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World saved . . . planet doomed

Green activists are seeing the global economic crisis as an opportunity, but the truth remains: high

You could call it the see-saw effect: it has long been an article of political faith that as worries about the economy go up, interest in the environment must go down. It stands to reason: people who are concerned today about their jobs have more immediate matters of alarm than whether or not there may be more storms in 2055. Environmental concerns are a luxury of the rich, something we can no longer afford once the economy turns sour and recession looms. “I’m nervous,” wrote Jonathon Porritt in June – after Northern Rock and Bear Stearns but be-fore Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and Iceland. “Climate change is still tough for politicians to sell. This all feels very much like one of those periodic crunch moments for the sustainability agenda.”

In that same month, as the financial crisis deepened, the Oxford economist Professor Dieter Helm worried that we seemed to be seeing a "shift back to the safe territory of concrete and jobs". Certainly, David Cameron - having established his reputation with the "Vote Blue, Go Green" pledge - seemed scarcely to mention climate change any more. Alarmed, major environmental groups wrote an open letter to party leaders warning them not to drop the environmental ball, as it were. And news on the high street seemed to confirm the worst fears: sales of organic produce began to slow as worried consumers tightened their belts, while supermarkets such as Tesco dropped their environmental messages and began to focus once again on price.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the gloom hasn't lasted. Even as the news has worsened - as stock markets crashed and the jobless figures began to rise - environmental issues have stayed resolutely at the top of the agenda. In Britain the passing of the Climate Change Bill, which cleared the Commons late last month, was a major triumph for the green lobby, committing the government to much stronger targets than originally envisaged, and with loopholes on aviation and shipping firmly closed. (The bill is due to receive Royal Assent by the end of this month.) Instead of slamming the door shut on environmental issues, the crisis of confidence in conventional economics seems to have led to a surge of interest in green measures to address the crisis.

If trillions of dollars can be spent on propping up the world's banks, why cannot a similar amount be spent on shifting the world on to a greener track? Neither is a charity case: banks will eventually repay their loans and environmental investments, too, will generate a substantial return. (Indeed, US lawmakers seemed to recognise this implicitly when they attached a proviso extending clean energy subsidies to October's $700bn bank bailout.)

The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can

In the past few weeks, green economists and campaigners have noticed the emergence of an unexpected credit-crunch dividend. As Cam eron Hepburn, senior research fellow at Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told me: "The economic crisis softens people up to the scale of the numbers - $700bn doesn't seem impossible any more. In fact, the incremental cost of completely greening the world's energy system is certainly less than that per annum."

Sarah Best, a climate-change policy adviser for Oxfam, is also strikingly optimistic: "The good news is that climate and economic solutions can support rather than compete with each other," she says. "Developing a green economy offers us a way out of the present crisis. Investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings and public transport will bring huge job-creation and enterprise opportunities."

Stressing that people in poorer countries affected by climate change should not be forgotten, Oxfam is asking for a proportion of carbon market cash to be allocated to financing climate adaptation in the developing world. The annual amount Oxfam estimates is needed for this from the UK is about £1.6bn annually. That would once have seemed like an inconceivably large bill. Now, in the present crisis, it seems small.

Even heads of state are beginning to repeat this hopeful message. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, joined the president of Indonesia and the prime ministers of Poland and Denmark this month to write a lead comment article in the International Herald Tribune which argued that "the answer" to the financial crisis and climate change "is the green economy". The authors described renewable energy as the "hottest growth industry in the world . . . where jobs of the future are already being created, and where much of the technological innovation is taking place that will usher in our next era of economic transformation".

The United Nations Environment Programme is capitalising on this sudden massing of political will by starting a Green Economy initiative, due to launch in Geneva on 1-2 December, which aims to help policymakers "recognise environmental investment's contributions to economic growth, decent jobs creation and poverty reduction", and reflect this in "their policy responses to the prevailing economic crisis".

Perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues has come with the election of Barack Obama, who made the word “hope” a central theme of his campaign. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can. According to an interview he gave to Time magazine just over a week before the election, Obama sees the “new energy economy” as potentially the main “new driver” of the economy as a whole. His language leaves no room for doubt. “That’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming obviously that we have done enough to stabilise the immediate economic situation.” Obama’s climate credentials are unequivocal: he supports a US target of 80 per cent carbon-emission reductions by 2050, with a European-style cap-and-trade system as the centrepiece of his plan. In fact, the president-elect’s proposals are even stronger than Europe’s: rather than give emissions permits to industry for free, as the EU at present does, Obama proposes a system of 100 per cent auctioning, with the revenue going to fund clean energy investments and to help low-income Americans adjust to higher fuel prices. He also promises to put $150bn towards renewables investments, with the aim of creating five million new “green-collar” jobs.

According to David Roberts, a writer for Grist.org, the US-based online environmental magazine, energy and climate will be one of the Obama presidency's "three biggies" (the others being getting out of Iraq and passing health-care reform). However, he warns not to expect headline-catching announcements: "The key is the long game. Obama worked carefully, diligently and adeptly to get elected on a clean energy agenda" and will aim to secure success with his green economy plan in a similar way. Obama's response to the crisis in the US car industry gives an inkling of his pragmatism as well as his commitment: instead of offering simply to throw money at Detroit to prop up the ailing giants Ford and General Motors (which between them made a staggering $7.2bn loss in the last quarter), the president-elect has made it clear that any government support will be pegged to the industry developing higher-mileage and electric cars. For GM, which has built its entire corporate strategy over the past five years around gas- guzzling sports utility vehicles, this represents the ultimate humiliation.

In the current climate of political optimism, it seems that just about everyone is thinking imaginatively. Al Gore is proposing that the entire US electricity sector be decarbonised in the next ten years, and has been running post-election TV ads titled "Now what?" (answer: "Repower America"). Even Google has a plan - "Clean Energy 2030" - and has begun to shift its own investment towards renewable technologies. In the EU, fears that a group of countries that rely heavily on coal for power generation - including Italy, Poland and Latvia - could intervene to thwart climate targets have lessened, thanks to skilful diplomacy by President Nicolas Sarkozy. And the prospect of the credit crunch derailing this year's UN climate-change talks in the Polish city of Poznan also seems to have been averted; on 14 November, Australia's top climate diplomat, Howard Bamsey, reassured journalists: "I haven't detected any change in approach as a result of the financial crisis."

But how much of this is merely rhetoric? The financial storm has already inflicted grave damage on the clean energy sector; shares in wind and solar power companies have tumbled in the last quarter, some by as much as 75 per cent, as credit funding for capital projects dries up and power companies cut back on their investment plans. “If you can’t borrow money, you can’t develop renewables,” says Kevin Book, a senior vice-president at the investment firm FBR Capital Markets.

The swingeing cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable

Demand for energy has slowed because of the economic crisis, pushing down the price of oil. This in turn has made solar and wind projects that looked profitable when oil was trading at $140 a barrel appear decidedly less attractive with the price of crude back down below $60. T Boone Pickens, the famous US oilman-turned-wind enthusiast, has quietly postponed his plan to build the world's biggest windfarm on the Texas panhandle, due in part to the falling price of oil. Tesla Motors, the California-based auto manufacturer whose all-electric sports car made headlines across the world in the spring, has been forced to cut jobs.

Gas prices have also fallen on international markets. "Natural gas at $6 [per thousand cubic feet] makes wind look like a questionable idea and solar power unfathomably expensive," says Kevin Book from FBR Capital Markets. Falling prices on the EU's carbon market - from ?30 in July to ?20 in November - have also made clean energy projects less competitive. (Despite this short-term blip, most analysts expect the long-term trend in oil prices to be up - the Inter national Energy Agency's executive director, Nobuo Tanaka, warned on 12 November that oil depletion rates seemed to be increasing, and that "while market imbalances will feed volatility, the era of cheap oil is over".)

Perhaps an economic collapse can save us by reducing emissions? After all, the reason the oil price is falling is that people are consuming less fossil energy. But according to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of Manchester University's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the collapse would have to be profound indeed to be sufficient on its own to bring about the emissions decline the planet needs. They estimate that in order to have even a 50-50 chance of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2° higher than pre-industrial levels (the stated aim of EU policy, among many others), the world must see energy-related carbon emissions peak by 2015 and decline thereafter by between 6 and 8 per cent per year. Anderson and Bows remind us that while "the collapse of the former Soviet Union's economy brought about annual emissions reductions of over 5 per cent for a decade", that still isn't quite enough. The suggestion is not that we should aim for a Soviet-style economic implosion, but that the dramatic cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable.

