‘We’re in a crisis get us out of here’: Tackling the economic and environmental crises – the way forward – Canterbury Christ Church University, 29 October 2010

Where we find ourselves…

I am very pleased to be here today and thank you all for coming.

As the reality of what the coalitions cuts mean begins to dawn on us it is easy to feel hopeless, buried in the gloom of job losses and economic hardship. Add to that the very real knowledge that we are running out of time to tackle runaway climate change and it can be hard to know why to get out of bed in the morning.

But I want to say loud and clear today that there are alternatives to the current Government’s approach to the economy and to climate change. There is a growing body of opinion:

  • That rejects the assertions that the only way forward is to resign ourselves to Government cuts, which will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our society
  • That refuses to be stand silently by as the business as usual politics and commerce leads the human race into climate chaos, then oblivion
  • And who dare to insist that there is another way forward to achieve greater global equity and security.

…and that we have the tools and ideas to implement those alternatives, starting right now.

But let’s look at some of the facts… and at some of the things that we have been told are givens. When the recession hit, the government bailed out the banks, coughing up £850 billion in one year in loans and gifts followed by a further £200 billion on what they called ‘quantative easing’, in other words simply printing more money, thus creating a huge deficit. The Government maintains that the only way to cut this is through the deepest cuts in spending for 60 years.

So, according to the Government, cutting nearly half a million jobs in the public sector which will be followed by massive associated job losses in the private sector, reducing police spending by 20% and halving the social housing benefit are all unfortunate inevitabilities that have to be done… but don’t worry because we are all in it together!

But cuts on this scale are not an economic inevitability. They are an ideological choice. And how can we all be in it together when two thirds of the public sector facing unemployment will be women? How can we all be in it together when cuts will disproportionally affect those who are already the most disadvantaged? Those who are least responsible for getting us into this mess are those who are being made to foot the bill and that simply is not fair.

We have been told that the only possible action is to cut public spending. Yet this isn’t the only option that it is made out to be. One way a Government can save money is to cut spending, another is to rebalance the tax system and yet another option is to do a combination of the two. In a recent report ‘Cuts: the callous con trick’ the Green Party argues that tackling tax avoidance, tax evasion and unpaid tax coupled with creating a fairer tax system could deal with the deficit without any cuts at all! Yet the electorate has not been given the option of even considering tax changes.

Some experts believe that unpaid tax, tax avoidance and evasion, often by big business, results in more than £100 billion of taxes lost each year in the UK. Even HM Revenue & Customs themselves admit it comes to £68 Billion – this needs to stop – now. When there is so much work to be done collecting this tax, which could help tackle the deficit, it is non-sensical that the very body responsible for collecting this money will see its staff cut by almost a quarter!

We also need to revamp our tax system so that it is fairer and produces more revenue. Policies such as applying the 50% tax rate to income above £100,000, abolishing the upper limit for national insurance contributions and raising capital gains tax to the recipient’s highest income tax rate could rebalance the current tax system. Cuts on the current scale proposed are certainly not inevitable, not necessary and may well not even work.

Green New Deal & Climate Jobs

The Green Party’s conviction that there are alternatives to the Governments cuts is part of wider calls for a Green New Deal – a set of joined up practical policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and peak oil. It takes inspiration from President Roosevelt’s New Deal that got people back to work in the 1930’s.

A Green New Deal calls first for a radical transformation of the regulation of national and international financial systems, together with major changes to taxation systems.

And second for a sustained programme to invest in energy conservation and renewable energies. This would channel funding into making the nation’s buildings truly energy efficient – making ‘every building a power station’. It would involve training a ‘carbon army’ to carry out a vast environmental reconstruction programme – creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

And many experts agree. ‘One Million Climate Jobs’, a report published this month by Campaign against Climate Change and four trade unions explains how, if the Government were to create a National Climate Service similar to the national health service or state education, it could create a million new jobs and over 20 years and cut UK emissions by 80%. This workforce would build the infrastructure for a low carbon future – from wind turbines to house insulation to electric cars. And best of all the suggestions are financially feasible and practically possible.

We’re told cuts are necessary but the financial benefits of cuts are at best very questionable. When a person loses their job they stop paying taxes and start collecting benefits. So the overall governmen savings on not paying that individuals’ salary are often much smaller than initially claimed.

The ‘One Million Climate jobs’ report calculates that in real terms, the cost of one million climate jobs would be 18 billion a year. Although job creation may seem like a massive investment in a time of austerity, actually it is worth considering that even the ambitious programme of a million workers for ten years would cost less than the government gave the banks in one year!

