Interview: Sir Jonathon Porritt

Written by Winnie Agbonlahor on 4 November 2014 in Interview
Interview

Sir Jonathon Porritt has been an environmental campaigner for 40 years – including nine spent working directly with civil servants. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor why, despite his disappointment with the ‘greenest government ever’, he has reasons to be optimistic

In 2010, David Cameron said he wanted the coalition to be the “greenest government ever”. Since then, chancellor George Osborne has slammed green policies as a “burden” and a “ridiculous cost” to British businesses; communities secretary Eric Pickles has made it harder to build wind farms; subsidies for large-scale solar farms have been slashed; and the government has pushed fracking and agreed to subsidise two new nuclear power stations.

Given all this, Sir Jonathon Porritt, environmental campaigner, author and founder-director of sustainability consultancy Forum for the Future, is scathing about the government’s green credentials: “The idea that [this government] could be characterised as the ‘greenest government ever’ is palpably ridiculous,” he says. 

A £200m ceiling on annual subsidies for renewable energy projects has just come into effect, he says, but the government is willing to spend around “£8bn per nuclear power station – it just doesn’t add up.” Why, in his view, is the British government backing nuclear? “Most civil servants in the Department for Energy and Climate Change [DECC] are completely captured by the nuclear lobby,” Porritt replies. “I can’t explain otherwise why they go on giving advice to ministers year after year that [nuclear] is a really good way to help meet this country’s energy objectives for security, affordability and low carbon. Which box does nuclear tick? Which one? Honestly!”

His assessment of DECC’s officials is based on experience. During his nine-year tenure as chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) – the UK government’s independent adviser on sustainable development, abolished by the coalition – Porritt worked with civil servants across Whitehall. While he’s keen to emphasise that he doesn’t have any up-to-date “inside knowledge on how things have been going at DECC”, he is “absolutely convinced that there is a ‘capture phenomenon’ that goes on in certain departments: even the best civil servants can lose the ability to be independent, and at that point the advice that they’re giving ministers is obviously in jeopardy”.

On the whole, Porritt says, he was impressed with the civil service: “I came away recognising the extraordinary importance of how that professional heart of our administration makes it easier for ministers to avoid really stupid mistakes and makes it possible to design better policy.” And he learnt a lot about operating in Whitehall. To get people on side, having a good idea alone is not enough, he says: “You have to be able to demonstrate that it’s worked in practice – and that’s a fair test for me.”

So you need a good idea and some evidence of efficacy, but you also have to convince the right people, he says – meaning top-level officials. That latter task, Porritt adds, has often left him perplexed: “I was always a tiny bit baffled by exactly which persona I would be talking to in a civil servant.” In formal meetings with policy officials, some civil servants would appear “cautious and risk-averse”, because “that was the kind of role they had to play.” Then, when Porritt met these same people outside Whitehall, “they’d say: ‘We could do so much here!’ And I’d say: ‘Wait a minute, you’re the same person who a minute ago was saying: ‘This is impossible!’”

This risk-aversion befalls civil servants with time, Porritt says. Newer recruits have often struck him as “brighter, younger, sassier”, optimistic that “the system could be made to change faster.” But after a while, he says, they start to adapt to a system he describes as “slow, clunky and difficult”. This process is common to many organisations, he adds, and “I don’t think the civil service is appointing people who are predisposed to be cautious. But after a while, avoiding that kind of risk factor became easier than pushing through something that had a higher risk value associated with it.”

Did this gradual loss of energy rub off on Porritt? “I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “My colleagues in the green movement will probably say that I was significantly less outspoken during that time than I was before I became chair of the commission.” He agrees that his approach did change from one blowing “my ‘beat them up’ trumpet” to becoming “more tempered in my advocacy.” But, he adds, “I never really felt that that made me more risk-averse. I was just trying to understand how the system worked, and be more effective.”

Rather than just pointing to failures and highlighting shortcomings, he points out, at the SDC he had to work with government to find solutions. There was no point in the commission’s annual reports focussing only on “all the things that went wrong, year after year after year, because it just meant everybody felt disempowered and we weren’t there to help them.”

