Think-tanks think sustainability: #3
In the final instalment of this three-part series interviewing representatives from the UK’s leading think-tanks, Alex Blackburne speaks to Dustin Benton, from the Green Alliance, about sustainability.
The Green Alliance is one of the UK’s foremost green think-tanks.
According to senior policy adviser, Dustin Benton, the Green Alliance has two roles.
“The first is to act as a think-tank, which means understanding policy and bringing green ideas to the mainstream”, he says.
“The second is to be an environmental advocate, by understanding political decision making, helping to change policy and working with partners to advocate proposals that are influential across the whole political system.”
On its website, the think-tank sets out the six themes it covers – one of which is called ‘Climate and Energy Futures‘, which explores “the need to develop the infrastructure necessary to secure a low carbon future for the UK“.
So far in this series of think-tank features, the whole nature of climate change has been responded to in rather differing ways. Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), for example, insisted that individuals should be sceptical about climate science, whilst Reg Platt of the Institute of Public PolicyResearch (IPPR) outlined the need to avoid the “calamitous changes” brought on by climate change.
Out of the two previous interviewees’ views, Dustin Benton and the Green Alliance are on a similar wavelength to the IPPR.
“I think we’re very much in line with the scientific mainstream”, Benton says.
“Climate change is happening and it’s driven by human activity – I don’t think anyone spuriously disputes that.
“There is more scientific uncertainty about the effects and extent of climate change, but there’s a very high likelihood that the impacts will be pretty terrible, so we need to address climate change by limiting our emissions.”
He relates his comments to the Climate Change Act 2008 – “the world’s first long-term legally binding framework to tackle the dangers of climate change”, and a law that the Green Alliance obviously backed.
With regards to the organisation’s stance on sustainability, Benton is quick to point that it’s not about balancing economic needs with social and environmental ones as my question to him suggested, but instead, is about “ensuring that social and economic aims are pursued within the context of environmental limits”.
“Bringing in this idea that the environment is the context, under which everything else operates, helps you to align any goals that you have within the environmental context, and you’re able to pursue the economic and social goals that you feel are appropriate”, he says.
“If you don’t have an environment”, Benton explained, “You don’t have an economy”. This echoes Ben Goldsmith quoting his father in a recent interview, who said, “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet”.
He points out that the fight against climate change, and ultimately the need for a sustainable world is not only absolutely essential, but it’s also feasible.
“If everyone lived as we do in the UK, we’d need three planets worth of resources to support us. In the US, it’s five going on for six, and even in the developing world it’s nearly two.
“A lot of what we’re doing is unsustainable, and I guess you could call that irresponsible, but the point is that we have the potential to change this.
“We can become sustainable, and that’s going to take clear policy, innovation, particularly amongst businesses, and behaviour change from individuals.”
To investigate these three requirements in more detail, the “clear policy” comes from worldwide governments. The Climate Change Act 2008 is a good start, under which carbon budgets were introduced. Then there is the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) 2050 Pathways Analysis, which looked into the measures needed in order to reduce the analogical number of planets needed to support the country.
Other examples of government leadership are the Habitats Directive (although these look to be relaxed after this week’s Autumn Statement) and the Water Framework Directive, both of which are crucial if we are going to make sure the valuable species and habitats stick around.
Benton goes on to explain how, on top of leadership, governments must also “translate science into something which we can act on“, as well as “setting the framework for innovation“.
He explains the second requirement – “innovation, particularly amongst business” – with reference to one of the world’s most famous brands, Coca-Cola.
“It has managed to make a product that is basically sugar water, so attractive, that there are literally people who would carry big boxes full of glass bottles on their backs up mountains in Nepal, so that tourists can drink this stuff.
“That’s an incredible amount of motivation. If we could turn that power of marketing to sustainable aims, to help people to reduce their energy use for example, then that would be a fantastic thing that companies can do.
“Companies need to be innovative and deliver on that innovative potential. We need change, and we need innovation in order to be sustainable.”
The third requirement is, “behaviour change from individuals“.
“Ultimately, individuals have to give the mandate to politicians to act to improve to the environment, and they have to give politicians the message that we are all adult enough to accept short term costs if that means that we get a better environmental economy out of it”, Benton explains.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, particularly in the middle of a recession, but that’s absolutely crucial.
“The other thing to do is to actively choose both lifestyles and products and services from companies which are sustainable.”
He calls for change. Change within government, change within businesses and change within individuals’ behaviour.
To repeat what he already said, though, “We have the potential to change this. We can become sustainable”.
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