An environmental utopia - up to a point

We downtrodden Brits often look enviously at Scandinavian countries as models of genteel social demo

The scientist across the table from me was laughing, unusually for a conversation about climate change. "You're in environmental utopia now," he beamed. This being Sweden, he was partly being ironic - but only partly. We downtrodden Brits often look enviously at Scandinavian countries as models of genteel social democracy, and assume likewise that their environmental records must be models for the rest of the world. But, as is so often the case, the truth is a little more complicated.

Take Gothenburg, in southern Sweden, which I was visiting to talk about my book Six Degrees. This is a city that has recently invested vast sums of public money in a combined heat-and-power system, with more than 1,000km of pipes laid to take hot water directly into domestic and commercial buildings. It is an extremely efficient system that hugely reduces emissions from the building sector, where space heating is often the single biggest user of energy. But where does much of the wasted heat come from? Oil refineries, ironically enough - not exactly the last word in sustainability.

Yet Gothenburg wants to be carbon-free by 2050. There are climate-related adverts everywhere, urging car drivers to use the excellent tram system, and extolling the low-carbon virtues of the municipally owned utility Gothenburg Energy. Partly taking its cue from the previous government's aspiration to make Sweden oil-free by 2020, Gothenburg's energy utility has decided to supplement its new natural-gas-fired combined heat-and-power plant with another facility that will use woodchips instead of fossil fuel, lowering net carbon emissions still further. Some biomass is already burned to generate power, but here lies another irony: despite this being a heavily forested country with a substantial timber industry, wood pellets are brought in by ship from Canada.

Gothenburg Energy is also working with a major international corporation on building the first zero-carbon factory anywhere in the world. The client? Volvo. And the factory will be making cars. It all seems a bit contradictory, but this is a country that is even more in thrall to the car than Britain. The local shop is extinct almost everywhere: if you want a litre of milk or a pack of nappies you need to drive to a supermarket. Smaller communities may have a store selling hot dogs and a few daily necessities, but these are always based around the petrol station - seemingly the focal point for modern village life.

Perhaps as a result of this centralised approach to retail, the number of lorries on the roads and the level of transport emissions are rising rapidly. Even in cities with good public transport, there are still plenty of cars: from my 18th-floor hotel room in Gothenburg, I could see miles of interlinked motorways, all clogged with traffic for much of the day.

Nationally, the electricity sector is already fairly low-carbon, with most power generated at nuclear and hydroelectric plants. But other renewables are lagging behind. Windfarms are a rarity in Sweden, and various big schemes have been shelved due to local opposition, despite the climate-change benefits. Sweden is no exception to the general rule that people want electricity, but not electricity generation.

But before we all get quietly smug over here, on an island that was once considered the dirty man of Europe (not least by Swedes, who in the 1980s had to live with all our acid rain), there is a lot that Sweden has got right. This is a country, after all, which introduced a carbon tax way back in 1991, when most of the rest of the world had barely heard of global warming. It is also a country that inverts the usual dynamic between scientists and politicians: recently, when a scientific advisory committee proposed a carbon reduction target to the Swedish government, the environment minister, instead of trying to lower it, demanded more stringent cuts than even the scientists were recommending.

Sweden also seems to have broken the iron link between economic growth and greenhouse-gas emissions: since 1990 its emissions have fallen by 4 per cent, despite a GDP growth of 25 per cent. This is largely due to combined heat-and-power generation schemes such as Gothenburg's, schemes that demonstrate a willingness to pump large sums of public sector cash into energy efficiency.

Travelling back south from the ferry port in Newcastle this week (I had made the trip to Scandinavia by boat and train, for obvious reasons), I was struck once again by the scandalous waste of energy represented by power-station cooling towers in this country, whose only function is to disgorge enormous quantities of heat into the atmosphere. A power station like Drax could heat an entire city, yet all this energy is simply wasted, and instead we burn yet more oil and gas to heat our houses, shops and offices. Sweden may not be the environmental utopia we think, but it has certainly got one thing right.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.