Despite his efforts to blend criticism with praise, though, the SDC – which was charged with providing independent advice and scrutiny – was often seen as a nuisance: “Clearly we were an irritant in the system, as far as some people were concerned – particularly John Prescott,” Porritt recalls. The deputy prime minister, whose responsibilities included the environment from 1997 to 2001, would often make his position clear by asking his officials in meetings with the SDC: “‘Are we paying for these people? Is this government money? Are we paying for this?’ As if to say: ‘We pay you to beat us up!’.” That kind of irritation, Porritt explains, “is why the Tories got rid of the SDC: they probably saw that having an independent adviser in the middle of the system is complicated to deal with politically.”

Despite this irritation, says Porritt, no one ever tried to undermine the SDC’s status: “From the prime minister through to junior departmental ministers, they never once tried to curtail its independence. I mean, literally not once.” And he praises the Labour Party for setting it up in the first place: “I pay full tribute to the Labour government: they might not have always liked it, but they recognised the value of the commission in terms of helping policymaking, improving performance across the governed estate [and in] policymaking processes.”

During its life, the SDC did have real impact, Porritt says, pushing through a difficult agenda which rarely fit into departmental portfolios: “Sustainable development often cross-cuts lots of departments, which means you’ve got to get lots of departments to buy into things.” While he’s proud to say that “there were many places where we were able to make a difference”, he adds that “it’s frightening how quickly those improvements can be swept away.”

One example of a set of hard-won improvements quickly eliminated came within the Department for Education (DfE), he says. Over six years, the SDC worked with DfE on the Sustainable Schools Programme: this “had some fantastic resources that it made available to schools; was able to offer support for teachers around the curriculum; and promoted energy efficiency programmes inside schools.” The programme also got DfE collaborating with the Department of Health “to think about what it meant to have schools that promoted better healthcare outcomes. It was good on planning: reducing the number of parents driving [pupils] to school – all this kind of stuff.”

Then, in 2010, “Michael Gove becomes secretary of state for education, looks at all that, and thinks: ‘What has that got to do with an education department?’ And within three months he got rid of the whole thing: everything! When you’re a secretary of state and you’ve got powers like that, it’s: bing!”

Porritt’s plainly frustrated to see the SDC’s achievements reversed; and he’s angry, too, about what he sees as the government’s reluctance to capitalise on the economic potential of the sustainability sector. Since the 2008 banking crash, he says, the environment has become a “second order issue” for voters as well as politicians. And “after a crash of that depth, I can’t honestly blame the political system for saying: ‘Let’s get some growth back into the economy as the first thing that we do’”.

However, the growth this government has generated – “not that there has been much – could have been so much greener,” he says. “My deep frustration is if you’re going for growth, [you should] at least make the growth meet some of these sustainability imperatives”. The government’s pledge, for example, to retrofit housing stock with insulation has not worked out, with the Green Deal recently slammed by the Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Select Committee as a “disappointing failure”.

An ambitious scheme to make homes more energy efficient, Porritt argues, could not only have “improved conditions for people, and reduced fuel poverty and carbon emissions”; it could also have been used as a “way of generating both growth and jobs”. Instead, he adds, “we’ve ended up with a total dog’s dinner; I think it’s a disgrace.”

The reason the green agenda has slipped down the list of government priorities is, Porritt believes, because “there isn’t a single Cabinet member who is fighting the green corner.” He adds: “I can’t recall a major speech on why the green economy is good for the UK, from a single Tory minister. And that’s odd because we need growth, and guess what: the green economy was the fastest-growing bit of the UK economy for the first three years of this administration. It grew by a higher percentage per year than any other sector. So if you were chancellor, you’d think to yourself: ‘Yeah! Go! Let’s have more of that!’ But no.”