The Government bailed out the banks because they were ‘too big to fail’ and the consequences of failure were horrific. We believe that the planet is ‘too big to fail’ and the consequences of not acting on climate change now are unthinkable. Neither massive economic nor massive environmental debt are sustainable, but Britain could choose to lead the way in building a low carbon economy where we live within both our economic and environmental means.

And this cuts to the very heart of identifying ways to reach sustainable economic and social recovery.

The US social scientist Kenneth Boulding once commented ‘If you believe exponential growth can go on in a finite world, you are either a madman or an economist’.

Yet despite this, still the economic paradigm prevails that economic growth will deliver us from this mess, and governments are seeking to recreate the model, using the same measures of success.

But proponents of this approach fail to explain how we can have infinite growth in a finite world. It is time we faced up to the fact that the maths just don’t add up – and started investing in a sustainable and fair economy.

To do this we have to be prepared to question what we are told are givens – that progress is synonymous with growth, that more stuff equals more happiness and that gross domestic product is a suitable way of measuring success.

Gross Domestic Product has wrongly become the accepted measure for standard of living. Yet GDP measures war, car crashes and prisons as equally ‘productive’, and as good for growth as schools, hospitals and grocery shopping. Anything which stimulates the economy is seen as positive, irrelevant of the suffering or problems it causes. This is not sustainable.

As Tim Jackson notes in his book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’, economic recovery demands investment to avoid plunging us into a double dip recession.

The transition to a low-carbon economy also demands investment. It seems pretty logical to put these two together and create an investment package with multiple benefits – a ‘Green Stimulus’ that can secure jobs and economic recovery in the short term and provide energy security and a sustainable future in the long term.

In the South East the Thanet wind farm is the largest offshore wind arm in the country and yet disappointingly only 20% of the project’s procurement has gone to British firms, a situation industrialists say will continue until the UK attracts a major turbine-making facility – something that turbine makers say they cannot do when they do not know whether the Government will be seriously investing in renewable energies.

As 25th out of 27th on the EU league tables on renewable energy only 3% of the UK’s power comes from renewable sources, so we have to make serious changes fast even if we are only to meet our commitment of 15% of renewables by 2020. With strong commitment from Government, renewables can provide many jobs for the future.

Research published by Oxford Economics, for example, suggests that as many as 34,000 direct permanent skilled jobs and a further 2,000 permanent indirect jobs, could be created from operations and maintenance activities running wind farms. Which is why the Green New Deal is so important.

Energy efficiency could deliver as much as a 30% reduction in electricity consumption according to a government report in 2003. As a vital part of GND measures we can create jobs, save consumers money on their energy bills, reduce carbon emissions and increase our fuel security.

As part of my work in the EP in this regard the Greens there have been able to deliver a reallocation of €150m from the €3.5bn economic recovery fund into energy efficiency measures delivered by local authorities.

The Green New Deal working group in the European Parliament is looking at how to transform our economy, rethink the way we produce and consume, create jobs and find solutions to our resource, climate and economic challenge. In transport, for example which is an area that I work extremely hard on as part of my role on the European Parliament’s transport and tourism committee, the Green New Deal are in the process of commissioning a report into the sustainable future for European transport.

Equality

And we need to act now because millions are already being affected by climate change, and most of those affected did not contribute to the problem.

According to Christian Aid if nothing is done to stem a rise of 2C in global average temperatures by 2050 then:

  • 250 million people will be forced to leave their homes,
  • around 30 million people will go hungry as agricultural yields go into recession
  • and 1-3 billion people will suffer acute water shortages.

And let’s be very clear about it – this would be our fault – politicians, academics and everyday citizens alike. Because we already have the tools to move to a low carbon economy, now we just need to do it.

And transition does not have to be grim – in the UK a sustainable economy can mean more jobs, a fairer society and thriving local communities.

Studies have shown that beyond a certain point consuming more doesn’t even make us happy. The massive rise in GDP in rich countries over the last 50 years hasn’t automatically delivered happier societies.

From the ground breaking book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Wilkinson and Pickett we know that that inequality is bad for us – and not just bad for the poor, but for the rich too! More equal societies have less crime, a lower prison population, better health, more scientific discoveries and…are happier.

Equality – rather than simple average wealth – is the main route to a better society for everyone, rich and poor.

Just think, we can help bankers live healthier, happier lives by….cutting their bonuses!

But seriously, improved equality is good for the rich as well as the poor and…crucially it is also good for the planet. Our economy and our environment can work with, rather than against each other for the benefit of all, if we have the courage to look beyond and challenge the status quo.

As the climate change sceptic said to the green party candidate…”what if it’s all a great big hoax…and we created a better world for nothing?”