The Green Left Should Beware ‘The Magic Money Tree’

The reaction of governments to the coronavirus is spawning a new form of “progressive” conventional wisdom (for example), which runs as follows: Western governments have always used financial constraints as an excuse for their inactivity.  They claimed that levels of debt were too high, that ‘austerity’ was unavoidable, that borrowing was limited.  The current crisis has disproved all of that.

The sight of governments abandoning their fiscal rules has raised hopes of a Green New Deal to lead economies out of the current recession.  That is an aim worth fighting for, but the belief that governments can borrow as much as they want is misleading, and could rebound against the left and environmental campaigners.

In the short-term governments can borrow as much as domestic or foreign lenders are willing to lend them.  In short periods of economic crisis rapid borrowing can moderate a fall in economic output.  In extreme circumstances, more borrowing may be less expensive (for the government as well as wider society) than doing nothing or raising taxes.  That may be true at the moment, but the debts incurred during the crisis will still have to be repaid at some point and in some way.  That statement remains true even if governments decide to carry more debt, print more money or default, making future borrowing more expensive.

The short-term benefits of higher government borrowing are often confused with arguments about the alleged longer-term benefits of public ‘investment’.  As I found researching my forthcoming book the ‘economic’ arguments for spending more public money on road building gained ground during the early 2000s although the evidence for or against road building didn’t really change.  Few influential people opposed those arguments; politicians and commentators of right and left chose to believe that building public infrastructure boosts the economy.

As I have written elsewhere, there is no proof that road building – or any other form of transport ‘investment’ – makes any significant difference to national economies.  Local benefits and disbenefits tend to cancel each other out – even if we ignore the environmental costs.  If there is any national benefit it is small, certainly not enough to reimburse governments for their extra borrowing. 

The same is likely to be true of most other forms of capital spending financed through government borrowing.  We may well need better schools, hospitals and homes for homeless people but the idea that governments can borrow the money to build them and they will pay for themselves is wishful thinking.

Supporters of a Green New Deal often argue that it would “boost the economy”.  The thinking behind that argument is similar to the dubious beliefs of politicians about the economic benefits of roads, airports and high-speed rail.  It would be difficult to convincingly argue in favour of one, whilst rejecting the other.

A stronger argument for a Green New Deal would be to protect and transfer employment away from activities that are bound to decline towards more sustainable activities for the future.  Some more borrowing may be necessary to finance the transition.  In the longer-term, a more sustainable economy would spend less on new infrastructure and borrow less for that purpose.

We might like to see more renewable energy, insulation of homes and electrification of vehicles but our leaders may hear those arguments differently.  If those things boost the economy, then why not more roads, airports, coal and fracking? Or why not some of both? I have noticed how local authorities justify their road building plans by saying they will expand public transport as well.  The net result of expanding both is more movement, which is worse than doing nothing for the climate and the natural world.

The current spending and borrowing spree will not last.  Future governments of any persuasion will have to start repaying at least some of the debt.  Instead of calling for more yet borrowing, we should talk the language of priorities.  In a time of recovery and transition, we cannot afford £29 billion for road building or £88 billion for HS2.  We cannot afford to bail out the aviation industry.  We should tax polluters and the holders of wealth to pay for the debt.  We should invest in the technologies of the future instead of the technologies of the past.  We should learn the big lesson of this crisis about failing to prepare for a known threat, and reorient the priorities of government towards the biggest threat of all from climate breakdown

2019 Election – The Lessons Were Already Known Three Years Ago

Three years ago, I read the most important lessons the left and centre-left need to learn from their defeat in the 2019 election. I wondered how many people noticed at the time. I wonder how many are ready to take notice now.

This report from think tank Opinium studied the political views and core beliefs of the British public. They divided the public into eight ‘political tribes’ cutting across the traditional divisions of left, right and centre. Two of these tribes, ‘Our Britain’ and ‘Common Sense’ account for around half the population. Their views, and their fundamental values, make it easier for one party, the Conservative Party, to win the 40% it needs to secure a majority under the first-past-the-post system. The ‘Our Britain’ tribe holds strongly protectionist, anti-European anti-immigration views, but 15% of these people described themselves as ‘left-wing’ and 19% of them voted Labour in 2015.

In a Guardian article, one of the report’s authors identified immigration as the key issue “uniting the right and dividing the left”; but the significance of immigration, like Brexit, goes deeper than the specific issue; it signals a difference of world-view: internationalist or protectionist?

The other six ‘political tribes’ in the study were smaller and more disparate, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any one party to appeal to all of them. Opinium found strong support for some left-wing economic ideas, such as taxing the rich and banning zero-hours contracts, spread across protectionists (the majority) and internationalists. The ‘not as bad as expected’ result in 2017 allowed the left, and the Labour Party in particular, to defer any recognition of these realities. Both Labour and the Lib Dems mainly appeal to voters with left-leaning economic views and an internationalist outlook. That combination is found amongst less than a quarter of the population. No party currently appeals to the left-leaning protectionists and it is difficult to see how one party could do that without alienating the internationalists. Criticism of Labour’s Brexit policy misses the point – the party faced a lose-lose-lose choice, between supporting remain, supporting Brexit or something in between. Opinium’s analysis would also cast doubt on the suggestion that a Blairite party (also internationalist at heart) could have done much better.