This government could learn from other countries, Porritt says. Germany is phasing out nuclear energy by 2022, and expanding renewable energy – something he calls a “really compelling story for a Europe that is intent on decarbonising the economy.” Whilst Porritt notes that Germany is paying too much for its energy, he says most of the agenda has been moved forward in a “smart and intelligent way”.

What’s so clever about the Germans’ approach to energy? One of the biggest fears governments around the world have, he replies, is that of penalising their own energy-intensive industries – including key players such as chemicals, manufacturing and iron – if they “push too hard for decarbonisation”. The German government controversially “protected their energy-intensive industries – especially the chemical sector – and exempted them from some of the higher carbon prices that the rest of the economy are paying. And when you look at that now, that was a smart move.” As in the UK, chemicals are a “huge sector in Germany”, and if those companies had said “we can’t afford the price of energy now, so we’re closing everything here and moving to China”, the economic repercussions would have been grave.

Critics say that this approach gives the dirtiest parts of an economy permission to go on polluting. But Porritt argues that “those energy-intensive sectors are more intent on reducing total energy consumption than any other part of the economy; and across Europe, the success the [chemicals] sector has had in reducing energy consumption is enormous. They’ve done a better job than most sectors.”

So why isn’t this government doing more to boost and exploit the sustainable technology sector? Porritt partly blames a fear of UKIP: “To think that there might be some people advising David Cameron that one of the ways of dealing with the UKIP threat is to be even more hostile towards the green agenda fills me with despair, really,” he comments. So what does the future hold? Does Porritt think we have a chance of fighting climate change, or are future generations doomed to live in a highly-polluted, warming and unsustainable world? No, he says. “I have every reason to be excited.” 

Porritt expresses this optimism in his latest book, ‘The World We Made’ – a first-person account by fictional teacher Alex McKay looking back from the year 2050. In the book, McKay describes “how we got from where we are today – in a pretty bad way, environmentally – to a much better place in the future.” His story, Porritt says, “charts the key events, technology breakthroughs and lifestyle revolutions that make the world what it is mid-century.” 

So what gives Porritt all this hope? In part, it’s the increasing prevalence of community energy schemes; in part, a growing interest in the green agenda among the younger generations – the millennials. “Young people today are keen to find solutions that are aspirational; they make things work for them, using their talent,” he says. Forum for the Future has just launched ‘Collectively’: a global platform for 18- to 30-year-olds to “connect millennials to the innovations that are shaping the future, making it easy for them to act, work, buy, invest and promote the ideas that they believe in and to be part of the solution.”

Another reason to feel encouraged, he says, is China: it is “no longer the principal blocking mechanism, and they will take a much more progressive part in the process.” India follows China, he adds, and “things are beginning to happen in America.” Big countries around the world “are living with the reality of climate change today, so they look to the political processes – like the intergovernmental framework – eventually to come up with solutions.”

Moreover, Porritt’s just come back from helping to judge 59 sustainability projects shortlisted in the Ziad Future Energy Prize in Abu Dhabi, and this has filled him with a fresh dose of enthusiasm and inspiration. The projects, he says, offer “new technologies, new ways of dealing with energy efficiency, different ideas for helping very poor people in developing and emerging countries”. And after two days of going through these projects, Porritt has come to think: “What is everybody’s problem? There is no technological impediment to creating a brilliant world for people by 2050.”

The self-proclaimed optimist says that while “the news is really bad, it’s not terminally bad.” To get everyone on side, we need to “embrace the solutions agenda by making everything exciting.” There are, he adds, a lot of “people who try and talk down any sense of hope” – but he senses change in the air, and he’s willing to make a prediction: “I am genuinely hopeful and confident that by the end of 2015 there will be a much better international agreement on climate change than we’ve ever had before.” 

As 2014 draws towards a close, it’s hard to discern the seeds from which that agreement will grow. But Porritt has seen a thousand setbacks in his 40-year career; if he’s still not jaded about our planet’s prospects, then nobody – including those weary, risk-averse veteran officials – should be letting cynicism get in the way of ambition for a more sustainable future. 

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Winnie Agbonlahor
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