Blair goes from “greenwash” to landing green job

Former PM lands green energy advisory role.

The decision by the Silicon Valley-based Khosla Venture to hire Tony Blair as strategy adviser on green energy will surprise some environmental campaigners. You need only go as far back as 2003 to find the former prime minster being slammed from all sides for attempting to "greenwash" the then government's environmental record, publishing a white paper on energy provision that many felt was full of hollow promises and light on hard targets.

Published on what the government at the time called "Green Monday", the white paper on energy provision was met with derision from environmentalists, including the Green Party. The Greens' principal speaker, Margaret Wright, described Blair's white paper and the environment secretary Margaret Beckett's annual report on sustainable development as "green spin and greenwash".

Wright pointed out back then that the £350m set aside for renewable energies in the energy white paper was just over half the taxpayer bailout of the privatised nuclear power industry that had recently been announced.

Even the prime minister's environmental adviser, Sir Jonathon Porritt, warned that the UK would fall "well short" of its goal of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 unless major policy changes were made, particularly on reducing car use.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) -- which was considered Blairite at the time -- warned that the energy white paper could put investment in renewable energy projects at risk, saying that by failing to commit to firm targets for renewable energy, the government had jeopardised new investment.

The IPPR research fellow Alex Evans said: "The white paper is chronically short on detail. It is frustrating that the government doesn't have the nerve to commit to formal 2020 targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Back then, the government said it did support renewable energy, and that the white paper set out how it would spend £30m more per year in the sector.

But the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, Norman Baker, said: "Tony Blair's speech is just more warm words about greenhouse gases. Every few years the prime minister feels the need to give a speech on the environment which is followed by inaction."

Yet Khosla Ventures, launched in 2004 by Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of the former technology giant Sun Microsystems, has chosen Tony Blair Associates as its part-time adviser on green energy. Khosla Ventures is an investment group that says it specialises in environment-friendly technologies, including solar, wind and -- ahem -- nuclear energy start-ups.

Khosla insisted that Blair will be of enormous value to his venture capital firm. "Understanding local and global politics is now important for us, techie nerds," he said. "This is where our relationship with Tony Blair can really help us. Tony understands far better than I ever will the political and geopolitical forces, as well as organisational behaviour and social behaviour and change."

The company said in a statement that Blair has led on climate change: "He was the first major head of government to bring climate change to the top of the international political agenda at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit. He is a proponent of pursuing practical solutions to tackle climate change through technology and energy efficiency.

"Tony Blair now leads the Breaking the Climate Deadlock initiative, a strategic partnership with the Climate Group, working with world leaders to build consensus on a new, comprehensive international climate policy framework."

As for Khosla, although he is heavily into investing in renewable energy, he is clearly not wholeheartedly against nuclear power. He once said:

I suspect environmentalists, through their opposition [to] nuclear power, have caused more coal plants to be built than anybody. And those coal plants have emitted more radioactive material from the coal than any nuclear accident would have.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

 

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article