Having left the Sustainable Development Commission, veteran environment activist Jonathon Porritt can now speak freely on sustainability policy. Matthew O’Toole hears complaints that Whitehall has resisted change
Jonathon Porritt (pictured above) may well be Britain’s most famous environmental campaigner. Many will remember him from his days as boss of Friends of the Earth, appearing on TV to earnestly explain the emerging problem stage known then as the “greenhouse effect”.
For most of the past decade, however, his campaigning voice has been at least partially muted by his work as a government adviser: he chaired the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) from its inception in 2000 until July last year. Now he’s free to say what he likes on the government’s sustainability performance – at both ministerial and official level. And Porritt – who is working again with Forum for the Future, the environmental think-tank and consultancy that he founded in 1996 – has certainly taken advantage of that privilege, accusing Labour of failing to live up to its early green promises, and civil servants of systematic obstruction on key areas of sustainability. He even published a 56-page dossier just before Christmas on what he calls Whitehall’s “glacial” pace of change.
Though he is keen to point out worthy policies and individuals – “exceptionally positive” climate change secretary Ed Miliband wins praise – Porritt’s tone is, on the whole, one of disappointment. He now says there needs to be generational change within Whitehall to guarantee progress on sustainability. “I think this is a real priority. I don’t think we’ve had the kind of engagement from the senior civil service that we need on sustainability issues,” he says. “That leadership is going to have to be sorted out by whatever the next government is.” His report singles out the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (and its predecessors) and the Department for Transport for criticism. During his tenure at the SDC, they were, he writes, “largely resistant to any serious engagement” and “hostile at worst, and lukewarm at best, to cross-government endeavours on sustainable development”. Though neither department has ever featured high on environmentalists’ Christmas card lists, Porritt’s criticisms are still striking.
Perhaps the main area in which the business department comes in for serious complaint is energy policy; Porritt believes that it is too closely aligned with the interests of the nuclear sector in particular. Does he think the formation of the energy and climate change department (DECC) will help redress this perceived imbalance? “It will help, but it will take quite a while,” he says. “It’s interesting to compare the relative significance attached to nuclear power and energy efficiency inside DECC. The energy efficiency team is small and quite low down the pecking order; the nuclear energy team is huge and well up the pecking order.” Porritt knows that job titles and places on organograms matter in Whitehall.
As well as advising the government on the broad subject of sustainable development policy, the SDC was charged with monitoring departments on their efforts to improve the ‘sustainability of operations on the government estate’ (SOGE). The government estate may form a statistically tiny part of UK carbon emissions, but Porritt always stressed the symbolic importance of Whitehall departments taking a lead in sustainability.
“You can’t exhort businesses and individuals to change their behaviour if you can’t get your own sorted out,” he says, reflecting that over successive years various departments underperformed on what are “not hugely ambitious” targets. The headline target is for a reduction in carbon emissions from government offices of 12.5 per cent by 2011, relative to 2000 levels. The modesty of this goal, says Porritt, made the failure of under-par departments to make progress particularly damaging. “There was nothing much the relevant secretary of state could do except hold his or her hand up and say: ‘This is a bad job, isn’t it?’ They just didn’t see the significance of going on and on, year after year, saying one thing and doing another.”
Performance on SOGE targets is slowly getting better: the most recent SDC report claimed a three per cent overall improvement – and Porritt puts much of this down to the decision by Gus O’Donnell to include SOGE targets in permanent secretaries’ evaluations.
“It only came in a year or 18 months ago,” he says. “But the SDC first pointed out back in 2003 that if the cabinet secretary didn’t do this, there wouldn’t be traction inside departments.” So why does he think Sir Gus waited so long? “I don’t think he felt the government was really prioritising it in the way they said they were.” For changing this, he attributes some credit to Gordon Brown, who he says is “no great champion of sustainable development”, but effective at making the Whitehall machine pay attention.
Porritt’s own intellectual and campaigning commitment is to the broader concept of sustainable development, in which environmentalism has a central but not an exclusive role. He had significant success in advocating aspects of the sustainable development agenda in the early part of the decade (witness John Prescott’s integrated transport plans) but, as he himself admits, the government’s commitment to the hard-to-define concept has become more rhetorical than practical.
Despite his criticisms on the broader question of sustainable development policy, Porritt feels it important to praise several of the government’s policy intiatives on climate change – most notably the low-carbon transition plan published last summer. This lays out the roles different departments will have to play in meeting the UK’s binding carbon budgets from now until 2022.
“It provided more detail than has ever been the case before, by allocating out departmental budgets which are now the direct responsibilities of the secretaries of state and permanent secretaries in those department,” says Porritt. “This is a real step forward.” But, he adds, a propos the recent failed UN talks: “I think it’s going to be harder for Ed Miliband to persuade people that this is the level of ambition required, given what happened in Copenhagen. A lot of people are going to turn around and say: ‘Well, that’s not what was said in Copenhagen’.”
Though he didn’t go to the summit, Porritt admits the “miserable” events there have cast a pall over the green movement in general – and the downcast mood was not helped by the scandal over climate-science specialists at the University of East Anglia concealing evidence which may have undermined some of their arguments. “There is no point pretending it hasn’t had an impact,” he admits.
There may not be much to cheer about for green activists at the moment, but Porritt is certainly not one of those who thinks a Tory government would be a disaster for the sustainability or climate-change agendas – quite the opposite, in fact. “I personally believe David Cameron is as concerned about climate change as anyone in the Labour Party. I genuinely don’t think he’s playing some kind of cynical game,” says Porritt – but he adds that some of the Conservatives’ controversial new allies in the European Parliament are self-proclaimed sceptics on man-made climate change, and may damage the party’s credibility on the issue in Brussels.
Porritt himself will be actively involved with the Green Party in the forthcoming election, and is hopeful that the Greens’ leader and sole MEP Caroline Lucas might steal the party’s first Westminster seat in Brighton – something that would put a smile back on environmentalists’ faces.
1950 Born in London
1972 Graduates from Magdalen College, Oxford
1974 Having trained as a barrister, decides instead to become a teacher at a West London School
1978 Becomes chair of the UK Ecology Party, later the Green Party
1984 Appointed chair of Friends of Earth, holding the position until 1990
1996 Co-founds sustainable development charity Forum for the Future
2000 Named chair of the newly-created Sustainable Development Commission
2009 Steps down from commission to resume campaigning and work with Forum for the Future