"Green growth" can offer a positive way forward in the short term, but the impossibility of reconciling an endlessly growing economy with the limitations of a finite planet cannot be avoided. Even though, in Cameron Hepburn's words, a "dematerialisation of the economy is feasible in a thermodynamic sense", this hasn't happened so far anywhere - rising GDP is pegged to rising material consumption, and thereby to a rising impact on the environment.

The ecological economist Herman Daly says humanity should aim for "qualitative development", not "quantitative growth". He concludes drily: "Economists have focused too much on the economy's circulatory system and have neglected . . . its digestive tract." The financial crisis is certainly a circulatory ailment, but once it is solved the bigger challenge will remain - that the biosphere has limited sources for our products, and limited sinks for our waste. And that is the ultimate question politicians, environmentalists and economists will have to focus on answering if our ecological crisis is ever to give way to true long-term sustainability in the century ahead.

Mark Lynas's latest book is "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet" (HarperPerennial, £8.99 paperback)

The green economy: ten global facts

The London Array, planned for the Thames Estuary, could become the world's largest offshore windfarm.

A proposed tidal barrage over the River Severn could provide 5 per cent of the UK's electricity. It would cost £15bn and cut carbon emissions by 16 billion tonnes a year.

Barack Obama will invest $150bn in renewables, in the hope of creating five million new jobs in the US.

Abu Dhabi's Masdar Initiative, launched in 2006, will invest $15bn in global green energy. It will take eight years and cost $22bn to build Masdar City (model right), which will rely entirely upon renewable energy.

Qatar is investing $150m in developing green technology in the UK.

There is one large-scale commercial tidal power station in the world - in Brittany, France. It has operated for 30 years without mechanical breakdown and has recovered the initial capital costs.

Consumer goods in Japan will soon be labelled with their carbon footprints. Producing a packet of crisps emits 75 grams of CO2.

Nine out of ten new cars in Brazil use ethanol-based biofuels. Flex-fuel vehicles make up 26 per cent of the country's light vehicle fleet.

Since 2006, disposable chopsticks in China have been taxed at 5 per cent, safeguarding 1.3 million cubic metres of timber every year. Green venture capital accounts for 19 per cent of China's investments.

The Australian government has invested $10.4bn in making 1.1 million homes more energy-efficient, creating 160,000 jobs.

Samira Shackle

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 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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The dustman and the doctor: fairness and the student fees debate

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. But there's a problem.

The most toxic political imagery of the student fees debate dates from 2010. First, there was Nick Clegg brandishing a sheet of paper bearing his election pledge that the Liberal Democrats would vote against “any increase” in tuition fees. Then, a few months later, there was the sight of protesters scrawling graffiti and urinating on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Churchill was rapidly restored, but Clegg – who, I am told, did not believe in the pledge when he signed it but could not resist the prospect of those student voters in university towns – never properly recovered.

The issue of how to fund English universities had been febrile for years – long before the 2008 financial crisis, the ballooning of the Budget deficit that followed and the 2010 Lib Dem vote for the vertiginous increase in English tuition fees. (University funding is a devolved matter, with the Scots going their own way.)

In 2004, Tony Blair, enfeebled by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had almost been knocked off his prime ministerial perch when he, too, trebled fees, albeit to a mere £3,000, to be paid back after graduation. Gordon Brown’s allies, smelling post-Iraq weakness, hovered over the Labour leader before allowing him – by a sliver – to survive.

The Conservatives have historically been less troubled by the matter. Students largely have not voted in high enough numbers – certainly not for them – to impinge on their chances of electoral success. Meanwhile, the centre left has had lumps kicked out of it while wrestling with the problem of how best to fund higher education. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto significantly changed Labour’s position, promising to abolish fees altogether; he would also, he told the NME, “deal with” student debt. That half-pledge has now become a vague “ambition” because of its estimated £100bn price tag.

