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?

Why I joined Extinction Rebellion and broke the law

This letter was published by Local Transport Today in May 2019 in response to this news item.

After a lifetime of paying my taxes, avoiding parking fines and generally obeying the law, a few days ago I defied an order to leave a protest area, was arrested, went back, was arrested again, and charged (‘Transport academic arrested at protest’ LTT 26 Apr). In the back of a Black Maria I found myself face-to-face with a consultant from one of the top transport consultancies who had just committed a similar offence. “I can’t understand some of my colleagues,” he said. “They are all educated people. They have access to the same evidence. Why are they not drawing the same conclusions [about the need for action on climate change]?”

I wondered how many of them had read any of the evidence. On this issue like many others, people rarely make time to read the evidence for themselves. Over the past few years I have been teaching about transport and climate change, so I’ve had to read around the subject. I have watched the cautious language of the climate scientists and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change gradually strengthening. If you want to form your own view, a good place to start would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and the Committee on Climate Change’s 2018 report to Parliament. Look at the executive summary and chapter 5 about the biggest contributor to the problem: transport. 

Putting those two reports together, you will appreciate the crunch point we have now arrived at. The initial targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act were based on the IPCC’s earlier recommendations, to keep global warming below 2°C. But more recent studies have concluded that would be too risky. Unless we cut faster we risk “tipping points” such as melting permafrost causing global warming to accelerate beyond our control. Three years after the Paris Agreement the Government belatedly asked the Committee on Climate Change to re-examine the UK’s carbon targets. Its new report, published last week, recommends deeper cuts more quickly. 

Will these new targets be achievable? To quote the opening line of the Committee’s 2018 report to Parliament: “The UK is not on course to meet the legally binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets.” And that’s compared to the current targets – before any further reductions.

If we look at just one area, aviation, the numbers simply don’t add up. The Committee on Climate Change has bent over backwards to accommodate the Government’s desire to expand airports and aviation. Its current recommendations assume that aviation emissions in 2050 will be the same as they were in 2005. They assume a 60 per cent increase in demand, offset by some pretty optimistic technological and efficiency improvements.

To allow for this growth, the whole of the rest of the economy would have to cut by 85 per cent – under the existing targets. In 2016 the Committee wrote to the Government pointing out that current aviation policies would bust those carbon budgets. Surface transport, which should be easier to decarbonise, is also moving in the wrong direction.  

According to the Government’s figures, domestic transport now accounts for 28 per cent of UK carbon emissions, far outstripping any other sector including industry, power generation and agriculture. If you add international aviation and shipping, transport’s contribution rises to 35 per cent. But the official figures understate the impact of international aviation for two reasons. Carbon emissions in the upper atmosphere have a greater impact than on the ground, and most travellers to and from British airports are UK residents, so more than half of those emissions should be allocated to the UK. There is uncertainty around the quantitative impacts of the ‘upper atmosphere effect’, but making ‘rule of thumb’ adjustments for those two factors would push transport over 40 per cent of emissions – and rising.

Now factor in more stringent carbon targets, look at the scale of the change that is needed and ask yourself: do you honestly believe the UK is going to achieve those cuts? And if some other countries are doing even less, does that mean (as some press commentators suggest) that we are off the hook, or does it mean we have to cut even more?

Are we really willing to accept consequences including: sea level rise, desertification, extreme weather events, extinctions of species and mass migrations from areas that become uninhabitable? How can people carry on with business as usual, or worse (on road building and airport expansion, for example) knowing that those consequences are likely to follow? 

Like thousands of other people, like many of you, I have spent years trying legitimate ways to persuade those in power to change course on policies affecting climate change. Some of them have shown understanding and taken some action, but it has all been too little too late. Averting climate change is now about the art of the impossible, and we cannot expect politicians to lead us there. We, and they, need a shock from outside the political system to stretch the boundaries of possibility. Reluctantly I, and many others, have decided that we need civil disobedience to provide that shock.

An open letter to the teachers of Ontario

Dear teachers,

At the age of 57, after teaching about transport and climate change for ten years, I am now facing criminal charges for refusing to leave a protest which began outside the offices of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (OTPP) in London.  I have never done anything like this before.  I am appealing for your help, to persuade the trustees of your pension plan to end their support for airport expansion, which is threatening to violate the UK’s legal obligations to cut carbon emissions.

You may have read or seen about the recent actions of Extinction Rebellion, blocking roads in central London.  You may not have heard that on the first day of those protests, on April 15th, a group of us protested and blocked the roads outside the offices of OTPP.  Your pension plan owns five airports across Europe, (as well as other companies dependent on fossil fuels.)  One of them is Bristol, where I live.  Bristol airport has recently applied to expand both its flight capacity and car parking to support it.  It has longer-term plans to more than double passenger movements by 2040.  This video, featuring young people from this area, explains why those plans are particularly unsustainable.  London City Airport, also owned by OTPP, also has big expansion plans.

The Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK to reducing its emissions by 80% by 2050, which poses a problem for a government committed to expanding aviation.  The government’s own Climate Change Committee has recommended a cap on aviation growth, keeping aviation emissions flat, while the rest of the economy has to cut more deeply – by 85%.  But even that favourable treatment is not enough for the government and airport owners.  Current plans will bust that cap, as the Committee has told the government.

And all that was based on the current targets.  Following the Paris Agreement those targets are under review and are likely to be toughened.  We are now on a collision course between airport expansion and the law.  Unfortunately, the courts have only limited powers to compel governments to obey the law.  Decisions made today will bust the carbon budgets in a few years time.  By then, it will be too late to correct a disastrous mistake.  As the reports of the IPCC make clear, the consequences of climate change include: sea level rise, desertification, extreme weather events, extinctions of species and mass migrations from areas that become uninhabitable.  That is why we have reluctantly decided that civil disobedience is now needed. 

I am heartened to see that in Canada, as here in Britain, school students have been demonstrating to demand more effective action on climate change.  We owe them our support.

Did anyone ask you if you wanted your money invested in this way? If you are concerned about the impact of climate change on our students and our children, please email the board of your pension plan (politely) asking them to withdraw their support for airport expansion.  If they cannot stop the expansion plans, then they should divest from airports, and other companies dependent on fossil fuels.  Investing on the wrong side of history is not a smart move in the long-run.  Here is a list of board members.  The email convention seems to be:

Thank you.

Dr Steve Melia
Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning