How the UK government can turn its green vision into reality
The UK government has set out a new vision for working with business on the green economy but all departments must be involved if it is going to be a success
You would be forgiven for missing the launch last week of the government's vision for "Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy". In the midst of the turmoil on global stock markets, it was published not with a bang but a whimper. There was no press release or media briefing, just a few generic Ministers statements posted on departmental websites.
This is a real shame as the vision is a step in the right direction. The suite of reports provide a very credible foundation on which the government can rebuild a tarnished image of striving towards being the greenest ever.
The content is broad and coherent and explains why acting early would be good for business, good for the economy and good for the planet.
The one page overview of all planned policies over the next ten years will be particularly useful for corporate directors and sustainability professionals. This is accompanied by a range of pledges about what the government will do and what businesses could do.
Whether there is sufficient trust to ensure that these commitments will be kept is another matter.
Above all, the vision is testament to the view shared by those at the top of government that it must engage more with businesses to grasp the opportunities of the green economy.
Accordingly, the initiative was informed by genuinely open and frank dialogue with the business community that has benefited all parties. As the title of the vision demonstrates, this is about "Government and business working together."
The most formal aspect of this new partnership is the Green Economy Council, which meets quarterly to discuss how the economy can rise to the low carbon challenge. Its membership include three cabinet ministers, chief executives from a cross-section of industries and sectors, such as Ford, Centrica, Tata Steal, Siemens and IBM, and representatives from business organisations such as the chairman of the Aldersgate Group, Peter Young.
Whilst its membership has been criticised in some quarters for representing too many heavy polluters, it is consistent with the government's characterisation of green growth. In stating that "the green economy is not a subset of the economy at large", it recognises that this is a transition which all parts of business, government and society must take part in. Some of the biggest opportunities are not in traditional environmental sectors but through the greening of high impact industries, such as automotive, aerospace, ICT and construction.
The Aldersgate Group have long campaigned for this broader definition which recognises that the whole economy needs to be green. Through our own collaboration with business and NGOs, we have demonstrated that political action is required across the board, including robust regulation, fiscal measures, enabling innovation, building new skills and greening public procurement.
It is extremely encouraging that all these areas are reflected in the government's vision. This provides a robust framework for further action. The only problem is that it does not go far enough. In particular, there are no new policy announcements despite the fact that this will be essential to turn the vision into reality on the ground.
Most ominous of all is the absence of a ringing endorsement from No 10 or the Treasury. The gloves are now off in the global green economy race and whilst Defra, DECC and BIS have run an excellent first leg, they must now hand over the baton with equal endeavour to their departmental colleagues. A lack of teamwork would result in the UK continuing to drag its heels compared to international competitors.
For example, fiscal measures must increasingly reform the whole taxation system to align with new economic imperatives. It is not enough for the government to commit to increase the proportion of tax revenue accounted for by environmental taxes without providing an indication of how far and how fast it will go. Similarly, if procurement and business initiatives are to succeed, the government must set market signals in all that it does and not just from the departments who are directly tasked with green policy making.
That is why the ultimate test of the vision is whether its thinking becomes mainstream. Shared responsibility for action will only come about if it is driven right from the top with radical new policies to ensure that British businesses can pull ahead of the pack.
This article was also published in the Guardian online
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