As a piece of campaigning, it worked. By contrast, Ed Miliband got nowhere in 2015 with his promise to reduce fees by a third to £6,000. It was too little, too late to mobilise student voters or their concerned parents, but more than enough for George Osborne, an unrepentant Vince Cable and a nervous higher education sector (sotto voce) to raise questions about Labour’s fiscal rectitude and/or the financial security of universities.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in its disinterested and peskily rigorous way, joined in – and with a more subtle point, suggesting that cutting fees would benefit higher-earning graduates the most. Those who earned less over their lifetime would, in any event, not have to pay all of the money back.

Until Corbyn’s swashbuckling manifesto simplified matters, or oversimplified them, the left had been tied in knots on the fairness point from the moment that tuition fees were introduced, relatively quietly, in the peak-Blair year of 1998.

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. It is intoxicating because one’s Enlightenment reflexes are happily triggered: the pursuit of knowledge is wonderful; knowledge leads to individual self-fulfilment and should be made available to the largest possible number. We all benefit from a better-educated population, not least by the spread of liberal values. Utilitarians rejoice – the country becomes economically more prosperous, though the evidence for this is irritatingly murky.

It is liberating because it is a beautifully simple proposition, and thus the complexity of nasty trade-offs – between those who go to university and those who don’t, between generations, between different sorts of universities, between disciplines and courses, between funding higher education and funding a zillion other priorities – is washed away by the dazzling premise. Free.

Alas, there is a problem. Once upon a time, a British university education was for the very few. The state, in the form of the general taxpayer, footed the bill. Now, around 40 per cent of 18- to 19-year-olds are at university and nobody in front-line politics is keen on hauling down the number, notwithstanding the occasional hyperventilating headline about useless degrees in golf course management or surfing studies.

The Liberal Democrats’ ill-fated 2010 manifesto had a little-noticed passage that called for scrapping the participation target of 50 per cent – alongside the now ritual aspiration to improve vocational training and apprenticeship schemes, a promise that is yet another reminder of a long-established and debilitating British weakness that nobody seems to know how to reverse. But mass higher education is here to stay – and it’s a good thing, too.

We could have chosen (and could still choose) both to fund increasing numbers of people going to university and to pay for all of their tuition, but that would not have been a self-funding investment – at least, not for a very long time. Other European countries with decent universities have indeed managed without asking graduates to contribute anywhere near as much as ours. The Swedes pay nothing for tuition. Dutch students pay a quarter of their English counterparts. The Germans have proportionately fewer students in tertiary education (though their vocational education is widely known to be heaps better), but their students are at university for longer and they pay very little for the pleasure. You get the picture.

It would require a lot of extra taxation if we were to go down that route – and there are many other competing demands beyond deficit reduction. Yet the issue is not only framed by tax priorities. We can’t easily afford to have the state picking up the tab because – an ugly fact – we are less well off than most northern European countries that charge less. Yes, we are the fifth-largest economy in the world – how could any of us, since the Brexit vote, not know that? – but we are far from being the fifth most economically prosperous country in the EU, once you allow for the intrusion of vulgar reality in the form of GDP per head. On that measure, we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack.

So who pays? Asking students to pay something is not in itself an outrage. The massive social and economic privileges that my generation accrued from our gloriously free university education may now be spread more widely but that has not eliminated the personal advantages that, on average, follow a degree. Graduates are more likely to get jobs, more likely to get better jobs and more likely to keep their jobs in a recession. The Department for Education puts the graduate premium on average at £250,000 before tax over a lifetime for women and £170,000 for men. These figures may be overstated and might not be sustained, but it is overwhelmingly likely that most graduates will still benefit materially from their degrees.

From the starting point in 2004 – long before the deficit soared – Blair and his then education secretary, Charles Clarke, decided that graduates should pay more once they began to earn sufficient money. I remember Blair at the time doing a BBC Newsnight special with an angry audience, packed with students telling him that he was wrecking their lives and had insufficient respect for their contribution to the greater good. A very articulate trainee doctor told Blair that she faced a mountain of debt (those were the days – that would now be several mountains). Blair responded with a range of left-wing arguments – at least, if you are of a redistributive frame of mind. Here are some highlights of the exchange:

Blair: I think it is unfair to ask general taxpayers – 80 per cent of whom have not been to university – when you have got an adult who perhaps wants to get an additional skill and they have to pay for it if they don’t go to university, to say to those people: we are not giving you education for free. And to say to under-fives, where we are desperately short of investment, to say to primary schools, where again we need more money, that we are going to give an even bigger subsidy to university students. Believe me, if I could say to you, “You can have it all for free,” I would love to.