Unless the Conservative Party implodes or the fundamental values of the British public radically change (neither of which is impossible) the only hope for more progressive government in the UK lies in a change in the voting system. A coalition of two or three parties, different from the ones we have today, could appeal to a progressive majority under a more proportional system. Clearly Conservative governments will never make such a change. Could other parties cooperate to bring it about? The key to all this lies in the ‘period of reflection’ promised by the Labour Party. Will that reflection recognise the realities of modern Britain or will it be an exercise in re-branding and wishful thinking?

Where Next for Extinction Rebellion?

The ‘Autumn Uprising which is drawing to a close in London has been a more mixed experience than last time. There will now be a period of reflection.  This is a contribution to that reflection.

The success of April’s ‘Spring Uprising surprised most people, including many of us who were involved.  Several things have changed since April. The police were better prepared, and under greater pressure to break any disruptive actions.  And for the mainstream media XR blocking roads or buildings was no longer a new story.

The strategy for the Autumn Uprising anticipated some of those changes and seemed to make a lot of sense.  Following some local actions over the summer and a divisive internal debate over plans to fly drones at Heathrow, a groundswell amongst our membership concluded that we needed to change tack.  We needed to be more careful to minimise disruption to the general public; our principal target is the government, followed by polluting companies and elites who support and profit from those activities.  Credit should go to Rupert Read for making a cogent argument for that change at national level.

The internal communications about the Autumn Uprising made clear that we would be doing those three things, starting with the offices of government departments and moving on to City Airport and fossil fuel interests in the City of London.  So far so good.  

The ultimate aim of our tactics is to compel the government to negotiate on our three main demands.  As it turned out, the October dates (agreed internationally) did not really lend themselves to that endgame.  Britain has a distracted moribund government shortly to face an election. Raising the profile of the climate and ecological crisis and recruiting more rebels was probably the most we could achieve on this occasion.  The harder stuff will have to wait until we get a new government, which will not be long.

The most effective actions were the ones like the occupation of City Airport or this one aimed at BlackRock investments organised by my friend Jo Flanagan.  They had carefully thought through their target, their aims, and the best way of achieving them.  For example, they dressed in business clothes, to avoid early detection but also because they did not want to look like ‘the other’.  The whole thing was carefully choreographed, with a strategy to distribute the video afterwards.

Then we heard that some groups were planning to disrupt the underground during the morning rush hour.  It seems that a large majority of XR members recognised a disaster in the making and many of us contacted the national action team to say so.  That message was communicated to the affinity groups involved and some decided to pull out. Unfortunately a few people ignored those appeals. How much damage their actions, and these images have done to the movement remains to be seen.  This weakness in the self-organising structure of XR has been recognised at national level.  In future we should trust the good sense of the majority of our members with a mechanism to decide what will or will not be endorsed as an XR action.

While we learn from our mistakes the window of opportunity to avert a climate catastrophe continues to shrink.  As soon as a new government takes office we will need to rachet up the pressure on them. Let’s be honest, none of our actions have caused any serious inconvenience to the government, yet.  Unless the new government starts acting to rapidly reduce emissions, that is what we must do next. A loose collection of autonomous small-scale actions has not achieved that aim so far, and is unlikely to do so.  Next time we will need will need to focus our efforts and resources on a few vulnerable points. That will require more central planning and coordination.  

Personally, I don’t see the point of any more road blocking (except as an accidental by-product of a more focused action) and we should have a national understand that we will never target public transport.  Airports may be a legitimate target where the action is clearly aimed at stopping a climate-busting expansion plan. Government departments and activities should be our main targets.

In all future actions, national or local, we should ask ourselves: why are we doing this? What do we believe that it will achieve? Is this the most effective way? If not, then we need to rethink.

Prosecution Accepts Government is Failing to Comply with Climate Law

Today I acquired a criminal record. I was convicted of two public order offences (refusing to move until arrested) as part of Extinction Rebellion’s actions in London in April. I was given a fine of £500 and ordered to pay £300 prosecution costs.

Download my written evidence

Prof Paul Ekins OBE, who has advised many national and international bodies on energy and climate change, appeared as an expert witness. In a move which astonished the court the Crown Prosecutor stated that the prosecution accepted his evidence, evidence which says that the government is failing on climate change. Prof Ekins wrote:

“the Government is currently set to miss the fourth and fifth carbon budgets which have been legislated into law. This will make more difficult and expensive the task of a future Government, which will require even steeper emissions reductions to meet the sixth and subsequent carbon budgets… .”

Download Prof Ekins’ written evidence

I wanted to make sure I hadn’t misheard so I asked the prosecutor twice: does the prosecution accept Prof Ekins’ evidence? She replied: yes. Whatever she meant, that is what she said. “We accept” is not the same as “we do not wish to contest”.

Bristol Airport Expansion – Why the Carbon Case Doesn’t Add Up

The owners of Bristol Airport have recently submitted an application to expand the airport’s capacity from 10 million mppa (passenger movements per annum) to 12 mppa, as part of a longer-term plan to double the airport’s capacity by 2040. They have clearly been shaken by the scale of public opposition to these proposals, and have been trying to argue that their plans are consistent with the UK’s carbon reduction obligations. This post explains why those claims are misleading.

Since 2009 the Climate Change Committee has worked on the assumption that UK international aviation emissions will be no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005. This target does not come from any expert advice; it was a political compromise thrashed out in the cabinet of the last Labour government in 2009, as explained in this article. It is extremely generous to the aviation industry, compared to other sectors of the economy, as the advisory panel to the CCC has pointed out (page 12 of this report). The target itself remains unchanged for reasons of political inertia.

The official figures on UK aviation emissions are substantial underestimates as explained here. The rest of this blog will leave that problem aside and take the official figures at face value. Aviation emissions in 2005 were 37.5 MtCO2e; passenger movements were 230 mppa. Until recently, the CCC assumed that passenger demand could increase by 60%, whilst keeping emissions down to that level. In their recent Net Zero report, they propose a new lower target of 31 MtCO2e, still assuming that demand can increase by 60%. They promise a new report explaining how this could be done, through a combination of efficiencies, technological improvements and some use of biofuels. All of this is rather speculative.

The DfT’s 2017 aviation forecasts, show two main scenarios: “constrained” and “unconstrained”. The central “unconstrained” forecast (page 90) is for 490 mppa. That would be +115% compared to 2005. Even the “capacity constrained” forecast (page 96) shows 410 mppa – that is +78% compared to 2005. That “constrained forecast” specifically includes an assumption that Bristol Airport will remain at 10 mppa (page 86).

So we have a situation where even keeping Bristol’s flights down to current levels would bust the UK’s carbon budgets. Increasing that capacity – unless it was offset by closing down airports or runways somewhere else – is clearly incompatible with the UK’s legal obligations under the Climate Change Act (2008).

M4 Decision – Would ‘Failing Grayling’ Have Been Qualified?

Hugh Mackay (Cycling UK, left) and Haf Elfyn (Friends of the Earth, Centre) address the celebration

Yesterday I cycled from Bristol to Magor on the Gwent Levels to attend a rare celebration of victory over a destructive road scheme. The local campaign group CALM has been fighting to save the Gwent Levels from destructive development since 1992. This latest proposal would have been the worst. I was invited because I gave evidence as an ‘expert witness’ for Cycling UK at the public inquiry two years ago.

Several speakers commended Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister for Wales, who took the decision for two main reasons, both sound: it would cost too much money, and it would cause too much damage to the precious environment of the Gwent Levels. As one speaker pointed out: this was another benefit of Welsh devolution. If this scheme was proposed in England it would have gone to ‘Failing Grayling’. Leaving aside the qualities of the current Transport Secretary, this raises a more fundamental question. Who is qualified to decide whether environmental damage is justified?

The late Bill Wadrup, the inspector at the public inquiry, had built his career on road building. On the engineering of roads, he was an expert. On the ecology of environmentally sensitive areas he knew little and cared even less. The conclusions of his report treat the environment as a legal question; providing no environmental laws are broken, it cannot be an obstacle.

In Wales, the inspector’s report goes to the First Minister, who is responsible for transport, but also for environmental protection. In England, a public inquiry chaired by a road builder would go to the Transport Secretary for a decision. He may consult the Environment Minister but is under no obligation to listen. If the UK is ever to reverse its long history of environmental decline, this is one of many dubious practices which will have to change.

M4 Relief Road Cancellation – Progress in Wales; Why not Here?

As one of the people who gave evidence for the objectors to the public inquiry into the M4 relief road, I was delighted to hear the announcement by Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister of Wales, scrapping this damaging road scheme. My evidence emphasised the scheme’s poor value for money and questioned its alleged economic benefits. The high cost of the scheme was an important factor in the decision, along with the environmental damage to the Gwent Levels – the main reason why we were so concerned about this in the first place.

The public inquiry always felt to me like a waste of time; the policy framework and prevailing culture were too heavily stacked against any objectors. As expected the inspector recommended approval. But wasting time can sometimes be productive; in ‘playing the official game’, our main contribution was to delay the decision until the political landscape began to change.

Three of my UWE colleagues contributed to this report for the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Her stance against the road was clearly influential.

This decision bodes well for the future of Wales. Meanwhile in England, and particularly here in the West of England, authorities at all levels are pursuing similarly damaging road schemes. The new motorway link between Backwell and the M5 set out in the Joint Local Transport Strategy would carve through the Kenn Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest and the local park/nature reserve that separates Backwell from Nailsea. It would be as damaging as any of the horror schemes of the 1990s. A change of political leadership was the biggest factor in Wales; could the new leadership of North Somerset Council follow their brave example, and scrap the damaging road schemes in their district?