuming our way out of trouble.


Monday, 6 April 2009

April 2009 - Celebrities: Get them out of here?

Sulking about the fact that his earnings might be reduced in the 'witch hunt' against bankers and their bonuses, Matthew Prest, the managing director at Close Brothers investment bank whinged:

"I don't hear anybody calling for Hollywood star salary caps. This is a trendy, fashionable thing to do, it will have bad consequences."

Prest's astute analogy overlooks the minor difference between actors and investment bankers - specifically that actors do not possess the capacity to bring the global economy to its knees, are unlikely to play poker with our savings and mortgages, and have never (Tom Cruise aside) declared themselves 'masters of the universe'. But does the moody MD have a point? Should we be asking questions about big salaries outside the banking sector - especially if the fame and fortune of our prized celebrities seems at odds with their forays into political advocacy?

Marina Hyde, the nemesis of vaccuous celebrities who venture into politics, published a book this week railing against the increasing number of famous folk who seem to be suffering from baffling cases of mission creep. Sharon Stone famously declared that she would kiss 'almost anyone' for peace in the Middle East. Angelina Jolie patrolled Afghanistan in a green flak jacket and 'attended' the World Economic Forum in Davos with husband Brad Pitt. Bob Geldof took his rightful place alongside the leaders of the world's most powerful nations on the fringe of the g20 meeting in London last week. Its easy to sneer at these glitzy people outside of their comfort zone. But its also difficult not to feel angered by the incongruity between the high earning, high consuming lifestyles of these uber-capitalists, and the political causes they champion. So when is it OK for celebrities to endorse 'good causes'? And are climate celebrities a help or a hinderance?

Bono is a very rich and very famous celebrity who regularly appears at high profile political events and meetings - most notably during the Jubilee campaign to drag the developed nations towards meeting their Millenium Development Goals. However, despite imploring the British and Irish Governments do to more to meet the Development Goals, Bono does not pay tax in his home country of Ireland. Rather, he keeps his substantial sums of money in the (lower taxing) Netherlands. Considering that tax paying is the primary means of generating government income - to be spent on matters such as meeting the Millenium Development Goals - Bono's offshore accounting flatly contradicts his political campaigning. The choices that Bono makes regarding his personal finances undermine so thoroughly his moral stance on poverty reduction, that even the mention of his name raises the heckles of any charitable tax payer. Why should we listen to a man who wants more money spent on eradicating world poverty, when he will not even contribute from his own (immense) income?

Bono's case illustrates an important point - that 'practicing what you preach' is a principle with almost universal appeal. For some political causes, it isnt obvious what the 'practice' bit might be - we can march against Israel's occupation of Gaza, but aside from some boycotting of produce, how can we 'practice' what we preach?

When it comes to tackling climate change, however, consistency between our principles and our behaviour is paramount. No-one wants to be lectured about driving less by a woman in a Chelsea Tractor. The UK cannot murmour darkly about the proliferation of Chinese coal-fired power stations whilst simultaneously erecting them at home. And despite being one of the slimiest creatures to have emerged from New Labour's trigger happy, city-slicker regime, Geoff Hoon might just have had a point when he questioned whether Emma Thompson's opposition to a third runway at Heathrow was compromised by the number of international awards ceremonies she attends.

Almost by definition, celebrities are likely to have high-carbon existences. Wealth is one of the biggest determinants of an individual's carbon footprint, and most modern celebs have a globalised lifestyle to match their image. Even celebrities that 'mean it' are likely to use more carbon than the average person (just ask Thom Yorke). So are there any celebrities who can claim to be genuinely green?