The student, more than matching the prime minister’s passion, was spectacularly unimpressed.

Student: It really infuriates me that you say, “Why should the dustman fund the doctor?” When he has [a] heart attack, he will be pleased that I went to university and graduated as a doctor. Therefore he should contribute towards the cost of my degree.

Blair: But surely there should be a fair balance. He is contributing to the cost of your degree. Five-sixths of the cost of any degree, even after our proposals come in, will be contributed by the general taxpayer.

Not bad for a prime minister who was not often associated with causes dear to the dustmen part of his Labour flock – nor associated with redistribution in general. Of course, the figure of five-sixths paid for by the state is now, since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, a great deal smaller. The trainee doctor of 2017 is expected, over the course of their lifetime, to fork out much more. The average student debt is getting on for £50,000.

The current numbers are the result of decisions taken by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats and David Willetts of the Conservative Party. Unlike Blair, these two men were on the left of their parties, with a firm belief in the importance of education and its positive impact on social mobility. The hike in fees led to protests and occupations but also to universities getting much of the extra money that they needed, even if they were markedly reluctant to say so, doubtless for fear of stirring up their students.

There has been no drop in the participation rate of students from poorer family backgrounds. Quite the reverse – despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal refusal to believe the evidence. But the repayment of fees means that, in effect, recent graduates pay income tax at a rate of 29 per cent once they earn more than £21,000. (The Department for Education cheerily call this “a contribution”, as if it were voluntary.)

The repayment point could have risen with inflation to ease the load but it hasn’t. That allows the Treasury to recoup more money. Why hasn’t the £21,000 limit been raised? The reason is that, under the current IFS estimates, three-quarters of graduates will not pay back all of their debt after 30 years, at which point it is forgiven. Worse, interest rates on this fee debt are 3 per cent above inflation – and thus nearly 6 per cent above the base rate. That is not quite at Wonga levels but it is patently demoralising and much too steep.

That is far from the end of the matter. Until last September, poorer students received a maintenance grant of up to £3,400 to help with their living costs. For better- off students, the state’s supposition has always been that their parents should and would contribute financially to ensure that their offspring could lead a reasonable life while at university. No government has chosen to make this very explicit: there are only so many enemies you want at any one time on any one issue.

But as the number of students rose, so did the number entitled to the grant, and as part of the strategy to reduce the country’s Budget deficit, those grants were turned into loans, too.

The Labour Party, before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, opposed the change when it was announced but not with much elan. From my Oxford eyrie, I was astonished at how little excitement this generated. Perhaps everyone was exhausted by the failed protests five years earlier.

There is mitigation. It is worth remembering that nobody pays anything for their tuition up front (part of the Blair package, too) and some universities, including mine, have good and reliable schemes to help those from poorer backgrounds and hardship funds for those whose circumstances – normally their parents’ circumstances – change while they are studying.

But I know from direct experience that many students worry a great deal about the debt that awaits them. And if graduates were feather-bedded before 1998 (and that includes me), it is hard not to sympathise now. The debt is too much for too many.

Blair defined the problem correctly – the question of who pays is about striking a fair balance – even if Corbyn seems uninterested in the pain involved in thinking it through and has opted for the easiest answer. But what should that balance be? A graduate tax for those of us who went to university when it was both a much scarcer resource and cheap would offend people who want as little retrospection as possible in the tax system. However, it would do something to deal with generational injustice, a subject on which Corbyn’s credentials are sullied by his fondness for the “triple lock” on pensions.

Labour’s policy of telling English students that they will pay nothing for their tuition is nowhere near as left-wing as it sounds, but it was far too successful a piece of retail politics for anyone in his team to consider going back to the drawing board. So now it is the Tories, facing an energised student vote, who have to engage with the issues for the first time since the tumult of 2010. The least they can do – and they should do it fast – is cut the interest rate. They won’t want to do any of it but, as the man said, the times they are a-changing.

Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess